One of the horror genre's "most widely read critics" (Rue Morgue # 68), "an accomplished film journalist" (Comic Buyer's Guide #1535), and the award-winning author of Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia (2007) and Horror Films of the 1970s (2002), John Kenneth Muir, presents his blog on film, television and nostalgia, named one of the Top 100 Film Studies Blog on the Net.
Star Trek Anniversary- John's Top #20: "Charlie X" (#13)
At #13 on my top twenty list is "Charlie X," a great early episode of the series which explores adolescence, and features a "lower decks" look at life on the Enterprise, with great scenes for characters who don't typically get the close-up focus or attention they deserve: Yeoman Rand and Lt. Uhura. The story is also memorable for its exploration of uncomfortable adolescence, and Kirk's equally uncomfortable attempt at parenting.
U.S.S. Enterprise picks up an “unusual” passenger bound for Colony 5 from the
survey ship Antares: seventeen year old Charles Evans (Robert Walker).
is the sole survivor of a spaceship crash thirteen years earlier. He survived
on the planet Thasus alone, learning how to talk from the ship’s memory banks.
Spock (Leonard Nimoy), however, is suspicious of this story, and believes that Charlie
must have been assisted by a legendary race of aliens -- the Thasians -- who
are said to have possessed the power to “transmute” objects.
settles down on the Enterprise, but finds navigating adolescence difficult,
especially because, in truth, he has indeed been gifted with the Thasians’
Charlie falls in love with Yeoman Janice Rand (Grace Lee Whitney), he gets a
lesson in love and rejection that proves dangerous for the entirety of the
making too grand or sweeping a statement, “Charlie X” is absolutely one of the
great Star Trek (1966-1969) episodes.
part this is because the episode features a simple, elegant,
emotionally-affecting storyline. In broad strokes, a teenager achieves the
power of a God, but lacks the temperament or experience to use that power to
help him fit in. The contradictory, confusing world of adults proves too much
for Charlie and he feels that “everything”
he does or says is “wrong.”
is a fascinating bundle of contradictions. He is innocent, yet awkward. He is vulnerable,
and yet virtually all-powerful. He wants
to be liked, and yet -- because of that desire -- often transmits as very
unlikable indeed. Robert Walker achieves
much in this role, capturing every facet of a tragic character. He inhabits this role, and makes Charlie a “real”
most amazing thing about “Charlie X” is that it proves a very intense episode
because of Charlie’s behavior, because of the aforementioned qualities. He is unpredictable in his responses to
others. As Uhura quite aptly notes in
her song about him, “we know not what he’ll
example, he gives Yeoman Rand a bottle of her favorite perfume, and the galley
a supply of Thanksgiving turkeys. But
when roused to anger, Charlie goes on a reign of terror. He transforms crew
people into lizards, or face-less monsters.
tension surrounding him is palpable because we can’t always guess how he will
react next. More specifically, Captain Kirk keeps pushing Charlie, throughout
the episode, and we wonder if -- or when -- Charlie will strike back.
I’ve written before, Star Trek often operates on two
levels. There’s the story, and then there’s the sub-text or underneath of that
story. On the surface, “Charlie X” is about a castaway unable to go home
because of his alien powers. The
sub-text, however, is about adolescence, and the forces that make it wondrous
and unbearable at the same time.
expresses the yin-yang of adolescence best. Sporting a huge crush on Rand, he
can be pure and sweet in his longing. “If I had the whole universe, I’d give it to
you,” he says, romantically. Seconds
later, that sweetness becomes relentless ardor and Charlie describes how he
feels, physically. He is “hungry…all over.”
X” also happens to feature my favorite bit of James Kirk advice or wisdom in
the entire series. The good Captain
informs Charlie: “There are a million things in this universe you can
haveand a million things you can't have. It's no fun
facing that, but that's the way things are.”
Truer words were never spoken.
And the trick of being an adult, I suppose is dedicating
yourself to the pursuit of those things you believe you can have, while letting
go of those you can’t, reasonably, expect to have. Charlie simply can’t
understand why he can’t have whatever -- or whomever -- he desires. As Kirk also tells him, “you have to live people. You’re not alone anymore.”
It’s a great lesson for Charlie, too, because although he can
apparently transform matter, he can’t change a person’s heart to be more
inclined towards him.
Charlie may be God-like in his alien abilities, but like
anyone with an unrequited crush, he must learn to accept rejection. His choice is to live alone like a God -- and
be isolated from his own kind -- or learn to get along in a world he isn’t
equipped to understand, where he can’t use his powers to get what he wants.
“Charlie X” works so well not only because of Charlie’s
capricious unpredictability, but also because Charlie is not a two-dimensional “God-Monster.”
Now by comparison, Gary Mitchell (in next week’s episode, “Where
No Man Has Gone Before”) is much more of that type. That particular story is
valuable not because of its exploration of Gary’s character, but because of
Kirk’s dilemma, being forced to strand or possibly murder a friend who has
become a monster. The focus there is (appropriately) on Kirk.
Charlie is much less a monster than is Mitchell is. He is
innocent; groping. He has never seen a girl before, even. He tells Dr. McCoy he wants people to like
him. He doesn’t like to be laughed at,
and he doesn’t like to be teased.
Who among us does not desire belonging, or fear mocking?
The image I perpetually carry with me from this episode is of
Charlie walking the corridors of the Enterprise, smiling at everybody
awkwardly, unaware that he is invaded the crew’s personal space. The crew
tolerates him as he stands there, gleaming at them, and he just can’t
understand why he is regarded as he is. He has no awareness of himself as part
of a group.
If this episode reveals is, essentially, the Tragedy of
Charles Evans, it is also provides a close-up look at the inherent goodness of
Captain Kirk and his crew. Charlie has sent people away (the equivalent of
wishing them into the cornfield), tortured crew-members, and physically injured
Spock (breaking his legs) and yet, in the end, Kirk goes to bat for him with
the Thasians. He offers to let Charlie stay on the Enterprise, even knowing how
impossible it would be to control the young man.
Charlie has done such horrible things and yet when he is
whisked off the bridge by the Thasians, the episode ends not with relief, but
with a feeling of sadness. This is a perfect example of why people have loved Star
Trek for fifty years. Those whom we disagree or even fight with, aren’t
simply monsters or enemies to be killed, banished or gotten rid of. They are
people, and they are to be treated with sympathy. After everything Rand, Kirk and the others endure,
they put that selfish pain aside to help a fellow human beings.
This is a view of humanity as it can be, and as it should be.
We will always run into bad people, no doubt. But if we let those bad people change
who we are, we have lost ourselves.
“Charlie X” also succeeds admirably on the front I described
in my review last week, of “The Man Trap.”
I called it, the “lower decks” aspect of the series. Here, we spend a lot of time with Yeoman
Rand, again, performing her duties, and spending her off-duty time in the rec
room. In fact, there’s a terrific scene
here in which Lt. Uhura holds court there, singing a teasing song about Spock
(comparing his looks to those of the Devil).
She then sings a similarly-cheeky song about Charlie, and he
punishes for it, stealing her voice. It’s
too bad that the inexperienced Charlie can’t read the room, or the meaning
behind Uhura’s teasing. Charlie, like
Spock, is a part of the Enterprise family.
The song reinforces that idea of belonging. But Charlie just feels
exposed, embarrassed. He can’t see that Uhura has actually made him…a brother.
the same scene, we see Spock playing his Vulcan harp -- in the presence of
other crewmen -- suggesting that he is not an outcast despite his alien nature.
Other episodes (notably “Balance of Terror” and “The Galileo Seven”) suggest
bigotry towards Spock among some crew-members, by contrast.
also see for the first and only time, the ship’s gymnasium, and Rand’s
quarters. These early episodes, by
dividing attention between the people on the bridge and the rest of the crew,
really make the Enterprise feel like a real ship, with a real group of people
aboard her. The crew-members we spend
time with (like poor Tina Lawton) aren’t just extras to fill up the background
of shots. Indeed, we learn here that the
crew still celebrates Thanksgiving, and that turkey remains the traditional meal
of that holiday.
aspects of the episode could use some more clarification, for certain. The
Antares is described as a survey vessel, a transport, and a cargo vessel across
the span of the episode, for example. Those terms are not synonymous. Similarly, the idea that you can press all the
controls/buttons on the bridge and therefore give Charlie more to “control”
seems a little silly. Charlie, I’m
certain, would simply not bother to control the systems that don’t require
is also still being ironed out here. UESPA is mentioned, instead of the later
Starfleet, for example.
are small matters, however, in an episode as elegant and as heart-wrenching as