. . . you know, I’m starting to think that nothing good ever happens to sole survivors in Star Trek. Like, where are my aspirational stories, man? Where are the happy endings for these castaways?
There will be SPOILERS for this episode and probably TOS in general. You’ve been warned.
WHAT GOES DOWN, BASICALLY
The Enterprise receives a new passenger on their ship: 17-year-old Charlie, who was the soul survivor of a ship crash when he was 3 and has been living alone on planet Thasus ever since. Unsurprisingly, Charlie’s social graces are seriously lacking. Also, he’s basically omnipotent: he can psychically destroy whole starships, not to mention transmute people or just outright blink them out of existence. He has a number of psychokinetic temper tantrums, many of which revolve around Yeoman Janice Rand, who he instantly becomes infatuated with. In order to keep him in line, Kirk tries to act as an authority/father figure, but that only works for so long.
Before Charlie can inevitably murder everyone on board and/or make it to Colony 5, the Thasians show up. Turns out, Thasians are a non-corporeal alien race with immense psychic powers, powers they gifted to a young Charlie so that he could survive–but also now make him unfit to live with the humans that he would (and has) endangered. Desperate, Charlie promises to be good and begs to stay with his kind, but the Thasians are unconvinced and take him away.
This episode is fascinating from a gender studies perspective.
Charlie is pretty much the embodiment of male entitlement: he refuses to accept that he can’t immediately have everything he wants, especially when it comes to women. His interactions with Janice, specifically, are downright creepy. Slapping her ass is one thing. (He misinterprets one of those ‘totes masculine, football-esque, no homo’ sort of butt slaps between two guys and then repeats the gesture with less desirable results.) But he quickly becomes extremely possessive, especially when he invades her room and tells her, “Don’t ever lock your door on me again, Janice. I love you.” Fucking CREEPY. God bless her, Janice immediately responds that she’ll lock her door when she pleases. (And in case you were wondering, Janice has now officially grown on me.) Of course, Charlie then quickly disappears her–in the most literal sense of the word–for not behaving the way he wanted her to.
What I find especially interesting about this episode is trying to discern how much of it is intentionally addressing male entitlement and how much just sort of accidentally stumbles across it. Like, Charlie is clearly meant to be disturbing, and absolutely no one comes out of this thing shipping him and Janice. (One hopes. I mean that whole “you smell like a girl” monologue alone . . . *shudders*)
OTOH, the show absolutely invites us to be dismissive of Janice’s concerns when she talks to Kirk about Charlie’s behavior. Like, ostensibly she’s telling the captain that he needs to talk to Charlie because she’ll have to break the kid’s heart if he doesn’t, but . . . I don’t know. The line “Captain, I’ve seen the look before” paired with her palpable discomfort in the scene and immediately following that disturbing ass monologue where Charlie corners Janice in a corridor and tells her that she’s the only one who makes him “hungry all over” . . . the whole thing is just so reminiscent of those moments when a guy has made you seriously uncomfortable and you really don’t want to ever be alone with him, but you also don’t want to be accused of “making a scene” or “causing a fuss” or “making something out of nothing.” Which, essentially, is how Kirk behaves: he smirks condescendingly as he brushes off Janice’s concerns, immediately excusing Charlie’s behavior under the defense that he’s a “seventeen-year-old boy.”
To be fair to Kirk, he does end up talking to Charlie, and he does a considerably better job of it than when he “explained” why you shouldn’t smack a woman’s ass. (Kirk is officially banned from ever giving anyone The Sex Talk.) Still, “Charlie X” has this whole uncomfortable “boys will be boys” undercurrent running through it, like it’s only natural that boys are entitled, sexist, and murderous little monsters if they have no one around to guide them. By contrast, the episode never thinks to ask if maybe it’s society that turns boys into entitled, sexist, and murderous little monsters, that maybe the real problem is nurture, not nature.
I know, I get it, this was made in 1966. I’m just saying that’s what I thought of when I watched the show.
Look, this just needs to be said: as effectively whiny-boy-disturbing as Robert Walker is in the role, Charlie’s Psychic Face needs work. It is ridiculously close to the face that little Lisa makes in Airplane when the flight attendant knocks out her IV while singing an uplifting song to the passengers.
Can’t help but notice that while Charlie punishes men he doesn’t like–disappearing the dude at the gym who laughed at him, for example–there’s definitely more focus on how he specifically targets women. Like, you see Charlie silence a bunch of people laughing off screen, but the person who stumbles out of the room without a face is a woman. Meanwhile, he pushes past two male crew members without incident, but he literally freezes a woman in her tracks for daring to come across him. And that’s not even counting the woman he rapid-ages, the woman he transforms into a lizard, or–of course–Janice, who is also seemingly blinked out of existence.
Star Trek has the most hilarious workout gear, forever and always. Memory Alpha informs me that this is the first and last time we’ll get to visit the gym on TOS, and I am sorely disappointed.
First Time We’ve Encountered: Spock and Bones arguing. Also, Kirk and Spock playing three-dimensional chess. (I love how Spock has absolutely no time for Charlie’s petulant bullshit and totally walks out on him. Heh.)
The Fashion Report: Charlie’s sweater thing is obviously the worst article of clothing on display here, but it’s Kirk’s green shirt that keeps throwing me. Of course, Command colors have changed over time from gold to red, but I didn’t realize green was ever in the mix.
Dude. The totally canon UST between Spock and Uhura only grows in this episode: Uhura sings while Spock provides music, and then he outright smirks at her, like, not a condescending asshole smirk, but an amused and potentially flirty smirk. Oh yeah, people. These two were meant to hook up.
At one point, Charlie makes Spock spout a bunch of random poetry, including–sigh–“The Tyger” by William Blake. Alas. Will I never escape this damn poem?
It’s interesting: the Thasians coming to the Enterprise’s rescue in the last act could and probably should feel like a huge deus ex machina, but it doesn’t, probably because “Charlie X” is, first and foremost, a tragedy. Much to my shock–and a little to my horror–I actually do feel sorry for Charlie at the end of the episode; he’s fated to spend the rest of his life with only the company of non-corporeal beings who can’t feel or touch, and he’s given no real opportunity to prove that, now understanding the serious consequences of his actions, he could actually change for the better. (In fairness, I’m pretty sure he couldn’t.) It’s a lonely and terrible fate, and Robert Walker’s begging is incredibly effective here.
That being said, as much as we’re invited to feel sorry for Charlie, I can’t help but wonder how bad we’d feel if the Thasians couldn’t undo nearly all the terrible things that happened. (All the people on the Antares remain dead, but we barely saw those people, so their horrifying fate is easier to push to the background.) Or even if the Thasians could restore everyone on the Enterprise to normal, how would these people feel if Charlie got to stay after all? This ending asks us to put ourselves in Charlie’s shoes and sympathize with his grim turnout; what it doesn’t ask, however, is for us to put ourselves in Charlie’s victims’ shoes, if he got to stick around for a journey of self-redemption. Of course, there’s obvious value in seeing the humanity of a villain, of understanding how every antagonist is the protagonist of their own story. But there’s also, I think, a danger in focusing on the emotional welfare of the villain over the real life consequences of all the people whose lives he’s destroyed.
So, it all makes me wonder: say that one lady is still running around without a face, and another is still a lizard, and Yeoman Janice Rand is lost forever. Do you still feel sorry for Charlie Evans? Should you?
LINE OF THE EPISODE
“There’s no right way to hit a woman.”