Original Air Date: September 15, 1966
Stardate: 1533.6 (2266)
Writer: Dorothea C. Fontana
Director: Lawrence Dobkin
“Charlie, there are a million things in this universe you can have and there are a million things you can’t have. It’s no fun facing that, but that’s the way things are.”
It is November 2266. We find the USS Enterprise circling beside the Antares, a cargo ship/science vessel led by Captain Ramart and Navigator/First Officer Tom Nellis. It carries an unusual passenger: a 17-year-old boy named Charles “Charlie” Evans (Robert Walker Jr.) who has spent 14 years alone on a deserted planet called Thasus. Charlie was the sole survivor of a transport crash and somehow he managed to survive alone this whole time. The Enterprise is tasked with bringing the boy to his remaining relatives on Colony Alpha V (later referred to as “Earth Colony V”). The two crew members from the Antares seem eager to be rid of Charlie. They quickly beam back to the Antares and leave the Enterprise to be on its way. Once aboard the Enterprise, Charlie quickly falls in love with Yeoman Rand but his manners are uncouth and unrefined. He is inexperienced when it comes to ordinary social situations, especially when it involves communicating with women.
Captain Kirk, Spock, and McCoy all speculate about the impossibility Charlie’s survival on Thasus. How was he able to survive from the age of three onward with minimal supplies? Kirk asks Spock if he believes in the legends of super-intelligent beings on Thasus. They both muse about what lies in the outer parts of galaxy. When the Antares is nearly out of range a warning message is delivered to the Enterprise –but before it is delivered Charlie makes a strange face and suddenly the Antares is destroyed. It soon becomes apparent that Charlie is in possession of unique psychokinetic powers. The Enterprise ventures forth to search for survivors of the Antares (per protocol) but Charlie soon begins terrorizing the ship by freezing people, making walls disappear, causing people to vanish (namely his unrequited “first crush” Yeoman Rand), and other peculiar acts reminiscent of The Twilight Zone episode “It’s A Good Life” (based on Jerome Bixby’s 1953 short story of the same name). Charlie’s powers are complicated by the fact that he has the emotional development of a petulant child –at one point, a crewman speaks over the intercom with Kirk and claims that meatloaf in the ovens has been suddenly transformed into turkeys! This anonymous crewman’s voice was actually performed by Gene Roddenberry. At any rate, Charlie begins to view Capt. Kirk as something of a father figure –a man whom he both respects and resents. After being briefly imprisoned on the ship, Charlie easily escapes and promptly usurps control of the whole vessel.
Capt. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy all attempt to hatch a plan to take back control of the ship. First they suggest trapping and jettisoning Charlie, but then Kirk suggests that perhaps Charlie’s powers are already strained. The crew initiate all lights onboard along with every other function in order to overwhelm Charlie’s senses while Kirk battles him on the bridge. Then suddenly the disembodied head of a foreign being (Abraham Sofaer) appears out of nowhere –the Enterprise is saved by a deus ex machina as a formless ship comes alongside the Enterprise, but Charlie remains terrified. The being is apparently a Thasian, an alien who describes giving special powers to Charlie for his own survival while on Thasus. Almost immediately the audience’s judgment of Charlie shifts from anger to pity. Now he is sadly the victim of tragic circumstances. Charlie is unfamiliar with human customs but he fears the Thasians because he cannot live happily with them –he cannot touch them and they apparently have no capacity for love. Do we suddenly sympathize with Charlie? Can we trust him? Capt. Kirk ponders these questions and he offers to take Charlie back among his fellow humans and train him to use his powers wisely, but the Thasian being denies this request by stating that Charlie will only attempt to destroy humanity. Despite all the power and advanced technology of the USS Enterprise, the entire ship was very nearly destroyed by an irresponsible child. We get a sense of how dangerous the broader universe can actually be for humanity though we may take refuge in that fact that reason is proven triumphant. In the end, the Thasians take a screaming Charlie away, he disappears and all is returned to normal aboard the Enterprise (including the reappearance of Yeoman Rand):
“It’s all right, Yeoman. It’s all over now.”
My Thoughts on “Charlie X”
The idea of a petulant child in possession of terrifying supernatural powers is enough to give pause to any viewer, but it should be noted that this episode shares a certain kinship with The Twilight Zone’s “It’s A Good Life” in that both episodes feature adults beholden to the whims of an all-powerful youth. There are notable distinctions between the two episodes including the age, scope of powers, and location of their activity, however whereas in Star Trek a deus ex machina in the form of a Thasian being rather dubiously arrives to take Charlie away claiming he has escaped unnoticed, in The Twilight Zone there is no redemption, just the same horrifying “good life” day in and out. In this Star Trek episode we feel a mixture of sadness and relief as Charlie is taken back to Thasus even though it promises to be a lifetime of torture. As with much of Star Trek, we are asked not to behave like a frivolous Charlie, but rather like a nuanced Kirk and consider what is morally right even in the depths of an ambiguously a-moral universe. In this case there are two conflicting goods at play –to save Charlie from Thasus and hope he can be trained? Or else release him and preserve the safety of humanity from certain menace (the X in the title is a reference to Charlie’s unpredictability, as in the “X-factor” or an unknown variable in an equation). At any rate, heroism is complicated, and the correct decision for Captain Kirk is not always clear. In this case the needs of the many outweigh the few and Charlie is sacrificed. There are some problems the Enterprise simply cannot solve.
The writer of this episode, Dorothea Catherine “D.C.” Fontana (1939-2019), also worked as a writer for a few different television programs prior to Star Trek, and then she briefly worked as Gene Roddenberry’s secretary before becoming a writer on the show. At the age of 27, Fontana became the youngest story editor in Hollywood at the time, and she was also one of the few female staff writers. She remained a Star Trek writer until the end of the second season. Fontana had the notable distinction of being one of the few people to have worked on Star Trek: The Original Series, as well as Star Trek: The Animated Series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Of them all, Deep Space Nine was her favorite Star Trek series.
The Director, Lawrence “Larry” Dobkin (1919-2002) is the only person to have directed both an episode of TOS and to later appear in a Star Trek episode.
Star Trek Trivia:
- In this episode, Captain Kirk reveals that there are exactly 428 crew aboard the Enterprise (a far cry from the 203 lives aboard as claimed by Jeffrey Hunter’s Captain Pike in the un-aired pilot “The Cage”).
- At the beginning Kirk makes a comment “On Earth today it’s Thanksgiving” since this episode was originally supposed to air in late November 1966.
- Per D.C. Fontana, very little was changed or revised from her original script for this episode. However, in the initial script Uhura was intended to mimic and parody fellow crewmen in the recreation room but due to Nichelle Nichols’s musical talents this scene was changed to incorporate a musical number.
- There is a terrific scene in this episode in which Kirk checkmates Spock in a game of three-dimensional chess, it is a battle of logic versus illogic (or as Kirk calls it “inspiration”).
- Gene Roddenberry had written a one-sentence synopsis of this episode on the first page of his original series outline for Star Trek under the title “The Day Charlie Became God.” Writer Dorothy Fontana also confirmed that the episode was based on that story idea. Fontana later developed the story and wrote the teleplay, but Roddenberry ultimately received story credit.
- Gene Roddenberry makes a small voice cameo as a galley chef who speaks to Kirk. This was his only speaking role in the series but his disembodied hands also appear in a Season 2 episode.
- The line “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary” spoken by Spock while under Charlie’s influence is the first line of the poem “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. Spock is also forced to quote lines from “The Tyger” by William Blake when he shouts that there is a “Tyger, Tyger burning bright, in the forests of the night”.
- There is a fascinating little interlude in this episode in which Uhura sings to Spock, the song may have been taken from an old Scottish folk song penned by Robert Burns called “Charlie, He’s My Darling” –a reference to Bonnie Prince Charlie who attempted to restore the Stuarts to the throne of England but he failed and was exiled (perhaps a thematic nod to Charlie’s fate in the episode after attempting to usurp the ship’s command). This is also the first time we see Spock play his Vulcan lute, a most strange, futuristic instrument.
- William Shatner had his chest shaved for this episode for a scene of wrestling with Charlie.
- This was the first episode (according to the original broadcast timeline) in which Saurian Brandy makes an appearance.
- Charlie dons a turtleneck in this episode which was borrowed from the original pilot “The Cage.”
- Gene Roddenberry’s working titles for this episode were “The Day Charlie Became God” or “Charlie Is God” –but the censors removed both of these.
- Actor Robert Walker Jr. was a method actor and chose to remain in his dressing room rather than socialize with his fellow cast in order to best fit his odd, aloof character. He was age 26 while playing the 17 year-old “Charlie.”
- The ship’s gymnasium makes its first and only appearance in this episode.
- At the time when the first season of Star Trek aired, NBC was the owner of RCA, a major manufacturer of color television sets. In order to encourage the shift to color, studio executives requested that cinematographer Gerald Perry Finnerman maximize colored backgrounds to contrast with the often grey-schemed walls.
- Grace Lee Whitney, who played Yeoman Janice Rand listed this among her favorite Star Trek episodes.