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Recap / The Twilight Zone (1959) S3E24: "To Serve Man"
aka: The Twilight Zone S 3 E 89 To Serve Man

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Three guesses as to what that phrase means.

Based on the original short story by Damon Knight, this is the Trope Namer for To Serve Man. Let's be real here: you know the twist already. But, for the heck of it:

Rod Serling: 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.

Air date: March 2, 1962

The episode opens with Michael Chambers (Lloyd Bochner) lying uncomfortably on a cot inside some type of futuristic room. A voice implores him to eat something, but he refuses to comply. After he asks what time it is on Earth and hears that it's 12:00 noon, he begins to tell the viewers that he's aboard a spaceship, as well as the story of how he came to be there.

In a flashback, Michael narrates that it all started sometime in April. The day progressed like any other, with the world's leaders busy working to solve Earth's ever-increasing number of domestic and international crises. It's then that a fleet of flying saucers soar over the skies and land in different cities throughout the world. As the United Nations announces the landing of the ships, the representatives of the world are visited by an ambassador to their interstellar visitors: the Kanamits.

The Kanamit ambassador (Richard Kiel) telepathically reveals to the United Nations that his people are a benevolent race, who have landed on Earth to lend their assistance in humanity's salvation. There is a bit of resistance at first, but slowly, the nations of the world come to trust the Kanamits when lie detectors are unable to locate ulterior motives to their intentions. Having gained mankind's trust, the Kanamits promptly put end to many of Earth's greatest woes; new forms of energy are now available at rock bottom prices, all nuclear weapons are rendered harmless and defunct, and the world's deserts have even grown into big, blooming fields, with soil nutritious enough to resolve world hunger.

Michael, a codebreaker for the United States government, attempts to decipher the Kanamit language from a book which the ambassador had left behind at the UN. One of his staff members, Patty (Susan Cummings), has managed to decipher the title: To Serve Man. Michael's team seems to be satisfied with this, and with world peace declared, Michael no longer has any real work to do, but Patty is still trying to work out the meaning of the text of To Serve Man.

Sometime later, humans are volunteering for trips to the Kanamits' homeworld, which is portrayed as a paradise. With nothing else to do, Michael signs up for an excursion to this planet. As he is boarding the ship, Patty runs up to him, but she is stopped by a Kanamit guard. She desperately calls out what she's discovered:

"Mr. Chambers! Don't get on that ship! The rest of the book, To Serve Man, it's... it's a COOKBOOK!"

Before Michael can react to this news or escape, the Kanamits force him onto their ship. The episode ends with him back in his room on the Kanamit ship, the once-benevolent aliens imploring him to eat. Michael ultimately breaks his hunger strike and ravenously stuffs himself, but not before telling the viewers, whether they're still on Earth or in space with him, they'll all be on the menu soon enough...

To Serve Tropes:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: The Kanamits are far less ugly than they were in the short story. The story describes them as looking "something like pigs and something like people." In the television adaptation, they are nine feet tall with bulbous foreheads, but they resemble humans facially.
  • Adaptation Name Change: In the short story, the protagonist is named Peter. In the television adaptation, his name is Michael Chambers.
  • Aliens Are Bastards: The Kanamits solve Earth's greatest crises and render humankind totally at peace... all so they can eat them.
  • Artistic License – Linguistics: The Kanamit language is essentially treated like English run through a cipher, to the point that it's translated by codebreakers instead of linguists. This was averted in the original short story, where dignitary Gregori, who makes the big discovery, had been working in the Kanamits' embassy and learned their language in secret by stealing multiple books.
  • Aside Comment: At the very end, Michael looks at the camera and asks the audience where they are: still on the Earth, or on the Kanamit ship with him. He says that it doesn't make any difference, because sooner or later, we'll all be on the menu.
  • Benevolent Alien Invasion: Subverted. The Kanamits come to Earth with all sorts of miraculous gifts to end war and hunger... so that they can keep humankind as docile, happy, and constantly-feeding livestock.
  • Big Eater: The Kanamits notably smile as a guest on one of their ships sets the needle on a scale quite far.
  • Blatant Lies: To quote the Kanamit ambassador: "There is nothing ulterior about our motives. Nothing at all."
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: At the end, Michael faces the camera, and asks the audience if they're still on Earth or on the ship with him, but he says it doesn't matter, because sooner or later we'll all be on the menu. This is noticeably the only time in the whole series when someone other than Rod Serling addresses the audience.
  • Ditto Aliens: The Kanamits are identical in appearance. Only the ambassador distinguishes himself from the others, as he has a goatee and white robes.
  • Downer Ending: A pretty depressing one at that. Humanity no longer has to worry about war or hunger, but in the process, they go from the dominant race of a planet to someone's dessert. There's still an obvious Black Comedy element to it all, though.
  • Everything in Space Is a Galaxy: In the opening narration, Rod Serling says that the Kanamits hail from another galaxy. Since it's later stated in the episode that the Kanamit homeworld is 100 billion miles away from Earth, it's clear that he should have said "solar system".
  • Evil Is Bigger: The Kanamits stand at nine feet tall, taller even than the tallest recorded human.
  • Exact Words: The climactic reveal hinges on this, as the title of To Serve Man is correctly translated. It's just that "serve" can mean a lot of things...
  • Fantastic Aesop: When you think about it, the moral of the episode is essentially "Take what people tell you with a grain of salt" in space.
  • Fattening the Victim: This was the Kanamits' intentions from the very start, what with their providing means of ending world hunger and international warfare. Humans are even weighed before they board Kanamit ships. When a heavy person steps off of the scale, the Kanamit smiles gleefully after checking their weight.
    Kanamit: "Please, Mr. Chambers. Enjoy, eat hearty! We wouldn't want you to lose weight."
  • Faux Affably Evil: The Kanamits are stoic and claim to offer humanitarian aid to Earth. Once the world is at peace, they make humanity their dinner. They remain just as polite even to humans who know full well that they are being prepared to be dinner.
  • Flying Saucer: The Kanamits travel and land on Earth in classic flying saucers.
  • Foreshadowing: The Kanamits weigh each passenger boarding their ships, moments before the Wham Line.
  • Gender Flip: In the short story, the translator who discovered the true meaning of To Serve Man was a man named Gregori. In the television adaptation, it's a woman named Patty.
  • Genius Bruiser: Kanamits are extremely intelligent and technologically advanced and strong enough to easily manhandle grown humans if they wish.
  • Hollywood Encryption: Played with. Michael and his staff are trying to decrypt the title of the Kanamit book as if it was intentionally encrypted. He mentions using double substitution, backward writing, and other decrypting methods. He and the others failed to realize that the book would not be encrypted, but rather written in their native language, with their own "alphabet." This would be similar to trying to translate an ancient language that uses different letters, such as Ancient Greek, from scratch.
  • How We Got Here: The episode opens with Michael on a spaceship, musing on humanity's former woes. Then the episode flashes back to show just how he got on this ship in the first place, starting on the day the Kanamits arrived.
  • Inner Monologue: Michael's inner monologue is heard throughout the episode as he relates the story of the Kanamits' arrival on Earth and its aftermath.
  • Kill All Humans: The Kanamits essentially employ a long-game version of this trope, rendering the Earth at total peace and ending hunger just so they can turn humankind into complacent livestock, all the more succulent to snack on.
  • Lie Detector: The Kanamit ambassador is put through a lie detector test to prove whether his kind have ulterior motives. The detector isn't able to sense falseness through his mental speech, solidifying that he didn't lie about their intentions at all. Of course, he didn't exactly give the whole picture.
  • Meaningful Name: "Kanamit" evokes the word "cannibal", though from their perspective, they're not.
  • Oh, Crap!: Michael, right after Patty drops the Wham Line on him. He's in such shock that he can't escape the Kanamits' grasps fast enough.
  • Only Sane Woman: Patty is the only character unsatisfied with just translating the title of To Serve Man and seeks to translate the rest. It's a good thing she did, but she was too late to do anything about it.
  • Pig Man: In the short story, the Kanamits resemble pigs, with squat statures, snoutlike noses, small eyes, three fingers on each hand, and thick, bristly, brown-grey hair all over their bodies.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Apart from adding more action to a story that had originally been a talk-piece, the Kanamits' appearance is changed as well. They were orginally envisioned as looking like humanoid pigs, which was found to be too fairy-tale in production.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: The Kanamits end world hunger, but only so they can fatten humanity up to be eaten. Additionally, they also bring about world peace and abolish the need for nuclear weapons, so humanity will be rendered totally defenseless against them.
  • Rubber-Forehead Aliens: The Kanamits fit the trope, being of the bald big-brained variety.
  • Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale:
    • Regarding distance: Prior to boarding the Kanamit spaceship, a woman says that their planet is "billions" of miles from Earth, and Michael later says that it's 100 billion miles out in space. The nearest it could possibly be is in Alpha Centauri, around 4.3 light years (more than 25 trillion miles) away. By comparison, Pluto is on average 3.67 billion miles from the Sun. Rod Serling's narration also says that the Kanamits come from another galaxy and the Kanamit ambassador says that they "come from a planet far beyond this galaxy" (i.e., outside the Milky Way). If these statements are true, the comments by characters that the Kanamits' planet is billions of miles away are even more untrue.
    • Regarding time: Both Michael and his supposedly super-intelligent captors apparently forget that time zones are a thing when he demands to know "What time is it on Earth?" Then again, it's always 12:00 somewhere on Earth and the Kanamits don't necessarily know humans use time zones.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: The moment the Wham Line is said, a flight attendant next to the Kanamit ship Michael was boarding promptly runs for his life. Michael attempts to do the same, but he isn’t as lucky.
  • Stock Footage:
    • The arrival of the Kanamit ambassador's ship is taken from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). A clip from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is later used to represent a Kanamit ship departing.
    • Footage of a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly is used when the Kanamit ambassador's polygraph test is shown to the world's leaders.
  • Stopped Reading Too Soon: Michael and his men stop translating the titular book after figuring out the title. It's only when Patty grows unsatisifed with the meager results that she works to translate the rest. Cue the Wham Line: "It's a cookbook!"
  • Superior Species: The Kanamits are far more advanced than humankind. Michael estimates that they are 500 times more intelligent than the average man, and their technology 1,000 times more complex than Earth's most mechanical marvels.
  • Technology Uplift: The Kanamits arrive on Earth and provide technology that ends war by nullifying all weaponry, cures to all known diseases, cheap and effective sources of energy, and turn deserts into nitrate-rich fields to end world-hunger. Quite beneficial for a race that desires to eat humankind for dinner.
  • Telepathy: The Kanamits' means of communication is mental rather than verbal, as the ambassador notes that the voice the General Assembly is hearing as he speaks to them is "totally mechanical." The script reveals that the Kanamits' listen to the thoughts of humans, and in turn, their own voice is generated by a device on their person.
  • Vichy Earth: In the end, humanity is totally okay with establishing relations and alliances with the Kanamits. Of course, the reveal probably won't stop mankind from becoming a feast, whether it's believed or not.
  • Villain Ball: The Kanamit ambassador leaves behind the namesake cookbook for no reason, apparently other than to make the twist work. (Again, this was averted in the original short story, where one of the protagonist's friends stole the book from the Kanamit embassy.)
  • The Wall Around the World: The Kanamits provide every country on Earth with technology to project forcefields around their borders, ending the possibility of any nation attacking another.
  • We Have Become Complacent: This is a big part of what the Kanamits intended by creating peace on Earth.
  • Wham Line: Possibly the most famous one in the history of American television, when Patty reveals the truth behind the titular book: "IT'S A COOKBOOK!"
  • Whole Episode Flashback: The near-entirety of the episode consists of Michael's flashback to the Kanamits' arrival and what they did to "help" humanity.

Michael: [to the audience] 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.

Rod Serling: 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 on the Twilight Zone.

Alternative Title(s): The Twilight Zone S 3 E 89 To Serve Man