Charlie XBy Michelle Erica Green
Posted at May 27, 2005 - 9:16 PM GMT
See Also: 'Charlie X' Episode Guide
Plot Summary: The Enterprise beams aboard a teenager named Charlie who was found by the cargo vessel Antares on the planet where his family's transport crashed and killed all others aboard 14 years earlier. At first Charlie seems painfully eager to please...particularly Yeoman Rand, the first woman he has ever seen. But as Charlie comes into conflict with the crew over his limitations and lack of social experience, he becomes increasingly hostile and demonstrates unusual powers. He destroys the vessel that delivered him to the Enterprise and makes people who have angered him disappear. When Charlie ceases to obey Kirk as an authority figure and insists on taking the ship to a heavily populated colony where he has relatives, the aliens who raised him intervene and take him back, explaining that Charlie's powers would ultimately destroy humans or force them to destroy him first.
Analysis: "Charlie X" touches upon a great many themes that will recur again and again in episodes in each Star Trek series - what happens when people are given powers too great for them to use responsibly, how difficult it is to make first contact even in the most welcoming of situations, how hard it is to grow up - so it's striking just what a good job this first effort does at addressing those topics. This is partly due to a very fine performance by Robert Walker Jr. as Charlie, allowing viewers to pity and relate to the character while at the same time cringing at his embarrassing actions and resenting his excesses, and partly due to a screenplay that allows William Shatner to give a performance that's surprisingly subtle and entirely likeable. Again I'm struck at how much audiences already know about this crew, two episodes into this new series, and how clear the bonds between the major characters already seem. There's a magnificent moment late in the episode when Kirk, Spock and McCoy have determined that keeping Charlie distracted may enable Kirk to overwhelm him and regain control of the ship; as if they've rehearsed it, Spock and McCoy begin moving around the bridge overloading the ship's systems while Kirk talks at Charlie, seeming to wear him down as much by his effortless harmony with his crew as by the demands he makes. Throughout the episode, through numerous small details, it becomes clear that this is a happy ship, which makes Charlie's inability to fit in that much more poignant.
Numerous indications reveal that we're still in the very early stages of Star Trek's development: Sulu isn't at the helm, Sickbay is called the dispensary, Spock smiles spontaneously at Uhura. Even so, the episode feels comfortably familiar to a long-time viewer and I suspect it must have seemed nearly as welcoming to its initial audience. There's very little "science fiction" as such, for which one must be grateful at times given the atrocious quality of the masks worn by the people whose mouths Charlie has made vanish because they were laughing. But there's plenty of action and the depth of the character drama drives the story, right from the beginning, when a nervous Captain Ramart deposits Charlie and flees while a distracted Kirk boggles at the brash young man who's never seen a woman before.
Picard's the captain famed for his unease with children, so it's interesting to see that Kirk, too, is ill at ease, not knowing when to be a stern father figure and when to be more of a peer; one wonders whether things would have worked out differently for Charlie if Kirk had tried to place him among younger crewmembers rather than show him the ropes himself. McCoy, too, is friendly but far more paternal than companionable. By the time Rand gets around to trying to introduce Charlie to a young woman near his own age, he only wants to be with the senior crew, to enjoy the privileges of adulthood without having been shown the advantages of postponing adult responsibilities. There's no holodeck where he can try out different approaches to people, no ship's counselor to help him cope with his feelings; for all the criticism The Next Generation took for its therapy and psychobabble, it's easy to imagine that they might have worked things out very differently for Charlie, with a less rigid social structure and a Wesley Crusher around being as awkward as himself. Kirk tells Charlie that there are 428 people on the Enterprise, but we still see what a lonely place it can be.
On the other hand, there's also a lot to envy. We learned in "The Man Trap" that the ship has a botanical garden; now we see the gymnasium where Kirk wears ridiculously tight exercise pants that leave little to the imagination, as well as a kitchen where the chef is trying to make meatloaf look like Thanksgiving turkey (Gene Roddenberry famously did a cameo as the voice of the cook, faced with meatloafs that Charlie has, indeed, turned into roasting turkeys). There's also a rec room where Spock plays the Vulcan harp while Uhura sings comic songs to entertain the crew, some of whom are eating and some of whom are playing cards or 3-D chess, which also makes its first appearance in this episode as Kirk's "insight" trumps Spock's logic despite his distraction over his charge. It's a very human Spock we see here, amused when Uhura compares him to Satan and concerned for Kirk. He isn't terribly good with Charlie when the boy challenges him at chess, but at least Charlie doesn't turn him into a lizard as he does with Tina.
Uhura spends a startling amount of time in these first two episodes flirting with Spock, which might be troublesome except for two things. One is the mere fact of a flirtation between these two individuals on a 1960s show, still a couple of years before Star Trek broke ground with TV's first interracial kiss - to see a woman of color and a man of Caucasian American descent, even if he's predominantly Vulcan in appearance, teasing each other in this way must have been as unsettling for some members of the original audience as watching Dax kiss another woman was for some Deep Space Nine fans years later. The other is the fact that as soon as a crisis begins, the characters treat one another with the professionalism and respect due to officers of their respective stations; there's no conflict of interest, no condescension. That's the saving grace of Kirk's overly friendly manner with Rand as well, and vice versa: these are two adults balancing on a very delineated line, and although by contemporary standards the leers of some of the crewmembers toward Rand could be classified as harassment, such behavior does not affect the senior crew. Uhura doesn't scream any more loudly when her console blows up in "Charlie X" than Chekov will in "The Deadly Years" when his terror will preserve his health.
I can't decide whether Kirk's inability to articulate the expected rules of social behavior is charming or sort of pathetic. "There are things you can do with a lady that...well, there's no right way to hit a woman, I mean man," he stammers all over the place after Rand sets herself up for a world of trouble by not explaining firmly at the moment Charlie slaps her bottom that that behavior should never be considered acceptable except among people who know each other very well. "If something isn't done sooner or later I'll have to hurt him," she tells Kirk, failing to mention that she's witnessed abilities in her admirer that the captain really needs to know about...all right, I'm not a big Rand fan at all. The major reason for not wishing that she'd be a little tougher or a little more maternal or anything other than the ship's sexpot is because, since she defers the responsibility, it falls to Kirk to try to explain the facts of life to Charlie, and it is both charming and sort of pathetic hearing him explain that every man, even himself, must face rejection. "There are a million things in this universe that you can have and a million things that you can't," he says famously, before he takes Charlie to the gym and we get our first listen to the famous "danger" music.
The lighting in this episode is exceptional, though perhaps it's been remastered for DVD so it's not that I never noticed before so much as it wasn't so strong: when Charlie's eyes gleam as he makes people disappear, the room around him seems to darken and his whole face is lit more centrally. In the end, when Kirk, Spock and McCoy have realized that they must take extreme measures against the boy, there are repeated shots balancing Charlie, alone, against two or three of the others, establishing a strong sense of the central trinity from this very early episode. Okay, so there are some doofy moments like Spock's stiff recitation of Blake's "The Tyger", and Rand weeping on the bridge in her nightgown, and the ghostly oversized Thasian head is not one of the special effects team's finest moments. But these are very small quibbles in a very fine episode, which holds up well against some of the best work of the later Star Trek series.
Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.