Star Trek: The Original Series Rewatch

Star Trek The Original Series Rewatch: “Charlie X”

“Charlie X”
Written by Gene Roddenberry and D.C. Fontana
Directed by Lawrence Dobkin
Season 1, Episode 7
Production episode 6149-08
Original air date: September 15, 1966
Stardate: 1533.6

Captain’s log. The Enterprise rendezvouses with the Antares, a ship that rescued a teenager named Charlie Evans, the sole survivor of a crashed ship as a child of three, who only had a few tapes to tell him how to live over the subsequent fourteen years. The Antares crew seems almost eager to get rid of him, declining even Kirk’s offer of supplies, booze, entertainment tapes, or anything, just running away quickly. (They also don’t talk at all until Charlie’s eyes go white for a second, and then they babble a mile a minute.)

Star Trek, Charlie X

Charlie is confused by the sight of Rand—he’s never seen a woman before (apparently all twenty people on the Antares were male)—and after McCoy gives him a physical, Charlie asks if McCoy likes him. Apparently he didn’t think the people on the Antares liked him…

He wanders about the ship, observing people going about their duties. At one point, two guys agree to meet in the rec room later, followed by one slapping the other on the ass on his way out. Later, Charlie sees Rand, and gives her some of her favorite perfume—she has no idea where he got it, but he just says, “It’s a present.” He wants to talk, but she’s on duty. She gets him to agree to meet in the rec room later. Charlie, being a relatively new observer of human behavior, assumes that one acknowledges a meeting in the rec room with a slap on the ass, and does so to Rand. Rand fobs off explaining why, exactly, this is yucky on Kirk and McCoy and gets him to agree not to do it again.

Star Trek, Charlie X

Charlie was found on Thasus, which prompts an argument between Spock and McCoy over the existence of Thasians, which is apparently a space urban legend of some moment. McCoy also insists that Kirk should be Charlie’s father figure, but Kirk would much rather fob that off on McCoy.

A bunch of people are hanging out in the rec room, including Spock (playing a Vulcan lyre), Uhura, and Rand. At Rand’s urging, Uhura starts singing a song about Spock. Charlie comes in and tries to get Rand’s attention with a card trick, but she shushes him so Uhura can finish her song. Again at Rand’s urging, Uhura does another verse, this one about Charlie. But then Charlie gets a look on his face and suddenly Uhura can’t sing and Spock’s lyre makes no noise. Charlie then starts doing card tricks, and nobody notices Uhura and Spock anymore.

Star Trek, Charlie X

Charlie asks Kirk about why he shouldn’t smack Rand on the ass, and Kirk does a spectacularly horrible job of explaining. They’re interrupted by the bridge—Uhura has a call from the Antares. Captain Ramart says he has to warn somebody about something, but the transmission is cut off, and they soon realize that the ship has been destroyed. Charlie makes an offhand comment about the Antares being poorly constructed before Spock determines its destruction.

Kirk beats Spock at three-dimensional chess, and then Spock beats Charlie in about four moves. Charlie’s response is to make his eyes go white, after which the white pieces are all melted.

Star Trek, Charlie X

Rand tries to introduce Charlie to Yeoman Third Class Tina Lawton, who is apparently also seventeen years old. But Charlie blows her off because he’s totally smitten with Rand. Rand goes to Kirk—he says he talked to her about the ass-slap, but she says that isn’t it. She doesn’t want to reject him completely because it’ll hurt him, but she can’t follow through on his pass, either. Kirk promises to talk to him. When Charlie comes to Kirk’s quarters, first he asks about the melted chess pieces, then he tries to talk to her about Rand. First he says he won’t swat her ass again, but Kirk says that isn’t it. He tells Charlie that there are a million things he can have and a million things he can’t, and Rand is one of the things he can’t. Charlie doesn’t know how to live with things he can’t have, which Kirk mistakes for adolescent angst.

Kirk takes Charlie to the rec room to show him some martial arts falls and throws and such. (Kirk is, of course, shirtless, while everyone else is wearing a gi top.) Kirk demonstrates some throws with a guy named Sam, and when Kirk tries it with Charlie, and Charlie falls down, Sam starts laughing. Charlie’s eyes go white, and Sam disappears. Kirk immediately calls security and confines Charlie to quarters. But Charlie doesn’t want to go, and knocks the guards over and makes one’s phaser disappear—although we soon find out that all the ship’s phasers have disappeared. He agrees to go, barely.

Star Trek, Charlie X

Spock mentions that some legends state that the Thasians can transmute matter and make things invisible—powers Charlie seems to be exhibiting. Kirk summons Charlie and asks if he was responsible for the Antares’s destruction. He admits to it, and his reason is that they didn’t like him. He then sabotages Uhura’s console and stops the Enterprise from changing course away from the colony they’re taking Charlie to. He wants to go where there are more people he can play with. Charlie makes Spock recite poetry a lot, but Kirk makes him back down—for now. He then turns Lawton into an iguana and barges into Rand’s quarters. Rand manages to open a channel to the bridge, prompting Kirk and Spock to try to rescue her. When he throws them into the wall, Rand slaps him, and he makes her disappear as well.

He only doesn’t make Kirk and Spock disappear because he needs them to run the Enterprise—it’s far more complicated than the Antares and he hasn’t figured it out yet. Kirk and Spock try to trick him into the brig, but that doesn’t work for more than half a second. He wanders about the ship, turning one woman old and making another woman’s face disappear before returning to the bridge, putting the ship on course for the colony and locking out communications.

Star Trek, Charlie X

Kirk hopes that maybe if they turn everything on the ship on high, it’ll so completely distract him that Kirk can mess with him and McCoy give him a tranquilizer. The attempt almost works—but then the navigation console and communications clear and they discover a ship off the starboard bow that claims to be from Thasus.

Charlie begs the crew not to let them take him away, even as Rand is suddenly restored to the bridge (though still in her civvies). A Thasian big giant head appears on the bridge, claiming to have restored everyone (though they couldn’t save the Antares, as Charlie made a warp baffle plate disappear—they can restore that, but the ship will still be debris from the resultant explosion). Kirk tries to get the Thasian to let Charlie stay with them, saying they can train him, but the Thasian insists that they are the only ones who can take care of him, since they gave him his powers so he could survive.

Star Trek, Charlie X

Scared to death of going back, Charlie begs some more, pleading not to go back, as the Thasians have no substance, they can’t love. But the Thasians take him away, and their ship buggers off, leaving a very saddened crew behind.

Can’t we just reverse the polarity? Apparently the Antares had a defective baffle plate that would’ve malfunctioned before too long anyhow. At least that’s what Charlie says.

Star Trek, Charlie X

Fascinating. Not a banner day for Spock. He leaves an adolescent alone with a chess set after whipping his ass, gets his lyre messed with, gets his legs broken, gets made fun of by Uhura in the rec room, and is forced to recite poetry on the bridge.

I’m a doctor not an escalator. Kirk tries to get McCoy to be Charlie’s father figure, apparently having missed the memo that he’s the star of the show. McCoy insists that Kirk is better suited to it (McCoy’s more the weird uncle type anyhow…).

Star Trek, Charlie X

Hailing frequencies open. Uhura proves herself an excellent extemporaneous singer, coming up with lyrics on the spot to tease both Spock and Charlie in the rec room, which are done to the tune of the Robert Burns folk song “Charlie, He’s My Darling.”

No sex, please, we’re Starfleet. The mess hall scene when Uhura sings along with Spock’s Vulcan lyre playing is Exhibit B in the evidence that Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman did not pull the Spock-Uhura romance out of their asses for the 2009 Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness. I can see the pair of them rewatching the original series and getting to this scene.

Star Trek, Charlie X

KURTZMAN (not a Trek fan, pauses after Uhura’s done singing): So, those two are fucking, right?

ORCI (a longtime Trek fan): Of course not. What are you, nuts? Spock would never…

KURTZMAN: Seriously? They’re totally fucking. I mean, it’s 1966, so they can only show much, but still. Watch the scene again.

ORCI (yanks the remote out of Kurtzman’s hands and rewinds, then watches the scene again): Holy shit, they totally are!

Oh, and Charlie crushes on Rand, which is only a problem insofar as she’s an adult, he’s a teenager, and he’s all powerful.

Star Trek, Charlie X

Channel open. “Oh, on the starship Enterprise
There’s someone who’s in Satan’s guise
Whose devil ears and devil eyes
Could rip your heart from you.
At first, his look could hypnotize
And then his touch would barbarize
His alien love could victimize
And rip your heart from you.
And that’s why female astronauts,
Oh, very female astronauts
Wait terrified and overwrought
To find what he will do.
Oh, girls in space, be wary, be wary, be wary,
Girls in space, be wary.
We know not what he’ll do.”

Uhura being a Spock-tease.

Star Trek, Charlie X

Welcome aboard. Charles J. Stewart and Dallas Mitchell play the ill-fated Stepford crew of the Antares, while Don Eitner, Patricia McNulty, John Bellah, Garland Thompson, and Bobby Herron play assorted Enterprise crew. Abraham Sofaer plays the Thasian; he’ll lend his impressive vocal talents to the Melkotian in “Spectre of the Gun” in season 3. Plus we get recurring regulars DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, and Grace Lee Whitney, and Gene Roddenberry provides his sole acting role on the show by doing the uncredited voice of the galley chef.

But the big guest is Robert Walker, who puts in an amazing performance as Charlie. According to Whitney’s autobiography, he refused to speak to the other actors on set, as he wanted to be isolated from them in order to make his alien-ness more real.

Star Trek, Charlie X

Trivial matters: Originally, this episode was to air later, as all the action took place on the Enterprise, but because of that, it had minimal post-production work, so it was ready sooner than some of the others.

The episode’s director, Lawrence Dobkin, will later appear on TNG as the Klingon Ambassador Kell in the episode “The Mind’s Eye.”

Starfleet is stated in this episode to be part of UESPA, the United Earth Space Probe Agency, which will be mentioned again in “Tomorrow is Yesterday,” and several times on Enterprise. The notion of the United Federation of Planets hadn’t yet been worked out…

Star Trek, Charlie X

Charlie forces Spock to quote both Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven” and William Blake’s poem “The Tyger” which is part of Songs of Experience, as well as another poem that has the line “Saturn rings around my head, down a road that’s Martian red.”

The crew of the Antares are wearing the turtleneck uniforms from “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”

The original title for this was “Charlie’s Law,” which was the title used for James Blish’s prose adaptation in Star Trek 1.

Sam was identified in Blish’s adaptation as Sam Ellis, a part of McCoy’s medical staff. In his Errand of Vengeance trilogy, Kevin Ryan fleshed him out as Sam Fuller, a part of the security staff.

Star Trek, Charlie X

The script called for the Antares to be seen, but the earlier airdate made that impossible—all the exterior shots in this episode are recycled from “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” The 2007 remastering included a shot of the Enterprise alongside the Antares, and also redesigned the Thasian ship as something slightly more sophisticated than a ball of light.

Spock’s Vulcan lyre—which was dubbed the ka’athyra in Margaret Wander Bonanno’s Dwellers in the Crucible, a term that has been used by many tie-in writers since—will also be seen in “The Conscience of the King” and “Amok Time,” among other places. Tuvok will be seen to play it in several episodes of Voyager as well.

Star Trek, Charlie X

To boldly go. “I want to stay!” It’s funny that this episode was chosen to air second due to its status as a bottle show, because it’s really an excellent choice. While “The Man Trap” lured viewers into a false sense of security with its scary monster, with “Charlie X” we get a prototypical Star Trek episode.

Charlie comes across as a bad guy, straight out of a Twilight Zone or Outer Limits episode, using his Thasian-given powers to wreak havoc. As the episode progresses, he becomes more and more awful, going from naïve to petulant to cruel. Robert Walker does superb work here, playing him as a true adolescent. Kirk’s line about how he’s going through what every seventeen-year-old goes through rings true in Walker’s performance, as he has the narcissism, the confusion, the raging hormones—with the added bonus of super powers that relieve him of having to actually be responsible or accept consequences. The powers are nicely understated, too—no fancy effects (or cheesy ones), just people disappearing or suddenly being iguanas or suddenly being old or suddenly not having a face—which makes the horror that much greater.

Star Trek, Charlie X

But what makes the episode work, what separates Trek from the straight-up monster-of-the-week that was a staple of genre television up to this point, is the ending. Even though Charlie has made people disappear, turned them into iguanas, removed faces, murdered twenty people, he’s at his heart a teenaged boy who just wants to be around people he can love. He is utterly unequipped to be that, but his begging and pleading not to let the Thasians take him away is so plaintive, so heartbreaking, that the very same Jim Kirk who tried to trick him and throw him in the brig and was half a step from hauling off and belting him, now becomes his advocate. Sure, we tried everything and have failed utterly, but we can train him!

Ultimately, however, there’s nothing to be done. Charlie has proven rather conclusively that he can’t live in human society—the twenty people he killed is testament to that—and they probably don’t have the means to stop the Thasians in any case. But he’s still a little boy who just wants people to like him. He doesn’t know any better—and his powers mean he probably never will.

Star Trek, Charlie X

What starts out as a horror story turns into a tragedy, and it’s brilliantly realized. The conventions of 1966 television are such that Rand is the only one to break into tears at the end, but I can’t imagine she was the only one.

Once again, we see the wonderful camaraderie on the Enterprise, mostly in the rec room scene as Uhura and Spock perform, though my favorite is Rand goading Uhura on with just a facial expression. And I particularly love Leonard Nimoy’s layered performance as Spock cycling through being aghast, amused, confused, and back again as Uhura serenades him.

Ultimately, though, what makes this episode work is Walker’s tremendous acting, making Charlie at once an incredibly complicated and incredibly simple character. We feel sorry for him even as we fear him, and even as we hate what he has done we are saddened by his fate. Just a bravura performance.

Star Trek, Charlie X

 

Warp factor rating: 9

Next week:Balance of Terror


Keith R.A. DeCandido will be a guest at Treklanta in Atlanta, Georgia this coming weekend, from the 24th to the 26th of April, alongside Trek actor Sean Kenney, Battlestar Galactica’s Anne Lockhart, Babylon 5’s Jason Carter, and Axanar’s Alec Peters, among many other nifty writer, actor, artist, and performing guests. Keith will have a table, will be doing a one-hour Q&A Saturday at 10am, and will be part of the Miss Klingon Empire Pageant and Independent Star Trek Fan Film Awards ceremonies.

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