Girls in Space Be Wary
An in-depth review of TOS S1E2: "Charlie X"
Star Trek, S1E2: “Charlie X” TOS episode 2 of 80 Original air date: 15 September 1966 Stardate: 1533.6 (2266 CE) Notable guest stars: Robert Walker as Charlie Evans Abraham Sofaer as The Thasian Gene Roddenberry as the voice of the Enterprise chef
The story for the second Star Trek episode to air originally can be traced back to a one-sentence draft Gene Roddenberry had included in his original pitch for the show in early 1964. When the series was picked up by NBC, Roddenberry assigned the story to D.C. Fontana, who wrote the screenplay. It was aired as the second episode (it was the eighth episode to be filmed) because it finished post production quickly, owing to the limited special effects involved — the whole episode is set aboard the Enterprise, a model for external shots of the Antares was never built due to budget constraints and the Thasian ship is just an out-of-focus green blob in the original version of the episode. “Charlie X” is a solid science fiction story that impressed many viewers at the time, even without needing any fancy special effects. It is a character-driven tale rooted in the conflicts inherent in the human condition and as such a good early example of what made Star Trek, as a franchise, special.
“Your illogical approach to chess does have its advantages on occasion, Captain.”
For this review, I watched the remastered version of the episode available on Netflix in Germany.
Reluctant Father Figure
The plot for “Charlie X” is relatively simple, but it works. These days, it would probably be considered a science fiction trope, but what critics call a “trope”, usually disparagingly, only acquires that moniker by repetition. Since Star Trek and its stories were breaking ground — at least on television — at the time, this plot was probably seen as rather original in 1966.
The episode’s premise is explained quickly: The Enterprise meets up with a Starfleet ship of some kind (more on that later), called the Antares. Kirk greets his fellow captain and takes on board a 17-year-old boy called Charlie Evans, who the Antares crew picked up previously on the remote planet of Thasis. Charlie is the only survivor of a crashed transport ship and, previously to being found by the Antares, has been alone (with just a computer for company) since he was three. The Enterprise is to take him along to the nearest human outpost, Earth Colony Five. Along the way, it becomes clear that Charlie possesses superhuman powers, enabling him to make things (and people) disappear and also to control minds to some extend. Not only is Charlie struggling with the usual vagaries of puberty, he is also locked in a fight to control these powers. Kirk tries to act as a father figure to guide him, but eventually fails. At the end of the episode, the Thasians (until this point only a legend) turn up and explain that Charlie crashed on their planet and they gave him these powers because they had no other way of keeping him alive. Charlie escaped with the Antares and they’ve now come to take him back to their planet to save humanity, and Charlie himself, from his powers.
What works best about this episode is Kirk’s relationship with Charlie. He seems to have genuine sympathy for the plight of a teenager going through the vagaries of adolescence. He puts up with a lot of Charlie’s antics and is very patient with him in the first part of the episode, before Charlie’s powers start to manifest. Despite clearly not being comfortable in the fatherly role — Kirk actually tries to pawn this duty off on Dr McCoy first — he seems to grow into it and, along the way, displays some genuine affection for Charlie in a few scenes. This episode introduces a classic science fiction storytelling device to the series for the first time: Charlie’s powers are really just a metaphor for the struggles of puberty and the issues a boy goes through in becoming a man. This is basically a teenage melodrama, the trappings of a space ship and the alien powers are just set dressing.
“There’s nothing wrong with you that hasn’t gone wrong with every other human male since the model first came out.”
Apparently, Robert Walker was very much a method actor and purposefully kept away from the rest of the cast on set to create an on-screen feeling of estrangement between him and the crew of the Enterprise. I’d be inclined to say that it worked. His performance of Charlie indeed comes off as strange and different, compared to everyone else on the ship. This is well supported by the musical score, which is excellent throughout the episode.
William Shatner acts a good counterpart to Walker — in a very understated way, for his standards — and together, they turn this into a pretty watchable episode. It is generally notable how subdued Shatner plays his character in these early episodes compared to later parts of the series. I do enjoy this calmer, more relaxed version of Kirk.
The Age Issue
In my opinion, the episode’s biggest problem is the discrepancy between Charlie’s age (17) and the age of the actor playing him (26). While this practice of having an older actor play a child is understandable from a production standpoint and certainly not unique to Star Trek, it does hamper the believability of the plot significantly, because so much of it hinges on the puberty angle. Grace Lee Whitney, who plays Yeoman Rand, might be ten years older than Walker, but seeing them on screen together, they could pretty much be the same age. She actually looks younger than she is, while Walker certainly doesn’t look 17. When Rand tells Charlie that she’s much too old for him, I almost burst out laughing at that. None of this is any fault of the actors, of course. But it makes their scenes unconvincing. It gets even more confusing when Yeoman Third Class Tina is introduced, who is supposed to be Charlie’s age, but who’s portraited by an actress whose age falls right between what Charlie’s age is supposed to be and what Walker’s age actually is.
This agelessness of the main character exacerbates a general issue with the introduction of the love angle between Charlie and Yeoman Rand. Having grown up alone on a planet with incorporeal aliens — or, as we are led to believe at the time, having learned human behaviour only from record tapes on his crashed ship — Charlie barely has a grip on what it means to be a human child, let alone how to deal with puberty. The scene where he slaps Rand on the ass in the corridor is straight-on cringeworthy. I was actually surprised at how patient Rand was with him in this and later scenes. Especially considering that one of their later encounters almost verges into rape.
“You just don’t go around slapping girls on the…”
It is clear that the puberty subject is key to the whole episode and, obviously, coming to grips with your own sexuality is a big part of this. But they’ve probably could have dealt with this with a lighter touch. It would have improved the overall impression of the episode, I think. As it stands, “Charlie X” sets up somewhat of a theme for the franchise in that episodes that centre around the problems of teenagers generally weren’t well received by the fanbase.
Drawing on my own experience of watching The Next Generation as a teenager, I would argue that this is because at that age you’re watching the show trying to identify with adults — because you’re anxious to become an adult yourself. You don’t want to see more of the problems you’re already dealing with in your day-to-day life anyway. Even if they happen on a spaceship. The producers of these shows introduced teenager plots to have something for teenagers to identify with and thus make them more interested in the show, I think. But it generally tends to have the opposite effect.
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NBC executives had similar misgivings about this storyline and the episode was originally supposed to air later in the series, but this got changed because, for reasons stated earlier, “Charlie X” simply left post-production sooner than other episodes.
The Rec Room Scene
The most noteworthy scene in this whole episode is set in rec room 6, where the crew of the Enterprise is relaxing off-shift. Spock starts playing his Vulcan lute and then Uhura launches into the most remarkable — and xenophobic — song I’ve ever heard on any Star Trek show. Looking at Spock, she begins to sing: “On the Starship Enterprise, there’s someone who’s in Satan’s guise, whose devil ears and devil eyes…”
I actually couldn’t remember this scene at all from the last few times I’ve seen TOS, probably because I’ve also seen it in German a few times and the dubbing for the song is probably horrible so my brain might have deleted the whole scene from my memory. The lyrics surprised me even more because of this. It’s some downright hateful stuff. Uhura continues to explain how Spock’s “alien love could victimise” the girls on the ship and this is why the “very female astronauts” on the Enterprise “wait terrified and overwrought to find what he will do”. She recommends: “Girls in space be wary.”
This song is emblematic for a mocking treatment of Spock, which started in the first episode of the show, and sometimes (as it does here) verges into almost hateful commentary. This kind of behaviour is hard to reconcile with the tolerance towards different cultures and species that the Federation was founded on, according to later depictions in the franchise. As it stands, we will have to chalk this anachronism up to the realities of production and the sentiments of the time.
It is worth noting, however, that Spock seems to take this whole song as a joke. He’s actually smiling when Uhura starts. And I’m talking a real smile, not one of those sarcastic half-smiles he regularly pulls when he’s observing human nature or has to listen to a crude joke about himself by Kirk or McCoy. Throughout the whole scene, Spock is content to play his lute and seems to stand very much above the apparent insult of having his physiognomy and sexuality compared to the devil’s.
Gender Roles in 2266
Much like when watching the first episode in the series, it is quite obvious how much the gender roles in the Starfleet of 2266 clash with later portrayals on other shows. Later Star Trek writers were very much aware of this, as is evidenced by the Deep Space Nine episode produced for the 30th anniversary of the original series, where Dax and Sisko remark on how the gender roles differed back in these wild frontier days of space exploration. Of course, Enterprise, which is set before the original series, makes a mess of all of this by portraying much more progressive attitudes most of the time. It makes the original series stand out quite a bit in this respect.
In this episode specifically, the gym scene encapsulates the inherently 1960s sensibilities of the show: The scene opens up with female crewmembers doing gymnastics while the men are practicing martial arts and are bulking up their muscles. But these sensibilities aren’t simply set dressing in this episode, they also influence the plot in a significant way. When Charlie falls in love with Yeoman Rand, Kirk tries to teach him how to behave like a gentlemen, when it would be much more practical, at this point, to start with a basic lesson in sex education. This uptight, prudish behaviour (typical of the time) contributes significantly to Charlie’s confusion, makes his experience of going through puberty much worse and prevents Kirk from effectively helping Charlie to get his emotions under control. Which is what eventually prevents him from being successfully integrated into human society and seals his fate.
Continuity Problems & Open Questions
This episode presents some significant continuity issues for later instalments of the franchise. At the time of these early episodes, the concept of Starfleet doesn’t exist in the writer’s minds. Nor does the Federation. Subsequently, this episode introduces an agency called “USFA”, the headquarters of which the Enterprise notifies when the Antares is lost. Presumably, at this time, Roddenberry and his writers imagined the Enterprise as a ship belonging to some future, space age version of the United States. Hence the U.S.S. prefix to its name, which later got retconned to stand for “United Federation Starship”.
The non-existence of the concept of Starfleet is connected to the problem of the arrowhead symbol that Kirk and his crew wear on their uniforms. This is later interpreted as the symbol of Starfleet (and will eventually become the symbol of the whole franchise), but at this point it clearly only represents the Enterprise. At the beginning of the episode, when Captain Ramart and his navigator beam aboard from the Antares, we see that they have their own uniforms. And indeed their own sew-on patch, which presumably represents their ship. It is never explained when exactly these ship-specific uniforms went away and the Enterprise’s symbol became the symbol of the whole fleet — or why this happens. What we do know, however, is that a hundred years previously — at the time of Captain Archer in Enterprise when the Federation doesn’t exist yet — Starfleet ships also had their own specific patches. At the time, these were worn on the left shoulder and look much like contemporary NASA mission patches.
Interestingly, the uniforms of the Antares crew are also of another colour. Their command staff is wearing a uniform that is either gold or mustard drab. The Enterprise command shirt, which appears yellow or gold on the show, is in fact actually avocado green. It just looks gold on screen because of several factors connected to how the series was filmed. Aside from being a different colour than Kirk’s uniform, Ramart’s is also made of different fabric in a different cut and with a noticeably different collar.
“Doctor, are you speaking scientifically, or emotionally?”
There are also many open questions here. A big one is the actual nature of the Antares. The ship doesn’t have the U.S.S. prefix common to Starfleet vessels and usually, in later Star Trek, ships without this designation are private vessels — often freighters or cargo ships. Contrary to this, the NCC registry introduced on the ship model in the remastered version of the episode would suggest it to be a Starfleet ship of the line.
We also have no idea what kind of ship the Antares actually is. Throughout the episode, it is called something different every single time it is mentioned. It starts off as a “cargo vessel”, later becomes a “science probe ship” and then a “survey ship”. We also learn that Charlie destroyed it by disappearing a “baffle plate” on the “shield” of the ship’s “energy pile”. Whatever an energy pile is supposed to be. Since, at this point, many specifics about the Federation as well as Starfleet and its ships hadn’t been worked out, I presume they mean some kind of nuclear (or possibly fusion) reactor. Early on, nuclear reactors took the form of piles. Although it seems weird to imagine a starship being powered by a pile of black bricks.
“Charlie X” is a decent episode that has its problems, but mainly works because it is such a character-driven story. It’s a decent early example of what people have loved about Star Trek as a way of telling stories over the years: It takes a real-world problem and transposes it into space to abstract it and make it more interesting. Time and budget constraints work in favour of the series here, because they force the writers to tell their story with basic means. They can’t lean on the crutches of fancy special effects and crazy action sequences and thus have to write good, convincing dialogue. This is on display here for the first time in the franchise, even if it is somewhat hampered by the discussed casting decisions and some of the period-specific issues where the script didn’t age well.
In this episode, we get to know the main crew a little better, especially Captain Kirk and his relationship with Spock. At this point we don’t really know yet what Spock’s rank or his position on board is, though. The episode continues the trend from the pilot — which wasn’t really a pilot after all — of not explaining much about the Enterprise or its mission, keeping the audience in suspense; somewhat by accident due to late-stage production decisions.
Interestingly, “Charlie X” is the only original series episode in which Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry has a cameo. He is briefly heard over the intercom as the voice of the Enterprise chef, who tells Kirk that all the synthetic meatloaf in the galley has turned into real turkeys. Additionally, this episode was directed by Lawrence Dobkin, who later played Klingon Ambassador Kell in the fourth season episode “The Mind’s Eye” of Star Trek: The Next Generation. This makes Dobkin the only person ever to have directed an episode of the original series and to then appear in front of the camera in a later Star Trek series.