Kirk Your Enthusiasm (14)

By: Steve Schneider
August 16, 2012

Fourteenth in a series of posts, each one analyzing a single Captain Kirk scene from the Star Trek canon.

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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.

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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

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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

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What do you think?

  1. So true — what good is pushing the boundaries if there aren’t some limits to begin with? This ep was indeed an uncommon attempt to engage with troubled youth, in a show that had more than its share of lecturing-in-absentia (the space-hippies you allude to in Season 3, and, I’d venture, the chanting eternal children on “Miri”). I guess it was of a piece with the paternalism the Federation implied — but sometimes, you’re right, the responsibility part of being the King would take precedence over the license. And P.S., “because math” is the greatest phrase in the English language since “because just go with it,” and that was only yesterday — so maybe there are no limits after all!

  2. IDIC applies to what you *can’t have, maybe more than to what you *can! A great lesson for adults and adolescents everywhere: including adolescent people, economies, nations, planets…

  3. True, Peggy; infinite choices entails actually making one. And the evil/good, clean/goatee’d, might’ve-been/should-be dynamic of so much Trek (this series and later ones) is about nothing if not countless crossroads collapsing into the right direction…

  4. Hm, I think Steve’s analysis here indicates that it doesn’t always collapse into the right direction, that the infinite choice is counterbalanced, perhaps unequally, with the infinite number of things that may be off-limits at any given point, for any given desire; that to “know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em” is what growing up (as an individual, as a society) is about.

  5. I agree, Peggy, if my faulty inner copyeditor seemed not to :-); yeah, a big part of the danger of Trek’s frontiers is the likelihood of wrong paths, right you are; there is a through-line of what “should” happen, but the only ones who see it every time are us fans, forced to witness the struggle play out on the viewscreen, right or wrong…

  6. Actually, I wasn’t concerned with anything as complex as “choices” — because when you’re the age I was when I first saw this episode, you don’t even think about choices, just WANTS. And it was a big deal to be told that all the wanting in the world won’t get you some things (by implication, no matter which choices you make), especially while almost everything else on TV was conveying the exact opposite message.

    What’s interesting is that, upon reviewing the episode before writing this piece, I realized that Kirk’s statement has a second half that’s even more mature and much more hopeful: It’s about “holding on” in the face of disappointment the way everybody has to. But I TOTALLY didn’t remember that part of the speech, probably because, when I first saw the episode, I had been stopped cold by the first half and didn’t “hear” the rest. That’s why I decided to focus only on that half when writing this mini-essay: What you remember without prodding is what really had an effect on you.

    I would compare all of this to the scene in “The Lion King” in which Musafa counsels Simba that “There’s more to being king than just getting your way all the time.” Simba’s excited response: “There’s MORE?” He has clearly not yet reached the point where he can understand that “more” sometimes means “less.”

  7. It was to be a frequently recurring theme — the need to come to grips with life’s limitations. Charlie X was uncomfortable company and viewing for me — he was hardly the only time the crew encountered someone or something with extra-human powers, but he may have been the most humorless, lacking the flair and impishness of a Trelane. These efforts to be more, do more, have more, most often came to grief, whether it was a man who would be a god or a society who would be a utopia. In my memory of TOS, there were exchanges between Kirk and Spock, ruminating on this flawed human nature. Some episodes would end on that notes, with Kirk almost wistfully, bemusedly acknowledging the foibles of human nature, with Spock arching his eyebrow. In such an expansive and exciting universe, there was a comfort in that.

  8. “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.”

    wow. I hear this fear, that “Life is Elsewhere” from my teenage friends endlessly: too many paths, so hard to choose.

  9. Though but seriously-er, Annie, I’m maybe encouraged that teens express a burden of possibilities to you; it’s funny (as in mysterious) that kids of my generation had a breadth of expectations in pre-crash, still-superpower America and yet were very mono-focused in our certainty of what we “would be,” so with the current decline I don’t wanna think too much about being the starting-point for anyone in their teens today it’s actually heartening that they see too many paths…though like all responsible never-was-a-father figures I address younger people’s worries, not order them to cheer up like we got from *our* adults (and Steve, maybe I got the alternative from Kirk, you’re right). Esoth, I agree about those end-of-ep, what-have-we-not-learned moments with Kirk and Spock — as the ship floats on, finding (or finding out) what we want has all the time in the universe, and these unresolvable but understanding chats lean back and give it some space as well.

  10. Sorry to be a late poster, but I wanted to add a hymn of praise to the pot…

    Math. And the passage of Time. Also Math, reducing grand possibility but, ideally, substituting the bug for the everyday epiphay, the possibility of contentment.

    Is it crude to also read this speech as a reworking of the American Dream, Manifest Destiny and Founding Father Individualism? Kirk simply cuts in half the absolutist capability that the Dream inflicts on people, suggesting that desire is not fulfilled by simply longing and that there are external societal rules that take the pressure off those who see every unfulfilled wish purely as a marker of their personal failings or insufficient emotional commitment to desire.

  11. “Kirk simply cuts in half the absolutist capability that the Dream inflicts on people, suggesting that desire is not fulfilled by simply longing and that there are external societal rules that take the pressure off those who see every unfulfilled wish purely as a marker of their personal failings or insufficient emotional commitment to desire.”

    I reach.

  12. And your reach divinely matches your grasp, Greg — in “Sunnyside” Glen Gold diagnoses the American tragedy as believing you deserve things in proportion to how much you want them, and though it’s said Americans can’t keep two ideas in their head at once, we actually tend to cut everything down to two destructive or defeatist superlatives…

  13. That Gold quote is terrific. Two of the worst lessons we teach our kids are that they will be miserable failures if they can’t “live their dream,” and that just about the only dream worth having is singing and dancing to wide public acclaim.

  14. Right on Steve, perhaps the two words in the American vocabulary which should most be sent to opposite corners for a while are “dream” and “big” — dreaming in proportion might help them fit into whatever space reality has to give.

  15. Thanks for tall kindly words, Brothers in The One.

    I agree, kids need to be taught proportional effort-reward-failure algorithms.

    I enjoyed the Olympics. I’m a Londoner. But that stuff about self- belief doesn’t work out, does it? I have flat feet and lazy legs and have tried Athletic Self-Belief without Skill or Training.

    The school parents still joke, six years later, about my Jerry Lewis performance in the Dad’s Obstacle Race. But in my head I was Spider-Man, but that self-belief only worked from the neck up.

  16. You’ve extracted and highlighted a very interesting and intriguing component. Off the top of my head I can think of two or three other episodes that turn on this idea of “No, you can’t have it all.” Now of course I shall have to go back and watch all of TOS looking for it (o wot a tragedy).

  17. I only recently stumbled across this work of your team: Just… Thank you for these insights … These are words that have taken me through Trek, Heinlein, Howard and Vonnegut again and again… Keep this going…

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