Seasons of Seasons: Star Trek Season 1, “Charlie X” & “Where No Man Has Gone Before”

I hadn’t considered the influence of The Twilight Zone on Star Trek, but the early goings certainly feel like a kind of sister series of Rod Serling’s influential show. Both of last week’s episodes, and this week’s two, can be read as a more sci-fi heavy companion to The Twilight Zone, taking a simple thought experiment and expanding it within the Star Trek universe. It’s especially evident in Charlie X and to some extent in Where No Man Has Gone Before, as both episodes essentially deal with the same premise of psychological manipulation. (Though there were production-related issues that caused the coincidence; more on that in a minute.) Of course, when Rodenberry sold the idea of Star Trek to TV executives, he downplayed the sci-fi elements and didn’t explicitly mention any influences on The Twilight Zone, so it’s not clear to me how prevalent the show was when he began crafting Star Trek.

If this batch of episodes has any thematic through-line beyond the aforementioned sci-fi conceits, it’s in the emergence of James Kirk as the true leader of the Enterprise. Naturally the ship’s captain should take the lion’s share of the responsibility, but Kirk shows a great deal of fortitude as he navigates his crew through various crises – even if, as in the case of Charlie X, it occasionally comes off as a little silly. And it’s easy to see why Shatner became such a big star because of the show. He’s effortlessly charming, has a commanding screen presence, and has the rugged good looks to appeal to just about anyone.

In Charlie X, Kirk has to wrestle (literally, in one scene) with how to orient a new passenger with a unique set of circumstances onto the Enterprise. Charlie (Robert Walker) was the lone survivor of a derelict ship and survived for 14 years without any human contact, so virtually every aspect of life aboard his new home is completely foreign to him. Including how to react when a woman approaches him, or when he doesn’t get the things that he wants. And when he feels he’s been wronged, he makes them disappear. I was reminded of the Treehouse of Horror II segment “The Bart Zone” – itself a parody of an early Twilight Zone episode – because of the ramifications the crew must face if they disobey Charlie. What I was not prepared for, however, was the multiple scenes wherein Kirk must essentially give Charlie various versions of “the talk”, which add a comical bend to the episode, but slow down the drama at stake.

The unique thing to note about Where No Man Has Gone Before is that the episode was initially conceived as the show’s pilot, after the network balked at The Cage and ordered a second pilot to be produced. I can understand why Where No Man would be slightly more palatable to mainstream audiences as an introduction into this universe, but I slightly prefer the world building that was displayed in The Man Trap. That episode provided a showcase for the majority of the Enterprise’s crew, and utilized a more fantastical conceit. Perhaps that’s why Where No Man ultimately aired as the show’s second episode, but it still utilizes the sci-fi in fun and engaging ways. Like Charlie X, the episode also deals with maximizing one’s brain power to sew the seeds of destruction; here it’s in Gary Mitchell (Gary Lockwood) and psychologist Dr. Dehner (Sally Kellerman), whose minds begins to expand after the ship goes through a barrier at the edge of a galaxy.

Mitchell becomes the antagonist here, and the show deals with Kirk’s long-standing relationship with him as he decides how to respond. It’s a strong bit of economical storytelling to introduce a character like Mitchell and provide emotional and practical stakes for Kirk within the span of a single episode, and it’s what makes Where No Man perhaps the best outing of the show so far. That the third act features one of the more action-heavy set pieces doesn’t diminish that impact; rather, it shows that Star Trek was capable of being both a heady sci-fi series and a show that could handle action as well. The episode also features perhaps the heaviest dose of special effects so far, which looks fantastic on the remastered version available on Paramount+. Neither of these episodes deals with aliens or fantastical sci-fi elements per se, but by grounding them in human potential, they make a solid entry point for a fresh series that was likely still confidently finding its footing.

Charlie X Grade: B

Where No Man Has Gone Before Grade: A-

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