Based off of 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:
- 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.
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 'Kanamit' 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 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 United Nations codebreaker, attempts to decipher the Kanamit's 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:
- "Mr. Chambers! Don't get on that ship! The rest of the book To Serve Man, it's... it's a cookbook!"
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.
- 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.
- Adaptational Attractiveness: The Kanamit are much less ugly than in the short story.
- 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 who makes the big discovery had been working in the aliens' 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 aliens 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 Kanamit's 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.
- Downer Ending: Obligatory. And a pretty depressing one at that, since humanity goes from the ruler of a planet to someone's dessert.
- 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 Kanamit's 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!
- Gender Flip: The translator who gave The Reveal was male in the short story.
- 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.
- 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...)
- Pig Man: The Kanamit in the original story.
- Pragmatic Adaptation: Apart from adding more action to a story that had originally been mostly a talk-piece, the Kanamit's 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
- Distance: 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.
- 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?"
- Stock Footage: The opening scene of the Kanamit ship is taken from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
- Stopped Reading Too Soon: The translator 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 Kanamit are far more advanced than humans.
- Technology Uplift: Alien benefactors arrive on Earth and provide technology that ends war by nullifying all weaponry, cures to all known diseases, and other remarkable benefits of their advanced technology.
- Telepathy: The Kanamits use mental means of communication to talk to humans.
- To Serve Man: The Trope Namer.
- Vichy Earth: In the end, humanity is okay with being very friendly with the Kanamit... 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.)
- We Have Become Complacent: Part of what the Kanamits intend by creating peace and plenty on Earth.
- Wham Line: "It's a cookbook!".