Sunday, January 22, 2012

Charlie X

If The Man Trap is Star Trek at its most exploitable then Charlie X feels like a deliberate attempt to go as far as possible in the opposite direction. A message from the production team to the audience; this new series can do more than just shape-shifting monsters. D.C. Fontana's script allows them to do this by taking a one sentence idea from Roddenbery's original proposal (“THE DAY CHARLIE BECAME GOD. The accidental occurrence of infinite power to do all things in the hands of a very finite man.” ) and turning it into a sweet, thoughtful piece.

Fontana's script comes across almost as a writing exercise. As if it was purpose written to push the boundaries of what an action series can do. Yes there's action but it's based on what characters say and do to each other. There are no phaser battles or punch-ups. Nobody says “fools, soon I'll crush you like the insects you are.” Charlie's not a monster. He's awkward, embarrassed, and wants to fit in. He also has the power to send you away if you upset him. He doesn't want to be taken to a planet to rule, but because he wants to be more human. The resolution is a teenage boy begging for help from people who want to offer it but know they cannot. Charlie X is the more thoughtful approach Star Trek: The Next Generation was groping for in it's first series when it wanted to differentiate itself from original Star Trek. Charlie X is also head and shoulders above any first series Next Generation episode.

As well as being  The Man Trap's brainy cousin Charlie X is also ideal for an audience still trying to get to grips with this new show. It's a character piece so everyone gets clearly defined motives and well written parts. Spock and McCoy support the Captain and get some banter which helps define their relationship. Kirk is at the centre of the story, which focuses on the relationship between Kirk and and Charlie, and is written as a father figure. Directly in the case of Charlie, but also in a more metaphorical way to the rest of the Enterprise crew. When Charlie gets obsessed with Yeoman Rand she takes the problem to Kirk and expects him to sort it out.

I've seen Rand's character criticised for not standing up for herself and not telling Charlie where to get off, particularly when he slaps her bottom, and that this is typical of Star Trek's poor treatment of female characters. This isn't really fair. Not in this case at least. Yes she could have told Charlie where to go, that she wasn't interested, and found him creepy and needy but she's being polite. She's well aware of Charlie's unique upbringing and is trying to make allowances. The pre-credits transporter room scene where Kirk asks Rand to take Charlie to his quarters is all about establishing how Rand feels sorry for Charlie and irritated by him in equal measure. When Charlie asks if Yeoman Rand is a girl Grace Lee Whitney makes the most of a nice opportunity for some comedy, looking crossly at the Captain, and then managing to reassemble her features into a facade of politeness before Charlie turns back to her. Rand taking her problem to Kirk is not girlie helplessness. It's a professional approaching a senior officer for help with an unusual situation.

Robert Walker Jr does a brilliant job of playing Charlie, getting through a lot of emotions in a short space of time. His real achievement is not making Charlie irredeemable. At the end of the episode he's killed at least 20 people and terrorised the Enterprise but he can still make you feel sorry for Charlie as he begs to stay among people. Other good moments include his throwaway delivery of lines that could easily be overplayed. “He had a mean look. I had to freeze him. I like happy looks” And a gag in the transporter room. After beaming across from the cargo vessel Antares Charlie approaches a door and jumps back in surprise when it swishes open. A clever way to clue the audience in on Charlie's unfamiliarity with the world he's entering and also, presumably, a hint that the crew of the Antares had to open their own doors.

Enterprise crew deaths: None this week. After Charlie's reign of terror the Thasians thoughtfully restore all the crew.
Running total: 4

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