Wednesday, April 5, 2017

"To Serve Man"


“To Serve Man”
Season Three, Episode 89
Original Air Date: March 2, 1962

Cast:
Michael Chambers: Lloyd Bochner
Patty: Susan Cummings
Kanamit: Richard Kiel
Secretary General: Hardie Albright
Citizen Gregori: Theodore Marcuse
Colonel #1: Bartlett Robinson
Colonel #2: Carlton Young
Scientist: Nelson Olmstead
Valdes: Robert Tafur
Leveque: Lomax Study
Japanese Ambassador: J.H. Fujikawa
Voice of the Kanamit: Joseph Ruskin

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (based on the story by Damon Knight)
Director: Richard L. Bare
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Phil Barber
Set Decoration: H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: E. Darrell Hallenbeck
Casting: Stalmaster-Lister
Editor: Jason H. Bernie
Story Consultant: Richard McDonagh
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Music: stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week we burrow deep into the most inner confines of Kookland and hopefully wind up dead center of the oddest portion thereof. We’ll bring you a story called ‘To Serve Man,’ written originally by Damon Knight. Now, if you’ve ever wondered how we’d react to the arrival of some honest-to-Pete saucers, next week’s diet should be your meat. On The Twilight Zone, ‘To Serve Man.’”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:  

“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.” 

Summary:  
          Michael Chambers, a prisoner in an unknown facility, relates his story in flashback. Flying saucers land all over the planet, heralding the arrival of the Kanamits, a towering, hyper-intelligent, and wildly advanced race of extraterrestrials who promise to bring peace and prosperity to all members of the human race. They display their awesome powers by showing man cheap and efficient means of power, by ending war, and by turning barren wastelands into fruitful fields of vegetation. Soon, world peace is achieved. 
          Chambers is a government cryptographer who, together with his assistant Patty, is tasked with translating a Kanamit book carelessly left behind at the meeting of the United Nations. Patty soon translates the book’s title: To Serve Man. The Kanamits begin to shepherd humans back to their home planet, a place described as a paradise. Both Chambers and Patty have placed their names on a waiting list to visit the Kanamit home planet.
          Chambers’s opportunity to take that journey arrives first. As he boards the Kanamit spaceship, Patty arrives in a panic. She calls out to him. She’s completed the translation of the Kanamit book. To Serve Man is a cookbook!
          An epilogue reveals that Chambers is a prisoner within the Kanamit spaceship, being whisked away to the Kanamit home planet to be consumed. 


Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“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.” 

Commentary:

I.
          "To Serve Man" is a modern take on the legend of the Trojan Horse, that ageless myth of visitors bearing gifts which are not what they first appear to be. It is one of the most memorable and highly regarded episodes of the series, due in no small part to its horrifying and humorous twist ending, perhaps the best twist ending of the entire series and one which has been parodied endlessly. What is remarkable about the high esteem in which the episode is held is that the production of the episode was a bit of a nightmare in itself and, if one examines the episode closely, the fissures are plainly seen. 

           To begin with, the episode was on the production slate between "Five Characters in Search of an Exit" and "The Jungle," but wound up in front of the viewing audience later in the season. The reason for this is that the first cut of the episode was not satisfactory to Rod Serling and producer Buck Houghton and new footage and sound were ordered to be inserted. Houghton even brought in another Twilight Zone director, James Sheldon, director of episodes such as "Long Distance Call" and "It's a Good Life," to film an additional scene. Sheldon would perform the same function on the troubled production of the later third season episode, "I Sing the Body Electric."

          The immediately noticeable aspect of the reshoots is that the episode has the highest use of stock footage of any episode in the series. The global scope of the episode, a rare aspect for such a character-based series, demanded the use of stock footage to simulate the social and political scale of the story. Some of the stock footage is justly famous, including both images of flying saucers. The first scene of a flying saucer soaring above Washington, D.C. and signaling the arrival of the Kanamits is taken from the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still, another film in which the unknown motives of an alien visitor form the crux of the story. The second, and more impressive, footage used to show the Kanamit saucer departing Earth at the end of the episode is taken from the 1956 film Earth vs. The Flying Saucers. The convincing effect of the spinning undercarriage of the saucer was the work of special effects titan and master of stop-motion animation Ray Harryhausen. The Twilight Zone did not credit its use of stock footage so Harryhausen's name was not to be found on the episode.

          Serling and Houghton found the initial voice track for the Kanamit recorded by actor Richard Kiel, who portrays the Kanamit in the episode, to be unsatisfactory and brought in actor Joseph Ruskin, last seen as the genie in the second season episode "The Man in the Bottle," to create a new voice track. Combine these two factors with the heavy use of montage, including such staples of science fiction films of the 1950's as the use of newspaper headlines and scrolling translation tape to move the story along, and "To Serve Man" feels like a throwback to the genre cinema of a decade or so before.

          If one were to remove the stock footage and the montage footage, you would be left with only three essential scenes. The first is the arrival of the Kanamit at the U.N. meeting. The second is the introduction of Michael Chambers and his assistant Patty as government code breakers. The third is the boarding of the Kanamit ship. Two additional scenes are presented, both of which were included to fill time and are ultimately unnecessary. The first is the opening scene in which the imprisoned Michael Chambers relates the entire story in flashback. The setting of the scene is returned to again at the end of the episode for an epilogue, a device scrapped when the episode was adapted for The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas. It forms an interesting and memorable pair of scenes but the episode would have functioned fine without them. What is unusual about this use of a framing narrative is that Chambers relates the entire story in a voice-over narration, a function usually reserved for host Rod Serling. It is a device which the series used only a few times before and always to convey a character’s thoughts. Notable examples include the first season episode "The Hitch-Hiker" and the second season episode "King Nine Will Not Return." 

           Another unnecessary scene is that in which the Kanamit takes a lie detector test. This is an unnecessary scene found in the original short story and featured again in the radio drama adaptation. Not only is the scene ludicrous (both the short story and episode attempt to pass this by on the pretext that the Kanamit physically respond exactly as we do to a lie detector test) and unintentionally humorous, it is wholly unnecessary to move the story forward. An unfortunate result of this hodge-podge of stock footage, montages, and unnecessary scenes is that the transitions between the core scenes are abrupt and unsatisfactory, particularly the transition from the scene in which Chambers and Patty discuss their plans to visit the Kanamit home planet to the scene in which Chambers is informed of the ghoulish nature of the Kanamit book. Presumably days or even weeks have passed by but the audience is given no frame of reference for this passage of time.  
From: Forbidden Planet, via CinemaBlend

          Additionally, the episode utilizes the spaceship gangway created for the lower half mock-up of the C-57D flying saucer from the 1956 film Forbidden Planet. That MGM film provided the series with props and footage for a number of episodes, including "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street," "Third From the Sun," "The Rip Van Winkle Caper," and "Death Ship," among others. The use of stock footage, props, and narrative tropes from a landmark science fiction film of the 1950's further aligns "To Serve Man" with the cinematic science fiction typical of that decade. These films often featured outright hostile aliens (Invaders from Mars, War of the Worlds, etc.) but also occasionally featured the arrivals of aliens whose intentions remain a mystery for the majority of the film. It is a narrative device still being used as recently as the 2016 film "Arrival." It was also not the first time the series approached such material in a similar way. "The Monsters are Due on Maple Steet," "The Invaders," and "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?" all possess characteristics of the alien invasion film of that era, yet none feel quite so connected to the cinematic version of the genre as does "To Serve Man." Incidentally, Jerry Goldsmith’s effective score from “The Invaders” makes up a large amount of the stock music for “To Serve Man.”

          The original short story by Damon Knight was published in the November, 1950
Galaxy, Nov 1950
issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, edited by Horace L. Gold. The story is likely the best known work from Knight, due in part to its adaptation on The Twilight Zone though the story was notable before its adaptation on the series. It was reprinted in The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1951 (ed. Everett F. Bleiler and T.E. Dikty, Frederick Fell, 1951) and included in Knight's story collection Far Out (Simon and Schuster, 1961) before it found its way onto Rod Serling’s show. By 1953 the story had been translated into French and was awarded a Retro Hugo Award in 2001 as the best science fiction short story published in 1950. Serling had initially attempted to obtain material from a broader group of science fiction writers, including Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick, and Damon Knight reportedly made multiple submissions to Serling before Serling decided on an adaptation of “To Serve Man,” a story Knight had written more than a decade earlier.
Illustration by David Stone

          Serling maintained the basic structure of the short story but made several changes. The short story is told from the view of a U.N. translator who teams up with the Ukrainian delegate, Gregori, to translate the Kanamit book. An important difference in this regard is that, in the story, the Kanamit book is stolen, not absentmindedly left behind by the Kanamit. There is also the issue of translating the book. In the short story the translation of the Kanamit book is assisted by a limited Kanamit-English dictionary. Many writers, when reviewing the episode, have pointed out the unlikeliness of translating a Kanamit book without some sort of linguistic basis. The final scene is perhaps less effective in the short story as the full contents of the book are revealed while Peter and Gregori are "safe" inside their homes, though the insinuation is that both men have been placed on the passenger list for exchange to the Kanamit home planet and that all members of the human race will eventually be shipped to the Kanamit planet. There is no framing narrative flashback structure and the final line of the short story, "It's a cookbook," is delivered in a resigned, almost depressive manner, rather than with the stark panic incited in the episode. Other small changes include one made to the name Kanamit. In the short story, Kanama is singular and Kanamit plural. In the episode, Kanamit is singular and Kanamits is plural.

          The most interesting change between the short story and its adaptation on The Twilight Zone is in the appearance of the Kanamit. In the short story, the Kanamit "looked something like pigs and something like people" and is described as "short and very hairy---thick, bristly brown-gray hair all over their abominably plump bodies. Their noses were snoutlike and their eyes small, and they had thick hands of three fingers each." When visualizing the Kanamit for the episode, William Tuttle was tasked with designing a makeup which would complement the natural appearance of actor Richard Kiel, who stands over seven feet tall. The design which Tuttle arrived at is one of the most recognizable of the series. Opting for a more humanoid look, Tuttle fitted Kiel with a large head piece to denote intelligence with its appearance of an enlarged brain. Tuttle made the Kanamit virtually hairless (except for a small goatee) and the area around Kiel's eyes were blackened to give a look of almost mindless complacency and calm deference. Kiel was fitted with a long, futuristic silver robe with a high collar and platform shoes to give a further appearance of his dominant height (the Kanamit is intended to be over nine feet tall in the episode). One can imagine that had the production desired to replicate the Kanamit as described in Knight's short story, Tuttle was the man to do it, as he had previously created convincing pig-people for the second season episode, "Eye of the Beholder" and would later create a similar makeup for the fifth season episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet."


          The adaptation of “To Serve Man” for The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas offers additional interesting changes. Superficial changes include using a much different voice for the Kanamit, substituting Joseph Ruskin’s measured, neutral tone with a deep, almost demonic voice, one possessed of a slight reverberation, giving the Kanamit’s voice a strong alien quality. The voice of the Kanamit ship is also given a voice, that of a female. Chambers, played by Blair Underwood, communicates with the ship during his incarceration rather than with a Kanamit. The radio drama reinstitutes the theft of the Kanamit book rather than the retaining the episode’s use of the Kanamit absentmindedly leaving it behind at the U.N. meeting. There is no epilogue in the radio drama. The final scene is the one in which Chambers is ushered onto the Kanamit ship. This final scene drags out the reveal of the final line for longer than the original series episode. Dennis Etchison handled the adaptation.   


II.
Art by Richard Corben
          Damon Knight (1922-2002), author of the original short story, worked in nearly every capacity within the science fiction field, from a writer of novels, short stories, and critical essays, to an editor, writing teacher, and noted fan. Knight grew up an avid reader of science fiction in Oregon and later became a member of the New York City science fiction fan group The Futurians, a group which also included Isaac Asimov, James Blish, C.M. Kornbluth, and Frederick Pohl, among others. Knight later wrote a history of the group, The Futurians: The Story of the Science Fiction "Family" of the 30's that Produced Today's Top SF Writers and Editors (John Day, 1977). Knight published an early short story, "The Itching Hour," in the Summer, 1940 issue of Ray Bradbury's science fiction fanzine Futria Fantasia and made his professional story debut with "Resilience" in the February, 1941 issue of Stirring Science Stories, edited by fellow Futurian Donald A. Wollheim. Knight was also trying his hand at science fiction illustration at this time, much like Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont, and continued the practice until the middle part of the 1940's, when he began to concentrate on work as an editor and critic of the field.

          As an editor, Knight's contributions to the fields of science fiction and fantasy are numerous, stretching from magazine work in the 1950's (Worlds Beyond, If: Worlds of Science Fiction) to his hugely influential anthology series Orbit (21 vols, 1966-1980) to dozens of anthologies in-between, including such essential volumes as A Century of Science Fiction (Simon and Schuster, 1962) and A Science Fiction Argosy (Simon and Schuster, 1972). Knight is also highly regarded as a critic and his 1956 volume, In Search of Wonder (Advent; revised 1967), largely taken from magazine reviews from Infinity Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, is considered a classic in the field and won Knight a Hugo Award. Although the book remains edifying and useful, the fatal flaw of the volume is that Knight savages several works of fantasy due to the fact that he holds such works up to a wholly misguided and rigorous scientific scrutiny. Knight quit reviewing when one of his reviews (it is speculated to have been a review of Judith Merril's The Tomorrow People (1960) for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) was rejected as written due to some supposed controversial aspect. His work as a critic won him a Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association in 1975.

          Although Knight occasionally tried his hand at a novel, none of which are well-regarded, he was masterful as a writer of short fiction. Some of his classic works in the form include "Tiger Ride" (1948; with James Blish), "Not With a Bang" (1950), "The Country of the Kind" (1956), "Stranger Station" (1956), and "Masks" (1968). Knight's work was a mainstay of fellow Futurian Judith Merril's annual Year's Best SF volumes (12 vols, 1956-1968).

Art by Carl Lundgren
          Knight was integral in the founding of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) and served as the organizations first president. With James Blish and Judith Merril, Knight founded the Milford's Science Fiction Writers' Conference in 1956 and later participated in the similar Clarion Science Fiction Writers' Workshop. Knight produced publications for the would-be writer, including The Clarion Writers' Handbook (as editor; 1978) and Creating Short Fiction (1981). Knight was awarded a Grand Master Nebula Award from the SFWA in 1995 and died in 2002, age 79.

III.

          Although "To Serve Man" offers little in the way of character development to allow an actor or actress to show off their talents, it does include a few interesting players. The most memorable among them is towering actor Richard Kiel. A Detroit native, Kiel found a niche playing hulking villains on film and television. He is best known for his portrayal of the James Bond villain Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979). Kiel also appeared in an exceptional episode of Boris Karloff's Thriller, "Well of Doom," as well as in other interesting television fare such as Honey West, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Land of the Lost, and Superboy. Kiel often appeared as a giant or monster in non-genre television series such as Gilligan's Island, I, Spy, and The Monkees, often in a segment spoofing the science fiction or horror genres. On film, Kiel used his size to his advantage in such offerings as The Phantom Planet (1961), Eegah (1962), House of the Damned (1963), The Human Duplicators (1965), The Longest Yard (1974), Happy Gilmore (1996), and many more. He died in California in 2014, age 74.

          Canadian actor Lloyd Bochner began his acting career at age eleven, lending his voice to radio programs in the Vancouver area. He made his film debut in 1946 and moved quickly into a prolific television career. Bochner is best known for his role as Cecil Colby on the soap opera Dynasty. Bochner’s television career stretched from 1949, when he made his debut appearance on One Man’s Family, all the way up to 2003. He appeared as Markheim in a segment adapted from the Robert Louis Stevenson story of the same name for On Camera in 1957. Other genre credits include an episode of Boris Karloff’s Thriller (“The Prisoner in the Mirror”), the 1964 William Castle film The Night Walker (scripted by Robert Bloch), the 1970 AIP film The Dunwich Horror (based on the story by H.P Lovecraft), and episodes of Kraft Suspense Theatre, Honey West, Mission: Impossible, The Starlost, The Six Million Dollar Man, Battlestar Galactica, Darkroom, and Superboy, in which he played an elder vampire. Bochner leant his distinctive voice not only to the narration of “To Serve Man” but also to other television properties, most notably Batman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures. Bochner is the father of accomplished actor Hart Bochner. He died in Santa Monica, California in October of 2005, age 81.

          Susan Cummings, here playing Patty, will always be remembered as the actress who utters that immortal line, "It's a cookbook!" Cummings is a German-born American actress who carved out a thirty year career on both film and television from the mid 1940's through the early 1970's before stepping away from the profession. Cummings found her niche in the proliferation of western television programs in the 1950's and 1960's. Genre roles include two episodes of Science Fiction Theatre and the Roger Corman film Swamp Women. She also appeared in an episode of Man With a Camera, a series which starred Charles Bronson (from “Two”) and was produced by Buck Houghton, producer of the first three seasons of The Twilight Zone.

“To Serve Man” remains a memorable excursion into the weirder aspects of mid-century American science fiction. It feels very much like a product of its time, highlighted in places by an almost naïve disregard for scientific principles and storytelling logic. The episode is largely redeemed by the shocking twist ending and another memorable William Tuttle makeup design but suffers under the weight of flimsy characterizations and an enormous amount of stock footage, some of it of very low quality. Combined with the quick-edited montages and rough transitions between scenes, it adds up to an episode which is highly memorable but not among the best of the series on a technical level. Still, it is an episode which is essential to the show’s cultural identity and which can be recommended with little reservation. 
                            
Grade: B

Grateful acknowledgement is made to:

--The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls (with Brian Stableford and John Grant). New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1995.

--The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic by Martin Grams, Jr. OTR, 2008.

 --Far Out by Damon Knight. Berkley Medallion, 1962.

 --The Internet Speculative Fiction Database (isfdb.org)

Notes:
--Richard L. Bare directed six additional episodes of the series: “Third from the Sun,” “The Purple Testament,” “Nick of Time,” “The Prime Mover,” “The Fugitive,” and “What’s in the Box.”
--Theodore Marcuse also appeared in the later third season episode, “The Trade-Ins.”
--Bartlett Robinson also appeared in the second season episode, “Back There,” and in "The Time Element."
--J.H. (Jerry) Fujikawa also appeared in the earlier third season episode, “A Quality of Mercy.”
--In line to board the Kanamit ship in an uncredited role is Jeanne Evans, who was wife to director Richard L. Bare at the time the episode was filmed. 
--"To Serve Man" was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Blair Underwood.
--The episode has been parodied a number of times since its original broadcast. For those interested, Martin Grams, Jr. lists a number of notable parodies in his book. Two of the most memorable include when Lloyd Bochner made a cameo appearance in the 1991 film The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear, and when The Simpsons cleverly parodied the episode for The Simpsons Halloween Special (a.k.a. Treehouse of Horror) and the segment, "Hungry are the Damned." 


-JP

4 comments:

  1. That was an excellent and well thought out review. My knee-jerk reaction was: "It should get an A!" but you give good reasons for the lower grade and I think they make sense.

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    1. Thanks for saying so, Jack. I appreciate that. I was on the fence about this one and expected to get some push-back for the B but ultimately, if I'm going to be objective, I have to recognize that the episode has some major production issues. That said, it's an episode I immensely enjoy, it has the best twist ending, and it's one that I recognize keeps the series relevant in the culture.

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  2. This episode never did it for me. It's one of those "one gimmick" entries of the Twilight Zone, of the sort in which the Big Reveal, usually at the end, is the best part of it. But a good episode needs more than a good gimmick. Nightmare At 20,000 Feet is sort of similar in this regard except that it plays well dramatically from start to finish. The best TZ episodes engage the viewer for many reasons; characterization, for one. A big downside for To Serve Man: poor to mediocre dialogue and acting.

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    1. I agree with you, and the lack of believable characterizations is one of the reasons I declined to award the episode an A grade. The episode does have the best twist ending on the series (arguably) but, as you said, it doesn't go much beyond that. The production is a mess, from the stock footage to the montages to the cardboard characters. I still enjoy the episode because I like the production design and William Tuttle's makeup work, but it certainly doesn't compare with the artistry of those episodes we've awarded an A grade.

      I think a lot of the problems arise from Damon Knight's original short story. There just isn't much there in terms of dramatic potential. It's a brief story building to a punchline. Though I enjoy a lot of Knight's work, I've never understood the wide popularity of this story, outside of the popularity of the adaptation on the Zone. I certainly do not think it warrants a Hugo Award as the best short story of 1950, an award I think was greatly helped by its adaptation on the show. Thanks as always for reading!

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