The Enterprise takes aboard a passenger: Charlie Evans. He’s spent his life in isolation, never met a girl, and doesn’t know how to dress. So of course he’s one happy fanboy when he finds himself aboard the Starship Enterprise.
He develops what’s politely called a “crush” on Janice Rand, snubbing all the other hotties on the ship. It must be her unpredictability that he finds so arresting; she’s offended when he slaps her butt yet when he somehow impossibly jams a playing card down her cleavage she’s charmed and impressed.
Yeah, Charlie can do things like that – although the crew remains oblivious for about half the episode, the audience quickly learns that Charlie has god-like powers. He performs several harmless and amusing magical tricks like turning meat loaf into turkey, conjuring up a bottle of perfume out of thin air, causing Uhura to choke while singing and killing everyone aboard a cargo ship by blowing it to smithereens.
When he finally wishes a guy in red tights into the cornfield right in front of Kirk, our Captain catches on. Attempts to humor, trap or challenge Charlie all go badly until the aliens who gave him his powers (but for some reason cannot take them away) show up in a phosphorescent spaceship to take him back to their home world.
Maybe he’d be less lonely if they set him up in daycare with L’il Trelane and L’il Q.
An Awkward Age
Judging by the fan commentary one finds at various "Star Trek" bulletin boards on the Internet, "Charlie X" seems to be as hotly contested an episode in terms of popularity as is "Miri"…and probably for similar reasons. Both focus on wild, unsocialized children, on the brinks of sexual maturity, who fixate each in their own ways on James Kirk and Janice Rand. For a lot of folks puberty is a terribly unlovely thing to live through or to recall, much less to watch dwelt upon and dramatized as starkly as "Star Trek" does here.
Robert Walker’s edgy, nervously kinetic performance as Charlie Evans is as brilliant as it is uncomfortable to watch. Given a long, awkwardly euphemistic speech in which Charlie confesses directly to Rand his anxieties and his sexual desire for her, the actor is fearless. It’s one of the most memorable and riveting performances by a guest star on the series.
An actor can play a genetic super-tyrant or obsessed starship captain with whatever scenery-chewing artifice works for them – these are figures of fantasy. On the other hand, most all of us have at some point either known or been Charlie Evans.
We’ve all been there
D.C. Fontana’s script is excellent, eschewing the soap-operatic treatments of romantic love and family conflict evident in her later stories in favor of dealing with basic emotions like fury, lust, jealousy and shame in raw form. She demonstrates Charlie’s emotional pain in a few deft interactions with other characters. Someone more mature and emotionally balanced than the teenager would shrug off Uhura’s improvised lyrics as a minor embarrassment in the case that they didn’t actually enjoy the ribbing; Charlie experiences the song as deeply humiliating. The scene in which he plays chess with Spock is a note-perfect confrontation between opposites. Spock, after all, is the quintessential threatening adult from Charlie’s point of view: in absolute control of his emotions, perfectly correct in all that he says and does, judgmental and distant and generally disdainful (and also someone held in special regard by the teenager’s chosen role model, Kirk). Spock humiliates him again, in a powerful quiet scene that enables us to simultaneously identify with both characters, and so will be singled out for special torment later on when the boy exhibits his powers openly.
The conflicts and situations set up in Fontana’s script admit of no neat, happy ending and she doesn’t flinch or cheat to deliver one. In the process, she has Kirk deliver a line that encapsulates an essential part of "growing up," a state of being that Charlie longs for and that will remain forever opaque to him – the acceptance of uncertainty and limits and ambiguity:
"There are a million things in this universe you can have and a million things you can’t have. It’s no fun facing that, but that’s the way things are."
That ranks with Sturgeon’s "Amok Time" observation about the dissatisfaction of possessing one’s heart’s desire as one of the moments when "Star Trek" writers spoke simple human truth without the bombast so often attendant upon their more self-conscious attempts to comment on "society" or the "human condition."
Kirk teaches a lesson
CBS Digital has become so good at the Enterprise-in-space shots that one almost takes them for granted now. That hardly seems fair, given how some of us raked them over the coals for the damned nacelle caps early on, but it’s true nonetheless that their Enterprise now just consistently looks the way one expects the TOS Enterprise to look. There’s not a bad shot of the ship in the remastered "Charlie X."
Another great shot of the big E from CBS-D
The previously-unseen freighter "Antares" looks like it fits into the TOS design sensibility as neatly as the "Botany Bay." The design is derived from the "Huron," a ship that appears in the animated episode "The Pirates of Orion." [and also derived from the robot grain ship in "More Tribbles, More Troubles," pictured below] This is the second time that I’m aware of the CBS Digital artists taking their inspiration from the animated "Star Trek", the first being the distant Vulcan city seen in the remastered "Amok Time". I’ve never been a big fan of TAS, but I’ve developed a new appreciation of the thought that went into the art and design of that series as a result its incorporation into the remastered "Star Trek."
TOS-R giving TAS more cred
Finally, the new Thasian ship design is a welcome elaboration upon both the green blur used originally to represent it and the shifting image Abraham Sofaer as the Thasian himself. It remains mysterious, undefined and…well, alien.
Old v New Thasians
Now, if they just could have done something about that hole Leonard Nimoy punches into the flimsy set wall when Charlie knocks Spock to the floor and breaks his legs…