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Star Trek – Charlie X (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

It really is incredibly difficult to divorce Star Trek from the sixties. I know that this has become something of a (very obvious) theme in these daily reviews, but Charlie X is the kind of Star Trek episode that could only have been produced for television in the sixties. It isn’t necessarily the presence of a single factor, it’s more the package as a whole. While the general concept (“The Day Charlie Became God”, to quote Roddenberry’s succinct synopsis from his 1964 Star Trek Is… pitch) could easily be adapted for any of the spin-offs (and Hide & Q clearly plays on the same idea), the execution is so firmly anchored in the sixties that it’s very hard to separate and parse.

Part of it is the weird use of coloured lighting on the mostly grey Enterprise sets, something that Inside Star Trek suggests was down to the fact that NBC was owned at the time by RCA, a major manufacturer of colour television sets. Part of it is the somewhat confused sexuality that is a weird mix of liberated and outdated. Part of it is the fact that the show features an impromptu musical and dance number. The idea of Charlie X might be fairly simplistic, but the execution is very clearly and very distinctively Star Trek.

Screaming to the Evans...

Screaming to the Evans…

It’s worth noting how fast Star Trek found its feet. Each of the spin-offs struggled through at least a dodgy first season before figuring out what exactly they were trying to do. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine probably found its niche quickest, closing its first year with two back-to-back classic episodes, but Star Trek: The Next Generation was still stumbling through its second year before its hit its stride in its third season. I’d argue that Star Trek: Enterprise went through a similar set of growing pains. The first three years of Star Trek: Voyager were especially all over the place, before it seemed to settle into a routine in its fourth year. I didn’t care for that routine too much, but the show seemed more stable.

In contrast, Star Trek has figured out what it is doing relatively quickly. Being honest, once you get past The Corbomite Manoeuvre, you could probably jumble up the rest of the first two seasons and nobody would really notice that the episodes were airing out of sequence – barring the rare continuity reference or the appearance of Chekov. Less than a third of the way into its first season, I would argue that Star Trek had really hit its stride. I think that there’s a very serious argument to be made for ranking the first year of Star Trek as among the very best of the show’s thirty televised seasons. (Yes, I counted The Animated Series… wanna make something of it?)

Kirk is just floored...

Kirk is just floored…

Okay, so not all the elements were in play. The Klingons and Romulans had yet to make an appearance – but they were coming soon. Sure, there’d be the occasional masterpiece and the occasional stinker peppering the first two years, so quality wasn’t perfectly consistent. Then again, in Star Trek, quality was always variable. Deep Space Nine‘s amazing fifth season still featured the dire Let He Who Is Without Sin… and The Next Generation‘s third season still included the occasional bland episode like The Price or Ménage à Troi.

However, it’s clear by Charlie X that Star Trek has figured out the necessary ingredients for a good Star Trek episode. And the most interesting aspects of Charlie X, which is really a fantastic execution of a middling concept, are all in how Star Trek is operating like a well-oiled machine. After all, Star Trek has already done a “human becomes god” plot, in the second pilot – Where No Man Has Gone Before. Charlie X is leagues ahead of that plot in terms of execution, and it’s little wonder that the broadcast order shuffled the episodes around so that Charlie X aired first.

What's on the cards?

What’s on the cards?

Incidentally, the first episodes to air were generally the most Star-Trek-y of the early episodes produced. The Man Trap is another quintessentially Star Trek episode, packed with the tropes and conventions that would come to define the series – arguably more representative of what the show would become than Mudd’s Women or The Corbomite Manoeuvre. This actually cements the impression that Star Trek figured itself out instantaneously, which is only slightly misleading. You can see traces of a learning curve in stories like Where No Man Has Gone Before and The Corbomite Manoeuvre, but it’s telling that there were several distinctively and definitively “Star Trek” episodes in the can by the time the show went to air.

It’s worth noting that Charlie X is the first script from D.C. Fontana, who can really never get enough credit for her work on Star Trek. Indeed, I think there’s an argument to be made that Fontana really was one of the few creative talents on Star Trek capable of tempering Gene Roddenberry’s occasionally over-enthusiastic hand – given the rest of the first season of The Next Generation, I suspect Encounter at Farpoint only really worked because Fontana wrote it with Roddenberry. Fontana was story editor for the end of the first season and all of the second season of Star Trek. She also wrote any number of beloved episodes like Tomorrow is Yesterday, Journey to Babel and The Ultimate Computer.

Wrestling with our demons...

Wrestling with our demons…

I strongly suspect that her absence from the position of story editor during the third season was a contributing factor to that season’s sharp drop in quality. Although she would admit that she was less than happy with the re-writes to her work, Fontana provided the best script of the show’s rocky third season in The Enterprise Incident. Admittedly, Fontana doesn’t have a perfect track record, but I’m inclined to forgive her a few more serious missteps. She was so frustrated with the way The Naked Now turned out that she used a pseudonym and her version of The Way to Eden was markedly different from what made it to screen in the end.

Anyway, without turning this into a career appraisal, Charlie X demonstrates Fontana’s skills as a writer relatively well. There’s a wonderful groundedness to the writing, and a strong sense of character. Indeed, despite the one-sentence premise that Roddenberry gave Fontana, it is the character interactions that really sell Charlie X. In particular, there’s a sense that Fontana finds the notion of Kirk as a male role model deeply hilarious, leading to this lovely moment where Kirk tries to explain why it was inappropriate to for Charlie to slap Yeoman Rand on the behind:

Well, um, er, there are things you can do with a lady, er, Charlie, that you, er… There’s no right way to hit a woman… I mean… man to man is one thing, but, er, man and woman, er, it’s, er… it’s, er…. well it’s, er, another thing. Do you understand?

The only thing funnier is imagining Patrick Stewart in the same position, but that would require a situation where a anybody might assume that inappropriate physical contact would be a good idea within the mostly sterile confines of The Next Generation. It’s a gag that could only really work with the strange gender politics of the original Star Trek and the charm of William Shatner playing Kirk confronting those.

Playing games...

Playing games…

So perhaps David Marcus was actually quite lucky he was spared these father-son conversations. Shatner’s delivery is pitch-perfect, but it’s a wonderful piece of humour that flows from the characters, without undermining the rest of the episode. Fontana realises that we can have small funny moments like that and still acknowledge the massive threat that Charlie poses to the ship. There’s also another nice moment where Kirk tries to train Charlie how to fight in what might be best described as “Shatner style.” He offers, “Here, now I’ll show you a shoulder roll.” Sadly, the lesson breaks up before Kirk can teach Charlie the appropriate place to rip a uniform shirt.

Fontana zeroes in quite effectively on the heart of Charlie X. Being a teenager is difficult, for you and for everybody else. Being a teenager with godlike powers… well… The show uses puberty as a metaphor, and Fontana’s script is wonderfully efficient at creating a compelling portrait of an adolescent god. She manages to create a guest star who manages to be both strangely familiar and eerily alien.

Kirk has some hardcore ideas about child discipline...

Kirk has some hardcore ideas about child discipline…

It’s hard not to relate to Charlie when he arrives on the ship. As with any stranger in a strange land, he has questions. Being a teenage boy, questions like “is that a girl?” and “do you like me?” take priority. He confesses to McCoy, “Some, the other ship, they didn’t like me. I tried. I’m trying to make people like me. I want them to like me.” McCoy astutely responds, “Most seventeen year olds do.”

You can immediately sense Fontana’s fondness for McCoy as a character. He spends most of Charlie X as the only member of the ensemble who is actually aware of Charlie’s psychology and insecurities – alluding to the seldom-mentioned fact that McCoy is a father. Indeed, Fontana’s original pitch for The Way To Eden was called Joanna, and was centred around McCoy’s daughter. Despite the fact that she was never actually introduced on the live action show, Joanna McCoy has become a vital part of the show’s expanded universe. She was mentioned in passing in The Animated Series episode The Survivor.

Letting Charlie do the leg work...

Letting Charlie do the leg work…

It’s also worth noting that DeForrest Kelly has already established himself as a vital member of the leading trio, despite his late introduction. Then again, the entire ensemble is great, and it’s clear that the show is playing to the strengths of its ensemble. We get, for example, a musical scene featuring Uhura and Spock. It’s the type of thing that could only really happen with this particular iteration of Star Trek – an improvised vocal solo to a song played by harp complete with almost seductive dancing. Try to imagine any member of any other Star Trek ensemble doing the same thing, and it just wouldn’t work. Here, though, it does. And it doesn’t feel anywhere near as surreal or as strange as it should.

If you really want to point to the wonderfully surreal and absurd nature of the classic Star Trek, and to the kind of things that spin-offs have never really been able to capture, then that sequence must stand out. It looks especially weird because of the coloured lighting cast over the scene, creating the impression that the Enterprise’s mess room comes complete with psychedelic mood lighting. It is weird, and strangely wonderful, and very distinctively Star Trek.

Uhura invents the batsui... and foreshadows a relationship that would occur forty years later in another universe...

Uhura invents the batsui… and foreshadows a relationship that would occur forty years later in another universe…

The demonstrations of Charlie’s powers are also distinctly Star Trek, having a hard-to-define “pop art” quality to them. Transforming a beautiful young woman into an old lady, or literally wiping the grins (and the rest of the facial features) off a bunch of laughing officers seem almost abstract. The sight of that one young officer stumbling into few, her features completely erased, is absolutely striking. It’s a simple effect – one that would likely be rendered with CGI today – but it’s strangely haunting. It manages to be both stunning and horrifying at the same time, and it’s dropped into the episode (beautifully shot) almost as an after-thought.

It is a shame that Janice Rand is reduced yet again to the victim of sexual harassment and objectification. Part of this is down to the fact that it is hard to look past Grace Lee Whitney’s own history with the show, but also because the show seems to be doing this practically unconsciously at this point. Janice Rand doesn’t really have a character, and her defining trait seems to be that men want her. Which is problematic. I really could have done without another act ending with an intruder breaking into Rand’s quarters.

"Well... it was worth a shot."

Charlie isn’t as walled off as he seems…

Aside from this, Charlie X is also a pretty good exhibit of traditional Star Trek tropes – perhaps another sign that the writers were getting more comfortable with the format of the show, and the tricks for writing it. Again, we get a sense that space is a lot more hostile and wild than it would appear on later iterations of the franchise. Charlie Evans was apparently marooned on an isolate rock for most of his life. This demonstrates both that accidents are still reasonably common, but also that space itself isn’t regularly patrolled or supervised. Charlie spent years alone before anybody found him, so it’s clear that space is still vast and empty.

Of course, this is playing off various tropes from other genres. Although Star Trek takes its influence primarily from the western genre, Charlie’s history sounds more like a science-fiction variation on the story of feral children. Although there are quite a few real-life cases of children growing up in the wild without any human contact, the subject has proven quite popular with writers of fiction. Tarzan is perhaps the most obvious and popular example, but The Jungle Book and even Peter Pan come to mind.

A dark little mind...

A dark little mind…

Star Trek offers its own take on this particular subgenre, leaning more heavily towards the latter. Charlie didn’t find himself in “Never Never Land”, but he did somehow make contact with a bunch of all-powerful ancient aliens. Once again, Star Trek returns to the idea of an ancient and haunted cosmos, stalked by the spectres and ghosts of a long-gone era. The Man Trap saw the crew encounter the last of the ancient salt vampires. The Cage featured the sterile Talosians shelter underneath the remains of their dying world.

Here, we have the similar-sounding Thasians, dismissed by McCoy as mere “legends” of the cosmos. As I remarked in my discussion of The Man Trap, it is fascinating that it took so long for Star Trek to establish other alien civilisations of roughly the same standing as humans. Arguably, the first true example would only be introduced in Balance of Terror. There’s a sense in Star Trek that the human race is still quite young, stepping out into a much older universe, ready to lay claim to space that has been abandoned or neglected by ancient civilisations that have long since moved on.

"Do you like movies about gladiators?"

“Do you like movies about gladiators?”

And, indeed, Charlie X suggests that the aliens have moved on. The salt vampire in The Man Trap was rendered extinct. The Talosians in The Cage seem to accept that they will die out. Charlie X offers the first real hint that the older alien civilisations might not just die out – they might actually move on. The Thasians aren’t dead. They aren’t even completely removed from our mortal plane. They can still make contact when an episode requires a convenient deus ex machina ending. They just choose not to.

It’s made clear that the Thasians are both impossibly old, but also that they aren’t completely different from us. Certainly, they could bestow part of their power on Charlie Evans, suggesting some base similarity. When the Thasians do appear, they adopt the forms of disembodied floating heads. “I have taken my form from centuries ago,” the Thaisan explains, “so that I may communicate with you.” And the face looks at least somewhat human.

She won't be laughing out any side of her face...

She won’t be laughing out any side of her face…

And so, with that, Charlie X develops the franchise’s views on human evolution. The Cage had hinted that humanity might one day become as powerful as the Telosians, but they were still mortal. Charlie X suggests that human potential is truly boundless. Despite the presence of a chapel on the Enterprise, Star Trek generally subscribes to Roddenberry’s athiestic outlook. Indeed, note how dangerous, psychotic or inefficient every god-like being on the show turns out to be. If God existed, Roddenberry seems to suggest, He’d just get in our way. However, Roddenberry shrewdly demonstrates complete and utter faith in humanity’s potential.

In an odd way, Star Trek embraces that humanism in a manner that is almost religious. This idea of limitless human potential recurs throughout the show’s history, with Q even hinting in Encounter at Farpoint that humankind might one day evolve to the status of omnipotent god-like beings themselves. Charlie X is really the first Star Trek episode to acknowledge that there must be something beyond the world we perceive, that it is possible to transcend this particular universe. It’s fascinating, and becomes so integral to the franchise that it’s strange to see it established so casually.

He'll never see eye-to-eye with the crew...

He’ll never see eye-to-eye with the crew…

Robert Walker is great as Charlie. It’s easy to imagine how the role – despite the solid script – might be cheesy or shallow in the wrong hands. Robert Walker gives Charlie a very human quality. Despite his aggressiveness and his sadism, Walker convinces us that Charlie really is just a teenage boy, not a sociopath or a psychopath. Walker convinces us that Charlie’s actions are rooted in his own insecurities and his perceived inadequacies. It’s actually hard – despite all he has done – not to feel sorry for Charlie when his adoptive parents return to take him home. “Oh, please, don’t let them take me,” Charlie begs, with Walker doing a tremendous job. “I can’t even touch them! Janice, they can’t feel. Not like you! They don’t love! Please, I want to stay.”

While we’re talking about Charlie X as a fairly conventional Star Trek episode benefiting immensely from the fact that everybody involved with the production has sort of found their groove, it’s worth singling out Fred Steiner’s superb soundtrack. The spin-off shows really suffered from a conscious decision to downplay the music, and the original Star Trek has a wonderful ability to amp up the melodrama by turning up the volume on the atmospheric score. I can hum several stings and beats from classic Star Trek, but the only piece of music I can specifically remember from The Next Generation is the Borg theme from The Best of Both Worlds.

He fades into memory...

He fades into memory…

Charlie X has a number of delightfully over-the-top musical moments. Given the fact that this episode features William Shatner wearing red tights, women without faces and discussions about the proper context for a tooshy squeeze, “over-the-top” feels right at home. It is – as much as the lighting or the set design – something that establishes the original Star Trek as a product of its time, an artifact of the sixties. That might sound like a bad thing, but it’s really not. That’s part of the reason why I suspect that Star Trek has aged better than The Next Generation, despite the fact I’d argue that the average quality of The Next Generation was probably a little higher than its parents.

(Ha! There’s two massively controversial statements in a single sentence! Have at it, internet!)

Playing by ear...

Playing by ear…

It’s also worth noting that Charlie X could be read as a deconstruction of American comic books in the sixties. Stan Lee revolutionised the medium by writing a bunch of relatable young protagonists who were suddenly granted great power. The Amazing Spider-Man comes to mind, perhaps the most successful of these comics, but The X-Men is arguably an even better example. It is, after all, a comic about an entire school of “gifted” youngsters living in the same school.

In Lee’s narratives, these young people would struggle and occasionally falter, but would always use their power for the greater good. They would overcome all their personal issues and insecurities, and become heroes. Charlie X could be seen as a deliberate and cheeky counterpoint to those narratives, suggesting that giving a teenager such “great power” might not be such a romantic idea. Insecurity and uncertainty could not be remedied by conferring unlimited power. The same attributes that made Lee’s protagonists so relatable to an entire generation, Charlie X suggests, would make them ill-suited to wield such influence.

The X factor...

The X factor…

Of course, this is hardly a novel idea and Charlie X could be linked with much older and arguably more similar stories. However, it is worth noting that comic books were an extremely popular form of entertainment at the time, and probably courted the same sort of young male demographic that would flock to Star Trek. Indeed, one of the ways that Star Trek survived its time off air was through a comic published at Marvel. However, the most interesting link is the name of the episode.

While the name “Charlie” stems from Roddenberry’s original pitch, “Charlie X” will seem familiar to fans of classic comics. The X-Men, after all, were led by a Professor Charles Xavier, who shortened his name to “Professor X.” As such, it seems like Charlie X could be seen as a conscious shoutout to that other franchise about especially gifted young teenagers. Of course, this could all be just coincidence, but it’s fun to think about.

All fall down...

All fall down…

Charlie X is a great episode of Star Trek, constructed from a mediocre premise that already seems familiar less than eight episodes into a seven-hundred episode franchise. Indeed, if you want a demonstration of just how much of the charm of Star Trek came down to the quality of everybody involved at all levels of the production process, Charlie X is a pretty solid case model.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of the classic Star Trek:

3 Responses

  1. Marc Cushman, author of These Are the Voyages, reports that Gene Roddenberry told him in an interview, “You remember in the westerns, and someone would say, ‘Make your mark here.’ And the prospector or ranch hand draws his ‘X.’ And you understood he had no formal education.”

    Westerns were extremely popular in the late 50’s and early 60’s, so at the time TOS was made, audiences would be quite familiar with the conventions of the western genre, and the idea that illiterate people drew an “X” to sign a contract or document was one that the audience would have understood.

    Nowadays westerns are far less popular, and “X” is probably more familiar as the symbol of an unknown quantity in algebra. But according to Roddenberry, that’s not the “X” the title is referring to, nor is it the “X” from “X-Men,” though that was certainly a creative idea you had. 🙂

  2. I think it more likely the X could reference Malcolm X, for whom the “X” symbolized the true family name that he could never know.

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