(Note: If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start.)
Original air date: September 15, 1966
Crew death count: 0 (A close call, as the Thasians restore at least 3 “vanished” crew members at the end; we still lose all twenty members of the Antares crew who the Thasians are unable to help for some reason.)
In my review of “The Man Trap,” I explained why I prefer the original versions of TOS versus the remastered versions. The opening shot of the remastered “Charlie X,” the Enterprise alongside the survey ship Antares, reinforces my opinion. All I see in the new version are cheap, plastic models. The original opened with a shot of just the Enterprise. While I understand this is still a cheap, plastic model, it at least looks like a product of the 1960s. (Note that the original version is the one streaming on Amazon at the time I write this, whereas the remastered versions are streaming on Netflix.)
Charlie Evans (Robert Walker) is the 17-year-old sole survivor of a failed mission who has been living alone on a planet for fourteen years with nothing but the supplies from a crashed ship. Charlie is escorted from Antares to Enterprise for transport to his nearest living relatives on Alpha V. We immediately see that the Antares crew is eager to get rid of Charlie, giving rise to the X of the title. Mathematically, X is an unknown, a variable to solve for. There are obvious questions about how Charlie survived so long with the limited food that would have been available to him. Charlie’s behavior quickly becomes a more urgent mystery for the crew to solve. The Mission Log podcast speculated that the X might also reference the X-Men, the superhero group that Marvel Comics introduced in 1963. Stan Lee said he was having trouble coming up with explanations for superhero powers, having already written backstories for many of Marvel’s most iconic characters. So he simply decided the X-Men were born with their powers. If we accept the original mission that stranded Charlie as a kind of “birth,” the beginning of a new life, then the comparison makes perfect sense.
Charlie’s bad manners are established right away, when he repeatedly interrupts Kirk’s conversation with the two visiting Antares crew members (at this point the Enterprise has 428 crew members, compared to twenty on the Antares). While the Antares crew is clearly kowtowing to Charlie, we get an example of Kirk’s behavior as a leader when he gently corrects the young man. In fairness, the Antares commander has already been a victim of Charlie’s powers, but Charlie himself later comments to McCoy about the differences between Kirk and the Antares commander, an idea McCoy reinforces by calling Kirk “one of a kind.”
It seems notable that Charlie asks “How many humans like me on this ship?” Not just humans, but humans like me. It’s not clear if Charlie refers to humans who have special abilities, but throughout the episode there are only two humans Charlie looks up to, for dramatically different reasons: Kirk and Rand. The same question today might be loaded with connotations about age, race, sexual orientation, religious views, etc. Charlie apologizes when Kirk corrects him. Does this reflect a willingness to learn and adapt to humans? Is it another sign of Charlie’s immediate respect for Kirk? Or is he testing the waters and learning what his limits are?
Poor Yeoman Rand. In “The Man Trap” she was objectified by her shipmates. In “Charlie X,” TOS’ treatment of women only goes downhill. Both Charlie and Kirk call her a girl and Charlie smacks her on the behind. Thankfully, Kirk partly redeems himself later, when he tells Charlie, “There’s no right way to hit a woman” (whew!). And Rand’s favorite color is pink; isn’t that every girl’s favorite color? Does anyone remember Milton Bradley’s The Game of Life? First developed all the way back in 1860, the modern board game version was released in 1960. The version I played as a child had clearly gender-specific game pieces, blue for boys and pink for girls. According to the version currently listed on Amazon by Hasbro Gaming, that’s still how the game is played.
Early on, Charlie gets a medical exam from McCoy, and he talks about how much he wants people to like him. McCoy considers this normal for a 17-year-old. At first, only Spock realizes the impossibility of Charlie’s survival and pursues a theory that mythological aliens known as Thasians might be responsible. This leads to our first Spock-McCoy argument! Kirk mediates by reminding them of the immediate reality: Charlie is there and needs their help. Later, however, Spock behaves completely out of character after easily defeating Charlie in a 3D chess game. By this point, Spock suspects Charlie is up to something. Yet, after only one short chess game, Spock dismisses Charlie and leaves. It would be more in character for Spock to investigate further by challenging Charlie to additional games. Instead, Spock gives the plot what it needs.
Something that consistently bugs me about both TOS and TNG is a disturbing lack of security around the ship, particularly on the bridge. In “Charlie X,” Charlie wanders around the Enterprise unescorted. He interrupts others performing their duties and they seem to think nothing of it. It’s true, the Enterprise is not a military vessel, but it’s not exactly The Love Boat, either. Considering how often the ship is hijacked, some security measures would be appropriate.
The recreation room scene is surely one of the most psychedelic in any Star Trek production. It feels more like a communal Berkeley coffee house than a deep space mission. We see Spock playing his Vulcan lute for the first time. Rand plays a card game with what looks like a very 1960s 52-card deck. (Really, Props Department? You couldn’t use a little imagination?) Uhuru bursts into a song-and-dance routine, accompanied by Spock, who reaches a “hep cat” degree of mellow. Uhuru’s song is set to the tune of the Robert Burns folk song “Charlie, He’s My Darling,” a song about “Bonnie Prince Charlie” (1720-1788), who had a reputation with the ladies and led a French-led revolt in England and Scotland with the goal of helping his own father become king. The revolution failed and Prince Charlie spent the rest of his life in exile – a hint at how things will turn out for Charlie X.
The lyrics Uhuru improvises, however, are so offensive, I’m surprised Spock didn’t throw a reverse pon farr. She “others” Spock by comparing him to Satan, with “devil ears,” who has seductive powers that allow him to “rip your heart from you” because his “alien love could victimize,” so “girls in space” should “be wary.” What the…?!? Spock gets his revenge shortly. When Uhuru teases Charlie in a similar, if less offensive, musical manner, Charlie literally takes Uhuru’s breath away, and Spock barely notices.
“Charlie X” also includes a distracting reference to late-20th-century Americana. (I had a similar complaint with “The Man Trap.”) Kirk talks about Thanksgiving and instructs the galley to make synthetic meatloaf look like turkey. (Gemini astronauts of the time were eating real food that had been freeze-dried, but synthetic food was certainly being hypothesized for long-duration space missions of the future.) It’s a well-intentioned but clumsy attempt at demonstrating Charlie’s abilities, because only minutes later the galley reports that real turkeys have appeared. This happens at the same time we learn the Antares has been destroyed (Charlie tries to blame this on a defective baffle plate) while urgently trying to communicate with the Enterprise. This reveals an interesting Kirk character trait, however, as he immediately looks with suspicion at Charlie despite having no evidence beyond coincidence. This is a captain who is open-minded and anticipates the unusual. Conversely, Kirk keeps this concern to himself, and expresses skepticism when his staff raises their own opinions about Charlie; Kirk expects his crew to do their homework and not act on conspiracy theories. Imagine!
Another interesting aspect of Kirk is revealed here. He’s uncomfortable mentoring an adolescent, much as we see later with Picard and Wesley in TNG. Kirk chose the adult world of starships and exploration, not family and parenthood. What doesn’t make sense is the debate between McCoy and Kirk about who should mentor Charlie. We meet Yeoman Lawton, who we’re told is the same age as Charlie. Never mind the obvious shocker of child labor in Starfleet. If there’s one teenager on board, there must be more, so somewhere among the crew should be an expert in adolescent development and youth counseling. Perhaps adding such a character would have made the story too cumbersome, or distracted too much from our regular cast, but surely something could have been worked out.
The theme of sacrifice is prominent in “Charlie X.” Charlie desperately wants people to like him, never bothering to understand what drives this desire, and failing to understand the sacrifice this requires in the form of compromise. Charlie can’t grasp the reciprocal nature of friendship, or even basic coexistence. Like a good many contemporary Americans, Charlie expects others to pander to his every whim, but he feels terribly put upon when every detail of life doesn’t go his way. We could turn to the Spider-Man adage that “With great power comes great responsibility.” There are few powers greater than true friendship, and it requires equally great responsibility. Just look at Charlie’s behavior: he is rude to young Yeoman Lawton when Rand introduces them, saying point-blank, “I don’t need her.” He cruelly manipulates Spock on the bridge and finds it amusing. He admits that part of his submission to Kirk is driven by a need for Kirk while Charlie learns to control the Enterprise, because it’s more complicated than the Antares. We see a stark demonstration of the fragility of Charlie’s ego when he only disarms a security officer trying to shoot him with a phaser, but kills (vanishes) a crewman who merely laughs at Charlie after an embarrassing fall in the exercise room. Just imagine asking Charlie for a simple courtesy like wearing a face mask during a global pandemic. Later he assaults crewmembers sharing laughter completely independent of Charlie; if Charlie’s unhappy, he’ll make sure everyone else is, too.
Along similar lines, we know that power corrupts and the differences between Kirk’s responsible use of power versus Charlie’s reckless use of it is made plain. Kirk devises a response in collaboration with Spock and McCoy. (Spock, in a somewhat Machiavellian move, emphasizes that the struggle must remain between Kirk and Charlie so that no one else gets hurt: Spock’s way of reminding Kirk that the needs of the many, etc.) Charlie, on the other hand, thinks nothing of using his powers long-range to destroy the Antares and its twenty crew members before they can warn the Enterprise of impending danger. (Why didn’t the Enterprise go to investigate the Antares disaster? Did anyone from Starfleet look into this? We’re never told.)
This abuse of seemingly unlimited power is explored further (and better, in my opinion) in “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” which was produced before “Charlie X” but aired later. It’s hard to watch both episodes without thinking about the current situation in the United States in terms of police brutality and the infantile tantrums coming from the Oval Office. Or CEOs that control vast wealth with no compassion for thousands of wage-slave workers, giving those workers just enough to keep them alive and discourage a complete revolt, but never enough to prosper or escape their virtual chains. The 1% who keep what, and who, they need and discard the rest. One outcome of this is a toxic masculinity that fuels an obsession with firearms, absolute intolerance, and willful ignorance; the powerless who are easily manipulated and have no idea how to productively channel their anger. As Spock reminds us in “Charlie X,” “We’re in the hands of an adolescent.” This 1960s TV show about the 23rd century remains perfectly relevant here in the 21st century.
Despite my horror at Uhuru’s lyrics in the recreation room scene mentioned earlier, it is fun to see Nichelle Nichols get to display her musical talents. Later in “Charlie X,” part of her communications panel blows up (more sabotage by Charlie), and she reports to Kirk that she had examined the circuit herself only fifteen minutes earlier. Communications personnel in the military are often expected to maintain their own equipment while also mastering the theory behind the work. As a former medical technologist, I spent a great deal of time maintaining and trouble-shooting technical equipment. So it’s consistent that on a five-year exploratory mission, particularly in the world of Starfleet where duty comes before ego, even bridge officers would be expected to do hands-on technical work at times.
“Charlie X” seems like an obvious reference to the rebellious, anti-establishment youth of the 1960s. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, teenagers increasingly earned their own discretionary income and became a powerful spending demographic. By the mid-1960s, some of those teenagers had joined a counterculture that frightened a lot of parents but thrilled Madison Avenue with the purchase of clothes, records, radios, and all manner of other products. The Who released “My Generation” in 1964. A 1966 Time magazine article warned about potential dangers of LSD use. The first large-scale demonstration against the Vietnam War took place in November, 1965, when more than 10,000 people marched through Oakland, California. All this social and economic power didn’t change the fact that teenagers still faced the same growing pains teenagers had always faced. When Charlie tells McCoy that he doesn’t know who he is or how to act, it could be read as a statement of sympathy for both young people and their parents.
Charlie intends to take the Enterprise to Alpha V (later referred to as Earth Colony V), and we can only imagine the havoc he will wreak from there. Just in time, the Thasians, the elusive aliens who gave Charlie his powers in order to survive in a hostile environment, arrive to reclaim Charlie just before he completely takes over the Enterprise. It’s a convenient plot device, the Thasians claiming they learned “too late” that Charlie had escaped, which makes no sense, as we’ve seen these powers employed over great distances. (And if the Thasians gave Charlie his powers, can’t they also take them away?) The moral is clear, however. Even the Enterprise crew can’t solve every problem. Kirk makes a token effort to argue with the Thasians and keep Charlie among humans, but even he realizes it’s a lost cause. The Thasians understand that Charlie will use his powers no matter what, the temptation will always prove too great, and Charlie would “destroy you and your kind” (or, the alternative, humans would destroy Charlie in self-defense, but how that would be accomplished is a mystery). The Thasians sent Charlie into the world with more than he could handle. It’s their responsibility to take him back. (Was there a message here for more radical elements of the counterculture? Work within the system or else?) The crew is clearly distraught in the wake of Charlie’s departure, and some interpret this as sadness that they weren’t able to save Charlie. I tend to think the opposite, that the crew is disturbed at how close they came to complete repression in the hands of an adolescent narcissist. They are relieved, but more aware than before of how easily their freedom, and their lives, can be taken from them.