27 Aug 2012, 6:50pm

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Fans, Slans, Charlie X and the Death of the Author

SPOCK: Sensors show there something’s there, Captain. Deflectors indicate no solid substance. 

CHARLIE: No! Oh, no, please, don’t let them take me. I can’t live with them anymore. You’re my friends. You said you were my friends, remember? When I came aboard! Please, I want to go home. Take me home.

-Excerpt from episode of Star Trek the Original Series entitled “Charlie X”

In the third episode of STOS Robert Walker Jr plays Charlie X, a socially inept seventeen-year-old boy whose awkwardness is explained by his age and his personal history. Kirk is told that Charles Evans is the sole survivor of a transport crash on the planet Thasus, and that Charlie has been raised by the transport ship’s computer, however the real source of Charlie’s socially inappropriate manner turns out to be his secret power. The energy beings or blinking light aliens of Thasus have given Charlie the power to “transmute objects or render substances invisible.” This means that Charlie can make people who laugh at him disappear simply by rolling his eyes up in his head and he can destroy Starships and their hypocritical Captains with a mere thought. The real reason Charlie can’t win the heart of Yeoman Janice Rand, for instance, isn’t because he’s seventeen, but because he doesn’t understand his own limits. He doesn’t have any sense of where he fits into the social world of the Enterprise because he doesn’t have to know. Nothing can stop him. He has so much power that it cripples him. Charlie can conjure up the right perfume for Rand, he can do magic tricks with playing cards, and he can even take the Enterprise away from the Captain and control it, but he can’t control himself. He has so much power that he doesn’t know who he is or what he wants.

Charlie X was a fantasy, a wish fulfillment on screen, but because he represented the will to power so directly he was disfigured and broken.

When I was sixteen years old, just a year younger than Charlie, I spent a summer as a counselor at an Easter Seals camp outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. I’d wanted to follow in the footsteps of my father. Dad had been a counselor there just about 22 years earlier; he’d discovered his hippocratic tendencies through the process of taking care of the physically and mentally disabled back in 1965, but it turned out that I was not as competent as he was. Unlike Dad, I found surrounding myself with the autistic, the paralyzed, and the blind only reinforced my own sense of crushing inadequacy. I recall spending time in the infirmary being sick as a way to escape it all.  It was 100 degrees in the shade and I convinced myself that I was feverish. What I wanted was to stay on the infirmary cot and drink Pepsi cola. I hallucinated that Pepsi was the source of all life and revised a Doctor Who serial from Tom Baker’s days so as to include a product placement.

In Douglas Adam’s City of Death the Doctor had to make sure that a time traveling alien didn’t prevent his rocket from exploding on primeval Earth because the cosmic soup from which terrestrial life sprang required the cataclysm of the alien accident in order to be sparked. In my fevered scenario the Doctor had to make sure that the alien spilled Pepsi into the primordial soup and it was Pepsi and not Coke that added life. While my father had discovered a love for medicine as an outgoing Easter Seals camp counselor I fantasized that I’d discovered a knack for intergalactic advertising.

Looking at it from the most charitable angle you could say that I was a science fiction fan. My love of Doctor WhoStar Wars, and Star Trek helped me get through a life that I found to be otherwise impossible. I didn’t like these shows in some light and socially acceptable way but rather I was the kind of kid who wore the same filthy blue down jacket to school everyday, rain or shine, because my mother had sewn a Star Trek insignia on it for me. One of my earliest memories is of Scotty watching over his girlfriend, Lt. Mira Romaine, as she endured massive gravity inside a pressure chamber. I took a Wolverine action figure with me to school in ninth grade and played with him in the lunch room, and I played the Star Trek role playing game with my geek friends in high school. And I only managed to finally get laid because I found a girl who knew what a Tholian Web was and we are married now.

At the Easter Seal camp my absence from the cabin at the beginning of a new week meant that I had no authority with the new lot of campers. When I returned to the job I found the children in their wheelchairs wouldn’t listen to me. Instead they staged a bizarre mutiny, but not an entirely unified one, and rather than aiming their outrage at me, three or four of the little boys wheeled over to the smallest and geekiest child and set about tormenting him. They took his chair cushion away, pinched him, and set about him in an unrelenting way, pushing him, and me, to the limit.

My objections and threats to them, all the different ways I told them to stop, were to no avail. The chubby 10 year old blonde whose legs were stubs but whose yellow iZod shirt was bright and clean punched the dark haired boy in glasses and a Coca-Cola shirt that featured Max Headroom. He punched the nerd boy so hard that the boy toppled out of his chair. I went to him and scooped him up. I set him right in his chair, but he was frothing from the mouth and shaking his fist at his “friends.”

“You don’t know who you’re dealing with!” he said.  And when I placed him back in his chair the blonde boy pinched him while the black kid on crutches took the chair cushion away again. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with!” The little scapegoat raised his fist to the air as if he was waiting for lightning to strike.  He was hoping to turn into Captain Marvel and squash his enemies flat, but instead he was stuck saying it again. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with!”

There is a slogan from science fiction fandom that explains the appeal of Charlie X and Doctor Who. The slogan is based on AE Van Vogt’s 1940 novel Slan and it is simply this: Fans are Slans.

Van Vogt’s novel tells the story of a group of mutants who are hyper-intelligent, psychic, and blessed with superior strength, and who are persecuted by the rest of humanity precisely because of their greatness. The slogan speaks the secret belief of the science fiction fans and reveals why stories about persecuted Slans and boy wizards who are forced to live under the stairs are so popular. The fantasy is that we fans have some secret essence that isn’t apparent on the surface, that inside we are authentic and whole. In fact, it is the very invisible quality of our hidden specialness that assures us the most.  It’s a paradox.

Another paradox is that science fiction and fantasy stories like Star Trek always owe their success to the fans’ creative response to the original product, but that this response is always limited, even impotent. Regular fans of the show are free to develop and expand on the program through ‘zines like Trek or through writing erotic or slash stories about Kirk and Spock, but understanding the program and its significance has been left to the experts. Furthermore, even these experts don’t base their knowledge on what can be seen, but rather they are merely those who claim to know a plurality of theories and who can thereby choose when to apply what idea to what episode or film. They too have a secret essence.

In 1967, just one year after the original series of Star Trek began, the critic Roland Barthes claimed that the author was dead and, according to Richard Appignanesi’s International Bestseller Introducing Postmodernism (my copy has a set of cherry red lips frozen in hard plastic but parted receptively on the otherwise black cover) what Barthes meant when he said this was that “readers create their own meanings regardless of the author’s intentions” and that “the texts [readers] use to [create meanings] are thus ever shifting, unstable and open to question.”

However, if the author is dead and the reader is the one empowered to create meanings from otherwise slippery texts then these meanings must never appear.  The reader must not make universal claims or critical statements but rather can only express some sort of empty sensation if her reading is to be authentic. The reader’s writing (what is the meaning that the reader produces if not more writing?) must remain an expression of his or her nonsensical pleasure, and meaning must be suspended, if pure authority is to be established.

CHARLIE: I won’t do it again. Please, I’ll be good. I won’t ever do it again. I’m sorry about the Antares. I’m sorry! When I came aboard! Please, I want to go with you. Help me! 

KIRK: The boy belongs with his own kind. 

THASIAN: That would be impossible. 

KIRK: With training, we can teach him to live in our society. If he can be taught not to use his power 

THASIAN: We gave him the power so he could live. He will use it, always, and he would destroy you and your kind, or you would be forced to destroy him to save yourselves. 

CHARLIE: Oh, please, don’t let them take me. I can’t even touch them! Janice, they can’t feel. Not like you! They don’t love! Please, I want to stay. (fades away) .

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