Well, it’s just awful, isn’t it? A twelve-shaded nightmare. Utterly terrible on multiple levels and in multiple directions. There are so many ways in which “Charlie X” falls down that it’s genuinely difficult to decide where to begin, but let’s start at the centre. The basic principle underlining this episode – the poisoned earth from which the stunted, diseased tree has grown – is that teenagers are awful. Simply clanking, whining machines designed to wreak havoc, to a degree directly proportional to how much power they’re given and how little time they’ve spent being told how to behave. Which is simply spectacularly offensive, not just because it’s more or less stated explicitly that this wouldn’t have happened if Charlie had had a father, but because it completely misunderstands the nature of teenage rebellion. I mean, it’s obviously true that many (almost certainly most) sixteen year-olds aren’t prepared to respond to the world in the way their elders are telling them they’re supposed to. The phenomenon this episode tears into is real. But the ugliness comes in insisting that this is the teenagers’ problem. Aren’t we supposed to question what we’re told? Aren’t we supposed to demand that we at least try to figure out a better way of doing things? Shouldn’t we at least consider the possibility that if it takes upwards of sixteen years to even get close to persuading people the way things are done makes any sense, then maybe our set-up isn’t obviously the best option?
These questions are always relevant, but they had a particular force in 1966. Charlie here represents the teenagers of America who were born in 1950, just half a decade after the Second World War ended, and in the year the Korean War began. The Cuban Missile Crisis had happened so recently that if Kennedy had still been alive, this episode would have gone out whilst he was campaigning for re-election. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that had allowed open warfare in Vietnam was barely two years old. Charlie’s “contemporaries” were well aware that more than 400,000 people from their parents’ generation had died in a global war (the US lost a similar percentage of its total population in the war to that of Norway, a country actually occupied by the Nazis). They also could see how the after-effects of so many deaths seemed to have been two more wars fought to oppose the people who helped win the last war, plus a burst of international chest-puffing that almost destroyed the world. It’s awful to suggest that they should be yelled at for thinking this was simply unacceptable. And yes, some of the ways teenagers pushed (and push) against the rules and conventions and traditions and mores and taboos they don’t understand lack coherence, patience, and grace. Not every target picked deserved or needed to be attacked. And teenagers, being people, have just the same tendencies towards greed and petulance and self-delusion as the rest of us. So yes, gifting godlike powers to teenagers would be utterly destabilising to civilisation as we know it, ushering in utter anarchy within about seven minutes. The question is whether or not the dominance of godlike adolescents would truly be worse for the majority of people in the world than the system the powerful insist they’re lucky to live in.
(The answer is obvious, actually: it depends on the adolescents you’ve chosen. But we’ll get to that.)
On top of all that, you have this episode’s wretched gender essentialism. We get to stare dumbfounded at McCoy as he mulls over decades of medical expertise when he announces a teenage boy will automatically need a “strong father image”. We get to bite our fingers in frustration at Kirk stumbling as he tries to explain why men and women are fundamentally different. No, Jim; you don’t tell Charlie that Yeoman Rand is a “girl”, you tell him that she is a crew-member and that she can hear you talking about her, so maybe lock that crap down. This problem is burned into the episode even at the visual level, with the ship’s gym split between the men who want to wrassle, and the women who are all about the gymnastics. And even beyond that, you have nonsense like the idea that two hundred-plus years from now, humanity will celebrate “Earth Thanksgiving Day”, in which people still want to devour turkey. The idea that US culture will inevitably spread first across the planet and then to the stars is a rather conceited conceit, even before you factor in the discomfort in seeing a tradition bound up in colonialism appearing in an age where humans literally live in colonies on other worlds.
In short, given the politics and international events of the time, this is a fire in a sewer pipe. But here’s the thing. Watching this in 2016 gives us the chance to consider a radically different and more positive reading of the episode. Or at least, a reading that shifts the negatives into the realm of deliberate commentary rather than reflexive unpleasantness. The fact that it’s a reading that clearly couldn’t possibly have been intended at the time shouldn’t bother us at all. If you decide to depict the future, you automatically leave yourself open to the possibility of accurate prediction, even when you weren’t intending to predict anything at all. So let’s totally ignore how the space-time continuum is actually structured and embrace the obvious: this episode is about online misogynists.
Impossible or not, things pick up significantly once you assume that this is what’s going on. Large parts of “Charlie X” stop being problematic, instead becoming strengths. Under this new reading, the problem with Charlie isn’t that he’s a teenager no-one can control. It’s that he’s a man so utterly obsessed with his own desires and needs that it literally doesn’t occur to him that anyone else can think about things differently. Everything has to be the exact way he wants it, or he’ll tear it down, especially if they’re women. Experience makes it painfully clear that not every man who behaves this way is a teenager, any more than every teenage boy behaves like Charlie. At the risk of undermining my defence above, though, there are obvious ways in which that sort of man can be said to be behaving like a teenager. That makes Charlie an entirely sensible stand-in for their attitude and behaviour. And what unpleasant behaviour it is. Charlie walks around the ship raging at and punishing women for crimes like talking or laughing without his approval, even when what they’re doing doesn’t involve him at all (the idea a woman laughing must be laughing at him is particularly cutting here). Some of these punishments involve the magical silencing or erasure of identity of the women that displease him. This is a literalisation of the kind of online screaming down and trampling over and stripping of identity (there are a hundred words a troll will use to refer to a woman before he thinks of using her name) that remains endemic in our culture. And yet somehow, it’s always their fault. Charlie himself is simply a blameless victim of circumstance. Why can’t women give him the respect he deserves? Or just never enter his eye-line, depending on how attractive he finds them. The pretty one should love him and the less pretty ones (this is ’60s TV, those are the only categories) should scuttle away when they hear him approach. He complains Rand is “Not nice at all” because she slaps him when he grabs her (Rand and Grace Lee Whitney are both great in that scene, by the way: “I’ll lock [my door] when I please,” indeed). Just like so many of his 21st century brethren, Charlie wants to see himself as a warrior, but he’s not interested in actually learning what actually becoming part of a struggle entails. As a result, the instant he attempts combat he’s humiliated, thoroughly and effortlessly outmatched by someone who is actually aware of what’s involved. It’s notable that he ends up being mocked not just by Sam but by the incidental music itself, which knowingly shifts into the hyperbolic Star Trek fight tune just as Charlie jerks his feet around pathetically.
In short, Charlie is an internet troll with utterly no self-awareness who’s invaded a narrative where he doesn’t belong, causing chaos and misery and utterly refusing to respect or understand what’s going on around them. That’s pretty close to the dictionary definition of a misogynist internet troll. Even the name “Charlie X” reads like the handle of a Twitter egg.
(Yes yes, I know. #NotAllEggs.)
This reading also helps partially redeem Kirk’s dialogue here, because it moves him away from uncomfortable disciplinarian and towards exasperated ally, one who’s trying to explain to Charlie why his behaviour is so unacceptable. The captain’s speech about romance being about more than just what Charlie wants, and that he can’t simply have whichever woman he sets his sights on, is pretty good anyway, but you can also salvage some of the unlovely scene where they discuss Charlie slapping Rand’s backside. Kirk’s fumbling explanation of the difference between doing this to a man and doing it to a woman runs into all kinds of serious problems, but the basic idea – and I quite like the idea that Kirk is struggling to make himself understood because he’s just so baffled that anyone could not get this – is that context is everything. The smack Charlie observed wasn’t different because it wasn’t across gender lines, but because it was (presumably) consensual. Similarly, Uhura’s song about how Spock looks like Satan and hypnotises women into sleeping with him would be a dreadfully unpleasant thing to sing about a stranger. When you’re a black woman poking fun at a white male senior officer you’ve known for a while, though, then that shifts the numbers around somewhat, doesn’t it?
(Putting that on US television in 1966, by the way? There is no way I could not be all about that.)
But context simply isn’t something the internet warriors I’m pretending Charlie is modeled on have the slightest interest in accepting exists. Or rather, they’re obsessed with context, but only that which surrounds themselves. Their fragility demands that every minor hurt or criticism be treated as an outrage (watch how totally Charlie overreacts to Rand’s slap), whilst every disgusting attack they make is someone else’s fault. When Charlie responds to being faced with the fact he’s removed people from reality with the whine that “they made me!”, he sounds like every pathetic death-threat sender and doxxer on the internet who’s got caught. And look what “making him” actually entails. Not being as nice to him as he believes he is entitled to. Not being treated as seriously as he believes he’s entitled to. Not having the access to female bodies the way he believes he is entitled to. Everyone needs to be punished for not being exactly what he thinks they should. It’s not his fault! People keep letting him down by being people.
The most vicious cut is still to come, though. In the end, after having been so thorough in demonstrating how awful that kind of person is, the episode twists the knife deeper still by basically saying that those like Charlie are basically impossible to fix. That they’re best just set aside. That there comes a certain point after which they lose any right to interact with people who are actually invested in improving things, or really, even just wanting to get on with their lives and be left alone. Those people will put Charlie-types onto a block list and then forget them immediately. And when one day, technology reaches the heights we have been promised, and someone invents a floating green face that will hunt such trolls down and whisk them to another planet, it will be deployed without a second thought. Because, just like Charlie, some people do not deserve and cannot be trusted with the power that they have.
Or maybe not. Maybe one day things will be brighter. That’s what Star Trek is supposed to be all about, after all; faith in the future. Maybe we won’t need a wobbly special effect to police the net. Maybe people’s own self-awareness will be enough. That’s the ending I’m rooting for. A day when Charlie and all those like him finally become part of the past, and not the future.
GS Blogger: Ric Crossman