Weekend Trek: “Charlie X”

For whatever reason, the U.S.S. Enterprise often runs into beings with godlike powers.

Most of them aren’t teenagers with boundary issues.

So, it occurred to me as I rewatched “Charlie X” that this episode has really aged weirdly.  The general sexual politics of Star Trek are something that were probably fine for the mid-60s but are a bit less so in 2019.  But then there’s this hint of stuff here and there that gives “Charlie X” a little more relevance for the #MeToo era than its creators could have possibly hoped for.

Then again, this one did have a script by a woman (D.C. Fontana) based on a story by series creator Gene Roddenberry.  That may be relevant in ways that might have slipped past the general audience of the 60s, or it may just be my imagination.

So, what happens here?  The Enterprise has a quick rendezvous with a small cargo ship, picking up a 17 year old boy named Charlie Evans.  And Charlie is…odd.  Kirk is told that the boy was the lone survivor from a crash on the planet Thasus, and that Charlie had been stranded there since he was 3 years old.

By the by, the actor playing Charlie was somewhere in the neighborhood of 26 years old when this episode was made, and it kinda shows.

Anyway, Charlie hasn’t seen too many humans in his lifetime, and he’s a bit cagey about how he survived, but he’s really impressed to be on a ship of over 400 people.  And he’s even more impressed by Yeoman Rand, seeing as how he doesn’t even know what a girl is, plus he seems to respect Kirk as a man and an authority figure.

Is now a good time to wonder why women on this ship all wear mini-skirts?

But Charlie, who looks kinda rapey and creepy from the minute he appears on screen, has special powers.  Spock mentions legends about the people of Thasus having all kinds of godlike abilities, and yeah, Charlie seems to have the same powers.  Sure, it’s subtle at first, making playing cards move around or change face cards to Rand’s headshots, or having a card appear in her uniform, but mostly he doesn’t seem to know how to deal with people.  That extends mostly to Rand, seeing as how he doesn’t know she doesn’t really appreciate getting a good slap on her ass.

Watching characters try to say “Don’t swat a woman on the butt” in 1966 sure is awkward especially when they were still able to show Charlie swat her on the butt.

And it turns out it isn’t helpful introducing Charlie to other women on the ship his own age…wait, the Enterprise has 17 year old crew members? Anyway, before long, Charlie doesn’t take too kindly to a crewman who laughs at Kirk tossing him around during a self-defense lesson, one that required Kirk to go shirtless for some reason.  And Charlie makes the guy…go away.  He just fades away somewhere, and even Charlie doesn’t know where that guy went.

Did they try checking the nearest cornfield?

And yes, the crewman was wearing a red workout robe.

It isn’t long before Charlie decides he should just run the ship.  That means making Kirk double over in pain, providing some Grade A Shatner Ham, forcing Spock to recite poetry, and finally forcing Rand to “go away” when she slaps him for walking into her quarters and demanding she do…something that probably couldn’t be discussed on TV in 1966.

But beyond his general obsession with Rand, we can see Charlie’s general misogyny at play.  He sure has it in for women on the ship.  He may toss men around like rag dolls, but women he makes suffer.  The young yeoman he met gets turned into an iguana, another woman is rapidly aged to elderly, and yet another has her face erased, a so-so make-up trick but it sure is creepy all the same.

So, here it is:  Charlie’s a creep.  Yeah, we can say he doesn’t know better, and he does eventually outright destroy that cargo vessel that found him before they could say what was weird about him, but as much as the show tries to make Charlie sympathetic when the alien Thasusians (doing their best Wizard of Oz impression) come to get Charlie and take him back, it’s hard to muster sympathy for Charlie the character.  Sure, Charlie’s situation is terrible and torturous, and he’s probably lucky he turned out as well as he did, but the character does not come off well.

That’s actually a good way to see the better episodes of Star Trek anyway.  This is and was a highly philosophical show, one where seeming villains are a hair’s breath away from being sympathetic.  So, while the Thasusians return everyone and everything on the Enterprise to normal (materializing Rand on the bridge in what is probably her sleepwear), we do see Kirk and the others, including Rand, showing sympathy for Charlie.  The Thasusians believe he can’t be taught not to use his powers whenever he has a childish impulse.  Just as Kirk will reflect on extinct animals after the death of a salt vampire that tried to kill him, so too will the crew on the bridge just fall silent after Charlie just fades from view, begging to be allowed to stay with people who he can actually touch and who actually have feelings.  On the one hand, Charlie is an incredibly destructive brat.  On the other hand, well, he didn’t ask to be given those abilities in order to survive something that happened to him as a toddler.  I can appreciate something having to step in and stop Charlie while at the same time ponder the implications of Charlie’s life.

Now, this isn’t the last godlike being the Enterprise will encounter, and not even the last immature one, but for the first one, we got a kid who should have been human and never learned how to behave around his own kind.  And rather than gloat or celebrate over a fallen foe, the crew stops to sympathize for him.

If you don’t get why that’s different in the annals of sci-fi, you probably won’t get Star Trek.

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