To “Serve” Man?
We Come in Peace?
Today, quite by accident, we rewatched an episode of the Twilight Zone called To Serve Man. We’ve been rewatching the series with our children in order to teach them well, and we’ve been viewing the episodes in order. Today, this episode was up. We make a point of rewatching the show every few years to keep its themes fresh in our mind, lest we forget its important lessons. So it was quite the coincidence indeed, given that Thanksgiving is in just a few days and the episode centers around colonization and the evolution of humans, or de-evolution more appropriately. This theme comes up time again in The Twilight Zone and in Rod Serling’s other work, like Planet of the Apes. There are some powerful lessons to be learned there, if you care to listen.
In short, To Serve Man is about colonists who are similar to Christopher Columbus traveling to The New World. In this case, aliens from another sphere travel to a new world, which is Planet Earth. The episode is a classic, known as one of the greatest episodes in television history due to its incredible plot twist and equally powerful message.
Almost everyone on Planet Earth has seen it. If you recall watching it for the first time, you’ll remember feeling your heart drop when you realize that the book, To Serve Man, which was delivered to the humans of earth by aliens called Kanamits, is not what it appears to be at all. In fact, the book ends up being a cookbook with recipes on how to serve man as a dish and not as a public servant since “To Serve Man” can be interpreted in a number of ways.
The Kanamits land on earth with the book in hand and leave it behind after meeting with world leaders to share news of how they come in peace. The earthlings find it and are perplexed by it. The title and text are written in the Kanamit’s language, so cryptologists work to decipher the title, To Serve Man. The humans think the aliens have arrived to help them as public servants just as they said they would, but a few people remain skeptical.
Over time, the Kanamits gain the earthlings’ trust. They offer the humans state-of-the-art technology. They promise to heal the world with their techne and create a regular Garden of Eden on earth. As it turns out, they are lying to the the humans but the people of earth are unaware until it’s too late and their literal goose is cooked. You see, “To Serve Man” can also be taken quite literally, as in serving man as a dish to eat. The Kanamits successfully trick the humans into visiting their home planet where they are well fed and then served as a meal. It’s a brilliant play on words that tricks the humans into their utter demise.
The story is a familiar one unfortunately, much like the history of colonists who came to the Americas with new technology and an empty promise to help the native peoples with it. Indeed, the colonists poisoned the native people during the harvest celebration known as “Thanksgiving.” Talk about kismet in terms of timing. That happens to us a lot.
When the Kanamits first land on earth, the humans are initially skeptical of them and they charge the US military with the task of deciphering the text to determine whether they are friend or foe. Humans from around the world work through the United Nations to understand these alien creatures and they use their own technology to analyze the Kanamits. The humans even give a lie detector test to the Kanamit’s leader, who passes with flying colors.
Never do the humans imagine that they might be anthropomorphizing the Kanamits. No, they don’t question it. Over time, the humans come to trust Kanamits and even agree to visit their planet. In exchange, the Kanamits bring more of their kind to Planet Earth, but the humans never return. Instead, they are imprisoned on the Kanamit’s home planet after being duped to travel there.
Michael Chambers, lead cryptologist and protagonist, is tricked into traveling to the Kanamit’s alien planet before he learns about their true intentions. Chambers is warned by his assistant that the aliens are actually lethal when she deciphers the text and learns the real meaning of “To Serve Man.” Chambers realizes that evolution never changes – whether human or alien – as he worriedly waits to be served as a meal in a prison cell on the alien’s home planet.
No matter how technologically advanced a race may be – whether human or alien – base desires remain. Greed remains. Deceit remains. There will always be the drive to trick, hunt, and conquer in the desperate quest for survival – if one has no morals.
We couldn’t have rewatched this episode at a better time. Coincidences like this always happen to us with the Twilight Zone. Make of that what you will. We’ve decided to write about it in the hope that the message isn’t lost on the world.
Below is a case in point. We last blogged about To Serve Man on March 30, 2021 and it originally aired on March 2, 1962. At the time, we felt it was kismet, too. We just happened to be rewatching this episode then. What a coincidence. Perhaps something is in the ether, some sort of universal truth on which we’re picking up.
That blog post follows, with slight revisions. It’s an analysis of the episode on a much deeper level, as if it couldn’t get any deeper.
🎶 [Cue spooky music] 🎶
You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of the imagination. Next stop, The Twilight Zone! 💫
Respectfully submitted for your perusal – a Kanamit
Height: a little over nine feet.
Weight: in the neighborhood of three hundred and fifty pounds.
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. 💫
Plot Summary & Analysis
At a United Nations news conference, the Secretary General announces the landing of aliens on earth. An alien known as a “Kanamit” communicates by telepathy to the delegates and journalists. The alien ambassador says its kind will provide humanitarian aid through technology to all peoples of the world if only the people of earth would TRUST them. They promise to end famine and war. They say they will help the earthlings with endless, inexpensive atomic power to meet the world’s needs. They promise a regular Garden of Eden.
The Kanamit, who may also be known as a Candidate (if you listen to the subliminal message very carefully, you’ll hear the resemblance in words), leaves a book called To Serve Man (in Kanamit) behind as it silently exits the press conference without further telepathic comment. Yes, the Kanamits communicate with their minds and do not speak words.
The US assigns a cryptographer to decipher the title. Surely, if earthlings can determine the alien creature’s motives, then they can learn whether to trust them and return to the land of milk and honey only dreamed of in fantasies and Bible stories.
The reluctant and suspicious US team cracks the title of the mysterious book, “To Serve Man.” It seems positive to them, as they ponder the Candidate’s intentions. They believe the Kanamits to some degree now, some more so than others. Over time, they learn to embrace the Kanamits. They set their reservation aside. The leader of the Kanamits even submits to a polygraph test at the request of UN delegates, so trust in the Kanamits is cemented.
The aliens end world hunger and warfare. They provide an abundance of energy. It’s too good to be true. It is important to the Kanamits that the innocent earthlings be willing participants in their own conquest. Eventually, the Kanamits succeed in establishing embassies in EVERY CITY ON EARTH and the humans willingly let them do it.
Now that the basic needs of earth are met, the humans are ready for an adventure. The Kanamits subsequently begin to caravan the willing and curious earthlings by spacecraft to their home planet for a “vacation” in what they claim to be their own Garden of Eden, a land of milk and honey.
Just as the lead cryptologist is boarding their spaceship for a visit, his assistant lets him know that SHE (an important plot point) deciphered the remaining text!
The code breaker then explains the mysterious book’s meaning to her lost comrade as the alien spaceship scoops him away to his fate on the Kanamit’s home planet just before he can break free. He is trapped. They got him. By then, it’s too late as he’s forced into the spaceship against his will. While living in prison on the alien planet, the cryptologist resists cooperating with the Kanamits.
The Kanamit who duped him mocks the imprisoned American while attempting to fatten its prey, and he refuses to eat in protest. His rage is palpable – his despair relatable – and in time he breaks down. The imprisoned cryptologist finally ends his long-term fast in despair and enters a state of hopelessness. At long last, our fallen hero succumbs to his fate and eats his own kind as a broken man, out of surrender. What will be … will be? You see, the Kanamits fed the humans each other to eat. What a metaphor.
As the episode concludes, the cryptologist breaks what is known as the 4th Wall in performance. It’s the invisible, imaginary barrier that separates actors from the audience. It’s a wall rarely broken and when it is the effect is powerful if used correctly. And the protagonist, Michael Chambers, asks the audience:
How about you? You still on Earth, or on the ship with me? Really doesn’t make very much difference, because sooner or later, we’ll all of us be on the menu… all of us.
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 from the Twilight Zone. 💫
Mr. Serling begs the viewer to consider the fall of man, from perfection to powerlessness. He demonstrates the cycle of life and the evolution of man – from ashes to ashes, funk to funky. We know Major Tom’s a junkie alright. Just look at the Kanamits. The earthlings receive no real service from the Kanamits, or Candidates as you’ll recall, much like elected candidates and politicians on Planet Earth who cannibalize the public. “Kanamit” and “cannibal” sound similar as well, and that is likely no accident either. The allegory is powerful.
Patty, the assistant to Mr. Chambers – a woman – seems to be the real hero of this tale, but she ran out of time to save the world with her Knowledge. She cracked the code, but no one would listen to her until it was too late. She always had doubt in her mind about the Kanamits, but she was dismissed. Patty eventually played along and even scheduled a trip to visit the alien planet, but she persisted in her quest to crack the code nevertheless. She trusted her intuition but no one trusted her. They trusted the Kanamits instead.
In the Old Testament, Eve’s desire for Knowledge supposedly causes the Fall of Man from his Garden of Eden fantasy. In this story, the female’s insatiable quest for Knowledge would actually save the day and thereby vindicates all Women. Patty would have been the heroine of this tale if only her instincts had been trusted by Man. However, the tragic cycle of history repeats because a woman speaks but is not heard. Her reservations are ignored and her instincts brushed off. If only the cryptologist had listened to his assistant sooner, they could have saved the world together. Instead, Patty served man. She loyally served her boss and didn’t push him too hard. She deferred her intuition to him. In so doing, the two served no one at all. Instead, they led people to slaughter.
Perhaps women could learn an important lesson from this, too. Serving “Man” helps no one when Man’s motives are impure and they almost always are. Men have been ruling the world for centuries and the net gain to humanity is almost nil.
Trust your instincts above all else and keep your morals about you. The desperate quest for life doesn’t have to come a the expense of someone else’s.