To Serve Man (The Twilight Zone)
|"To Serve Man"|
|The Twilight Zone episode|
Susan Cummings and Richard Kiel
|Episode no.||Season 3
|Directed by||Richard L. Bare|
|Written by||Rod Serling (Based on the story To Serve Man by Damon Knight)|
|Featured music||Stock (from Jerry Goldsmith's scores for "Back There" and "The Invaders")|
|Original air date||March 2, 1962|
The story is based on the 1950 short story "To Serve Man", written by Damon Knight. The title is a play on the verb serve, which has a dual meaning of "to assist" and "to provide as a meal." The episode is one of the few instances in the series wherein an actor breaks the fourth wall and addresses the viewing audience at the episode's end.
As the episode opens, Michael Chambers is seen lying uncomfortably on a cot in a spartan interior. A voice instructs him to eat. He refuses. He asks what time it is on Earth, and begins to tell the story of how he came to be here (aboard a spaceship) in flashback.
The Kanamits, a race of 9-foot (2.7 m)-tall aliens, land on Earth. One of them addresses the United Nations, vowing that his race's motive in coming to Earth is solely to be helpful to humanity. Initially wary of the intentions of an alien race who came "quite uninvited", even skeptical international leaders begin to be persuaded of the aliens' benevolence when the Kanamits share their advanced technology, quickly putting an end to many of Earth's greatest woes, including hunger; energy becomes very cheap, and nuclear weapons are rendered harmless. The aliens even morph deserts into big, blooming fields. Trust in the Kanamits seems to be justified when Patty, one of a staff of US government cryptographers led by Chambers, cracks the title of a Kanamit book the spokesman left behind at the UN. Its title, she reveals, is To Serve Man.
Soon, humans are volunteering for trips to the Kanamits' home planet, which is portrayed as a paradise. With the Cold War ended, the code-breaking staff has no real work to do, but Patty is still trying to work out the meaning of the text of To Serve Man.
The day arrives for Chambers's excursion to the Kanamits' planet. Just as he mounts the spaceship's boarding stairs, his staffer Patty appears. He waves, smiling, but she runs toward him in great agitation. While being held back by a Kanamit guard, Patty cries: "Mr. Chambers, don't get on that ship! The rest of the book To Serve Man, it's... it's a cookbook!" Chambers tries to run back down the spaceship's stairs, but a Kanamit blocks him, the stairs retract, and the ship immediately lifts off.
Chambers is once again seen aboard the Kanamit spaceship, now saying to the audience: "How about you? You still on Earth, or on the ship with me? Really doesn't make very much difference, because sooner or later, we'll all be on the menu...all of us." The episode closes as he gives in and breaks his hunger strike; as Chambers tears at his food, Rod Serling provides a darkly humorous coda in voice-over, noting man's devolution from "dust to dessert" and from ruler of a planet to "an ingredient in someone's soup".
The full-size lower portion of the Kanamits' transport spaceship is the adapted version, with retractable stairway, of the saucer-shaped United Planets Cruiser C-57D, seen in the MGM film Forbidden Planet (1956). The ship used for the episode is also seen on the episode "Third from the Sun", and shots of the ship or stairway also appear in the episodes "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street", "Hocus-Pocus and Frisby", "The Invaders", and "Death Ship".
Stock footage from the film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) was also used in the episode for the shots of the Kanamit spaceship arriving in New York City (although landmarks of Washington, DC, are seen).
- In the show ... a staff of cryptographers led by [Michael Chambers] Lloyd Bochner attempts to decipher the alien language as though it were some secret code, which is utterly ludicrous. Without some sort of interplanetary Rosetta stone, deciphering an unknown language would be impossible.
Zicree also points out that the chances of the word "serve" having the same dual meaning in both English and another language, especially an alien one, are almost nil (though it is entirely possible that, as in the original story, the word's dual meaning in the English language was merely coincidental, and the word did not have the same dual meaning in the Kanamit language, or that the Kanamits deliberately came up with a dual-meaning construction (possibly with "words" they made up, not previously existing in native "Kanamitish"), plausible in English, before making it the title of the book).
Zicree's comments have been seconded by many others, including Damon Knight, though an explanation as to how the cryptographers managed to translate the Kanamit language may be found in an early draft of Serling's teleplay, which included this scene:
- (Close shot: Chambers as seen over her shoulder. His eyes narrow.)
- Chambers: What's the matter, Pat? What's going on?
- (Reverse angle looking toward her. Her lips tremble.)
- Pat: I...I finally deciphered their language. All of it. I read their book.
- (Close shot: a suspended speaker overhead. A Kanamit's metallic voice rings out.)
- Kanamit's voice: Please move ahead. You're holding up our departure. Kindly move ahead.
- (Cut to: Two-shot Chambers and Pat)
- Chambers: Well?
- Pat: Mr. Chambers...Mr. Chambers, the first page is just a collection of English words with their own translation. But the rest of the book...the rest of the book—it's a cookbook!
In popular culture
The episode has been referenced many times in popular culture; in such movies as Madagascar, The Lion King 1½, and The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (which also casts Lloyd Bochner); in television shows: Angel, Futurama, Millennium, NewsRadio (S3E24: "Space") and Supernatural ("S07E22"); in music: Cattle Decapitation's "To Serve Man" and El-P's "How to Serve Man"; and in video games: Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, Warcraft III, and Where in Space is Carmen Sandiego?. The Simpsons devoted an entire episode segment to it in "Treehouse of Horror" (1990), with the spoof "Hungry are the Damned."
An unofficial badge of the 509th Bomb Wing based in Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, shows a space alien with huge eyes holding a stealth bomber near its mouth. The text reads, "To Serve Man," and the caption below reads, "Gustatus Similis Pullus"—dog Latin for "Tastes Like Chicken".
The November 9, 2012 episode of Grimm, entitled "To Protect and Serve Man", is an homage to this episode, involving a man being sentenced to death after claiming self-defense against cannibal monsters.
- Zicree, Marc Scott: The Twilight Zone Companion. Sillman-James Press, 1982 (second edition)
- DeVoe, Bill. (2008). Trivia from The Twilight Zone. Albany, GA: Bear Manor Media. ISBN 978-1-59393-136-0
- Grams, Martin. (2008). The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic. Churchville, MD: OTR Publishing. ISBN 978-0-9703310-9-0
- Belasco, Warren James (2006). Meals to come: a history of the future of food. University of California Press. p. 358. ISBN 0-520-24151-7. Retrieved 3 May 2010.
- TV Guide Guide to TV. Barnes and Noble. 2004. p. 667. ISBN 0-7607-5634-1.
- Cruz, Gilbert. "Top 10 Twilight Zone Episodes". Time Inc. Retrieved March 6, 2013.
- "Inside the black budget". The New York Times. 1 April 2008.