“To Serve Man” was episode 89 of the hugely popular television series Twilight Zone, which ran from 1959-64. This episode is written by Rod Serling who introduced each episode, and is based on a 1950 short story by a science-fiction master, Damon Knight. The television episode moves the action to its own time, where it introduces 1960s politics: the Berlin blockade and the wars in Algeria and Indo-China.
In contrast to all this conflict and confrontation comes a stunning discovery: alien spaceships are landing near cities all over the world. The Secretary-General of the UN, (played by Hardie Albright – fun fact: one of the voices of Bambi), announces that one of the spacecraft has landed near the UN building, and one of the aliens is on his way to the UN to address the people of Earth. The aliens are called Kanamits, and Serling tells us about them:
“Respectfully submitted for your perusal – a Kanamit. Height: a little over nine feet. Weight: in the neighbourhood 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.”
Now, Columbus created much havoc in South America, where he coined the term “cannibal”, a mis-hearing of the name of the Carib tribe, and a misunderstanding of their eating habits. But this lot, the Kanamits, seem like good guys. The 3m dude says (without moving his lips – it’s all done by telepathy):
“Our intentions are honourable. We desire above all things to help the people of Earth.”
The narration points out how unlikely this seemed: “as a race, we’re unaccustomed to charity. Brutality is a far more universal language to us.”
They offer things normally only seen in science fiction or election manifestos – a power source which can supply a whole country for the cost of a few dollars. A cheap nitrate, which can be added to the soil to end famine for good. An impenetrable force field, which nations can use as a defensive shield. “It was the age of Santa Claus”.
Michael Chambers (Lloyd Bochner), a cryptography expert, is asked by the military to translate the book the Kanamits have left on the table of the UN (why would they do that?) Anyway, it’s a very different language from a different galaxy, so he and his team have no idea where to start. Also, he thinks that maybe the military are “looking a gift horse in the mouth”, worried that with the alien imposed peace and prosperity, the armed forces will be out of a job. Then his assistant, Patty (Susan Cummings), bursts in with the news that they have deciphered the title of the book. It is: “TO SERVE MAN”. Chambers calls this “a reasonably altruistic phrase”, although the others are more cautious. But the deserts bloom, armies are mothballed, and thousands of earthlings are invited to board the spaceships and visit the Kanamit home planet. As the guests embark, a smiling Kanamit weighs each person.
Patty is still working on the book, but explains that the capital letters on the title she translated are different to the lower case letters in the book. THIS is what’s holding them up? Anyway, as Chambers starts to board, Patty arrives, having broken the code. She shouts the famous line to him:
She has proved that paraprosdokians somehow work fine in any language, even transgalactically.
Confined on board, Chambers turns to the camera, breaking the fourth wall, which was pretty revolutionary in those days. He asks us:
“How about you? You still on earth, or on the ship with me? It doesn’t make very much difference, because sooner or later we’ll all of us be on the menu. All of us.”
Rod Serling sums up in a more profound explication:
“Simply stated, the evolution of man. The cycle of going from dust to dessert. The metamorphosis from being the ruler of a planet, to the ingredient in someone’s soup.”
There’s the rub. We love to think of ourselves as the “alpha predator” (except when we are surrounded by sharks or crocodiles). But what if we weren’t? What if someone else saw us the way we see animals like cows, pigs, sheep and chickens? Is the fear of cannibalism just the fear of being eaten by humans, or also the fear that civilised people (regardless of galaxy) can be just as fierce and brutal as nature, red in tooth and claw? Aliens eating us can be just as disturbing as cannibals, particularly when they look like us, such as in Under The Skin (Glazer, 2013).
When Hannibal Lecter decides some of us are rude and can only be improved by cooking, are his feelings of superiority different to the Kanamit? To eat a human or any other animal requires objectification: turning an individual into a commodity. We do it to our prey. The Kanamits do it to theirs. Are they wrong? Are we?
The full episode is on Youtube: