PlotIn a future totalitarian state, Romney Wordsworth (Burgess Meredith) is a man put on trial for the crime of being obsolete. His occupation as a librarian is a crime punishable by death, as the State has eliminated books and literacy. He believes in God, a crime also punishable by death, as the State claims to have proven that there is no God. He is prosecuted by the Chancellor (Fritz Weaver), who announces in front of the assembled court that Wordsworth, in not being an asset to the State, shall be liquidated.
After being convicted, Wordsworth is allowed to choose his method of execution. He cryptically requests that he be granted a personal assassin to whom he may privately disclose his preferred method of execution. He also requests that his execution be televised. Thinking that the spectacle will help show the public what happens when citizens become of no use to the State, the court grants both requests.
A camera is installed in Wordsworth's study to broadcast his final hours and execution live to the nation. He summons the Chancellor, who arrives at exactly 11:16 p.m. After some discussion, Wordsworth reveals to the Chancellor that his chosen method of execution is by an explosive set to go off in his room at midnight. He explains that the reaction to imminent execution that will interest the public is not his own but the Chancellor's, as the door is locked and no one is outside to help the Chancellor escape. He intends to show the nation how a spiritual man faces death, and proceeds to read from his illegal, long-hidden copy of the Bible. He also points out that, as the events are being broadcast live, the State would risk losing its status in the eyes of the people by trying to rescue the Chancellor. As the time draws to a close, Wordsworth's calm acceptance of death stands in sharp contrast with the Chancellor's increasing panic.
Moments before the bomb explodes, the Chancellor desperately begs to be let go "in the name of God". Wordsworth says that "in the name of God" he will release the Chancellor immediately, which he does. The Chancellor bursts out of the room and down the stairs just as the bomb explodes and kills Wordsworth.
In the final scene, he returns to the courtroom to discover that a new Chancellor has replaced him and that he himself is now obsolete: "You have disgraced the State. You have proven yourself a coward. You have, therefore, no function." Immediately convicted, the former Chancellor screams as the crowd in the courtroom apprehends him. In his closing narrative, Rod Serling says that "the Chancellor, the late Chancellor" was wrong about one thing: any state judging its own citizens obsolete is itself obsolete.