Aliens With God Like Powers–“Charlie X”

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 15, 2016

Fifty years ago tonight, the second episode of Star Trek, “Charlie X” was first shown on NBC. As usual, follow the link to Wikipedia’s excellent summary. An even more extensive history is at Memory Alpha.

Charlie XI enjoyed “Charlie X” more than I did “The Man Trap,” both in 1966 and 2016, but not by much. The story is rather simple. The Enterprise rendezvous with the Antares to take on a passenger, a young man named Charlie Evans, who has been raised by aliens. He knows little of human ways. Charlie is friendly and anxious to please, but when his feelings gets hurt, he has god-like powers to punish his tormentors. On the Enterprise he meets a woman for the first time, and is smitten with her. Things don’t go well.

Even in 1966 this plot seemed borrowed. Stranger in a Strange Land was fresh in my memory. Charlie, like Valentine Michael Smith, had been raised by aliens, never seen girls before, and had god-like powers. They both could make people disappear with a thought. I had also seen “It’s A Good Life” on The Twilight Zone, based on the famous short story by Jerome Bixby. It featured a young boy with god powers who would do horrible things to people who displeased him. Much like Charlie. The story also reminded me of “The Sixth Finger,” one of the early episodes of The Outer Limits, about a man who artificially evolves to have, yes, you guess it, god-like powers.

SLAN1953

Science fiction has a history of aliens with immense powers, or evolved humans with superpowers (Odd John, Slan, The Hampdenshire Wonder). But are god-like powers even possible? For humans, aliens from the sky, or even gods? Charlie makes the Antares instantly disappear with a thought, while light-years away. Is this science fiction or fantasy? Did Gene Roddenberry really think humans had untapped psi-powers? Did Heinlein? As a kid I took things literally, and imagined such things might be possible, but I don’t anymore.

As I’ve written in earlier essays about Star Trek, I have to watch the show and judge it by science fiction and by allegory. Gene Roddenberry, who wrote the original story for “Charlie X” was an atheist. Star Trek often dealt with aliens with various kinds of god-like powers, and generally Captain Kirk is pitted against them. Are these stories allegories showing humans v. gods?

Sometimes we’re given stories in science fiction where the goal is to evolve to the next level – i.e., Childhood’s End, or 2001: A Space Odyssey. But I never liked those stories because they reject normal human existence. Who really wants to have powers like Charlie Evans or Valentine Michael Smith? I now think of these stories as philosophical tales rather than science fictional speculation, which I did as a kid. Isn’t “Charlie X” a rejection of God? Who wants to be friends with someone who can punish you with a thought? Would you even want such a person for a father figure?

Aren’t ESP powers a kind of evil? Aren’t ESP powers a Pandora’s Box we should never want to open? If you could do something with a thought, would you ever learn how to do anything for real? But what is the science of thought power? There’s none. It’s wishful thinking. Any reality where thoughts had such powers would be less than real. Like a dream, or computer simulation. When it comes down to it, don’t we actually need the limitations of reality? Remember The Matrix movies, where Neo learns earlier versions of the Matrix failed because existence was too easy and perfect.

Why did Heinlein accept the powers, but Roddenberry reject them? Why do so many crave the superpowers of superhero comics? The two classic science fiction novels by Alfred Bester, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination, deal with telepathy and teleportation. Would you really want either power? Honestly? Have you read Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg? Telepathy is a curse.

the man with the sixth fingerAre there any super-powers worth having? If you could fly, and no one else could, wouldn’t that be psychologically isolating? Even being gifted is hard on most kids. Being absolutely beautiful or sexually irresistible has its downfalls. We don’t want to be average, but we don’t want to be outliers either. Athletes who break records would find it disappointing if they had no real challengers.

If you’re too far from the norm you risk becoming another species. And on Star Trek, the aliens that humans have the most contact with are the ones that are like us – Vulcans, Klingons, Romulans. Of course that’s due to needing human actors. Could Captain Kirk be pals with a Horta, from the “The Devil in the Dark?” Once they learn the creature is only protecting its young, we relate to that, and accept it. Isn’t the whole diversity movement about realizing we’re all the same, and differences shouldn’t isolate us? I could be friends with a Horta if we found something in common – for example, like talking about science fiction. Have you ever wondered if aliens on other worlds have science fiction?

The crew of the Enterprise liked Charlie Evans as long as he was acting human. When he used his powers they feared and hated him. What does that say about us being friends with god-like beings? Was that the intended message of “Charlie X?” It’s the message I got. In the end, Charlie Evans wanted to stay with the humans, and he wanted to be human, but his powers corrupted him. Charlie had to return with the aliens that raised him.

So what’s the lesson here? Ultimately, both science fiction and allegories have something to teach. In 1966, I expected science fiction to explore actual possibilities. At the time I accepted FTL travel and matter transmitters, but I had problems with lots of the plots. Now that I’m older, I see in 2016 that Star Trek was seldom scientific speculation about the future, but often allegories about the present.

If “Charlie X” wasn’t a dig at God, who or what was it satirizing? I wonder if it was Age of Aquarius hippies, Transcendental Meditation, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, psychedelic drugs, and other 1960s movements that promised to take people to states of higher consciousness. The kind of people who were wanting to be like Valentine Michael Smith. The kind of people who read Slan and hoped they would be one?

I watch old episodes of Star Trek to fathom science fiction in 1966. I was fourteen then, and didn’t comprehend all that science fiction could be, or was trying to be. I was a gullible kid who wanted the wonders of SF to be possible. I think some of it was written to promote space exploration. On the other hand, I think most of science fiction was personal commentary on culture by quirky writers like Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut. Gene Roddenberry wasn’t that different from Rod Sterling. Star Trek eventually developed a reputation for promoting a utopian view of the future. That might be true starting with Star Trek: The Next Generation, but I haven’t started rewatching it yet. So far, I see no utopian aspects of the Federation in the original series.

JWH

9 thoughts on “Aliens With God Like Powers–“Charlie X””

  1. Greetings…excellent post about Star Trek 1966…Roddenberry and company right @ the start were faced with a big problem: audience share…over @ CBS the unwanted rival of “Star Trek” was ” Lost in Space”…Irwin Allen had a hit on his hands ( a hit amongst younger viewers including older teens)…by the Fall of 1966 Allen had changed his show into the Monster/ Alien of the week etc…originally (early early 1st season) it was a show that covered a futuristic version of “The Swiss Family Robinson.” The monster of the week was very very popular with younger viewers…especially since the show now concentrated on three characters…Dr. Smith and Will Robinson plus “The Robot.” Star Trek right from the git-go was faced with pressure from NBC to out do Lost in Space (for the ratings etc)..”Charlie X” was a story written by Gene…but the teleplay was written by one of the great sc-fi writers of the 60s and 70s…D.C. Fontana..it was episode 2 broadcast on 15 September 1966 on a Thursday night @ 8:30 pm on NBC…it was tho’ shot 8th in the production schedule…Roddenberry was doing everything to make (my opinion only) Star Trek “intellectual” and not the monster of the week…kids @ the time were divided into two camps either in favour of one or the other…a third-camp (I held membership in this group) favoured both tv programs because we were starving for televised science-fiction on tv…

  2. jw;
    I hope you don’t really expect answers to all the questions. I’ve read or watched most of the stories you mention. I cannot speak for others, but I haven’t done what it seems you are doing; going back and running the stories of my youth through the machinery of my 60+ year old and very experienced (and crowded) mind. It seems to me you are standing up those hugely different referential “understandings” and pitting them against each other. Or perhaps you are just viewing them through the lens of experience (aka age) that adds a very different color to those stories.

    Reading the story of Gully Foyle was a mind opening experience for me back then. I’ve read it several times since (I have a copy that I am preserving), and while the experience wasn’t the same, it was still a terrific story. I never considered any of the mental powers involving “jaunting” as anything more than a device to pursue the plot and character development. Teleportation (mental or technical) always was a means to support the story line from my point of view. Many authors have used it as a plot device, and some of those stories are excellent.

    The character of Charlie in Star Trek seemed from my viewpoint to be a version of the cuckoo bird in the nest. Whatever his original genetic self, he was not human by the time he ended up on the Enterprise. His humanity always seemed in doubt, even if the softies of the Federation took a while to realize it. The fact that the Thasians showed up to correct all of Charlie’s failings seemed like a typical Deus Machina story wrap. The most interesting part of the story for me was the human response by the leaders of the Enterprise. The Greek mythologies would have ended that story with tragedy. I wouldn’t feel the same way about it now, but I enjoyed it then – as you seemed to do.

    As a teenager, I was not all that thrilled with tragedy, unless it was dressed up pretty well. Star Trek did that.

    And most science fiction authors back then did that as well. Not all, and some dealt with tragedy so well that the stories still became famous and well regarded (Nine Billion Names of God for instance).

    I’m as disappointed as you are that things in this world have not worked out as wonderfully as either ’50s science fiction in print would have it, or as mid to late ’60s TV science fiction did. I always hoped that Dr. Zachary Smith would be decapitated by an alien being; not for any reason other than his wailing and noxious voice would have triggered an instinct to kill. I certainly would have been happy to wear the costume of that alien being.

    I guess my last point in this ramble is that really good writing can get away with almost any plot device. Perhaps I’m shallow enough that I never understood or realized the level of conflict between ideas of humanity out in the Universe on it’s own, and God-like beings interacting with us.

    And so it goes today here on Earth.

    1. I agree completely that good writing can overcome any weaknesses of plot or concepts.

      Part of this process of reevaluating Star Trek is trying to understand my adolescent mind and why he embraced science fiction. Back then I loved science fiction because it was both philosophical and entertainment. I think for the most part, modern SF fans just see science fiction as entertainment today. I don’t think I noticed anything philosophical in Star Trek Beyond.

      There are exceptions. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson was tremendously philosophical.

  3. Great post and great questions. I often wonder why people enjoy stories about characters with superpowers. My guess is it counters feelings of powerlessness, inadequacy, vulnerability, etc., especially for adolescents (a difficult phase of life for many, including myself). Although I enjoyed those stories (X-Men, etc.) during my childhood, as an adult, I find superheros to be boring. There’s not much at stake when you’re invulnerable. I *am* interested in aliens with god-like powers though. In the scifi book series I’m working on, I explore what aliens would be like if they have been evolving millions of years longer than we have. I have to assume they would have technologies that would seem god-like to us, but the typical superpowers (super strength, invulnerability, etc.), telepathy, etc. aren’t things I’ll be considering.

    1. Then I’ll like to read your book Daniel. I’ve always wanted to read a SF novel about advanced beings that went beyond the typical assumptions of telepathy and other psychic abilities. I’ve often wonder if there aren’t limits to knowledge and technology. Have you heard of the Kardashev scale? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kardashev_scale I’m not sure advanced beings would even bother with these kinds of technologies either, although some might.

      1. Yes, I have the same doubts about the Kardashev scale. While an advanced civilization might have the capability of harvesting all the energy from a star, why would they want or need to? I suspect (hope?) one mark of an advanced species would be the ability to control its own population so that its needs for space, energy, and materials wouldn’t continue to increase exponentially. I’d also guess their technology would be significantly more efficient than our own. Lastly, I wonder if they will have discovered sources of energy completely unknown to us.

      2. I look at it this way. Intelligence is reality becoming aware of itself. The more intelligence an individual has, the more awareness of the scope and size of reality. However, there’s no real need to alter reality, unless there’s some kind of imperative to procreate and spread. But isn’t that pointless? What’s the value of spreading humanity across the galaxy? How many intelligent beings does reality need? For that matter, how much knowledge does any single intelligence need? There are limits. To growth, intelligence, knowledge, domain, habitats, etc. Not limits holding us back, but limits of functionality.

  4. How would we know any of that? To presume that our particular version of consciousness, much less intelligence is a yard stick for any/all other beings in the universe is wishful thinking. Granted, that is the single source of most science fiction writing, and so it should be. It is written by us, about us, and could not exist without us. At the very least, fiction written that is not by us, about us or informed by us would not only be strange, it would likely be incomprehensible.

    Just because we are currently pushing limits (for instance, our nations cannot or will not spend money to explore the Solar System unless it has immediate local benefits) does not mean those limits are anything but choices. The USA rush to the Moon came about through a number of reasons, most importantly the nuclear arms race. That was largely about nuclear delivery systems and who could reach the highest apogee that would keep those delivery systems in a position to dominate our enemies. Exploration was a side benefit, and one that seems to have withered on the vine.

    I’ll start paying attention the the Kardashev scale when we achieve 50% of level A. And that is assuming we ever get there. I’m willing to place a $20 bet that it doesn’t happen in my lifetime. Oh, and by the way; that is the only timescale I’m willing to bet on anything.

    1. I agree, there will be a seemingly endless variety of intelligent views on reality. However, if we assume the external reality is an absolute, that is consistent to all who study it, then the facts we all gather should ultimately be similar. We now see reality in terms of sub-atomic particles, atoms, physics, molecules, chemistry, life, biology, intelligence, mathematics, computers. If other intelligent beings look at what we call stars and don’t see the equivalent of hydrogen and fusion, then reality might be mutable or illusory.

      I also think of it this way. Reality is unaware of itself until intelligence evolves. Reality can and did exist without intelligence. Nor do I think reality was put here for us, or the goal of evolution is to create intelligence. Intelligence is a byproduct of evolution. However, I’m not sure there aren’t limits to intelligence, in the same way there are limitations to atoms or molecules.

      Even though entropy rules the reality we observe, for some reason, reality keeps producing more and more complexity. Is there no limit to that complexity? Every system has its parameters. That’s why my favorite short work of science fiction has always been “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. It’s about our limitations.

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