The Twilight Zone: Season 1, Episode Eight “Time Enough at Last”

Original Air Date: November 20, 1959
Writer: Rod Serling, based on a short story by Lynn Venable
Director: John Brahm

“That’s not fair. That’s not fair at all. There was time now. There was—was all the time I needed…! It’s not fair! It’s not fair!”

“Time Enough At Last” is a classic Twilight Zone episode. It is the first episode in the first season not to be a wholly unique creation of Rod Serling. “Time Enough At Last” is based on a short story of the same name by American writer Lynn Venable (for which she is most fondly remembered). It was released and published in If Magazine in 1953, the same year that Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury later contributed to several scripts however the only episode he is credited with creating is “I Sing the Body Electric” in Season 3.

“Time Enough At Last” is a parody of the modern drive toward productivity, anti-intellectualism, and the struggle to find space to read books. In the episode we enter into the life of Henry Bemis (played by the great Hollywood actor, Burgess Meredith whose popularity skyrocketed following this episode, leading to several more appearances in several more Twilight Zone episodes).

Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers. A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of a clock. But in just a moment, Mr. Bemis will enter a world without bank presidents or wives or clocks or anything else. He’ll have a world all to himself… without anyone.

Rod Serling

Henry Bemis is a clumsy Geek, obsessed with reading books, but tragically he is prevented from pursuing his one hobby. He wears big, thick spectacles. Henry works at a bank which forbids him to read David Copperfield even while isolated in the vault during his lunch break. He comes home to his shrew of a wife who prohibits him from reading everything, even newspapers. She marks up a book of poetry so he cannot read a single word.

The tension between employment and reading literature is a struggle faced by every modern intellectual. I remember bringing a copy of Great Expectations to read at one of my first jobs working a cash register. If leisure is the fertile soil in which high culture must flourish, it has struggled to find a home in the modern labor market. This contradiction is made potently apparent in the pathetic struggle of Henry to read anything.

The next day, Henry goes back down to the vault to read the newspaper. A headline reads: “H-Bomb Capable of Total Destruction” -and suddenly a massive explosion is heard knocking Henry unconscious and spilling open his book (A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus by Washington Irving). When he awakens, he climbs out of the rubble to discover that the world has been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust.

time enough at last

Seconds, minutes, hours. They crawl by on hands and knees for Mr. Henry Bemis, who looks for a spark in the ashes of a dead world. A telephone connected to nothingness. A neighborhood bar, a movie, a baseball diamond, a hardware store, the mailbox of what was once his house and is now a rubble. They lie at his feet as battered monuments to what was, but is no more. Mr. Henry Bemis on an eight-hour tour of a graveyard.

Rod Serling

As he contemplates suicide, Henry notices the public library in the distance. It is filled with books. Somehow the books survived the explosion! Suddenly it is a dreamworld for a reader like Henry – to be the last man on earth with nothing but time and space to read, fully alone but not lonely. Henry begins piling books into organized sections, literary plans for years to come. As he bends down to pick up his first book, his glasses fall and shatter on the ground, rendering him virtually blind and unable to read. He cries out:

“That’s not fair. That’s not fair at all. There was time now. There was—was all the time I needed…! It’s not fair! It’s not fair!”

The concluding narration alludes to the famous Scottish poet, Robert Burns and his poem “To A Mouse” (“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an men / Gang aft agley” translated as – ‘Often go awry’).

“The best laid plans of mice and men… and Henry Bemis… the small man in the glasses who wanted nothing but time. Henry Bemis, now just a part of a smashed landscape, just a piece of the rubble, just a fragment of what man has deeded to himself. Mr. Henry Bemis… in the Twilight Zone.”

Rod Serling

At root, every modern person has questioned what it would be like to survive total nuclear destruction. The threat is ever-present, the global stockpile ever larger, while distant visions of mushroom clouds loom large over international affairs. Even with this knowledge we hold out hope for time and space and simplicity. For Henry his hope is to finally discover the time and space to read. His circumstance is tragic, his struggle is quixotic. He is the last man on earth. The presumed benefit of the total destruction of civilization is the space for leisurely reading, never mind total isolation from other people and the absence of basic amenities. Yet in the end, it was his one necessity that was taken from him: his reading glasses.

The Twilight Zone Trivia:

  • John Brahm directed more Twilight Zone episodes than any other director, including five in the first season and another with Burgess Meredith in the lead role. Brahm directed a total of 12 episodes. Brahm was awarded a Director’s Guild Award for his work on this episode.
  • Of the 92 episodes written by Rod Serling, this was his personal favorite.
  • Following the episode, Burgess Meredith gained popularity almost on par with Rod Serling. This was the first of four appearances by Burgess Meredith in The Twilight Zone series.
  • To give Burgess Meredith a book-wormish appearance he wore a fake moustache and thick glasses with double frames. There were two separate prop glasses used on set.
  • To capture the explosion effect, George T. Clemens had the entire set built on springs so that both the camera and the set would shake at the same time.
  • George T. Clemens used an innovative blue filter to bring out the clouds on the post-nuclear set. The enormous flight steps were part of an MGM backlot. The set appears in several later Twilight Zone episodes.
  • This is one of four episodes to include mid-episode narration by Rod Serling.
  • The long library steps were filmed later and used in an MGM film: The Time Machine (1960).

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