STTOS – Charlie X

Ah, Charlie X. This was never one of my favorites. I appreciate it a bit more now that I’m older, but it’s still a nice showcase of a lot of what’s wrong with Star Trek.

The Enterprise rendezvous with the cargo ship (that’s later a transport ship that’s later a science probe: the writers really didn’t seem to want to make up their minds) Antares to pick up a “special passenger,” one Charlie Evans who was the lone survivor of another one of these lost colonies. His survival is something of a minor miracle, but at this point no one seems too puzzled, even after the escort from the Antares leaves in a suspicious hurry.

Yeoman Janice Rand comes in to escort Charlie to sickbay so that Dr. McCoy can check him over, and this apparently being the first woman Charlie’s ever seen, he falls instantly in love with her. They arrange a kind of date on one of the rec decks for later, even though Charlie is only 17 (hit it, Winger!).

Dr. McCoy gives him a clean bill of health, which lets us know that there are no hand-held MRI scanners in TOS, or else he might have noticed that something’s off about Charlie’s brain. At least, you would expect there to be some side-effect of the fact that he can transmute matter into other forms at will! More on that later.

Charlie shows up for his date on the rec deck, where Spock is inexplicably just hangin’ out, playing the lyre. Uhura sings songs making fun of him, which he takes in good stride. Yeah, they truly didn’t have a gameplan for how Mr. Spock was supposed to behave on this show. Charlie has fun for a while but eventually get jealous of all the attention Uhura’s getting, and he wills her voice away. Now, normally you would expect something like the total loss of voice in someone who, moments before, had been entertaining the entire deck in song to raise some eyebrows, but Charlie is able to distract everyone with impossible-seeming card tricks instead. And then the first interesting thing happens, and it’s one of those “dog that didn’t bark” situations. When Rand wants to know how he did his miraculous tricks, he’s CLEARLY covering for his god-like powers. So, we’re to take it, then, that Charlie knows it’s not normal for people to be able to turn playing cards into photographs. Yes, but how does he know? If his only experience with other humans is himself…

Anyway, Rand is suitably impressed, but she’s not ready to boogie, so she tries to introduce Charlie to one of her friends. Charlie selfishly brushes off the friend in what I would take to be the next character slip-up. Sorry, but it just doesn’t seem all that believable to me that someone who’s never known the company of other humans would be this discriminating. Surely attention from almost anyone is welcome? I’m not disputing the fixation on Rand, just the idea that it’s this focused.

The critical turning point comes as Kirk receives a message from the Antares and is asked to go to the bridge, which he does – followed by Charlie. The Antares is at extreme live communication range, but they have an urgent message – presumably that Charlie is kind of a brat with godlike powers. Before the message can get through, the ship explodes. Charlie cryptically says it wasn’t that well constructed to begin with just before the ship explodes, a fact which doesn’t entirely escape Kirk’s notice. Of course it turns out that Charlie made a crucial component “go away” and is responsible for the accident. Note again: he’s killing to keep secrets.

And so it goes. Encounter after encounter with Charlie just ends awkwardly because he doesn’t know how to control himself, or how to behave. Slowly, signs show that Charlie has extraordinary powers. Finally, after getting laughed at in an martial arts lesson, it’s one step too far and Charlie “makes the man go away.”

From here, it gets a little clumsy. Charlie, who earlier had been mostly concerned with fitting in, now starts to get more and more beligerent and mostly just wants respect. I can only just buy this psychologically. Now that his cat’s out of the bag, it’s hopeless to try to fit in, so he stops trying and concentrates instead of getting people to do what he wants. For laughing, he removes a girl’s face. For saying hello to him, he turns Rand’s friend into an iguana. It’s all a bit gratuitous.

The one thing that seems to hold him in check is that he’s latched onto Kirk as a kind of father figure, so Kirk’s approval still means something to him. Spock points out that that won’t last – so, as is required by television conventions, we’re on the clock, and time is running out!

And then, whoops!, episode’s over, so the mysterious Thasians that have been mentioned once or twice as “legends” show up in the (non-corporeal) flesh to whisk Charlie away. Charlie doesn’t want to go back, and everyone does feel a little sorry for him, so Kirk makes a half-hearted argument that he belongs with his own kind. It’s pro forma. In a nice touch, it’s pretty clear to us that Kirk knows that the Thasians are right – he just feels sort of obligated to plead the boy’s case. After some inexcusably dramatic flourishes (the word “stay” echoes over and over again as Charlie vanishes), the Thasians leave and it’s all over. Janice is standing there in her nighties because Star Trek isn’t sexist or anything, and everyone else that the Thasians returned after Charlie made them “go away” are not standing there in their nighties, again because Star Trek isn’t sexist or anything. It’s just that the Thasians have a preternatural sense for who we in the audience know by name, that’s all.

What’s rotten about this episode is of course that it puts the deus in deus ex machina. There was never really a story to begin with, because Charlie had these powers the whole time – and then, when our 50 minutes are up, someone snaps his fingers and Charlie’s gone again. It’s piss-poor, lazy plotting, and proof positive that no one should EVER have let Gene Roddenberry near a script. Fine show you got there, Gene, don’t get me wrong, but could you please stay THE HELL OUT OF THE WRITING DEPARTMENT??? Just stop it with your thinly veiled allegories and your god-like beings. These things are CHEATS.

Then there’s the plot holes. Are we really expected to believe that the Antares is willing to just dump Charlie on Kirk without, you know, mentioning that he’s a demigod? That just never came up? Even assuming they’re under duress, isn’t there some other way they can warn Kirk than waiting till they’re nearly out of communications range to send a random “oh, by the way…?” Doesn’t StarFleet have protocols for this kind of thing – codewords or something? Or maybe some way to embed a message in another message? Also, if, as seems to be the case, Charlie learned on board the Antares that his powers are unusual and he needs to hide them, why has he let some of the Antares cres beam aboard with him as an escort at all? And if he can scramble transmissions, what’s the point in just killing the Antares? Just jam the channels, man! It’ll be another half a season before the writers learn the trick of putting an unwanted guest on a stolen shuttlecraft, I guess.

Finally, there’s the sexism. I mean sure, this was written in the 1960s – it’s a period piece now. But that doesn’t mean that certain things just don’t translate to modern sensibilities well – such as everyone’s inability to explain to Charlie why you can’t just slap girls on the ass.

It’s not a total loss, though. Robert Walker does what he can as Charlie with the script he’s given; it’s a fine performance. It’s nice to see Uhura and Rand get some real lines. It’s really nice to see some indications of what daily life among the crew is like – outside of our main characters. And as is typical for the original show (and not so much for the other shows), the pacing is excellent.

I guess my question at the end of this is what the HELL is up with Roddenberry and his stories about omnipotent teenagers? This isn’t even the only one we’ll get this season, let alone in Trek canon. If you ask me, it’s just not that interesting of a story, so it would really help to get some indication of what Roddenberry (apparently) finds so endlessly fascinating about it. I could slather some cliched interpretations on it for kicks: Charlie symbolizes American power in the nuclear age. Charlie is the embodied anxiety adults in the 60s felt about their rebellious youth as the counterculture gained traction. But of course neither of these really fit. This just seems to be one of about 3 story templates that Roddenberry enjoys, no theme required.

Overall Rating: C+

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