Original Air Date: March 2, 1962
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: Richard L. Bare
We meet Michael Chambers (Lloyd Bochner) who is entrapped aboard a spaceship while a robotic voice monitors him. Frustrated, he paces through his cabin until finally collapsing on his bed and narrating a story of how earth was one day was invaded by a foreign alien species. In a flashback we see flying saucers landing all over earth and a 9 foot tall, brainy-headed alien enters the floor of the United Nations and communicates via telepathy. This race of aliens are known as Kanamits (played by Richard Kiel who famously played “Jaws” in the James Bond series). The Kanamit alien addresses the United Nations and promises a whole host of improvements for humanity: cheap nitrate to produce greater soil viability and thereby end famine on earth, new technologies such as an invisible shield wall to end warfare, among other benefits –the only thing he asks for in return is trust. The Kanamits then carelessly leave behind a book written in their own language.
“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.”
The U.S. government seems to be suspicious of the aliens’ motives and thus Michael Chambers’s cryptography office attempts to decipher the Kanamit language, especially the recovered book which they translate to mean “To Serve Man.” Chambers’ assistant Patty (Susan Cummings) works routinely to translate the Kanamit purpose as world peace is finally achieved thanks to the Kanamit gifts. Toward the end of the episode, the Kanamits have won over the trust of humanity and people all across earth begin boarding flying saucers en masse to travel to the Kanamit homeworld, a place described as a terrestrial paradise, however some people remain skeptical. Just as Chambers is about to board his ship, Patty comes running after him but she is too late. She has finally deciphered the Kanamit book: “To Serve Man… it’s a cookbook!” And the episode cuts back to Chambers in an epilogue while he is imprisoned aboard the spaceship and the Kanamits continue plying him with plenty of food to make him grow larger.
“How about you? You still on earth or on the ship with me? Well, it doesn’t make very much difference because sooner or later we’ll all of us be on the menu… all of us.”
“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.”
Employing imagery from the Homeric Trojan Horse motif in classical mythology, “To Serve Man” is a cautionary tale: beware the promises of false gifts. Despite being such an iconic episode, the production behind the scenes for “To Serve Man” was chaotic and messy. The episode was initially slated to air earlier in the season however the preliminary quality of the episode was sub-par according to Rod Serling and Producer Buck Houghton. They requested new footage and sound be recorded, as well as for Director James Shelden to step in and fix the issues. With a production schedule to meet they were forced to use considerable stock footage, montage images, and other gimmicks to complete the episode. Nevertheless, this remains a classic episode that hearkens back to science fiction essentials like War of the Worlds and The Day The Earth Stood Still.
The Twilight Zone Trivia:
- Rod Serling based this teleplay on a 1950 science fiction short story by American writer Damon Knight called “To Serve Man.” There are a few minor differences between the story and the episode, for example in the short story the aliens are short and hairy with pig-like features while in the episode they are tall with a large brain thanks to William Tuttle’s imaginative creation. In 2001, the short story was awarded a retroactive Hugo Award.
- Short story writer Damon Knight lived in New York City and became a member of the science fiction fan group The Futurians, a group which also included Isaac Asimov, James Blish, C.M. Kornbluth, and Frederick Pohl, and others.
- The Kanamit describes his home planet as “billions of miles away” however traveling a hundred billion miles would not even get a human from earth to the nearest star.
- This is the only episode in the series where a person other than Rod Serling addresses the audience directly (found at the conclusion of the episode).
- The opening shot of New York City is recycled stock footage. The flying saucer imagery at the end is taken from Earth vs. Flying Saucers (1956) while an earlier scene of the flying saucer was taken from The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). The Twilight Zone did not credit the use of the stock footage.
- Joseph Ruskin performed the voice in the space ship at the outset. Ruskin was famous for appearing in a number of classic films and television shows, including Outer Limits and various Star Trek installments. He also previously appeared as the Genie in The Twilight Zone episode entitled “Man in the Bottle”.
- The effect at the end of the episode with Richard Kiel standing next to a replicated alien is achieved by a split-screen effect with an identical version of himself.
- The gangway to the alien space craft was borrowed from the 1956 film Forbidden Planet. Other props from Forbidden Planet were used in Twilight Zone episodes: “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” “Third From the Sun,” “The Rip Van Winkle Caper,” and “Death Ship.”
- The recurring phrase “why don’t you take a flying jump at the moon” appears again in this episode.
- Rod Serling initially attempted to obtain the rights to a variety of science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick, but reportedly Damon Knight had submitted a collection of his stories to Serling who accepted “To Serve Man” –today it remains Knight’s most reputable story in part thanks to The Twilight Zone.
- As one of the most famous Twilight Zone episodes, “To Serve Man” has been parodied a variety of times including in The Simpsons inaugural “Treehouse of Horror” episode, as well as in The Naked Gun 2 1/2.
- Jeanne Evans, wife of Director Richard L. Bare, appears as an uncredited person in line to board the space craft at the end of the episode.
- Some of the footage that was cut from this episode has since been displayed exclusively to fans at conventions.
- While this episode typically ranks among the most memorable in the series, writer Marc Scott Zicree was critical of the episodes internal logic, such as the ability to decipher this alien language and the notion that “serve” would possess the same dual meaning.