When the early seasons of Next Generation struggled to find a way to make Wesley Crusher relatable to the audience, I often wondered why Gene Roddenberry didn’t look back to “Charlie X.”
While I wouldn’t exactly call Charles Evans the most rounded look at the teenage years, “Charlie X” still manages to capture some of the awkwardness and yearning to fit it in that many of us experience during our teenage years. I can certainly recall it myself and it probably wasn’t exactly helped by the fact that I included this episode as part of a session on inclusion and exclusion on a youth group retreat while I was in high school.
Yes, you read that correctly. At the same time as we were all struggling to find out who we were and wanting to be accepted, I included an episode of classic Star Trek as part of my teenage youth group retreat. I’m not sure what this says about me except that I was fully embracing my inner geek long before it was fully cool to do so.
But back to “Charlie X.”
Like “The Man Trap,” much of our time on “Charlie X” is spent knowing more than the crew of the Enterprise does. But instead of feeling like we’re treading water until the magic moment when Kirk and Spock figure out that there is something more happening than they’re aware of, “Charlie X” slowly increases the intensity. We’re treated to some of Charlie’s early “tricks” being good-natured enough (the card trick, transforming meat loaf into turkeys) while seeing that he harbors a quick temper and a darker side (his destruction of the chess pieces and the Antares).
By the end of the first act, the audience is in on the fact that there’s more to Charlie than meets the eye. But the good news is so is the crew, though it will take them until the end of act two to really understand the full implications of the power Charlie wields and just how far it can go.
Much of the story plays out as a battle of wills between Kirk and Charlie. Charlie states he’s an adult and he intends to show everyone just how grown up he is by taking over the ship, making people disappear and forcing his affection on Janice. That Charlie isn’t emotionally equipped yet to handle any of these things is apparent, though it’s nice to see that Rand tries to be sensitive to his budding crush on her. Well, that is until he’s showing up at her door and forcing himself into her quarters.
Like many of us at the age, Charlie isn’t quite sure the best way to express his affection for his crush. And Charlie goes about it in the most awkward ways possible from misunderstanding the exchange between the two crewmen and applying that to Janice to trying to get her attention by using her favorite perfume to finally just giving up and deciding she must love him because he loves her. All of this is tinged with an extra edge of drama because of Charlie’s powers and his commitment to using them.
But as with all god-like beings that we come across during the original series, there’s a limit to Charlie’s powers. Kirk figures out that Charlie can’t control the ship and zap people out of existence as well. This doesn’t mean that Charlie isn’t dangerous as he temper tantrum through the ship demonstrates (which is a nice contrast from his early exploration of the ship when he is genuinely curious about the day to day lives of the crew and gets smiles from many) but it also gives Kirk his opening to try to push Charlie and regain control of the ship.
And then it all ends in a tragedy. Charlie is simply too powerful. The Thasians show up, explaining that Charlie was given this power in order to survive without any thought on whether or not this would prevent him from fitting into society once he was rescued. Charlie apparently escaped while they were looking the other way (something I find hard to believe. I often wonder if he was allowed to leave to see if the Thasians could let him integrate himself back into human society and it failed colossally). And now they’ve pursued him across the galaxy to bring him back to his lonely existence on the planet where he can’t even touch anyone and it’s just he and his powers.
The musical score reflects the tragic nature of this as Charlie fades away on the bridge and is taken back to his own personal hell. In teenage terms, he’s sent to his room. But in this case, there’s not going to be any opportunity for him to earn his way out of the room.
It’s interesting that just a few installments after Bailey willing chose a life alone to explore a new civilization with Balock that we see Charlie being forces into a life on his own for the good of humanity. I’ve often wondered what happened to poor Mr. Evans. Did he escape again? Did he eventually go crazy from loneliness and a lack of human contact? Or is he still alive on the planet today, alone and angry as ever?
Here’s some links to other resources on “Charlie X.”