The Twilight of Charlie X
Trek Through Trek — Part VIII
Have you watched The Twilight Zone?
Apparently everyone who became a nerd, of any sort, did when they were kids.
I never did. I cannot remember why; as the old syndicated show and the modern redux both figured heavily on the tubes of my childhood television. I cannot remember if it was ignorance — kids are stupid and this one was doubly so— or parental guidance that was the reason behind my not watching of the show. I doubt it was the latter as my parents let me watch some pretty foul stuff as a child. I saw Schindler’s List at a young age and was guided into the brilliance of the film by them. It must have been the former: I was just a stupid kid.
When I grew into a smarter person, I watched the show and fell in love with it. This is a good thing because this episode, Charlie X, seems to be heavily influenced by that show.
Jerome Bixby’s It’s a Good Life is considered one of the seminal episodes of The Twilight Zone. It’s a about a young boy, named Anthony, who possesses omnipotent powers with which he holds the small town of Peaksville, Ohio hostage. He can read every thought of the people that surround him meaning he immediately reacts to any negative idea that they hold. Anthony punishes these unfortunate thinkers by changing the offender into something else. At one point he punishes a person for thinking a terrible thought by changing him into a lizard. Because of this this child’s ‘thought policing,’ every Peaksvillite must go through life in a constant stupor believing everything is “good.” For example, when Anthony’s mother says ‘it is too hot because it is summer,’ Anthony responds by making it snow. His father tells Anthony that the crops will die from the early snow:
“...But it’s good you’re making it snow. A real good thing. And tomorrow… tomorrow’s gonna be a… real good day.”
Needless to say, this episode is extraordinarily unsettling; like all the best Zone stories were. It’s a Good Life left ripples that echoed across 50 years of Sci-Fi. Perhaps, you may better the story from The Simpsons episode Treehouse of Horror II. In Bart’s nightmare, the second portion of the episode, he takes on the role of Anthony and holds Springfield hostage in a similar way. The early Treehouse of Horrors would borrow heavily in a fantastic fashion from The Twilight Zone.
William Shatner, our beloved Captain Kirk, got his television start on the Zone in one of the most iconic episodes Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, again parodied by Bart in Terror at 5 1/2 Feet, as the man who famously sees a gremlin on the wing a plane. In this episode he uttered probably one his most famous lines in television history: “There is _ something_ out there!” It is his performance that put him on the radar of Gene Roddenberry, who then gave the fairly untested Canadian Shakespearian his most iconic Star Trek role. Strange how these things all tie in.
Charlie X, like some of the other early Trek episodes, is once again a rather cooky premise realized brilliantly by actors. The Original Series was peppered with actors who were not afraid to really go for it. Guest actor Richard Walker plays young omnipotent being Charlie Evans. Richard is in top form here. Grace Lee Whitney, in her wonderful memoir of the period, says Lawrence Dobkin, who is the director of this episode, told the entire cast on the first day of shooting that Richard is not to be spoken too. This odd off camera direction came from the fact that the young actor was method. He wanted to remain separate from the crew of the ship to create cold distance between him and them. Surely enough it seems to be present every time Charlie Evans is on screen. Distantial alienation is perfect for this plot, for without the wonderful acting, would come off as a cheap copy of It’s a Good Life.
Compare the plots: Charlie X is about a young boy who has been given omnipotence by a supposedly extinct race, called the Thasians, and he uses that power to exact his wants and a needs on the people who surround him. It is, subtract the mythological alien race, It’s a Good Life. The similarities are much too close to ignore.
The marvellous aspect thing about this episode is that it conveys a new side of Kirk. So far Kirk has been emphasized as a swashbuckling commander; a captain who is more Flash-bang then thoughtful. However, when the lost Charlie Evans is looking for a father figure to guide him through his new experiences with human interaction, he latches on to Kirk, naturally, being the best example of Star Trek masculinity on board. Charlie has never met a woman before and Kirk tries to help him understand the complexities of sex relations. There is a wonderful scene that takes place in the ship gymnasium that offers a glimpse into Kirk’s nurturing side and also shows how insanely fit William Shatner was in the 60s.
Kirk’s guidance ultimately fails to help Charlie assimilate and this is where the core conflict of the episode resides. Since Charlie is unable to achieve his desires, he goes on a rampage using his powers, taking control of the ship and zapping crew members off into the netherworld.
Speaking of crew members there is a rather hokey and, likewise, iconic scene that focuses on the camaraderie of the crew. Uhura sings an impromptu song about the Enterprise with Spock accompanying her on a harp. I believe it was this scene that inspired J.J. Abrams to create the romance between the two crew-members members in his New Star Trek; proving, that J.J.’s research consisted of a couple youtube clips. This relationship in the new films seems wrong because it has never been present before and serves to cheapen the characters. It feels imposed upon the films.
Though this episode is really entertaining to watch; once again, where it falls apart is the drawn out ending. The Thasians, witnessing the swath of destruction Charlie has left, catch the ship and forcibly take Charlie back into their command. It’s a haunting ending mainly because of how Richard Walker plays it. His sorrow at being cut off from humanity is palpable beyond belief, but it is also an extraordinary drawn out scene full of exposition and what I like to call Star Trek extrapolation: that’s where all characters on the bridge, mainly Spock and Dr. McCoy — who has once again found a reason to be on the bridge when he should be at his station — digest what is going in front of them. The scene served to deflate a very powerful performance and the easy fix of the ‘Thasian reset’ did not leave me with that all-important pit in my stomach that the aforementioned Zone episode achieved.
The Twilight Zone is one of the most important television shows in the history of television and Science Fiction. If you haven’t watched it yet I sincerely suggest you get on that. It will give you an expanded understanding of shows like Star Trek and The Simpsons. Plus, it’s just a good watch.
Until next time, Extremites, I remain: Julian Munds
The Episode We Are Watching: Charlie X (Episode 2 of Season 1 of The Original Series: September 15, 1966)
My Rating Our of 5 Tribbles: 3 1/2 Tribbles who just want to be liked.
My After Episode Thoughts: “Way to rip off Twilight Zone, Star Trek.”
Pros: Wonderful Performance from Richard Walker and William Shatner. The effects are great and you really feel the power of Charlie Evans.
Cons: The story is the same as Jerome Bixby’s It’s a Good Life and doesn’t quite reach the haunting heights of the Bixby because of a drawn out and unfocused ending. Yeoman Rand is once again the damsel in distress.
—> Part IX
Posted on February 5, 2014, in Star Trek, The Original Series and tagged Charlie, Charlie X, Grace Lee Whitney, Jerome Bixby, Kirk, Simpsons, StarTrek, Twilight Zone, William Shatner. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.