Monday, September 05, 2022

Star Trek Week: "Charlie X"

Stardate: 1533.6

The 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).

Charlie 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. 

Mr. 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.

Charlie settles down on the Enterprise, but finds navigating adolescence difficult, especially because, in truth, he has indeed been gifted with the Thasians’ god-like powers.  

When 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 Enterprise crew…

Without making too grand or sweeping a statement, “Charlie X” is absolutely one of the great Star Trek (1966-1969) episodes.  

In 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.”

Charlie 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” teenager.

The 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 do…”

For 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. 

The 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.

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.

Charlie 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.”

“Charlie 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 have and 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 with 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 “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 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, 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.

In 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.  

We 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.

Some 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 attention.  

Terminology is also still being ironed out here. UESPA is mentioned, instead of the later Starfleet, for example. These are small matters, however, in an episode as elegant and as heart-wrenching as this one.  “Charlie X” would definitely make my top ten list for the series.

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