“Charlie X”, like many of the early episodes of Star Trek, has a strong science fiction idea at its core, but stumbles a bit with the execution, producing an episode that’s intriguing but sometimes feels dated and awkward. The sexual politics portrayed in the original series has not aged well, as opposed to the racial elements. All art is, of course, the product of its time, which is one reason why, for example, Nicholas Meyer refuses to apologize for the fact that David Marcus is sporting an 80s tennis sweater tied around his shoulders like he stepped out of The Breakfast Club and onto the bridge of the Enterprise in The Wrath of Khan. But the original series is at its weakest when it unintentionally reminds us that it’s fifty years old, and was produced by people with different values and approaches to gender than us today. In “Charlie X”, Kirk essentially has to teach a teenaged boy about women, life and society, and let’s face it: Kirk isn’t exactly the best teacher to have on those subjects, especially back in the 1960s. On the other hand, there are moments here of “hard” sci-fi that remain daring for the time, the episode opens up the ship to show us new decks and new crewmembers (the crew seemed enormous in the early episodes and then appeared to shrink to the point where it was just the core cast, plus one or two guests, as the series went on), and has story elements as unsettling as anything in The Twilight Zone.
Rod Serling’s series casts a large shadow over all mid-century science fiction, and it’s no surprise that in the wide variety of stories told in The Twilight Zone, the notion of a child with enormous powers was addressed there first. Produced in 1961, “It’s a Good Life” is legendary, earning even its own Simpsons parody. The premise of a telekinetic child capable of manifesting any chosen reality is unsettling enough, and “Charlie X” takes it a step further and proposes a young teenager is endowed with those powers. That twist opens up opportunities for Kirk to play a “father figure” to a confused young man, and it’s here that the episode takes a turn into painfully dated gender politics. Yes, Kirk teaches Charlie that it’s wrong to slap women on the ass as they walk away as a form of flirtation, but Charlie’s impulse to do so would probably strike most modern teenagers as deeply strange. But when Charlie finally gets unhinged towards the end of the episode, the results are disturbing and effective.
The actual mission of the week is a simple one, from Kirk’s perspective: transport Charlie, a young orphan, from a planet where he was marooned as a toddler, and bring him to a new life with relatives on a colony. It isn’t exactly intergalactic poker with the Klingons or Romulans, but this low-key mission affords us an opportunity to spend time with the crew in their off-duty hours. Since this was only the second episode of Star Trek to air, the scenes of Spock and Uhura jamming in the rec room leaves a powerful impression of both characters. Not only does Nichelle Nichols get a chance to sing, but we see a gentler, warmer side of Spock. Uhura and Rand, in particular, take a strong interest in Charlie, probably owing to the sexist presumption that because they’re women, they automatically know more about childcare than a man. But still, it humanizes the characters in important ways, which is significant for a show about quasi-military personnel engaged in scientific and diplomatic research.
Another issue with the episode is Charlie’s age. The character’s age is specifically set at seventeen, an age that’s on the cusp of adulthood and for all intents and purposes is much closer to maturity than infancy. Still, the other characters treat him as if he’s about 12 – or perhaps even younger. There are a few lines tossed in about how impressed the crew is that Charlie managed to survive on his own for 14 years, but they still treat him as if he’s a hapless child. Rand and Uhura are particularly condescending, even going so far as to pair him up with a female crewmember that they regard as closer to his age, even though Rand can’t be more than 25, and the actor playing Charlie (Robert Walker) was 26 when the episode was filmed. Charlie is just discovering his sense of sexuality, looking baffled at women (he’s never met one before arriving on the Enterprise) and acting more like an 11-year-old than someone a year away from eighteen. It’s difficult to say whether this odd aspect of the episode is due to the writers deliberately infantilizing the character due to network pressure (perhaps they wanted more children to watch) or whether it’s just a factor of the times. In 1966, it’s hard to believe that someone would think a 17-year-old would be so innocent, but Gene Roddenberry (who wrote the original story on which the episode is baed) clearly did. It’s a reminder that, although Roddenberry had some very progressive ideas, he was no hippie, and his understanding of childhood was rooted in the 1930s and 1940s. (Roddenberry, by the way, has his only “cameo” appearance in Star Trek here, playing the voice of the chef who calls up to Captain Kirk to tell him there are “real turkeys” in the ovens.)
The writer who turned Roddenberry’s original story into a script was Dorothy “D.C.” Fontana, making her first of many contributions to the world of Trek. Fontana is one of the very few writers (David Gerrold is another) who worked on the original series, the animated series and Star Trek: The Next Generation and is a legendary figure behind the scenes of Trek on TV. It’s wasn’t unheard-of for TV writers at the time to be women, but it was certain unusual, and Fontana did the traditional thing for female authors and used her initials to hide her gender. She would go on to write 10 episodes of The Original Series as well as five episodes of The Next Generation, and her tumultuous experience on that latter show is well-documented in William Shatner’s film Chaos on the Bridge. Here on “Charlie X”, one gets the impression that Roddenberry (with whom Fontana didn’t always get along) was keeping her on a short leash and once again taking more of a hand in the writing than would ordinarily be the case.
Despite all the issues,”Charlie X” has some effective moments, particularly when Charlie throws a fit and begins using his power for spontaneous revenge, like removing a female crewmember’s face, or making others mute. When, at the end, it’s revealed that Charlie got his special abilities from powerful aliens and they take him away to live with them (over the protests of Kirk and Charlie himself), this is a classic Star Trek twist. That device would be used again in episodes like “The Squire of Gothos” and “Arena”, establishing that peculiarly Trek notion that there are intelligent beings in the universe so powerful that they appear essentially as gods. Although famously atheist, Roddenberry still had a powerful sense of the enormity of the universe and a healthy sense of awe.
The next episode filmed was one of the most effective and popular of the whole series, “Balance of Terror”, which tells a much more standard kind of story than “Charlie X”, but does so with significantly greater skill.