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The Twilight Zone (Episode #89): “To Serve Man” (airdate 3/2/62)
The Plot: Aliens as big as Bond villains frighten mankind when they land on Earth but quickly win over humanity with the promise of technological advancements, cures, trips, and [yelled in Oprah's voice] free cars! But are they really here to help us?
The Goods: Michael Chambers (Lloyd Bochner) sits in a cell and listens as a disembodied voice encourages him to eat lunch. He’s understandably belligerent towards his captors but begins to tell his story, humanity’s story, about the day aliens landed on Earth and began to offer us the moon. Suspicion soon turns to gratitude, especially after finding a book casually dropped by one of the aliens (Richard Kiel) that they discover is entitled To Serve Man. How wonderfully kind and innocuous! A year later humans are lining up like cattle for a chance to take a ride to the Kanamits’ home planet, and just as Chambers himself is preparing to board he discovers mankind’s benefactors may have more than good will on their minds.
“Well that makes the cheese a little more binding!”
This is easily one of the more famous episodes of The Twilight Zone and arguably one of the best remembered. It’s the twist at the end that gets the most play, but the entire episode is solid from beginning to (almost) end. Just don’t start giving it too much thought…
Chambers is narrating this presumably from his prison cell aboard the alien craft and he knows what the Kanamits have planned for him, and yet he speaks with eloquence and a light, playful tone at times as if he’s just telling any other story. There’s also the question of who exactly he’s telling the story to… are they letting him record a jailhouse memoir? And don’t get me started on the decision to have him speak directly to the show’s viewers at the very end. The warning to the American audience about the danger of complacency and feeling numb to the world’s dangers is already in place, and having the character break the fourth wall to pound it home even more just feels gimmicky.
Problems exist outside the narration as well. Why was the Kanamit even carrying the book in the first place? He’s obviously trying to deceive the humans and there’s little chance they’d be able to decipher it, but why even carry in to the United Nations? When Chambers’ assistant, Patty, comes running up at the end to warn him that he’s heading for a very special dinner party why doesn’t she scream it at the top of her lungs and warn everyone? And if Chambers is supposed to be this great linguist why are both the title and the eventual contents of the book deciphered by others?
But enough of that. The episode still packs a solid punch and continues to provide pop culture junkies with a catch phrase to rival “Soylent Green is people!” It also features several little touches that add humor and a simultaneous sense of foreboding like the UN delegate from the Soviet Union who we see eating sloppily while the alien introduces himself and describes their intentions. Another humorous touch is the look on the alien’s face as tourists stand on a scale before boarding the spaceship… his smile grows along with the passengers’ girths.
“To Serve Man” is one of many episodes that serve as a commentary on the Cold War mentality of the times. It’s a favorite theme of Rod Serling’s. “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” is another example, and like that classic episode this one offers up a warning about the self-destructive nature of mankind. It’s a far more subtle path to extinction of course as instead of humanity playing an active role by fighting and killing each other this story sees us basically choosing what we want to be true over what actually is true. It’s a willful ignorance that’s more than applicable to today’s America, and while there’s no real risk of us ending up on a dinner plate we may still be facing the end of the world as we know it.
What do you think?
The Trivia: Richard Kiel would go on to find fame with another role built around his mouth, and Lloyd Bochner would go on to father the smarmy guy from Die Hard who says “Hans, bubby, I’m your white knight!” right before he gets shot by Hans Gruber.
On the Next Episode: “Little Jenny wears a brace on her leg. Her best friend, an old man named Old Ben, brightens her life by performing magic– he can turn into anything he wants.”
Catch-Up: Episodes covered by Twitch / Episodes covered by FSR
We’re running through all 156 of the original Twilight Zone episodes over the next several weeks, and we won’t be doing it alone! Our friends at Twitch will be entering the Zone as well on alternating weeks. So definitely tune in over at Twitch and feel free to also follow along on our Twitter accounts @twitchfilm and @rejectnation.