Thursday, March 1, 2012

TZ Promo: “To Serve Man” (3/02/1962)

Season 3, Episode 24 (#89 overall)
Cayuga Production # 4807

“This is the way nightmares begin… or perhaps end: very simple, direct, unadorned. Incredible, and yet so terribly real that even while they are happening, we live them, digest them, and assimilate them.”

That’s Michael Chambers, who we meet lounging uncomfortably in a small compartment in a spacecraft. Chambers is addressing us in voice-over, one of the only times in the series’ five-year run in which a character provides narration (off the top of my head, this device was also used in season two’s “King Nine Will Not Return” and season five’s “The Long Morrow;” there might be a couple others). But it gets better: at the end of the episode, Chambers will break the fourth wall and actually look directly at us while he speaks. Cool!

“To Serve Man” is one of The Twilight Zone’s best-remembered (and most notorious) episodes, and it’s really pretty impossible to discuss it without spoiling the surprise. I’ll try, but I make no promises. Written by Rod Serling (adapted from a short story by Damon Knight; Serling adapted many stories in the show’s third season; a sign of his growing fatigue as the show’s primary contributor of scripts) and directed by Richard L. Bare, “To Serve Man” tells the tale (in flashback) of earth’s first close encounter with an alien species, and it’s a doozy.

The Kanamits arrive en masse and do NOT attack. Rather, they guide the nations of the earth to near-immediate world peace. Almost overnight, hunger, famine and war are rendered obsolete. Diseases are cured, military forces are disbanded, and an apparent new millennium dawns. The Kanamits proceed to institute an exchange program, in which thousands of earthlings make the long space voyage to their home world for a visit.

Spoiler alert: they ain’t coming back.

The side story involves a team of government code crackers, led by Chambers (well played by Lloyd Bochner, with that wonderful voice of his), who are charged with decoding the alien’s language. Their only help in this endeavor is a book, left behind by the Kanamit who addresses the United Nations upon arriving. Halfway through the episode, they decipher the book’s title: To Serve Man. It appears that the Kanamits are just as altruistic as they appear.

You know the punchline. I don’t need to say it.

The various Kanamits seen in the episode are played by Richard Kiel (all 7+ feet of him!), who is probably best known as the villainous Jaws from the James Bond film series. My pal Bill Huelbig scored me an autographed picture of Kiel a few months ago; it’s worth sharing again:

Oh, and for the second week in a row, the series graces us with a TZ babe. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Susan Cummings!

I have one gripe about “To Serve Man,” and it’s admittedly pretty minor. The Kanamits do not speak with their mouths, since they communicate telepathically, which means that their dialogue was recorded separately and added in post-production. Joseph Ruskin, whom we saw in season two’s “The Man in the Bottle,” provided the voices, but he isn’t the problem. The issue is a technical one; specifically, the quality of the recorded dialogue is downright terrible, muffled and hard to comprehend (oddly, Bochner’s voiceover narration sounds crystal clear). Perhaps this was an intentional effect designed to make the Kanamit voices sound strange, but the execution just plain sucks. It sticks out like a sore thumb, especially within the otherwise-clean remastered audio found on the blu-ray set.

“To Serve Man” makes effective use of Jerry Goldsmith’s scores from previous TZ offerings “The Invaders” and “Back There.” This may be the only time in the show’s five-year run that a stock-scored episode pulled all its music from a single composer’s work. Both Goldsmith scores have been released multiple times on both vinyl and CD, but unfortunately every single release is now out of print. But fear not! The scores can be found on Image Entertainment’s season two Definitive DVD set (and it’s more recent blu-ray counterpart). Oh, and the specific cues used in “To Serve Man” are of course available on the season three set(s).

Forbidden Planet alert! While the flying saucer shots are culled from the Ray Harryhausen classic Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, the life-sized underside of the ship and retracting stairway ramp is a leftover chunk of the United Planets C-57D Space Cruiser. We’ve seen this set piece before (in season one’s “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”) and we’ll see it again (in season four’s “Death Ship”). Man, Forbidden Planet is the gift that just keeps on giving.

The Kanamit, one of my favorite aliens from the entire series, has been well-represented from a merchandise standpoint. Sideshow Collectibles released an amazing 14" deluxe action figure around ten years ago (I have it, but I've never opened it... I was planning on unveiling it for my planned "Kanamit Week," which fell through. My Kanamit is in storage someplace... one of these days I'll dig it out and spotlight it). More recently, Bif Bang Pow! has released (or is about to release) five distinct Kanamit-related items: Kanamit bobblehead (black and white or limited edition color variant), Kanamit action figure, Kanamit lunchbox, and a Kanamit cookbook journal. There's also a "To Serve Man" apron (available here) that I'd love to get my hands on one of these days.

What can I say? “To Serve Man” is an absolute classic, brilliantly executed and frankly unforgettable. It’s attained pop culture immortality and, as such, has been endlessly parodied in film and TV (most notably on The Simpsons, which has spoofed many TZ episodes over the years). It’s the “Eye of the Beholder” of season three, no question, and it lives quite comfortably in my top ten favorites list.

Next week, “The Fugitive” introduces to a kind alien, beloved by children, on the run from ominous men in black. Steven Spielberg totally ripped it off when he made E.T., but the original is better. Tune in.


Joel Benedict Henderson said...

You know this may be the one episode I just don't really get the love for. The acting and directing I find to be somewhat stiff and there's no characters I can identify with. In the end, to me, "To Serve Man" is just an episode driven entirely by the novelty of its twist and therefore doesn't have any lasting value.

Oh, and um, "The Fugitive" is actually next week.

Craig Beam said...

Yeah, I realized that after I left for work this morning. Fixed.