‘Star Trek: The Original Series’ Revisited: “Charlie X”

Like the first Star Trek episode, the second is a thinly disguised horror story, which feels like it’s exploring the landscape of nightmare rather than the bounds of distant space. Where “The Man Trap” was stalked by anxieties about women and alien invaders, though, “Charlie X” shows that in the future we’re still going to fear our own children.

The Charlie of the title is Charlie Evans (Robert Walker), a 17-year-old who is the sole survivor of a transport wreck on the planet Thasus 14 years ago. Charlie has had no human contact since he was 3; he was rescued by the research ship Antares, which then delivered him to the Enterprise.

Charlie at first seems like a somewhat naïve adolescent. He speaks awkwardly and abruptly, is impatient and insecure, and falls in love on sight with Yeoman Janice Rand (Grace Lee Whitney). Soon, though, he reveals that he has God-like powers, and starts turning people who annoy him into (cute!) lizards or zapping them out of existence. He destroys the Antares when the distant ship tries to warn Kirk, and it looks like The Enterprise is next. Luckily there’s a deus ex machina as the Thasians who gave Charlie his powers show up in a glowing green ship. Despite his tearful pleading, they take him away.

Vietnam youth protests were growing in the mid-sixties. Roddenberry’s original story (written by Dorothy C. Fontana and directed by Lawrence Dobkin) reflects an adult mistrust of, and passion to contain, the (supposedly) irresponsible and impulsive next generation.

Captain Kirk (William Shatner) sets himself up almost instantly as a strong father figure, demanding respect as he tries to integrate Charlie into the hierarchical, militarized Federation starship. He refers to Charlie—a traumatized civilian 17-year-old who hasn’t interacted with other humans in more than a decade—as “Mr. Evans,” and reprimands him when he excitedly interrupts and asks to see other people.

When Charlie reveals his superpowers, Kirk doesn’t readjust his approach. Instead, he doubles down, continuing to demand obedience, and hollowly threatening to carry Charlie to his quarters if he doesn’t stop disintegrating people with his mind.

This assertion of authority doesn’t really seem like the best way to negotiate with a semi-omnipotent being who threatens the crew. Which suggests that the threat to the crew is not the real worry for Kirk (or Roddenberry), but the challenge to adult authority.

Adults with lots of power often use it in destructive ways, as basically all of human history testifies. But the Enterprise crew insists on talking as if the problem with Charlie is not his power, but his maturity. Kirk says, ominously, “He’s a boy in a man’s body!” while Spock adds drily, “We’re in the hands of an adolescent.”

Robert Walker turns in a masterful performance, all eager jitters and flashes of terrifying petulance. In one scene, he ages a young crewwoman simply because she crosses his path. In another, he hears people laughing, assumes they’re laughing at him, and erases their faces. You see one woman staggering around the corner, sobbing without a mouth, her features a smooth blank.

Kirk and his crew try to discipline Charlie and provide boundaries as if he’s a child. But he turns the tables, dispensing punishment for any infraction, or for none. He even makes Spock recite poetry, and breaks his legs—a symbolic castration, and/or infantilization. Charlie’s a child, but he’s placed himself in the role of father or arbiter, just like all those damn hippies insisting that they should have a voice in war policy. “Growing up isn’t so much,” Charlie glowers at Kirk. “I’m not a man and I can do anything! You can’t.”

Kirk’s Oedipal nightmare inevitably includes an erotic component. Charlie falls in lust at first sight with Yeoman Janice Rand, and starts pursuing her with gifts of her favorite perfume, obtained via mind-reading and superpowered magicking. He makes stuttering declarations of affection, offering to give her the universe—a more credible promise than is usual in these situations.

Rand’s response is at first kind. But (in a nice performance by Grace Lee Whitney) as Charlie shifts from innocent crush to stalkerish threat, she grows firmer and more adamant in her refusal. Even when Charlie slaps her on the rear, she retains her dignity, immediately confronting him, explaining that what he did was wrong, and telling him not to do it again.

Kirk’s attitude, and the show’s, is more ambiguous. Rand tells Charlie to discuss the slap with Kirk, but the Captain doesn’t do a very good job of explaining why sexual assault is wrong. He defaults to vague gender stereotypes, telling Charlie it’s wrong to hit women, as if the problem is in failing to treat women as women, rather than in failing to treat women as human beings. Along the same lines, when Charlie first sees Rand, and asks, “Is that a girl?” Kirk doesn’t respond by emphasizing that she’s a person and a crewmember. Instead, he says, with amusement tinged with condescension and some level of erotic interest, “That’s a girl.”

Charlie treats Rand as a possession he’s entitled to. That’s wrong. But the show isn’t entirely clear why it’s wrong. Rand acts as if it’s wrong because she’s a person herself, whose desires and choices need to be respected. Kirk pays lip service to that, but his own more subtle sexism suggests that the issue is more that Charlie is the wrong patriarch. Hee’s encroaching on Kirk’s authority, rather than on Rand’s autonomy. Kirk is angry because Charlie has threatened what Kirk calls “My ship.” Patriarchy and treating people as possessions isn’t necessarily wrong. It’s just that civilian adolescent Charlie is the wrong patriarch.

The right patriarch shows up at the end. A green translucent Thrasian head (Abraham Sofaer) appears to take Charlie away. The boy melts down in terror and begs. The Thrasians don’t touch each other, he says. They don’t love. He’s practically weeping.

Kirk voices a mild objection, but the Thrasian insists that removing Charlie bodily is the only way. And so the boy is whisked away as remorselessly as he whisked away his victims. Janice Rand, magically returned to the bridge, turns away to clasp Kirk, who has control of the crew and ship once more. Everything is restored to its rightful place.

That rightful place feels pretty uncomfortable, though. “Charlie X” knows Charlie needs to be crushed by the adults. But the episode is effective in part because it allows itself a few lingering doubts. Those are picked up by the 2007-2008 fan series Star Trek: Of Gods and Men, in which a still-angry adult Charlie returns to claim vengeance for Kirk’s decision to banish him from the human race.

They’re picked up more subtly by what may be the episode’s most effective, and certainly most beloved, scene. In an interlude in the recreation room, Spock plays a lute-like instrument while Uhura sings a sultry jazzy ode to the Vulcan’s charms.

Oh, on the Starship Enterprise

There's someone who's in Satan's guise,

Whose devil ears and devil eyes

Could rip your heart from you!

Nichelle Nichols as Uhura is incandescent, while Leonard Nimoy hasn’t quite decided that Spock never smiles, and allows a shadow of good humor to flicker across his lips. Interracial flirtation was quite controversial in 1966, and the scene’s hip, knowing playfulness is thoroughly out of keeping with the episode’s aura of brooding dread. It’s like someone dropped a Bogie/Bacall nightclub scene into a John Wayne war pic. Kirk, notably, is nowhere in sight, and at first, neither is Charlie. Who cares about their power struggles when you’ve got two of the sexiest actors to grace the small screen practically smoldering through the bulkheads? Make love, not war.

Soon enough Charlie shows up, gets jealous that people are paying attention to someone other than him, and makes Uhura temporarily lose her voice. The patriarchal plot gears back up. But that Uhura/Spock scene lingers, a lyrical escape from a narrative in which Charlies must grow into Kirks, and the only question is who gets to send who into oblivion.

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Image Credit: CBS Television

Star Trek: The Original Series ("Charlie X")


“Charlie X” knows Charlie needs to be crushed by the adults. But the episode is effective in part because it allows itself a few lingering doubts.


Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.