Fourteenth in a series of posts, each one analyzing a single Captain Kirk scene from the Star Trek canon.
A million things you can’t have | “Charlie X” | Star Trek: The Original Series | Season 1, Episode 2 | September 1966
The Captain Kirk moment that’s had the greatest influence on me isn’t one that’s going to be replicated in any nightclub impressionist’s act. It’s simply too atypical of what people think of Star Trek — yet for me, it’s just about the philosophical bedrock of the program.
In “Charlie X,” the Enterprise picks up an interstellar orphan with a lot of adolescent desires and no social skills to speak of. As it turns out, he’s a handful in more serious ways, too — ones that place him in good company with Billy Mumy’s Anthony from The Twilight Zone. But before the true extent of Charlie’s awful powers becomes known, he’s basically a sullen cross for the ship’s crew to bear — especially Kirk, who rises manfully to his role as the father figure the boy so obviously needs.
Just about every TV series of the 1960s had its own what’s-the-matter-with-kids-today episode, but “Charlie X” isn’t typical hippie-punching. (We had to wait two seasons for that.) Kirk could easily look down on Charlie as an immature nuisance; instead, he treats him as what he ostensibly is, which is an in-progress human being who deserves the respect of being told the truth. About midway through the episode, beginning to despair of Charlie’s lovestruck simpering after Yeoman Janice Rand, Kirk lays down some knowledge with brutal but beneficent frankness: “Charlie, there are a million things in this universe you can have, and there are a million things you can’t have. It’s no fun facing that, but that’s the way things are.”
Charlie doesn’t listen, but oh boy, do we. In just the second episode aired, writers Gene Roddenberry and D.C. Fontana have revealed the adult foundation beneath the gee-whiz idealism that’s too often taken as the sum total of the Trek experience. That experience is customarily construed as one defined by unlimited possibility — infinite diversity in infinite combinations, and all that rot — but in Kirk’s world, quantities like satisfaction and fulfillment are distinctly finite. They may be obtainable by every person, but certainly not in every instance. Maybe not even close.
Yes, that’s counter to the popular image of Trek. It’s also at cross purposes with the very medium of television itself, which depends on the illusion that the entire universe is available to the viewer as long as he keeps watching TV. Kirk’s big “Charlie X” moment teaches the exact opposite: You can go where no man has gone before, or you can stay tuned to NBC until you become one with the sofa. But either way, there are doors that just aren’t going to open for you, because math.
The Captain Kirk who raised me trusted me to recognize that imagination and good will don’t automatically win you every race. The best you can hope for is that they’ll put in a good word for you with the law of averages.
2012: KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Captain Kirk scenes): Dafna Pleban: Justice or vengeance? | Mark Kingwell : Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | Nick Abadzis: “KHAAAAAN!” | Stephen Burt: “No kill I” | Greg Rowland: Kirk browbeats NOMAD | Zack Handlen: Kirk’s eulogy for Spock| Peggy Nelson: The joke is on Kirk | Kevin Church: Kirk vs. Decker | Enrique Ramirez: Good Kirk vs. Evil Kirk | Adam McGovern: Captain Camelot | Flourish Klink: Koon-ut-kal-if-fee | David Smay: Federation exceptionalism | Amanda LaPergola: Wizard fight | Steve Schneider: A million things you can’t have | Joshua Glenn: Debating in a vacuum | Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons: Klingon diplomacy | Trav S.D.: “We… the PEOPLE” | Matthew Battles: Brinksmanship on the brink | Annie Nocenti: Captain Smirk | Ian W. Hill: Sisko meets Kirk | Gabby Nicasio: Noninterference policy | Peter Bebergal: Kirk’s countdown | Matt Glaser: Kirk’s ghost | Joe Alterio: Watching Kirk vs. Gorn | Annalee Newitz: How Spock wins
ALSO ON HILOBROW Peggy Nelson on William Shatner as HiLo Hero | Greg Rowland on Leonard Nimoy as HiLo Hero | Peggy Nelson on William Shatner in Incubus | Matthew Battles on enlarging the Trek fanfic canon | Radium Age Supermen | Radium Age Robots | Radium Age Apocalypses | Radium Age Telepaths | Radium Age Eco-Catastrophes | Radium Age Cover Art (1) | SF’s Best Year Ever: 1912
2014: KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (typefaces): Matthew Battles on ALDINE ITALIC | Adam McGovern on DATA 70 | Sherri Wasserman on TORONTO SUBWAY | Sarah Werner on JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | Douglas Wolk on TODD KLONE | Mark Kingwell on GILL SANS | Joe Alterio on AKZIDENZ-GROTESK | Suzanne Fischer on CALIFORNIA BRAILLE | Gary Panter on SHE’S NOT THERE | Deb Chachra on FAUX DEVANAGARI | Peggy Nelson on FUTURA | Tom Nealon on JENSON’S ROMAN | Rob Walker on SAVANNAH SIGN | Tony Leone on TRADE GOTHIC BOLD CONDENSED NO. 20 | Chika Azuma on KUMON WORKSHEET | Chris Spurgeon on ELECTRONIC DISPLAY | Amanda French on DIPLOMA REGULAR | Steve Price on SCREAM QUEEN | Alissa Walker on CHICAGO | Helene Silverman on CHINESE SHIPPING BOX | Tim Spencer on SHATTER | Jessamyn West on COMIC SANS | Whitney Trettien on WILKINS’S REAL CHARACTER | Cintra Wilson on HERMÈS vs. HOTDOG | Jacob Covey on GOTHAM.
2013: HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (old-school hip hop tracks): Luc Sante on “Spoonin’ Rap” | Dallas Penn on “Rapper’s Delight” | Werner Von Wallenrod on “Rappin’ Blow” | DJ Frane on “The Incredible Fulk” | Paul Devlin on “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | Phil Dyess-Nugent on “That’s the Joint” | Adam McGovern on “Freedom” | David Abrams on “Rapture” | Andrew Hultkrans on “The New Rap Language” | Tim Carmody on “Jazzy Sensation (Bronx Version)” | Drew Huge on “Can I Get a Soul Clap” | Oliver Wang on “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” | Douglas Wolk on “Making Cash Money” | Adrienne Crew on “The Message” | Dart Adams on “Pak Jam” | Alex Belth on “Buffalo Gals” | Joshua Glenn on “Ya Mama” | Phil Freeman on “No Sell Out” | Nate Patrin on “Death Mix Live, Pt. 2” | Brian Berger on “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” | Cosmo Baker on “Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse)” | Colleen Werthmann on “Rockit” | Roy Christopher on “The Coldest Rap” | Dan Reines on “The Dream Team is in the House” | Franklin Bruno on The Lockers.
2011: KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Jack Kirby panels): Douglas Rushkoff on THE ETERNALS | John Hilgart on BLACK MAGIC | Gary Panter on DEMON | Dan Nadel on OMAC | Deb Chachra on CAPTAIN AMERICA | Mark Frauenfelder on KAMANDI | Jason Grote on MACHINE MAN | Ben Greenman on SANDMAN | Annie Nocenti on THE X-MEN | Greg Rowland on THE FANTASTIC FOUR | Joshua Glenn on TALES TO ASTONISH | Lynn Peril on YOUNG LOVE | Jim Shepard on STRANGE TALES | David Smay on MISTER MIRACLE | Joe Alterio on BLACK PANTHER | Sean Howe on THOR | Mark Newgarden on JIMMY OLSEN | Dean Haspiel on DEVIL DINOSAUR | Matthew Specktor on THE AVENGERS | Terese Svoboda on TALES OF SUSPENSE | Matthew Wells on THE NEW GODS | Toni Schlesinger on REAL CLUE | Josh Kramer on THE FOREVER PEOPLE | Glen David Gold on JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY | Douglas Wolk on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | MORE EXEGETICAL COMMENTARIES: Joshua Glenn on Kirby’s Radium Age Sci-Fi Influences | Chris Lanier on Kirby vs. Kubrick | Scott Edelman recalls when the FF walked among us | Adam McGovern is haunted by a panel from THE NEW GODS | Matt Seneca studies the sensuality of Kirby’s women | Btoom! Rob Steibel settles the Jack Kirby vs. Stan Lee question | Galactus Lives! Rob Steibel analyzes a single Kirby panel in six posts | Danny Fingeroth figgers out The Thing | Adam McGovern on four decades (so far) of Kirby’s “Fourth World” mythos | Jack Kirby: Anti-Fascist Pipe Smoker