The Twilight Zone – To Serve Man (1962)

Television Show:The Twilight Zone
Episode:#89 To Serve Man
Broadcast Date:2 March 1962
Writers:Rod Serling
Director:Richard L.Bare

The Twilight Zone is a science fiction anthology series that ran between 1959 and 1964. Created by the extremely talented screenwriter and television producer Rod Serling, the show was known for its social commentary and depiction of the human condition and elements of the unknown and supernatural elements.

To Serve Man is considered to be one of the best episodes:

The opening scene is of a man lying on a bed smoking a cigarette in a contained room. A disembodied voice over an intercom system asks him what he would like to eat. The man is not interested in eating, and would like to know what time it is on Earth? Despite the fact that this question makes no sense (time-zones) the viewer can only assume the man is referring to the time of his own home back on Earth. When he gets the answer the man settles down on his bed again and tells the audience through a voice over:

“we were preoccupied with the hands on a clock, when we should have been checking off a calendar”

This rather ominous observation brings us to a flashback to before the room and the smoking man. The streets are filled with people and cars and the world is in a state of global panic because spaceships have been landing all over the world. In New York, in the Soviet Union, in Norway, in Rio de Janeiro and in many other locations a race of alien creatures calling themselves Kanamits have come to Earth with the expressed purpose of helping the human race with problems the Kanamits have taken it upon themselves to bring to Earth’s immediate attention. During a press conference in which representatives from different countries can express their concerns a Kanamit enters the conference, a tall creature in robe-like attire with an unusually large head. The Kanamits communicate telepathically in Earth languages and tell us they are here to help, but the people of Earth are not used to charity and acts of friendship.

Our narrator, Rod Serling pops into the foreground (which he does in every episode) and tells the viewer that we are about to “shake hands with a Christopher Columbus from another galaxy and from another time” and that we are now in The Twilight Zone.

Rod Serling

“As a race we are unaccustomed to charity. Brutality is a far more universal language to us than an expression of friendship from outer space”

The Kanamits claim to have no ulterior motives and simply want to help Earth with problems both natural and unnatural. They promise to end famine, create invisible barriers to stop war and to show human beings new ways of sourcing energy. They ask that the people of Earth trust them, and before the creature departs it leaves behind a black leather-bound book with strange writing on the cover.

Fast forward to our narrator, Michael Chambers, whom we recognize as the smoking man in the beginning of the episode. Chambers works for the US government as a de-coding specialist, and who is struggling to decipher the book’s language and meaning. Patti, the buxom blonde assistant walks in and claims they’ve “licked the title” and it translates to “To Serve Man”. Both Patti and Chambers express their apprehension, and Chambers ponders on the notion of the world becoming a ‘Garden of Eden’. What then?

As is usually the case the world is suspicious and after a lie-detector test reveals the Kanamits are telling the truth, that they are indeed here to spread nothing but prosperity and peace, the world lets the Kanamits do just that.

A year has passed and arid deserts have become lush gardens, and almost all armies have been disbanded. Human beings have been queueing to visit the Kanamit’s planet and are filled with outrageous stories from those that have already left Earth. It seems the grass is indeed greener in Kanamit Country. Sitting in his office twiddling his thumbs Chambers no longer has any secret messages to decipher and Patti walks into his office on her way home. They both admit to being on waiting lists to visit the new planet, and Patti reveals she is still struggling to translate the rest of ‘that book’. They smile and part ways.

“The fantastic ease with which human beings make adjustments… the strange and complex sanity of man”

Soon it is time for Chambers to enter the spaceship and visit the Kanamit’s planet, and he’s standing in a line with the rest of the human race. The Kanamits loom tall over the people and usher them into the ship with smiles. Patti suddenly appears at the bottom of the stairs screaming for Chambers to not get on the ship: “To Serve Man… it’s a COOKBOOK!” With this shocking realization out in the open Chambers attempts to cut loose from the line but is intercepted and pushed onto the ship.

Suddenly we are back where it all started and the smoking man (Chambers) has been visited by a Kanamit who has instructed him to eat. The Kanamit then leaves and Chambers breaks the fourth wall by staring at the camera; at us:

“How about you? You still on Earth or on the ship with me? Probably doesn’t make very much difference because sooner or later we”ll all of us be on the menu. All of us.”

Then Rod Serling’s voice presents us with this parting gem:

“The cycle of going from dust to dessert. The metamorphosis from being the ruler of a planet to an ingredient in someone’s soup”.

Rod Serling is great at making us look so far down into the depths of ourselves that it’s a wonder we are ever able to find our way back. This striking conclusion is reminiscent of the ending of Planet of the Apes, and one can’t help but think that perhaps Serling was always trying to tell us the same thing: Be kind, or be doomed.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Planet of the Apes (1968)

2 thoughts on “The Twilight Zone – To Serve Man (1962)”

  1. Hi Meg! Great synopsis of one of Rod Sterling’s best! It’s a classic and wonderful of you to turn people on to it who maybe weren’t around back when we eagerly looked forward to another episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ every week.

    Best wishes,

    Bill

    Reply
    • Hi Bill,

      Thank you for taking the time to read this piece on one of my favorite televisions shows. The Twilight Zone was always ahead of its time and seems more and more poignant now than ever before. Tolerance is the key and I hope people are drawn to this gem and learn a few things along the way. I look forward to writing quite a bit more about Rod Serling and the incredible work he did.

      Reply

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