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

Remembering Star Trek—50 Years

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, August 6, 2016

Leonard by William ShatnerThis is my week for revisiting Star Trek. Last weekend I saw Star Trek Beyond, and this weekend I read Leonard by William Shatner, a biography of Leonard Nimoy, explaining their fifty-year friendship. Between that movie and book I watched three old episodes of Star Trek:TOS just out of nostalgia. I have a rather love-hate relationship with Star Trek. Fifty years ago this summer, while staying with my dad in Key West, Florida, I saw the previews for a new science fiction show that would start in the fall. I can’t convey how excited I was waiting for Star Trek to premiere. Then the first episode was about a shape shifting monster that sucked the salt out of people. WTF? (Although, we didn’t talk in initials back in 1966.) The crew and ship was cool, especially Mr. Spock, but that first show disappointed me. Eventually, I saw other episodes that did wow me, so Star Trek was always a hit and miss kind of experience. To be honest, the only character I really liked was Mr. Spock, so what appealed to me were the stories, and their quality varied greatly from week-to-week.

The new Star Trek Beyond is a big hit – but not with me. Now I’m not saying it’s a bad movie, that would be silly when so many people love it. I just have some grumps, and that’s probably due to being old. I’m worn out on special effects. I’m tired of action movies. I’m sick to death of unrealistic violence in movies, especially the ones where the violence is less real than Three Stooges or Wile E Coyote. Superhero films have ruined action, thriller and modern westerns for me. They’ve all become power porn for people who fantasize that can pound people like Jack Reacher or Jason Bourne. Not my thing. I know I’m weak and gimpy, and would get my ass kicked by anyone over twelve. Especially those kids trained on action films.

I’d love to see a Star Trek film where special effects were kept to a minimum, with no martial arts, no space battles, and for god’s sake, where the damn crew don’t become hostages. How many times has Captain Kirk or crew been captured? How many times has the Enterprise been destroyed? And where’s the damn science fiction? Essentially Star Trek Beyond could be summed up as terrorist threatens civilization with bioweapon. The only sense of wonder I found in the film was when they introduced Yorktown. That was pretty cool. If they had spent the whole film just hanging out on that space habitat I would have been a happy moviegoer.

The three old TV episodes I watched were:

All three episodes were enjoyable, but none deserved an Emmy or even a Hugo. Each had a nice gimmick, and even though she didn’t do much, “Assignment: Earth” made me remember Teri Garr (although I had already seen in her in several films as an extra according to IMDb).

I’m going to give up on the Star Trek movies, and just watch the old TV shows from time to time. All three of the recent reboot films have been heavily laden with nostalgia I don’t feel. I like the new actors, and if they could break away from being clichés and caricatures of the originals, I would enjoy seeing a new Star Trek story that had some original science fiction concepts. The trouble is they have to make a film that will earn hundreds of millions and that means a cartoonish action film. I’d love to see them create a story that has the feel, pacing and creativity of Gattaca, Her and Ex Machina, but set it on Yorktown.

Now, the best for last. Leonard proved to be a surprisingly good read. I don’t know if Shatner or his co-writer David Fisher did the writing, but it’s very readable, and full of well research details. Shatner and Nimoy were born months apart to Jewish families. Both wanted to be actors and struggled for years to find success. Shatner’s chronicles of how he and Nimoy took any acting job they could get. I found that particularly interesting, especially when he covered television jobs in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Since I haven’t read any other histories of Star Trek or its actors, I’m not sure how much of the information in Leonard is new. It was enough to give me a satisfying sense of working on the original show and movies, plus memories about the Star Trek conventions. Shatner also summarized Nimoy’s work in theater, directing, poetry, singing, photography and philanthropy. Shatner convinced me that Leonard Nimoy was an exceptional person. The book is a moving eulogy to a friend. And like I said before, the book is very readable.

But Leonard is more than a biography. It’s a kind of confession. Shatner claims Nimoy was his best friend in life, and then admits that Nimoy had stopped talking to him years before he died. The psychology of this book is one for psychiatrists. Evidently the story of these two men is very complicated, and we’re only hearing Shatner’s side of things. I’m not sure if Shatner is very self-aware, but he does struggle to appear honest, and express his feelings. Even if you knew nothing about Star Trek, this book might be a worthy read because of how the story is told. It’s about acting, and what it means to become a pop icon success. Anyone interested in acting, old television, making movies, or working in the theater should find insight in this story.

The reader feels Shatner loved Nimoy, but like Shatner, can’t understand why Nimoy hated him in the end. I searched the internet for answers, but realize I’d be jumping into a black hole and quit. It would be interesting to read an impartial, definitive biography of Star Trek, its creators, writers and all the actors. Is there such a book? I’m not a Trekkie/Trekker, so I don’t know. Star Trek is a phenomenon, so that makes it an interesting subject separate from the show’s fan appeal.

From the details within Leonard, and a bit of Google research on Star Trek, I get the feeling the Star Trek universe is huge. If you count the number of TV episodes from all the series, all the movies, all the books, comics, and so on, there must be well over a thousand artifacts to study, maybe a lot more. Even though, from 1966 on, I watched most of ST shows, I never took it seriously enough to become a true fan. And even though I’d like to know more, I’m not sure I have the time, or even if the endeavor is worth while. Leonard does convey the immense success of Star Trek, and that might be all I need to know, but it’s beyond my comprehension to really understand the Star Trek universe.

Personally, I have a kind of resentment against Star Trek and Star Wars. I remember how science fiction was before 1966, and I preferred when the genre was mostly unknown. Those franchises exploded the world of science fiction twice. Science fiction was defined by magazines in 1926, began shifting to books in 1946, then in 1966 the audience expanded tremendously with television, and in 1977, it’s appeal exploded again worldwide. Even though media science fiction can be fun, it was never the science fiction I found in magazines and books. In many ways, I think the definitive science fiction has always come from magazines. Of course, my view might be age related, and I’m revealing I never kept up with the times.

The difference between me and real Star Trek fans, is I never fell in love with the characters. With both Star Trek and Star Wars, I think their fanatical fans love the characters and can’t forget them. And to me, science fiction has always been about insightful ideas – the sense of wonder at discovering something that could or should exist in reality but something I never imagined. For me, the science fiction digests of the 1950s and 1960s had more sense-of-wonder revelations then anything I ever found in television and movies.

I still like Star Trek about as much as I liked it during the 1966/67 TV season. It has its moments.

JWH

What If Star Trek (1966) Had Been About Colonizing Mars?

If Star Trek in 1966 had been about colonizing Mars, would we have a colony on Mars right now?  If Star Trek hadn’t been about an impossible distant future, but a much closer possible future, would it have influenced the space program?  After we stopped going to the Moon in 1972, did the majority of humanity give up on space travel because they didn’t have a realistic science fiction vision to inspire them?

mars

First Star Trek and then Star Wars changed the face of the science fiction genre.  They created millions of new science fiction fans.  Star Trek and Star Wars also spread the concept of the warp drive and hyperspace across the world so that most people of the Earth now assume that mankind will one day travel to the stars using these propulsion technologies.  And that’s my problem with Star Trek and Star Wars.  They have made the warp drive and jump drive as believable as heaven, hell, angels, gods and life after death.  And although the warp drive has theoretical science behind it, it’s probably as realistic as reaching another world by dying.  The jump drive is even less believable, even though it has theoretical mathematicians supporting it with wild theories.

Star Trek created a future mythology that suggests traveling between the stars will only take days or weeks.  Star Wars enhanced that mythology by letting people believe that travel between the stars will only take hours.

The reality will be interplanetary space travel will take months and years, and interstellar travel, if it’s even possible, will take tens of years, and more likely, hundreds or thousands of years.

Science fiction has oversold the ease of space travel, and that has hurt the potential of manned space travel.

By selling the warp drive and the jump drive, most of our future mythologies are built around traveling quickly between the stars, either at ocean liner speeds or jet liner speeds.  I can’t help but wonder if this hasn’t impeded the public’s support for real space travel.  As long as real space travel is by space capsule and the destinations are rock strewn plains, space travel has little sex appeal.  It’s not an adventure but a scientific experiment to be endured by the toughest humans with the right stuff.  Having a television like Star Trek would have humanized the job.

The important thing though, this theoretical show would have had to been positive.  Most movies about Mars are about failures.

If Star Trek back in 1966 had been about a successful colony on Mars, making the endeavor exciting, and imagining realistic possibilities of what living on Mars might be like, would a science fiction show been able to influence reality?

Why hasn’t science fiction been more realistic about space travel? Why doesn’t science fiction promote the pioneering spirit anymore?  Has Star Trek and Star Wars convinced us all to wait until we can travel in comfort?  There are real advocates of space travel working on the problem of getting people off Earth, and back before Star Trek and Star Wars, many of these real space dreamers saw science fiction as cheerleading the cause, but that’s no longer true.

Can fiction shape destiny?  Is science fiction creating mythologies no more realistic than past mythologies?  Do we dream dreams to make them to come true, or do we dream dreams to fool ourselves about the nature of reality?

It’s been over forty years since humans have last walked on the Moon.  If space travel was a realistic dream we would have colonized the Moon and Mars by now.  Has science fiction failed us by cheerleading us with impractical dreams?  If science fiction had written more stories about realistic interplanetary travel would that have inspired more people to back space travel, or would the popularity of science fiction just have faded?

It’s obvious people want a Star Trek and Star Wars future, but it’s in the same way as they also want heaven, angels and God, by just waiting for them to happen.  We have to colonize the Moon and Mars first.  And that’s just a start.  There are centuries between now and The Federation, so when and how are we going to get going?

JWH – 4/1/13