Friday, March 14, 2014

The Visitors are Coming: The Twilight Zone: "To Serve Man" (1962)

“To Serve Man” remains one of the most famous Twilight Zone episodes ever broadcast. 

Everyone remembers the tale’s unforgettable punch-line: “it’s a cook book!!!”  But by the same token, it’s easy to forget what a sturdy, brilliantly-constructed episode it is.

Based on a 1950 short-story by Damon Knight (1922 – 2002), “To Serve Man” features a flashback structure. 

From his room (or cell…) on a spaceship in flight, an American man named Chambers (Lloyd Bochner) recounts how alien Kanamits (Richard Kiel) came to Earth promising friendship and peace, but actually executed an insidious and secret agenda.

Chambers explains how the alien spaceships were first seen over many cities across the globe, and how the U.N. Secretary General welcomed the aliens, with some reservations.

But the 9-foot tall Kanamits promised peace and honorable intentions. They planned to transform Earth into a veritable paradise by offering economical new power sources, and radically improving means of agriculture.  And if humans didn’t want their help, the aliens promised that “nothing would be forced” upon them.

All the while, Chambers worked on translating an alien book that one Kanamit representative left behind at the U.N. 

The deciphered title?

To Serve Man.

Over the months, Chambers toiled further on the extra-terrestrial book even as excited humans boarded Kanamit spaceships and headed to the distant home-world for vacations, shopping excursions, and guided tours.

Chambers then decided to go on one such visit for himself. 

But before he left -- right as he was boarding a saucer in fact – Chambers’ assistant discovered a terrible secret.

To Serve Man was a cook-book…

Much of “To Serve Man” appears to concern humanity’s short-sightedness.

Chambers regrets that the human race should have been focusing on the “calendar” and not the “clock” while contending with the Kanamits.

He states that humans should more often be worried about “tomorrow. And the day after tomorrow.”

This is a universal real-life refrain, certainly, in regards to man’s stewardship of the environment, and even his foreign policy principles.

Too often, it seems, we are focused on crisis-management and dealing with what is right in front of our face, rather than planning for the looming disaster just around the next curve.

Here, humanity is taken in by the Kanamit promises of a brave new world, and immediate gratification too.

“It was the age of Santa Claus,” Chambers notes with cynicism.

In other words, because things seem to be good at present, humans don’t look beyond that “shiny” surface to the future. In “To Serve Man,” no one really examines the alien race’s long-term motivations for fundamentally transforming the Earth.

In this case, the Kanamits end war (with the creation of national force-fields…), hunger, and poverty…but for the express purpose of growing and fattening the herd.

Clearly, given the episode’s prominence in the pop-culture, “To Serve Man’s” most memorable moment arises when the other shoe drops.

Chambers assistant tells him that “To Serve Man” is a cook-book. And then he is forced on the ship anyway…by a hulking Kanamit.

In that moment, Chambers learns that mankind has gone from “being ruler of a planet to an ingredient in someone’s soup.

Sooner or later,” notes Chambers caustically “we’re all of us on the menu.”

This week, I’ve been writing about some of the inspirations or antecedents for the V franchise. 

Yesterday, I remembered It Can’t Happen Here, about the fictional rise of fascism in America. 

It’s clear that “To Serve Man” represents a different part of the V equation.

Like the Visitors in V, the Kanamits of “To Serve Man” come to Earth in flying saucers, take their case to the United Nations, and promise the Earth they have arrived as “friends.” 

Also like the Visitors, the Kanamits offer to advance Earth science, while boasting secret motives.  As Chambers says here, “therein hangs the tale…”

In both cases, the aliens establish “embassies in every country,” and wish to use human beings as a food source.

In some sense, however, the Visitors of V are even more deceptive than the Kanamits because they also lie about their physical appearance.

The Kanamits don’t cloak their alien-ness in human guise. The Visitors try to fool us by acting just like us, by blending in with humanity.

The Visitors, as we learn in V, also possess another dark agenda: they are stealing Earth’s water supply because they have depleted their own. 

“To Serve Man” doesn’t really reveal much detail or background information about the Kanamits. We don’t know if there is famine on their world…only that we are their latest smorgasbord, and that they have been to other worlds…and done the same thing before.

And, I suppose, we know that their name -- Kanamit -- isn’t far from our word “cannibal.”

The brilliance of V, I would assert, is the creative melding of the “To Serve Man” extra-terrestrial prototype with the politics of It Can’t Happen Here

If “To Serve Man” is all about man’s short-sightedness, V is about his ability to adapt and serve a cause that is the antithesis of what he actually desires: freedom.

Next on The Visitors are Coming (on Monday afternoon): Shadow on the Land (1968).


  1. John excellent analysis of the intentions of aliens arriving on Earth. To this day I still find the Twilight Zone "To Serve Man" extremely disturbing to watch and as shocking as the more recent sci-fi on this subject.


  2. Even though I know the twist is coming, I still sit there...waiting for it...YES!!! Fight as he may, Chambers is doomed! I love when Chambers is alone in his cell on the Kanamit ship, turns to the camera and states "...we're all on the menu...all of us". Then he gives in and tears into the meal that the Kanamits have served him. Serling's ending comment, "...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." Just awesome!

    I can't imagine how creepy and frightening this must have been when originally aired in 1962. This may be my favorite episode of all.

  3. I first learned of this episode when I read about it in "Science fiction's Greatest Monsters" by Daniel Cohen. Just reading that one little sentence, "It's a cookbook," gave me the chills.

    Then I saw a clip of it on a CBS special promoting "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" hosted by Robin Williams. Knowing it was a cookbook was bad enough, watching Chambers get wrestled on board that ship was even worse.

    Having said all that, why leave that book lying around and take the chance of it being translated?


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