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Monday, July 11, 2011
Retro TV Round-Up: Star Trek
"Charlie X"

With classic Trek making its long-awaited debut on Netflix streaming last week, I quickly realized that I'd let my plan to watch and review the first season of one of my favorite series fall by the wayside since I did a retro review of "The Man Trap" several months ago. So it was that Friday evening I got out the Blu-Rays of classic Star Trek and fired them up to watch the second aired episode (but actually the sixth produced), "Charlie X."

I realize that "Charlie X" probably isn't an episode that many fans are going to put on their top ten list of great Trek installments, but I will admit I have a certain fondness for it. Part of it was that in high school, I used it as part of a segment for a youth group retreat on acceptance. The story was a great illustration of the desire many have to be accepted and the lengths they'll go to in order to achieve that. It went over fairly well--either that or my friends on the retreat were too polite to tell me I was crazy....it's one of the two.

If you think that teen angst was something brought into Trek by Wesley Crusher, you'd be wrong. It shows up in full force here, though some might argue that Charlie is a more intriguing character than Wesley was in the first season or so of TNG.

The Enterprise rendezvouses with the cargo ship the Antares to bring aboard Charlie Evans, the only survivor of a ship crash on the planet Thasis. Charlie was a baby when the ship crashed and has lived on the planet alone for seventeen years, learning to talk from the ship's computer banks and somehow finding enough food to eat on the planet. This shouldn't be the case since Spock later points out that Thasis doesn't exactly have the plant life necessary for a human being to survive, much less grow up to the age of seventeen as Charlie has done.

Because of this, Charlie is a bit on the socially awkward side. He interrupts Kirk often during a conversation with the captain of the Antares and his awe struck when he sees his first girl. Charlie is a character who doesn't have a great filter and has very few unexpressed thoughts, including the amusing end to the teaser like of "Is that a girl? when he first meets Janice Rand.

We get an idea early on that something may not be right with Charlie since the Antares crew is eager to dump the kid on Kirk and head for the proverbial hills. They do eventually try to contact the Enterprise via subspace, but the ship is destroyed before they can warn Kirk about what's really going here.

Charlie tries to fit into the society on board the Enterprise, but finds himself frustrated at every turn. He tries to win Janice's affection by providing her favorite perfume and impressing her with magic tricks. He tries to learn how to play chess with Spock, only to be angered when Spock easily beats him. Charlie responds to all of this by doing what most teenagers do--rolling his eyes. Except unlike most teens, Charlie can roll his eyes and make bad things happen. He can make you disappear or turn into a lizard or melt the chess pieces. Charlie starts off trying to use his power to make people like him--he manipulates the cards in the card tricks and turns meatloaf into turkeys for the crew's Thanksgiving dinner--but as the episode goes along Charlie quickly starts using them to enforce his will on others in a desperate attempt to get people to like him.

Charlie latches onto Kirk as father-figure and the two engage in a battle of wills as Charlie slowly takes over the ship. The Enterprise is headed to a colony to drop Charlie off and he's not going to let anything stand in his way. I guess he figures that since he's burned all his bridges of friendship on the Enterprise that a fresh start on the colony will be exactly what he needs. Kirk notices that since the Enterprise is bigger than the Antares and has a larger crew, Charlie has stretched himself to the limit of his power. Kirk pushes him beyond it and regains control of the ship, just in time to get a message from a ship following the Enterprise. It's a Thasian ship that has come to take Charlie back to Thasis. Seems he slipped off when they weren't looking and for his own good and the sake of the rest of the universe, Charlie has to go back.

Charlie is not keen on this idea, begging to stay. But he's sent back and the damage he did is undone by the Thasian.

The story of "Charlie X" is a tragedy and one of the more heavy-handed ones in all of Trek. The Thasians are pretty rigid in their assertion that Charlie can't be taught to control his power and will pretty much run amok wherever he goes. (Interestingly, this theme will come back in TNG when Riker is offered the power of the Q in the first sesaon). Kirk argues it could work, but sits by as Charlie returns to the Thasian ship at episode's end.

The battle of wills between Kirk and Charlie is interesting. Early on, Charlie latches onto Kirk as a father-figure, a role that Kirk is reluctant to accept. In many ways, this is an early showcase for William Shatner as Kirk. Kirk's slow burn as Charlie takes over the ship and crew is matched only by the scene where Kirk is forced to explain to Charlie why it's not appropriate to slap a woman on the behind. (The expression on Kirk's face when Charlie tells him that Rand said he'd explain it all is priceless). It becomes clear about mid-way through that Charlie will only respect Kirk and that he is desperate for the captain's approval. Charlie is visibly upset when when Kirk leaves the chess game and instead of teaching him how to play, leaves Spock to do it.

It's interesting that in the original airing order of the series that we'll get back-to-back episodes of Kirk engaging in a battle of wills with someone who has god-like powers. "Charlie X" may lack the emotional investment that Kirk has with Gary Mitchell, but it's still interesting to see that early on there's really no good way to stop someone with these incredible powers beyond sending them back to the people who gave them the powers or leaving them for dead on a lithium cracking station.

At this point, the series is still finding its voice and footing. Interestingly, the show gives us a lot of scenes of what daily life is like on board the ship. We hear about the Thanksgiving meal, we see the rec lounge for two scenes and we spend some time in the Enterprise gym. As the series finds it footing and voice, these moments are fewer and farther between, but they're a nice little addition to this story.

So, while it's not the greatest episode of classic Trek ever produced, I still think "Charlie X" is a good one. It's a couple of steps in the right direction for the series and it's a showcase for Kirk. You could do a lot worse. I'll take this one over "And the Children Shall Lead" any day....

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posted by Michael Hickerson at 7/11/2011 11:08:00 AM | |
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