Star Trek: The Original Series

"Charlie X"

***1/2

Air date: 9/15/1966
Teleplay by D.C. Fontana
Story by Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Lawrence Dobkin

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

The Enterprise provides transport for 17-year-old Charlie Evans (Robert Walker Jr.), an adolescent who grew up alone on an uninhabited planet after being the sole survivor of a crash 14 years before. Initially unbeknownst to Kirk & Co., Charlie holds powerful abilities that were given to him by an alien race so he could survive his isolation. Charlie now finds himself unable to cope with life among humans, as he careens into social situations where, when he doesn't understand, he feels forced to throw people upon the mercy of his own abilities—including making people "go away," vanishing into apparent oblivion.

The true success in "Charlie X" is in its central character's sympathetic dilemma. Charlie is a boy who wants to be liked and understood, but he doesn't grasp the social norms, and as a result feels threatened whenever he is faced with anything approaching the unpleasant or adversarial. When he experiences a crush on Yeoman Rand, his determination to win her over is poisoned by his ability to harness his anger when his feelings aren't returned.

The episode depends less on plot manipulations than it does on intelligently analyzing one person and the understandable problems surrounding him. Walker Jr. turns in a vivid performance, making Charlie pitiable even when he's at his most sadistic and malevolent. His face-off scenes with Kirk are right on the money. The story's conclusion is a necessary yet unfortunate turn of events.

Previous episode: The Man Trap
Next episode: Where No Man Has Gone Before

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17 comments on this review

AJ Koravkrian
Sat, Mar 29, 2008, 5:39pm (UTC -5)
I just watched Charlie X, and well, it may be a good episode on coffee, but it's unbearably slow. I literally fell asleep during the last couple of acts.
AJ Koravkrian
Sat, Mar 29, 2008, 5:41pm (UTC -5)
Oh, and also in Charlie X, what's with that ridiculous singing by Uhura...not to mention Spock smiling ? That got my attention in the beginning...it was almost creepy.
Strider
Fri, Jun 1, 2012, 8:18am (UTC -5)
I loved the Kirk-as-father-figure aspects of this episode. You do feel sorry for Charlie, which is a nice switch.
Koovan
Mon, Oct 14, 2013, 8:21am (UTC -5)
I began watching the first season of Voyager and then decided to return to TOS and start at the beginning of the franchise. What immediately strikes me in this episode is the horrifying conclusion and how easily outmatched the crew of the Enterprise were. There was no implausibly brilliant and impossibly convenient solution available to ensure a 'happy' ending. Voyager, in contrast, has felt far too cosy and safe so far.

The danger of space exploration and the possibilities that the 'unknown' present, are much more tangible and direct here - the universe is a place were outcomes are not guaranteed and many answers will be beyond us. It's good to see the Original Series taking such risks so early in production.

I imagine that the programme following in the footsteps of programmes such as the Twilight Zone in which the outcomes lacked redemption for the protagonists.
William B
Fri, Jan 3, 2014, 11:46am (UTC -5)
“Charlie X” is pretty similar in its basic plot setup to “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” in that not only does the crew have to deal with a superbeing, it’s a human who has these powers, and who increasingly insists that people be nice to them. Still, in spite of the episodes’ similarities they are really about different emotional states. Gary Mitchell’s rebellion is an adult one, and is connected with the frontier and ends with a big Western brawl. Charlie Evans is a teenager, and the adolescent-with-superpowers thing has a similar overall meaning to that in something like Carrie, though this time told primarily from the adults’ POV. All or almost all teenagers, we’re reminded, go through a phase of great change, in which they struggle to fit in and understand themselves and find themselves on the outside of society as a whole. That Charlie was completely cut off from human civilization and raised by powerful beings who don’t really understand him is meant to be an exaggeration of what all teenagers feel like. They want to join adult society and get away from the parents, and ultimately need to, but it’s a very painful process. And in some cases, they never quite do fit into society, and Charlie has to return “home,” to his misery. The eventual realization that Charlie was not a true orphan but did have an upbringing helps bring him closer to an exaggeration of a typical teenager’s experience, rather than the experience of a feral child or a Tarzan figure.

What’s interesting about this episode is that the process fails. The gradual escalation here, from Charlie’s social awkwardness to lack of boundaries with Rand to eventually taking over the ship, is pretty well done, I think, where both the crew and Charlie seem to be trying, somehow, to make it work, but they are unprepared to deal with a social misfit teenager and he’s, well, a traumatized orphan with superpowers, so, that’s obviously not going to end well. The crew do seem to me to be on the insensitive side about the incredible trauma Charlie has been through, but I get that they, even McCoy who has some psychological training, are really underqualified for the task of reaching this kid. The gender politics are pretty bad, with Rand trying and not really succeeding to explain why people don’t slap each other’s behinds and that he should talk to Kirk or McCoy about that, at which point they are unable to answer him. But the basic idea that of course he’s going to crush, heavily and overwhelmingly, on an older woman and that this is going to go badly mostly stands. I think that the episode ends up losing much of its momentum about 2/3 of the way through, at which point it’s clear that Charlie’s left much chance of a healthy interaction with the Enterprise crew behind, and the Charlie Problem seems increasingly clearly outside the Enterprise’s grasp. Like “Where No Man Has Gone Before” and to an extent “The Man Trap,” this ending is notably downbeat, solidifying the early-series idea that the Enterprise crew is just on the edge, and the victories it can manage will often be provisional. Even the Enterprise crew can’t deal with a lonely, angry teenager in pain.

This is one of the episodes which seems to be positioning Yeoman Rand as a major figure in the show; she seems to be somewhat on par with Uhura overall in this and “The Man Trap” but gets greater focus here. I like that she tries to balance sympathy with Charlie with the importance of setting the proper boundaries. Still, while the story tries to show Janice’s POV, the fact htat the story is primarily about Charlie and about Kirk means that Janice does remain mostly objectified, ending up on the bridge in her nightie because she’s just so hot. The episode furthers Uhura’s hitting-on-Spock habit, this time through song!, and while it’s weird to see Spock smiling the way he does, I don’t think it breaks the character so much as bends him—it’s implausible, but I could see Spock allowing himself a little bit of pleasant amusement while he’s playing music and sharing some quality time with a crew member he ultimately does respect and like (though not in that way). Kirk continues to be a mostly balanced guy, and his awkwardness and inability to talk to Charlie positions him as an adult uncomfortable with teenagers in a way that makes him almost Picardian.

I think the episode is repetitive enough that I’d probably go with 3 stars rather than 3.5, but it’s a pretty good show.
redshirt28
Wed, Apr 2, 2014, 8:11am (UTC -5)
Is it me or was kirk being half-hearted in his attempt to keep the blob from taking charlie back? Kind of like hes saying the boy belongs with his own kind but hes really thinking get that little sob off my bridge. Good ep 3.5 yup.
Andrew
Mon, Oct 12, 2015, 9:32am (UTC -5)
I thought Charlie was somewhat sympathetic at first but quickly became and for a long time remained very evil so for Kirk to try to help in the end at all was very impressive.
JD
Thu, Nov 12, 2015, 10:20am (UTC -5)
It's nothing deep or too analytical but my favorite part of the episode is when Charlie denies that Spock beat him at chess and Spock casually blows him off and refuses to deal with his temper tantrum. It's actually pretty funny the way he plays it. It's a little self-satisfied and a little selfish. He's not going to bother himself trying to correct the little pipsqueak or teach him anything. He doesn't give a crap. He's just going to Vulcanly enjoy that he made him look stupid and let him sit with it. Pshhhhh. Spock is outta here.
John
Fri, Feb 19, 2016, 6:23am (UTC -5)
Good:
Robert Walker Jr. is pretty great
The sense of dread in the episode is strong. The threat feels real, and when I was a kid the woman who'd lost her face scared the hell out of me.
Unlike in the "first" episode (Man Trap), there's much more of an attempt to sympathize with the threat, which is much more like Star Trek.
I've always like Spock's sudden poetry outburst
"I can't even touch them!"

Bad:
I don't mind Uhura singing, but it goes on too long
Trying to keep an all-powerful being behind a forcefield is pretty stupid

Ugly
Nothing to speak of.

Overall: Strong, moody piece with an ending that should feel like a cop-out, but doesn't. Three and a half out of four.
grumpy_otter
Thu, Apr 14, 2016, 11:04am (UTC -5)
I like this one very much, and I think Walker does a great job, but he looks so odd that it kind of puts me off him. The way they do his hair makes his head into a triangle, and his orange makeup is a bit much.

But this episode, as well-stated above by others, really is a good episode that explores great trek territory.
dreamlife613
Sun, Sep 11, 2016, 1:33am (UTC -5)
Watching this episode (and this series) for the first time in 2016, I was struck by just how scary and creepy it was compared to the other series. Despite Deep Space Nine being the "dark" Star Trek, I don't recall ever feeling scared while watching it. Sure there were some disturbing, thought-provoking incidents and episodes, but nothing scary.

In my current watch of Voyager, I've seen some revolting aliens, like the ones who steal organs, but don't recall feeling afraid while watching the episodes.

Charlie was a very disturbing character, with that strange look on his face whenever he felt threatened and angered and his rapey behavior towards the female crew was very unsettling. Would have been a better episode if the treatment of the women wasn't so dated (the character with the funny hair (Janice?) and her inability to explain what was happening to her was frustrating. The lack of follow-up to what Charlie did to Uhura (looked like he hurt her throat to stop her from singing) was unfortunate, because so far in the show, she hasn't been treated as much more than a pretty secretary in a short skirt.
Rikko
Thu, Sep 29, 2016, 10:53pm (UTC -5)
Pretty cool episode, I agree with the rest of the crew :P this is a bit creepy. The guest actor was a good one this time around.

I think the ending is not a cop-out but thematically consistent with the story. Charlie was basically a (superpowered) teen playing around while his parents weren't looking. And I can't think of many other choices of an ending, either self-destruction or some way to stop him (his parents). He was beyond reasoning or redemption since he banished Rand.

The basic idea of the episode reminds me of the classic short story "It's a good life". Charlie would have ended up like the kid from that story if he wasn't stopped. And yeah, Charlie was a sympathetic character, unlike some other ones I've seen so far (the thing of "The Man Trap"). Overall, I am satisfied.

And btw, I think I am watching the episodes in production order, because this was my eight episode of TOS instead of the second.
Louis
Thu, Jan 12, 2017, 12:59pm (UTC -5)
Is it just me or is the face Charlie makes not the most hilarious thing you've ever seen? It seems over the top. It's so bad it's good!
Rahul
Fri, Jan 13, 2017, 3:46pm (UTC -5)
Not a huge fan of the story although the portrayal of Charlie is well done and Shatner's acting is one of his better performances as he has to explain awkward things to Charlie as well as being tough on him.
My issue with the episode is that I think it could have been compressed into 1/2 hour. Enough slow parts that show Charlie's nature as a teenager that also don't do much for the development of crew members. Spock must be a bad 3D chess player.
The episode establishes a solution that Trek members will employ in subsequent episodes when dealing with a superior being - that of trying to overtax it. Bit of a fortuitous solution in the end when Charlie's "parent" show up to take him away. One can feel for Charlie who will have to live without human contact -- it does show a compassionate side of the crew in the bridge.
For me, this one rates 2/4. In some ways similar to "The Man Trap" with a dangerous being roaming the ship, but "Charlie X" didn't have the interest/tension for me that the 1st episode of Season 1 did.
Cloudane
Tue, Mar 21, 2017, 3:29pm (UTC -5)
Towards the end I was really willing Kirk to go through with that punch, or just chuck the little sod out of an airlock. I'm a bad person :p

This is an interesting episode for me in that it coincidentally follows me having read quite a good social skills series over on reddit: https://www.reddit.com/r/socialskills/comments/47v23l/how_to_be_socially_sk illed_pt1_getting_started
Everything that is mentioned in that series came up in this episode. It felt like I'd just got to the end of a class and been shown a demonstration video :)

As noted by someone in the previous episode's comments, you do see more UhuraXSpock than I remember, along with more emotions in Spock early on, kind of invalidating those criticisms when they're directed at the 2009 reboot. (I'm still not a big fan of the reboot though)
Trek fan
Sat, Sep 16, 2017, 9:25pm (UTC -5)
Charlie X is "puberty in space" as only Star Trek can do it. As we encounter the 17-year old Charlie learning to cope with powers he's not ready to exercise responsibly, there's a lot of fun to be had in watching Kirk try to parent the boy. But there's a difference in the Star Trek universe as always: This boy really IS all-powerful, rather than simply *thinking* he is such, and he can take revenge on all the people he perceives as slighting him. And when he takes his vengeance on the unwitting crew in Lord of the Flies fashion, evoking our audience fears of being in the hands of an unstable teenager as Spock puts it, there's a real sense of Twilight Zone-esque tension and dread as the crew gradually realizes they are powerless to control him.

Robert Walker is stellar as Charlie, capturing all the ambiguities of adolescense. Shatner shines in his portrayal of Kirk, morphing from bemused half-engagement with Charlie to concern as he realizes the threat to his ship -- the wrestling scene and Kirk's bravado in basically telling Charlie "get out of my chair" at the end hearken to the heart of the Kirk character still being established in these early episodes. The message seems to be that Kirk will roll with a lot of things, but taking the captain's chair isn't one of them -- and Charlie's wavering in the face of a father figure who actually pushes back at him for taking "daddy's chair" is well-played by Walker. Also, as a commenter mentioned earlier, Spock's delicious response to Charlie in the chess scene is quintessentially Spock. While Shatner seems to have Kirk's character down pat from the pilot onward, Nimoy is obviously still working things out, and it's almost more fun to watch him develop the greater complexity of Spock's alien character than to watch Kirk do Kirk.

While TOS sometimes veers into sexism, I actually didn't perceive that with Yeoman Rand's character in this one, as Charlie is clearly mimicking the behavior of one man to another man when he slaps her -- it's not like he saw a male crew member slap a female crew member on the rear. Also Grace Lee Whitney plays Rand very well here, trying simultaneously to protect the intense Charlie's feelings while sending off the "I'm not interested" vibe with increasing force, a very relatable experience for many people (even today) who have tried to let down unwanted crushes gently. Kirk's awkward effort to explain to Charlie that slapping a woman on the rear is wrong, far from coming across as sexist, feels more like the Abrams reboot Kirk -- the expression on Shatner's face, hinting at his own tendency to push boundaries with women rather than set them, comes across as pretty hysterical.

Other highlights include the Uhura-Spock song in the rec room, elaborating our view of shipboard life as well as Uhura's musical character, and the freaky little moments like the faceless woman as Charlie takes his revenge. Very rarely does Trek in any incarnation feel dangerous and shocking, but it does here: We really don't know what vicious things this kid will do next. And Kirk's effort to show compassion for the kid at the end, even knowing how Charlie killed an entire freighter crew, feels very Trekkian in its effort to find *some* good in apparent evil. There's some good nuance here that sometimes doesn't appear in other Trek shows of various series in dealing with all-powerful beings. The omnipotent being as a teenager here is a nice twist on the formula.

All in all, I particularly enjoy this one for the realistic way it reminds me of all the teenagers I've known, and for the salutary lesson that great power requires maturity to be exercised responsibility for the benefit of all. This is a classic Trekkian morality tale that remains somewhat unique in the canon. I'd give it 3 1/2 or even 4 stars.
Just another fan
Fri, Oct 13, 2017, 12:18am (UTC -5)
Wow. Nice review, Trek fan. I'm re-watching TOS on Netflix from the beginning for the first time in many years. And so far I'm finding that despite the hokey sets that look like they're made of paper mache, they're still gripping. I forgot that TOS is much more like the Twilight Zone than it is like later Trek series -- happy endings are not guaranteed, and it's not only the red shirts who meet untimely ends.

This episode had a real atmosphere of dread that continued to build throughout. Here, I felt sympathy for Charlie as he tried to navigate the rough seas of adolescence. Without human guidance during his prepubescent years, he had poorer social skills than most young people and no sense of how to control himself. Yet I never felt that he was "bad," only that he had never been taught. So I understood the dilemna the crew faced. I remember being a teenager with all those feelings of insecurity and angst. Even if it meant I could be younger, I wouldn't go through that stage of life again. So I could only imagine the pressure on a young person facing all of those painful rites of passage without an adequate support system.

At the end, when Charlie begged not to be sent back with the aliens, the camera panned the faces of the crew and you could see that no one but Janice and Kirk felt they could even advocate for the boy to stay. A true, Trekkian dilemna, where there was no comfortable choice to make.

I've also been taking note of how the women are treated in these episodes, and so far, it's not too bad for the time period. As usual on Star Trek, there's the odd mixture of an interest in looking at women and commenting on their appearance -- in skirts so short, women couldn't comfortably wear them today, in their nightgowns, sometimes with carefully torn clothing strategically placed, with green skin, with elaborate hair styles, and blue and silver nail polish -- but no real understanding of how to speak to women or relate to them, as if women also were aliens. Witness how Kirk cannot articulate to Charlie why he shouldn't slap a woman on the rear end. In the unaired pilot, the Cage, Captain Pike says he can't get used to having women on the bridge. So given that time period, where women were just beginning to join certain professions, some of the discomfort makes sense. But oddly enough, I see the same treatment of women in Enterprise, as though the people who write Star Trek haven't learned anything about how to relate to women in 40 years. It's a little funny, but while it was somewhat amusing in the sixties, by the 21st century it's more than a little sad.

One thing they got right pretty fast with this series was the distinctive characters. It's early on in the show, and already most of the series regulars are establishing clearly differentiated personalities. It's fun to watch that come together.

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