Based on the original short story by Damon Knight.
First aired on March 2, 1962.
And, let's be real here, you know the punchline already. But, for the heck of it:
The episode opens with a man named Michael Chambers lying uncomfortably on a cot in a futuristic room. A voice implores 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 aboard a spaceship in flashback.
A race of benevolent aliens called the Kanamits arrive on Earth, offering to help humanity. After initial resistance, humanity accepts. The Kanamit set about putting an end to many of Earth's greatest woes, including war and hunger. Energy becomes very cheap; nuclear weapons are rendered harmless. The aliens even morph deserts into big, blooming fields.
Michael Chambers, revealed to be a codebreaker for the United States government, attempts to decipher the Kanamits' language from a book the Kanamit left behind. A woman named Patty, one of his employees, manages to decipher the title, which reads To Serve Man. Chambers' team seems to be satisfied with this.
With the Cold War ended, Chambers has no real work to do, but Patty is still trying to work out the meaning of the text of To Serve Man.
Soon, humans are volunteering for trips to the Kanamits' home planet, which is portrayed as a paradise. Chambers, with nothing else to do, signs up for an excursion to the planet. As he is boarding the ship (amongst people who excitedly talk about their upcoming trip), Patty runs up to him, but is stopped by a Kanamit guard. She desperately calls out:
Before Chambers can escape, he is forced onto the ship. The episode ends with him on the Kanamit ship, breaking his hunger strike and giving in to the Kanamit's orders to eat.
To Serve Tropes:
- Adaptational Attractiveness: The Kanamits are much less ugly than 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 and have bulbous foreheads but 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: That's what we learn at the end.
- Artistic License Linguistics: The Kanamit language is essentially treated like English run through a cipher, to the point of being translated by codebreakers instead of linguists. (This was averted in the original short story, where the dignitary Gregori who makes the big discovery had been working in the Kanamits' embassy and learned their language in secret by stealing books.)
- Aside Comment: At the very end, Mr. Chambers turns to look at the camera and asks the audience where they are: still on the Earth, or on the Kanamit ship with him. He says it doesn't make any difference, because sooner or later we'll all be on the menu.
- Benevolent Alien Invasion: Subverted. The Kanamits come with all sorts of new and miraculous gifts to end war and want... so that they can keep us as docile, happy feeding stock.
- Big Eater: The Kanamits' favorite kind of human.
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: At the end, Chambers faces the camera, and asks the audience if they're still on Earth or on the ship with him, but says it doesn't matter because sooner or later we'll all be on the menu.
- Ditto Aliens: The Kanamits are all identical in appearance. The ambassador has a goatee and white robes to distinguish him from the others.
- Downer Ending: Obligatory. And a pretty depressing one at that, since humanity goes from the ruler of a planet to someone's dessert. Although there's also an obvious Black Comedy element to it all.
- Everything in Space Is a Galaxy: In the opening narration, Rod Serling says that the Kanamits come from another galaxy. Since it's later stated in the episode that the Kanamit home planet is 100 billion miles away from Earth, it's clear that he should have said "solar system".
- Exact Words: The entire reveal hinges on this: the title of the book, 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 is essentially "Take what people tell you with a grain of salt" in space.
- Fattening the Victim: The Kanamits' intentions from the start, what with their providing means of ending world hunger. Before boarding the Kanamit ships, humans are weighed: when a heavier person steps off of the scale, the Kanamit smiles gleefully after checking the person's weight.Kanamit: "Please, Mr. Chambers. Enjoy, eat hearty! ... We wouldn't want you to lose weight."
- Faux Affably Evil: The Kanamit. Dilly dilly, come and be killed!
- Flying Saucer: The Kanamits' ships are classic flying saucers.
- Foreshadowing: The Kanamits weigh each passenger.
- 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 was a woman named Patty.
- How We Got Here: The episode opens with Michael on a spaceship musing on humanity's former woes. Then it cuts to the day the aliens arrived.
- Inner Monologue: Chambers' inner monologue is heard at various points as he relates the story of the Kanamits' arrival on Earth and its aftermath.
- Lie Detector: It worked. The Kanamit didn't lie about their intentions. However, he didn't give the whole picture.
- Meaningful Name: "Kanamit" evokes "cannibal" (which, technically, they're not...)
- Oh, Crap!: Chambers, after Patty drops the Wham Line on him.
- Pig Man: In the short story, the Kanamits resemble pigs. They are short with snoutlike noses, small eyes and thick, bristly brown-grey hair all over their bodies and have three fingers on each hand.
- Pragmatic Adaptation: Apart from adding more action to a story that had originally been mostly a talk-piece, the Kanamits' appearance is changed as well. Knight wrote them as looking like humanoid pigs, which was found to be too fairy tale in production.
- Pragmatic Villainy: Yaay! The aliens are ending world hunger! Not yaay! They only did it to fatten humanity up so they can eat us!
- Rubber-Forehead Aliens: Of the bald big-brained variety.
- Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale
- Prior to boarding the Kanamit spaceship, a woman says that their planet is "billions" of miles from Earth, and Mr. Chambers later says that it's 100 billion miles out in space. The nearest it could possibly be is in the Alpha Centauri system, 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 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 galaxy). If these statements are true, the comments by characters that the Kanamits' planet is billions of miles away are even more untrue.
- Time: Both Chambers 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?"
- Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: The moment the Wham Line is said, you see the flight attendant, who was next to the Kanamit ship Chambers was boarding, make a quick exit. Chambers attempts to do the same, but isnt as lucky.
- Stock Footage:
- The arrival of the Kanamit ambassador's ship is taken from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Later, a clip from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is used to represent a departing Kanamit ship.
- Footage of a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly is used when the Kanamit ambassador's polygraph test is shown to that body.
- Stopped Reading Too Soon: The translator Patty stops translating the titular book after figuring out the title. Then she does the rest. Cue the Wham Line: "It's a cookbook!"
- Superior Species: The Kanamits are far more advanced than humans. Chambers estimates that they are 500 times more intelligent than humans and 1,000 times more complex.
- Technology Uplift: The Kanamits arrive on Earth and provide technology that ends war by nullifying all weaponry, cures to all known diseases and other remarkable benefits.
- Telepathy: The Kanamits' means of communication is mental rather than verbal. As such, the voice that humans hear when speaking with Kanamits is "totally mechanical."
- To Serve Man: The Trope Namer.
- Vichy Earth: In the end, humanity is okay with being very friendly with the Kanamits... considering 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 cookbook for no apparent reason other than to make the twist at the end 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 the technology to project a forcefield around their borders, ending the possibility of any nation attacking another.
- We Have Become Complacent: Part of what the Kanamits intend by creating peace and plenty on Earth.
- Wham Line: Possibly the most famous one in the history of American television, when Patty reveals the truth behind the aliens' book To Serve Man.
- 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.