“To Serve Man” is a 1962 episode of the television series The Twilight Zone. The episode is one of the best remembered from the series.
The story is based on the 1950 short story “To Serve Man”, written by Damon Knight and was adapted for the small screen by Rod Serling, the series’ creator, himself, as was often the case. 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.
Rod Serling’s traditional to-camera introduction sets the scene:
“Respectfully submitted for your perusal – a Kanamit. Height: a little over nine feet. Weight: in the neighborhood of three hundred and fifty pounds. Origin: unknown. Motives? Therein hangs the tale, for in just a moment, we’re going to ask you to shake hands, figuratively, with a Christopher Columbus from another galaxy and another time. This is the Twilight Zone”.
It is the present day and Earth has been visited by the Kanamits, an alien race seemingly only created for one purpose – to help others, in this case, Mankind. With their advanced technology, they reveal they have previously visited other worlds to solve their problems and are now here to do the same: specifically, they have a quick solution to world famine, cheap and clean energy sources and the ability to create force fields between territories, essentially ending all wars. Continuing to address the assembled United Nations, they apparently ask for nothing in return, sending alarm bells ringing for some, offering hope for many.
The visitors mistakenly leave behind an item after the address, a book written in an unknown language. After some time, the title is cracked: ‘To Serve Man’. This is enough for huge numbers of people, including decoder Michael Chambers (Lloyd Bochner, also in The Dunwich Horror, Amazing Mr No Legs) to book their flights on Kanamit ships to journey to their home world and, presumably, Utopia. Meanwhile, Chambers’ assistant, Patty (Susan Cummings, Swamp Women) continues to try to translate the rest of the text and, alas just as the space craft is blasting-off, discovers there was a rather elementary misunderstanding in the book’s title. Chambers, addressing the television audience, bemoans his fate – Rod Serling concludes in typical manner:
“The recollections of one Michael Chambers with appropriate flashbacks and soliloquy. Or more simply stated, the evolution of man. The cycle of going from dust to dessert. The metamorphosis from being the ruler of a planet to an ingredient in someone’s soup. It’s tonight’s bill of fare from The Twilight Zone”.
The episode is best remembered for the distinctive appearance of the Kanamits, their spokesman played by Richard Kiel (Eegah; James Bond baddie Jaws, The Humanoid) in a very early screen role and the shocking reveal at the end of the episode, which has been much mimicked since. The original story was by Damon Knight, best known for his science fiction work and was written in 1950 – it can be found in the collection “The Best of Damon Knight”. The aliens in the story differ completely from those created by Serling resembling pigs in the original text. Serling created a slightly docile-appearing creature, partly due to their communication being by thought than actual speech, and partly due to their heavy eye-lids and huge domed craniums. Decked in flowing robes and on the frame of the 7’2″ Kiel, the effect was the perfect balance of veiled benevolent/malevolent, with no further clues given to the audience.
There is a slight prat-fall with Serling’s version, the decoding of the alien runes being surely impossible; Knight allows for a modest Kanamit/human dictionary to allow conversation to allow for the eventual translation. Whether to double meaning of ‘to serve’ would survive is another matter entirely.
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).
The Kanamit ship seen taking off near the end of the episode is the distinctive Ray Harryhausen-animated ship from the film Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (1956).
Daz Lawrence, Horrorpedia.