Tuesday, July 17, 2007

TOS Rewind #3: "Charlie X"

7/30/2015 update:  We circled back and did a podcast; check it out here.

Today, we have Charlie X.

Since Eric got his review done first, I figure it should go first in this post:

Original air date:  9-15-66

As I begin writing this, a cat is perched on my shoulder and Steely Dan is playing on iTunes. All in all, good conditions for reviewing our next Star Trek episode, “Charlie X". This was the eighth episode produced and the second episode aired. Like “The Man Trap", it’s not one of my favorites, but it is definitely a good episode. The basic plot of the story is reminiscent of the original Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life"; a kid has lots of nifty super powers but little self-control or discipline (as tends to be the case with kids) and thus causes big problems for the grown-ups around him. And the subject of “Charlie X", one 17 year-old Charles Evans, does indeed cause problems for Kirk and company, including the destruction of a survey ship and its crew. But it’s hard to view Charlie as villain, largely due to the sensitive and sympathetic portrayal of Charlie by Robert Walker Jr. He’s just a confused kid. For the last 14 years, the only company he’s had has been the incorporeal aliens who gave him his powers. Naturally, he doesn’t know how to relate to other humans, especially women, and he has no clue about functioning in human society. This affords an excellent opportunity to examine the experience of growing up and navigating the trials and travails of life as a human being.

Kirk and the crew do their best to help Charlie learn what he needs to know, particularly Kirk and Yeoman Janice Rand, and this results in some excellent scenes. One of the best is when Charlie gives
Janice a playful swat on the rear end. She, of course, is not appreciative, which makes for a very amusing scene. But what I enjoyed even more than this interchange is Kirk’s awkward attempt to
explain to Charlie why swatting women on the butt is a no-no.

Shortly after this is another memorable scene that takes place in the rec room. This is one of the few times in the series where Uhura sings. And despite the mildly overwrought nature of her performance, it is a good scene, particularly due to her interaction with Spock. She even gets him to smile. This is something of a dramatic reversal from the harangue she gives him in “The Man Trap", which makes me wonder if the producers weren’t laying the foundation for a romance between these two. I haven’t read or heard anything to indicate that this was ever planned, and I doubt that it would’ve been approved by the network, so I’m guessing it was just a way to show the camaraderie amongst the crew. (On a personal note, I have heard Nichelle Nichols, the actress who portrayed Uhura, sing live. She really has a great voice, and she used to sing with Duke Ellington’s band!) Okay, back to the review.

Throughout the episode there is a minor theme of McCoy trying to pawn off the “father figure" job on Kirk. It was well-done, and amusing, but I don’t understand why both of them were so adamant about not wanting to fill this role. Maybe they both thought they wouldn’t be able to do a good job, but when it gets thrust on him, Kirk does very well: “Charlie, there are a million things in this universe you can have, and there are a million things you can’t have! It’s no fun facing that, but that’s the way it is". This whole scene, where Kirk gives Charlie the condensed version of Life 101, is oddly touching, perhaps because Kirk is sympathetic to Charlie’s anguish and admits he’s just as subject to the realities of life as everyone else.

The scene with the chess game is a good one too. It gives a good sense of the friendship between Spock and Kirk. And Spock’s interaction with Charlie is classic. Nimoy did a brilliant job (not
just in this scene) of subtly conveying how intelligent and perceptive Spock is. Absolutely nothing gets by him, and he’s utterly logical about applying his deductions. This saves the day on many
occasions, but it also drives McCoy nuts. And speaking of that, the Spock-McCoy feud is clearly evident in this episode, maybe for the first time. I remember reading that this relationship wasn’t planned, but the chemistry between Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley brought it out, and Roddenberry let the writers and actors run with it.

So by the end of the episode, we’re left with Charlie suffering from a healthy dose of adolescent hormones and an unrequited crush on Janice Rand. This is a perfectly understandable situation, given that Charlie is a young human male, but young human males (and we all should be fervently thankful that this is the case) typically do not have super powers at their disposal when they vent their frustrations. Fortunately, in something of a Deus Ex Machina, the same aliens who gave Charlie his powers return take him back to their planet so that he won’t cause any more trouble. It’s a better
conclusion than Kirk having to kill the boy, but Charlie’s poignant plea to be allowed to stay reminds us he’s just a kid trying to fit in and make his way through the minefield that is life.


I'll be upfront about this:  this isn't one of the worst episodes, but it may be one of the ones I would be least likely to just sit down and watch.  Some of it is cringe-inducing, but some of it is actually decent.  It isn't campy and silly enough to be entertaining, but isn't all that great either.  Eric did a really nice job pointing out the positive aspects of it.  I would disagree with him about Robert Walker's performance (and they really should have gone easy on his eye makeup!).  Some of it just comes off as grating and it made it difficult for me to find his character very sympathetic, which is necessary for the conclusion to work.  All things being equal, when Charlie gets taken back to the alien world, we should feel kinda sorry for him as it sounds like a lonely place for a human.  I've always thought that the appearance of the alien, just a basic visual projected effect, was a bit creepy.  But when this scene comes up, all I can do is think how glad they all are to be rid of him. I also got the impression that some of the dialog about Charlie's adolescent issues was grafted into the script from some psychology textbooks.

There were things in this episode I enjoyed, such as the amusing awkwardness in which Kirk goes about explaining how things work to Charlie.  A piece of choice dialog:  "There's no right way to hit a woman."  I also felt the Kirk/Spock chess game was a great scene.  As far as Uhura's singing goes, it did indeed come off like a bit of flirtation with Spock and hey, he did smile!  Of course when Spock starts playing that auto harp with knobs instrument, all I could think of was a certain third season episode....but we'll be getting to that.

Next up:  "The Naked Time"