Teleplay by D.C. Fontana
Story by Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Lawrence Dobkin
Original Air Date: 15th September 1966
Two episodes into its broadcast run and you can sense that for all the hopeful tone that Star Trek is famous for conveying about the possibility of space travel and exploration, there’s a clear love of the horror genre running through some of its veins in these early episodes that were chosen to kickstart the series on its broadcast run.
Horror and space travel make for frequently comfortable bedfellows, as evidenced by years of alien invasion movies prior to the premiere of Star Trek that dotted cinema throughout the 50s, and which still found a home on the small screen in the 60s with The Invaders. The arrival of Charlie (Robert Walker) on board the Enterprise brings with it the possibility of everyone having a jovial time showing a younger visitor the ins and outs of the ship, but instead D.C Fontana’s teleplay turns into a more sinister piece of work that builds to an even darker and surprisingly complex conclusion.
Where most Star Trek episodes, even the most tense ones, would find a way to resolve their conflicts and stories with a note of hope and smart character choices winning the day, there is something genuinely dark about Charlie X’s final moments that play into the more frightening aspects of exploring new worlds and discovering new civilisations.
The episode’s conclusion comes after Charlie frequently displays toxic behaviour and shows an inability to find some sort of common ground with those around him on the Enterprise, eventually culminating with him becoming a substantial threat. His inability to control his emotions, frequent lashing out using his considerable telekinetic powers, and his toxic misogynistic behaviour towards Yeoman Rand (Grace Lee Whitney) eventually leads to him becoming a grander threat by the latter stages of the episode, and one where any sense of resolution appears elusive.
Robert Walker captures a sense of awkwardness in the episode’s earlier moments, but this soon turns towards a more formidable type of antagonistic horror as the story continues, even if he does look like he’s in his early twenties as opposed to the teenager he is meant to be portraying.
Fontana delivers a fantastically adept and suspenseful script here. Yes, some parts of it have aged questionably; Yeoman Rand’s treatment is horrifying, and yet Fontana being a female writer means that those moments are dealt with somewhat more intelligently than if a male writer was the one involved in the finished teleplay.
Roddenberry is credited for the story and Rand being at the receiving end of both the male gaze and a form of catcalling by some of her male crew has the nasty benefit of belittling the dialogue she delivers to Charlie about his own behaviour towards her, and yet for a series produced in the 60s the dialogue she has with Charlies and the manner in which its dealt with feel somewhat progressive for the time, even if it still feels like there’s a long way to go here (although she will still be at the mercy of even more horrifying treatment in The Enemy Within).
At its heart there is a ‘nature vs nurture’ debate at the centre of it all. Charlie doesn’t know any better because he has never been given the firm emotional hand of a parental figure with which to tell him what the difference is between right and wrong. McCoy argues to Kirk that he should be the one to take on this role, which Kirk initially is reluctant to do. His idea of parental advice is to teach Charlie how to fight (cue a shirtless Kirk, and not for the last time) which indicate once again that for all of Star Trek detailing a future of more reasoned and intelligent thinking, the viewer is still reminded that this was a series written in the 1960s.
By the time the episode’s final act begins, there is an air of genuine suspense and questions as to how an omnipotent character like this can be dealt with in a way that ensures the safety of everyone else on board. As the story approaches its conclusion, even the viewer is left pondering if killing the teenager is the only way to resolve everything, and yet the eventual denouement is well handled by Fontana.
It plays to Star Trek’s core strengths of combining pulpy science fiction with high end ideas and storytelling, and the way Charlie not only get his comeuppance of sorts but how he resorts to a childlike nature of declaring he’ll never do it again makes it one of the most disturbing endings of any science fiction television series as the usually proactive crew of the Enterprise can only sit back and watch events unfold.
Nature vs Nurture? In the end, even this episode cannot answer that, and maybe that answer is impossible when a character like Charlie is the one everyone is left to deal with.