In the second episode of the first season of Star Trek, I make jokes about this being a Twilight Zone episode BUT IT ACTUALLY WAS HOLY SHIT. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of consent, since this involves a person who can exert their will on anyone.
TERRIFYING. TERRIFYING. Y’all, I didn’t expect this. I DID NOT EXPECT THIS, AND I AM SO BLOWN AWAY BY HOW GOOD THIS EPISODE WAS. So! A bit of an admission: I was completely and utterly worried about spelling Thasus correctly, and so with a bit of VERY CAREFUL Googling, I discovered that all my references about The Twilight Zone in the video for this episode weren’t far off the mark. “Charlie X” is a spin off Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life,” which was made into an even more disturbing episode of The Twilight Zone that aired nearly five years prior to this one. But here’s the thing: THIS STILL WORKS. Yes, there are indeed similarities. (I’m rough on the details, since it’s been over a decade since I last saw “It’s a Good Life.” I did just buy the complete series on Amazon because the Blu-Ray was on sale, so I cannot wait to binge watch it.) But holy shit, this was great? VERY GREAT?
I know that one of the challenges of making the journey through this show is going to be the context of it. As I said in the review for “The Man Trap,” we’re coming up on the 50 year anniversary of this show, and I’ve definitely never written about something that was created so long ago. Watching “Charlie X,” I was struck by, once again, the blatantly diverse cast. I bring that up because this episode sheds a little more light on the USS Enterprise, namely the size of the crew: 428 people. And unlike a lot of science fiction I’ve seen or read, this crew feels like it was culled from all of the United States. It’s not a glimpse of the future where people of color and women are mysteriously missing for no discernible reason; they hold positions of power, they’re integral parts of this crew, and they’re constantly visible. That’s not to say this is some idealized version of the future, but it kind of is??? These people work together and they support one another. And I think a lot of that comes out when we finally get to see how they get along.
Charles Evans is the impetus for this, and while he is a clear antagonistic force, my absolute favorite part of “Charlie X” has nothing to do with how terrifying is. It’s the scene in the rec room where many members of the crew spend time relaxing. I’d never seen these characters outside of their jobs, of course, but I thought it was the best character building the show had given me thus far. Lt. Uhura singing love songs about Mr. Spock’s Vulcan strangeness! Janice goading her on! Spock’s alien nature! THIS IS THE BEST, EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS RULES.
On top of this, there are just so many little moments along the way that help me understand who these characters are. There’s a brilliant bout of bickering between Spock and Bones about Charlie’s origins and nature, and never has a show so quickly given me what I want. But that’s actually a very important character moment! The show’s already established how frequently Kirk relies on both those men to give him advice, but their bickering shows us how these two approach issues in different ways. Bones obviously works with a knowledge of human biology and health, and Spock seems to come at things with not only his rigorous dedication to logic, but a greater knowledge of the universe and other species. And Kirk consults them because… well, he doesn’t come off as the kind of captain who knows everything. He’s in charge, absolutely; people don’t question this, they respect his authority, and they look to him for guidance. (Which is truly vital to Charlie’s story!) But he’s not reckless, and he values the people who surround him.
And lord, the crew faces an unbelievable crisis in Charles Evans. The show gives us a reason to be frightened of him SIXTY SECONDS INTO THE EPISODE, and that creepiness is explored through through Robert Walker’s acting, the lighting (THE LIGHTING IS SO CRUCIAL IN THIS EPISODE), and the use of adolescence. I think there was a clear path where this could have become a disaster: if the show had decided that because Charlie was having an existential crisis due to his maturation into an adult, that meant he wasn’t really responsible for what he’d done. But throughout “Charlie X,” the show openly examines whether or not Charlie is in control. There are suggestions early on that he’s simply ignorant. After surviving for seventeen years entirely by himself on the planet of Thasus, it would make sense that he’d be entirely ignorant of social interaction. That is a fair point! There are definitely a lot of humorous moments born of this. Like Captain Kirk having to explain interacting with women to Charlie AND LARGELY FAILING AT IT. And I think it’s also important to acknowledge that for a number of reasons, plenty of folks do truly have difficulty navigating social interactions, whether that’s due to anxiety or being on the autism spectrum or being raised in a culture different from the dominant one or… WELL, THERE ARE SO MANY POSSIBLE EXPLANATIONS.
I think the crew tries to believe that Charlie is simply not used to other people because he grew up alone. But the problem with Charlie and his behavior ultimately isn’t due to this; it’s because he is terrifyingly entitled. As he exerts his power of transmutation on the crew and on the crew of the Antares, he increasingly believes that he must be treated perfectly. Well, “perfectly” from his perception. We know (and the characters know) that how he demands to be treated isn’t nice at all. He feels as if he is owed attention all the time, which is why he punishes Uhura for singing: He can’t stand that Janice isn’t paying attention to him, and he can’t stand when the attention he is receiving isn’t adoration.
This manifests during the absolutely perfectly beautiful training sequence where shirtless, tights-wearing Captain Kirk spars with Sam and then Charlie. AND CHARLIE MAKES SAM DISAPPEAR RIGHT IN FRONT OF KIRK. Holy shit, that moment was done so well: the cut to Kirk’s realization, the smugness on Charlie’s face… BLESS THIS SHOW. Because from that point on, “Charlie X” becomes A NON-STOP TRAIN OF TERROR. I kept worrying about how far he’d take his power to control others. If he could make Spock recite poetry, if he could turn Tina into an iguana (?!?!?!?!), if he could electrocute Uhura… then oh my god, what was he going to do to Janice? That threat was always there because Charlie refused to accept that Janice had to give her consent. He felt that he was owed her affections because he was “nice” to her. DOES THIS SOUND AT ALL FAMILIAR HOLY SHIT.
Charlie is creepy – relentlessly so – and he was also a moral conundrum. Despite how awful he treated the crew, Kirk is faced with a dilemma when one of the Thasians contacts the Enterprise, asking for Charlie to be returned. I admit that this part was a bit ambiguous, but from Charlie’s protestations, I thought that he was implying that the Thasians were not physical beings, that they gave him this gift to survive, but had actually died out long ago. So when they asked for him back, he was going to return to a world with no other physical beings on it. Which is SUPER DISTURBING. I think that there was a chance that Kirk really would have tried to give Charlie a chance to learn how to integrate with the rest of the human race, which is admirable, if a bit optimistic. But in the end, after causing so much damage and threatening so many lives, Kirk allows the Thasians to take Charlie back.
It’s not an easy solution because we’re left with the image of Charlie begging to stay. We’re left to imagine that he’ll never be able to talk to another human for the rest of his life. And while this complicates his character, it doesn’t excuse his horrific behavior. The dude sucked. A LOT. And I can’t believe that it only took two episodes of Star Trek to make me want to curl up in a ball and become dust. THIS WAS SO ENTERTAINING, THOUGH. So entertaining!!!
(And for the record, here’s the tweet I referenced in the video below.)
The video for “Charlie X” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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