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

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Man Trap

How would this have looked in 1966? Impossibly weird or just another show set on a spaceship? It's easy to forget Star Trek did a lot of the heavy lifting for other television science fiction. When Roj Blake and his gang of freedom fighters find the Liberator in 1978 they can stand around discussing their new ship's teleport system knowing the viewer will accept it as one of those things from that show with Doctor Spock.

But what if you're a viewer in 1966? CBS has a repeat of My Three Sons and a Jerry Lewis film. ABC is showing The Tammy Grimes Show, followed by Bewitched. For some reason you don't fancy either of those so you switch to NBC. A voice-over tells you “Captain's log stardate 1513.1. Our position orbiting planet M113. On board the Enterprise Mr. Spock temporarily in command. On the planet, the ruins of an ancient and long dead civilisation. Ship's surgeon McCoy and myself are now beaming down to the planet's surface. Our mission...” And, in quick succession you see some sort of spaceship going round a planet. A weird guy in a blue top sitting in a room full of flashing lights looking at what might be a big window showing that planet again. And, 3 people appearing out of thin air in a sparkly glow. That's pretty much the first thirty seconds.

No attempt is made to ease the audience in gently. The closest thing to an explanation is Kirk's “space, the final frontier,” monologue. Even The Prisoner has an episode where Number 6 arrives in The Village and that's a series which takes pride in being wilfully obscure. Still, I'm not sure how exciting a purpose written first episode could be,” and this is the bridge... and this is Mr Spock, he's an alien from the planet Vulcan you know... and this is sick bay... and this is the transporter room....” With suspension of disbelief being such an important part of television science fiction maybe it's better to show the ship going about it's normal business. If this is all normal and routine to the crew maybe the audience will accept it even if they don't really get it at first.

So how did The Man Trap end up as the first broadcast episode? Herbert Solow (in the book Inside Star Trek) talks about meeting NBC in August to select the first episode from those that would be ready by September. The choices seem to have been The Man Trap, Charlie X, Where No Man Has Gone Before, The Naked Time, The Enemy Within, and Mudd's Women. The Man Trap and The Naked Time were the two serious candidates because they delivered on Kirk's promise of “strange new worlds” and The Man Trap was chosen. Associate Producer Robert H Justman suspected NBC viewed The Man Trap as “scarier and more exploitable” and pushed for The Naked Time but was overruled. Later he came to view The Man Trap as the better choice and I think he's right.

Look at what was available. Charlie X takes place entirely on the Enterprise and is a sweet, but slight, story about a teenage boy with psychic powers. Where No Man Has Gone Before was Star Trek's second attempt at a pilot, and is understandably a little rougher around the edges. The Naked Time is a great story but is about the crew acting strangely and so relies on the audience first getting to know the crew. It's also, and this is not a criticism, quite a funny episode which might raise false expectations about the rest of the series. The Enemy Within splits Kirk into good and evil versions; again not an idea with much traction until you know Kirk (also, do you want your first episode to be a transporter goes wrong story?). Finally, Mudd's Women is about space prostitutes.

The downside of choosing The Man Trap is it's a monster story. Not, like Arena or The Corbomite Manouver, a story which looks like a monster story to someone not paying attention. It's an honest to god monster stalking the ship killing the crew story. If you want people to take your new science fiction series seriously you probably don't want to start with one which makes it look like a monster of the week show. Especially not if your première is the day before the second series of Lost In Space starts. You can see why Robert Justman suspected NBC saw this as an exploitable episode. If you're not familiar with science fiction it probably most closely fits your expectations of the genre. Still, it's a good monster of the week story and manages to wrong-foot the audience slightly. As the last of its' species the salt vampire has some depth beyond the usual B-Movie “atomic fish beasts come to claim our Prom Queen”.

On the plus side, The Man Trap strikes a good balance between the characters. Kirk and Spock get to worry at the mystery of Nancy Crater while McCoy gets a lot of screen time from his relationship with Nancy and also when the shape shifting salt vampire doubles for him. Kirk and McCoy also get some good banter in sickbay. McCoy is explaining how crewman Darnell has had all the salt drained from his body and refers back to an earlier argument between himself and Kirk.

McCoy: Another error on my part
Kirk: (grins) I'm not counting them Bones, you in the mood for an apology?
McCoy: (smiles slightly) Forget it, I probably was mooning over [Nancy]
Kirk: (interrupts and turns suddenly businesslike) Perhaps you were

That wipes the smile off McCoy's face. It's a moment within the episode but it really sums up the complicated professional/personal relationship between the two. I also like Kirk's brusque “you bleed too much,” dismissal of Robert Crater when he pleads for clemency for the salt vampire.

Sulu, Yeoman Rand, and Uhura also get significant screen time. By the end of the episode we still haven't seen Scotty or had any real introduction to the abilities of the Enterprise; no warp drive, tractor beams, photon torpedos, or the Federation, but Spock does get to talk ominously about forcibly using truth serum on Robert Crater.

Enterprise crew deaths: 4. Crewmen Darnell, Sturgeon, Green and Barnhart.


During the first sickbay scene there's something odd going on with the medical scanner in the background. At first it's blank but when the camera moves the red object in the picture above comes into view. It looks like someone left the cover off the medical scanner and we're seeing through the set and looking at some scaffolding.

UPDATE: Over on Gallifrey Base user Mr. Flibble told me the red object is the reflection of the medicine cabinet on the other side of sickbay. He's absolutely right. What confused me was the clarity of the object, there's not even the slightest distortion of the reflection and the way it glides in as the camera pans makes it look more like an object behind the set. Originally I wondered if the scanner screen might have been pulled out as a quick solution to the screen reflecting the camera crew, but that's obviously not the case.