Saturday, July 4, 2015

Growing Up Isn’t So Much (Charlie X)

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location:  TOS season 1, disc 1
airdate:  15 September 1966
strange new worlds:  no
strange new worlds so far:  3
new life:  yes
new life so far: 4
new civilisations:  yes
new civilisations so far:  2
amokmindedness:  yes
amokmindednesses so far:  4
The 1961 Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life” featured a town held captive and tyrannised over by the whims of a six-year-old boy with vast telepathic and telekinetic powers. 

We may sometimes look like you, but we are not you.
This episode is clearly the chief inspiration behind “Charlie X.”  The nervousness-masked-by-joviality of the Antares crew in Charlie’s presence resembles that of the adults in “It’s a Good Life”; moreover, the Captain calls Charlie a “wonderful boy” and say’s it’s been “an honour having him aboard,” just as the townspeople in “It’s a Good Life” are constantly assuring their tormentor that “you’re a good boy” and “we all love you.”  In addition, Charlie and the child both use their powers to stop someone from singing, and to subject people to grotesque transformations; and Charlie’s vagueness about what happens to the people he causes to disappear echoes the vagueness of the “cornfield” fate in the Twilight Zone episode.

Silence-inducing metamorphoses in The Twilight Zone and Star Trek

By contrast with his Twilight Zone predecessor, however, Charlie is more conflicted, more capable of remorse (or at least regret), and at least marginally more interested in connecting with others – and so more sympathetic.  Usually when I watch this episode I just notice what a jerk Charlie is most of the time; but if one comes to “Charlie X” straight from the story that inspired it, the respects in which Charlie is an improvement are more noticeable.  

Charlie is also reminiscent of the (considerably more well-meaning) main character in Robert Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land, who likewise has vast powers including the ability to make people disappear, but who more specifically was raised by aliens without human contact (whence his powers), struggles to fit in with human society, and even surprises his love interest with a gift of perfume.   All the same, I feel a lot more confident in positing “It’s a Good Life” as an influence on this episode than in positing Stranger as an influence. 

Of course there’s yet another obvious antecedent for this story:  “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” two episodes earlier.  Just as episodes 1 and 3 involved the power of illusion and imaginary wish fulfillment, so episodes 2 and 4 feature an irresponsible being with godlike powers; Trek is starting to recycle ideas rather early. 

Enough, Trelane!  Come along.
The theme in “The Cage” of a future human evolution to a more mentally and less physically oriented form is taken here to the extreme of a complete transcendence of the physical (the Thasian mentions having previously been a humanoid centuries earlier), incidentally anticipating the Organians in “Errand of Mercy.”   And Charlie’s complaint “I can’t even touch them! ... They can’t feel. ... They don’t love!” anticipates Spock’s comment in the first Star Trek movie that “this simple feeling [touching Kirk’s hand] is beyond V’Ger's comprehension.  (And the Thasians showing up at the end to collect their wayward charge anticipates The Squire of Gothos.)

Josh Marsfelder thinks that Charlie’s “longterm isolation and godlike powers” are simply a “metaphor for his struggles with puberty” – and, he notes, a lousy one.  He further charges the episode with “youth hating,” on the grounds that what makes Charlie “monstrous” is that he’s “a teenager who doesn’t conform and refuses to grow up in acceptable ways.”
I don’t read the episode quite the same way.  I don’t see his longterm isolation and godlike powers as a metaphor for puberty; rather, they’re the factors that render him unable to deal with puberty in a civilised way.  Moreover, his evil is not that he’s a rebellious teenager per se but that he’s a rebellious teenager liberated from ordinary human constraints.  As we saw two episodes ago, adults liberated from ordinary human constraints are no picnic either.  The next two episodes are variations on this theme also; the shadow of Freud lies heavily on this series (as it does on mid-century popular culture generally).

Janice Rand is from ... France.
Moreover, while it’s true that many of the characters take Charlie’s problems for those of ordinary adolescence, it’s not clear how far the audience is intended to endorse this judgment.  Spock reasonably points out that Charlie’s destroying the Antares showed a “total disregard for human life”; Kirk’s answer that Charlie “doesn’t understand what life is” – not because he’s been raised outside of human society, but merely because “he’s a boy” – seems fairly absurd, and could be taken as Kirk making fairly lame excuses for Charlie out of affection.

That said, this is not one of the better episodes (Uhura’s singing scene aside, of course).  Charlie’s scenes with Janice Rand are generally wince-inducing.  Moreover, there’s no real plot; Charlie causes havoc, getting more and more out of control, until the Thasians arrive ex machina to resolve everything.  the growing conflict between Kirk and Charlie never receives any resolution;  Kirk’s plan to overload Charlie’s capacity for control is interrupted by the Thasians’ arrival before the crucial question of the episode – would Charlie kill Kirk, his father figure? – gets answered.

Admittedly, the scene where Charlie renders the laughing crewmember faceelss is quite effective; it sure creeped the hell out of me when I was a kid.

Miscellaneous observations:

While the crew of the Enterprise have transitioned to new uniforms, the Antares crew (and so Charlie as well) wear outfits  more like those in “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”  No sense in letting old props and costumes go completely to waste.

Between Spock’s smile when Uhura sings, and her flirtation with him both in this episode and in “The Man Trap,” I’ve begun to think the Spock-Uhura romance in the rebooted continuity didn’t come as much out of nowhere as I’d thought.  (Uhura marries a Vulcan in Of Gods and Men too – one of the many ways in which that fan movie anticipates the rebooted film series.) 

The later stereotype of Kirk as a ladies’ man is somewhat belied in this episode by his intense discomfort and embarrassment in talking to Charlie about women.

The fact that McCoy identifies Charlie as human by the development of his fingers and toes rather than by his DNA is perhaps the most dated element in this very dated episode.

Robert Walker as Charlie (well cast with his intense stare) kept reminding me this time around of Glenn Carter as Jesus in the 2000 version of Jesus Christ Superstar.  (Of course some versions of the Gospel narrative do make Jesus sound a bit like the Twilight Zone kid.) 

What is up with Janice Rand’s hairdo anyway?  Even by 1960s standards it’s bizarre.  When I was a little kid watching Trek I thought she was supposed to be an alien.

Charlie forces Spock to recite Blake and Poe, as well as a nonsense ditty about Saturn and Mars. The Blake and Poe poems are both about animals; perhaps more significantly, the poems’ themes are religious awe and inconsolable grief respectively, two emotions in which Charlie seems deficient.

The Thasian’s line “Everything is as it was” will be echoed by a more famous line in “City on the Edge of Forever.”

Mirab, his sails unfurled!

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