Friday, September 17, 2010

Star Trek Ventures Into Disappointing God Territory With "Charlie X"

The Good: Moments of character, General concept/morals
The Bad: Acting is still clunky, Menace seems forced, Idea is not executed that well
The Basics: When Star Trek tries an early story of a boy with godlike powers, it falls just shy of being worthwhile because of too many unanswered character problems.

Star Trek, throughout its first season, seems preoccupied with the concept of absolute power corrupts absolutely, which we might all recall from George Orwell’s Animal Farm. In the first season, there are three episodes with powerful beings who have virtually unlimited power and become reckless with it. “Charlie X” is the second of those episodes and it might fare better in the pantheon of Star Trek had it not come so close on the heels of the similar “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” That’s not completely true; this is a pretty mediocre episode either way.

“Charlie X” also illustrates another preoccupation Star Trek seems to have: children that are not what they appear to be. Already in the series, episodes have popped up where children aren’t quite children (as in “The Corbomite Maneuver”) and in the later episode “Miri.” Even into the third season, Star Trek carries this preoccupation with children who are not what they seem. “Charlie X,” like many of those episodes, deals with that idea head on.

The U.S.S. Enterprise takes aboard a teenager who was found by another ship on a deserted planet and Kirk and crew adapt to having to teach the young man how to behave. However, Charlie Evans soon becomes a person of interest when the ship he was brought to the Enterprise on is destroyed without any apparent cause. Charlie, who illustrates distaste for his rescuers, soon becomes willful and reveals that he has the power to influence others, alter matter and exert his will in ways that make him seem almost god-like. This annoying young man becomes dangerous when he develops a crush on Yeoman Rand and begins to “disappear” people, threatening to destroy the Enterprise and its crew.

“Charlie X” puts Captain Kirk in the unenviable role of nanny and mentor to a kid who could pretty much squash anyone on the Enterprise at will. Indeed, one of the most powerful and understated moments comes when Spock, who has been knocked to the floor by Charlie’s mental powers, declines to attempt to rush the boy because he realizes that both of his legs have been broken! Kirk’s attempts to use reason, alternative play models and straight out force on Charlie all are met with resistance and ineffective results.

The concept behind “Charlie X” is a pretty good one. Kids need boundaries and some sense of order. Charlie Evans is in many ways the archetypal kid who is allowed to do anything by his parents and he’s a brat and dangerous to boot. The problem, then – for us mere mortals at least – is that the resolution comes with a science fiction “out,” as opposed to a real world solution. In other words, this could have been a truly decent drama had Kirk managed to reach the boy and the boundaries and discipline began to work. If “Charlie X” is any indication, there is no saving kids once they’ve become brats; the only hope is to take them away. “Charlie X” illustrates that order, discipline and reason do not work with rebellious teenagers and without external help, those who try to influence them will be disappointed (or killed)!

As a result, like episodes of Supernanny, “Charlie X” quickly becomes repetitive. Charlie acts up, Kirk intervenes, Charlie acts up, Kirk intervenes, Charlie . . . you get the picture. The primary problem here is that by the time the episode gets focused and Charlie Evans is a legitimate villain, he has already been seriously undermined by the somewhat ridiculous notions from the first half of the episode.

The problem is, the episode pulls the punches on some of the menace. Sure, Charlie wipes out a small ship and starts disappearing crewmembers, but when it comes to really making things deadly, the episode quits just shy of real menace. Take, for example, when Charlie silences those laughing at him by simply removing their faces – an effect brilliantly rendered with what appears to be stockings. Lacking mouths and noses to breathe, those affected ought to collapse and die pretty rapidly, yet they just stumble about aimlessly in the halls. In other words, for as horrible as Charlie appears, the show ultimately lacks some of the more serious consequences and undermines itself.

This is also the less problematic aspect of the bigger problem; the fundamental character and acting problems throughout “Charlie X.” Charlie makes little sense in the big scheme of things other than to illustrate the theme of the episode about power corrupting. Indeed, Charlie has been isolated for years on a planet where he developed incredible powers and is now out in the galaxy free to be around people and learn. It is never satisfactorily explained why he becomes a brat and a jerk as opposed to attempting to explore the human condition and act beneficially in the purpose of exploration. In that regard, the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “True Q“ did a far better job of creating an interesting and viable character that made sense.

This leads us to the acting. “Charlie X” is not a great showcase of acting talent, though the regular cast does a fine job at portraying their characters with consistency and reasonable grace. Indeed, William Shatner is allowed to reveal his sense of humor with a sense of great comic timing when delivering lines like “There’s no right way to hit a woman.” The problem, alas, is in the guest and supporting cast.

Grace Lee Whitney, who plays Rand, never seems truly menaced or harried by the attentions of Charlie. Indeed, she generally seems unphased by it until he steps over the line, but for the most part she just seems indifferent. Whitney’s performance lacks any sense that she understands her character is in serious jeopardy – which the character is supposed to know after a certain point. And whatever ability she has to play a strong female character who can stand up to the godlike boy is gutted when she continues to run to Shatner’s Kirk to solve the problems. In other words, Grace Lee Whitney is trapped playing a stereotype of the woman instead of a viable, actualized character and it’s disappointing to see.

But as most of the episode hinges on Robert Walker Jr.’s portrayal of Charlie Evans, the viewer watches him the most. Walker is problematic as Charlie because he plays the youth as so na├»ve in the early half of the episode and so over-the-top in the latter half that it’s hard to judge what is poor acting and what is poor story construction. Either way, Charlie becomes a problematic villain and one who never quite reaches the stride of being taken seriously. Walker plays Charlie either as a confused young man OR the superpowerful villain with no real middle ground – until the last shots of the episode. This makes it hard to take most of the episode seriously.

And ultimately, because there are so many to choose from, it’s easy to skip over this man-turned-god-out-of-control Star Trek episode. There are plenty more (in the first season even!) and they are generally done with a little bit better effect. This one has its moments, but it’s not enough on the whole.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into "Star Trek - The Complete First Season" on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the premiere season by clicking here!


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© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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  1. Hi. I find this episode enjoyable. But in the same style (a boy who godlike powers), I prefered the Star Trek Voyager Season 7 episode Q2 where Janeway has to suffer the consequences of Q's son moods.

    1. We'll disagree on this one, I think!

      Thanks for reading and thanks for the comment. It's fun hearing a different take on some of these!