This is part of an ongoing series, ANALYZE TREK, in which we analyze classic Star Trek episodes through a modern, socio-political lens.
In Charlie X, which aired on September 15th 1966, the action-oriented plot and blatant social commentaries we were treated to in The Man Trap take a back seat to a much more nuanced, human story with elements reminiscent of The Twilight Zone.
The episode begins with the Enterprise taking on a passenger from the Antares, a small cargo vessel. The passenger, a 17-year-old named Charlie Evans (Guest Star, Robert Walker Jr.), is to be transported to live with his nearest living relatives on the colony Alpha V. Before arriving on the Antares, Charlie had been stranded alone in the wreckage of a transport ship on the planet Thasus since the age of 3. Thasus, it is revealed, once contained life, but is now uninhabited as the native Thasians are thought to have died out long ago.
Charlie is quickly shown to be quite socially awkward, but this is what is to be expected from a boy who spent most of his life alone on a deserted planet.
At first, Charlie’s social ineptitude comes off as quirky and even charming to some extent. However, as the episode progresses, it quickly begins to morph into the realm of unsettling. Not only does Charlie develop a stalker-like obsession with Janice Rand (Grace Lee Whitney), but we soon discover why the crew of the Antares were so eager to get rid of him.
After losing a game of 3-D chess with Spock, it is revealed that Charlie has telekinetic powers when he angrily melts all of Spock’s chess pieces. These powers, combined with Charlie’s incessant desire to be liked, quickly prove to be an ill-pairing, to say the least. As the Antares attempts to send a warning message to the Enterprise, it suddenly blows up and it is later revealed that Charlie destroyed them. The powers give free reign for all of Charlie’s insecurities to develop into hostilities, allowing his bashfulness to foster defensiveness, and ultimately pushing him to lash out against those who he thinks view him negatively.
At the heart of Charlie X is a harrowing tale of young boy who simply cannot fit in. Charlie’s journey through the episode somewhat mirrors that of the main character in Stephen King’s novel, Carrie. In both stories, the characters fumble awkwardly through a society that they cannot fit into, until their mental capacities and grasps of their psychokinetic abilities slip, giving way to tragic results.
Charlie X begins by delving into some of the most challenging parts of being a teenager and growing up – specifically the desire to be accepted. Charlie repeatedly claims that he just wants to be liked. This dialogue between Dr. McCoy and Charlie after his initial examination specifically stands out:
Charlie: Do you like me?
Dr. McCoy: Why not?
Charlie: Some, the other ship, they didn’t like me. I tried. I’m trying to make people like me. I want them to like me.
Dr. McCoy: Most seventeen year olds do.
Charlie knows that he is much more welcomed on the Enterprise than he ever was on the Antares, however he still takes any hint of reprimand as a personal attack. The harder he tries to fit in and make people like him, the further he unwittingly digs himself into a hole of eventual solitude. As his temper flares throughout the episode, and his clumsy attempts at flattery fail, he perceives everyone’s reactions as mockery. Charlie then uses his abilities to incite fear rather than win the crew over through friendship.
Ultimately, Charlie’s powers are put in check by the approach of a mysterious incoming ship, and the sudden appearance of a disembodied Thasian head. The Thasians, revealed to be non-corporeal beings with extremely powerful psychokinetic abilities (a popular trope throughout Star Trek‘s original run), explain that they helped Charlie survive on Thasus by giving him their psychokinetic abilities. Realizing he is too dangerous to be around other humans, the Thasian explains that they must take him back to to Thasus.
The final scene when the Thasian is explaining to Kirk why Charlie must go back to live alone on Thasus is perhaps the most tragic. We see Charlie’s face instantly melt from an arrogant confidence to a frantic hopelessness. “I won’t do it again,” he cries, “Please, I’ll be good. I won’t ever do it again. I’m sorry about the Antares. I’m sorry! When I came aboard! Please, I want to go with you. Help me!”
Kirk attempts to plead with the Thasian, claiming that with training Charlie could possibly adjust. However, the dejection in Kirk’s voice betrays him. He knows that the Thasian is right; that Charlie will use his powers as long as he has them and it is unsafe and irresponsible to send him to a peaceful colony.
Stripping away the drama and tragedy of Charlie X, the story acts as a basic exploration of social vs. cognitive development and the impact each aspect has on us as humans. Charlie lived a life of solitude, devoid of any social development save the minimal amount he may have received through his rare interactions with non-corporeal Thasians, or from the remains of the crashed ship’s computers. Through these computers, on the other hand, Charlie developed cognitively; arguably, without these computer remnants, Charlie may well have been found feral – even with his Thasian abilities.
From another point of view, while the Thasians helped Charlie to survive in his isolation, the gift of his abilities may have been a double-edged sword. It is because of his powers that it becomes dangerous to grant him the social development he needs – the reason why Kirk reluctantly accepts when turning Charlie back over to the Thasians.
Amidst the examination of social vs. cognitive development, Kirk’s relationship with Charlie mirrors a dilemma facing parents, teachers, psychologists and others when it comes to working with children suffering from developmental, social, and psychological disabilities. The ethical struggle Kirk faces at the end of the episode when he attempts to bargain on behalf of Charlie despite all that he’s done, could parallel that of an adoptive parent caring for a child struggling with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). It may also ring true with a social worker supervising a child with Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD). The implications of this episode make us ask questions of ourselves as well as of our society; Do we, as adults, have the moral authority to make decisions regarding the long-term fate of children suffering from these disorders? Do we personally have an ethical responsibility to take care of those with these disabilities, or is it the job of the commons? What can we as individuals, and as a collective society, do to address mental health as a whole?
Charlie X, like The Man Trap before it, leaves viewers contemplative, ending in another morally gray area, although through different means. At the end of the episode, many may disagree with Kirk’s decision in sending Charlie back with the Thasians, but the point isn’t to create a morally ‘correct’ ending – the idea behind this is to push us into asking difficult questions like those mentioned above. This is an important aspect, not only of Gene Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek, but of the potential of the science-fiction genre as a whole. Through space travel, futuristic adventures, dystopian dramas, and utopian visions, science-fiction has the ability to tell deeply rooted stories of all kinds through allegory, metaphors, or even through a simple human development story with an added touch of the fantastic.