June 6, 2009

The Wild Child of Thasus

Victor, Kaspar, Kamala and Amala…Charlie X? There’s long been a fascination with legends of feral children raised by animals and Charlie Evans would seem to be a space-faring, 23rd century take on myths of wolf-children, with this one suckled by computer tapes and Thasians. Stories of children raised by animals go back as early as Zeus, suckled by the she-goat Amalthea and Romulus and Remus, nursed by a wolf.

Perhaps the most famous feral child was the so-called Wild Child of Aveyron, Victor, who first emerged from the woods around Saint-Sernin in 1797, and later was captured in 1800 and became a European sensation. In the hands of the medical doctor Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard, Victor became an experimental object in the nature of socialization and the number one subject of Enlightenment debates over nature versus nurture. As Sherry Turkle observed in The Second Self, “The life of the Wild Child became the occasion for what has been called ‘the forbidden experiment,’ the experiment that would reveal what human beings really are beneath the overlay of society and culture. Are people ‘blank slates,’ malleable, infinitely perfectible, or is there a human nature that constrains human possibility? And if there is a human nature, what is it? Are we gentle creatures ill-equipped for the strains of life in society? Or are we brutish and aggressive animals barely tamed by the demands of social life?” (17 – 18, 20th anniversary edition).

Turkle argues that Victor and other wild children are evocative objects, objects good to think with (as is the computer, Turkle argues in both The Second Self and Life on the Screen) and surely this partly accounts for our continuing fascination with feral children. These days they have their own web site (http://www.feralchildren.com), television specials (TLC: “Wild Child: The Story of Feral Children”) and, of course, Oprah segments (“The Little Girl Found Living Like an Animal,” http://www.oprah.com/dated/oprahshow/oprahshow-20081016-feral-child). There’s even a video “In Search of…Wild Children”, narrated by none other than Spock, Leonard Nimoy. As Turkle notes, our fascination with feral children is driven by the fact that these evocative objects touch on some of our most basic questions about what it means to be human. They exist as liminal objects, betwixt and between animal and human, provoking thoughts about where we stand in nature and what distinguishes us from animals. These figures are somewhat monstrous, challenging and upsetting our traditional categories. Such is the case of Charlie X.

The 17 year old Charlie Evans is the sole survivor of a transport ship that crashed on the planet Thasus. For fourteen years he grew up there alone, learning to talk, he suggests, from the ship’s memory banks. After picking him up from the cargo ship Antares, the Enterprise is transporting him to Alpha V where the child has family. Almost immediately Charlie takes a liking to Yeoman Janice Rand (the first girl he has ever seen) and McCoy and Kirk debate who is going to serve as the boy’s father figure. Charlie is awkward around other human beings and clearly doesn’t understand how to act, especially towards women. His desire to be liked and his discomfort with others manifests itself in troubling behavior and Charlie is implicated in the destruction of the Antares, the mysterious appearance of turkeys in the cook’s kitchen, and some melting chess pieces. As Charlie’s advances on Rand are spurned, his actions turn more deadly. Crew members are made to “go away,” and he eventually takes over the ship, challenging Kirk’s command and wreaking havoc on the crew. Eventually, Charlie’s adolescent rampage is halted by the appearance of the mysterious Thasians. It’s the Thasians who gave Charlie his power and who now take him away, restoring order on the Enterprise.

Almost immediately as Charlie Evans makes his appearance on the Enterprise, we learn that he is special, he’s both a feral child and not a feral child, though he raises the same kinds of questions that all feral children raise. The first words out of Charlie Evan’s mouth are “How many humans like me on this ship?” A very ambiguous question coming from a child who should not be speaking. A central concern with almost all the feral children encountered in the literature is their capacity to speak, or lack thereof. Dr. Itard spent a lifetime, well Victor’s lifetime any way, trying to teach Victor to speak and teaching language to the mute feral children was thought to be vitally important in trying to capture some sense of their interior life as animal children. But Charlie shows up speaking! We learn, at least initially, that unlike most feral children supposedly suckled and nurtured by wolves, Charlie is raised by ship’s computers. He spent practically his whole life alone with only a few microtapes to learn from. So Charlie can speak and he wants to know how many humans like him are on the ship. Well it turns out exactly none.

While Charlie can speak, his status as feral is suggested in other ways. He doesn’t understand the ritual of the hand shake. He’s unfamiliar with the automatic doors of the Enterprise. And he’s never seen a girl before. As Yeoman Rand appears in the Transporter Room, Charlie asks, “Are you a girl? Is that a girl?” Kirk is almost immediately placed in the role of the father figure to Charlie, first admonishing him for interrupting and later counseling him in regard to girls and teaching him the rituals of manly aggression (in pink spandex!). But poor Charlie just doesn’t fit in, as he himself recognizes. “Everything I do or say is wrong. I’m in the way. I don’t know the rules. And when I learn something and try to do it, suddenly I’m wrong. I don’t know what I am or what I’m supposed to be, or even who. I don’t know why I hurt so much inside all the time.” While Kirk suggests that “there’s nothing wrong with you that hasn’t gone wrong with every other human male since the model first came out,” it’s clear that Charlie isn’t simply “every other human male.”

Charlie’s unusual status as betwixt-and-between the human is underscored by his link to Spock, recognized if perhaps only implicitly by Uhura. She’s still seemingly cast in her role from the first episode as Spock’s temptress and while he plays away on the Vulcan Lyre, she freestyles a little ditty:

On the starship Enterprise,

there’s someone who’s in Satan’s guise,

whose devil ears and devil eyes

could rip your heart from you.

At first his look could hypnotize,

and then his touch would barbarize.

His alien love could victimize

and rip your heart from you.

And that’s why female astronauts,

oh very female astronauts

wait terrified and overwrought to find what he will do.

(As she points to Spock, the rest of the crew laughing)

Oh girls in space be wary,

be wary, be wary.

Girls in space be wary.

We know not what he’ll do.

Girls in space need be wary not only of Charlie (he turns poor drab Tina into a lizard) but of the satanic Spock. Uhura draws the necessary link between the two as she turns her attention to Charlie, singing:

Now from a planet out in space

there comes a lad not commonplace

a-seeking out his first embrace.

He is saving it for you,

(as Uhura and the camera looks at Rand in a soft focus).

Oh Charlie’s our new darling, our darling, our darling…

We know not what he’ll do.

With both feral children and monstrous mixes of humans and Vulcans, “we know not what they’ll do.” Spock and Charlie share a kind of monstrous nature, being neither human nor clearly inhuman. They both raise the question of what it means to be human and, for the moment, our starship leaders are ill-equipped to decide the manner, as evidenced by their own ponderings:

Kirk: What chance is there that Charlie isn’t an Earth being, that he’s a Thasian?

McCoy: No I don’t think so. Not unless they’re exactly like earthlings. The development of his fingers and toes exactly matches the present development of man’s on Earth.

McCoy’s understanding of what it means to be an “Earth being” is a bit thin. Fingers and toes aren’t going to cut it (Spock, after all, doesn’t have cloven hooves). In fact, Kirk and McCoy spend a lot of the episode precisely trying not to talk about what makes us human and what keeps Charlie on the outside. They bicker like two beleaguered parents over who is going to take charge of Charlie’s socialization. Kirk eventually becomes the Dr. Itard to Charlie’s Victor, but is continuously tongue-tied and stuttering when it comes to talking to Charlie about sexuality, romance, and the treatment of women. It’s as if the lack of speech characteristic of the feral child is transferred to the good doctor, urgh Captain, when it comes to the topic of sex.

While much is made in this episode of Charlie’s adolescent sexuality, it’s another trait that I think is ultimately important to defining our humanity and that the show points to in its climactic scene of encounter with the truly alien Thasians (who resemble something of the Wizard from the Wizard of Oz).

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. We offer him life. And we will take care of him. Come Charles.

Charlie: Don’t let them take me. I can’t even touch them. Janice. They can’t feel. Not like you. They don’t love. I want to stay stay stay stay…

It’s not sex that Charlie has missed out on, it’s touch, feel, love. Kirk and the Thasian disagree on what kind Charlie belongs to. Kirk suggests he belongs to his own (presumably human) kind, while the Thasian suggests Charlie would “destroy you and your own kind,” suggesting implicitly that Charlie is not of Kirk’s kind. He’s not human. He’s mastered speech (unlike most wild children) but in the absence of human touch, he hasn’t mastered human feelings and love. Ultimately, Charlie’s inhumanity is borne from a lack of care and touch. The stern old Thasian (intent on formality with Charles, not Charlie) can’t provide human warmth. In this regard, there’s another similarity between our wild child and the half human, half Vulcan Spock. Both lack feelings (the only way to get poetry out of Spock is to force it out of him, alas for poor Uhura). As such, their humanity is up for question.

1 comment:

  1. Dennis has identified an important theme in Star Trek--the feral child, which occurs in several episodes, especially episodes featuring dangerous children.

    Watching this episode again, in the context of the blog, I was struck by the underlying Oedipal conflict. Yes, Charlie is a feral child, but his "feral nature" is rooted in the absence of a proper "id-ego-super-ego" triad. There is no mother to love or father to kill, and in light of these two missing "human necessities" he becomes maladapted to civilized culture.

    In the episode, Spock becomes the super-ego, McCoy the id, and, finally and reluctantly, Kirk the ego. Kirk is able to properly balance intellect and emotion--the chess game in which he defeats Spock shows this; he plays with "inspiration." Kirk also shows Charlie the way to balance the demands of the id and super-ego in the realm of sexuality. Sometimes, he tells Charlie in so many words, that you can't have what you want. He tries to get him to see that the timing with Janice isn't right, but Charlie, without a strong ego, collapses under the id's demand for satisfaction and the super-ego's perverse
    mocking reaction to that demand. The danger represented in the episode is the power of unfettered desire; a desire that is not muted by the super-ego and properly sublimated by the ego. Instead, desire, in a Freudian sense, leads to murder, which is Charlie's constant threat. It isn't until the aliens take him back that we see the necessity of the super-ego; without it we would all be Charlie in one form or another. Our "way," with Kirk-egos, allows us to avoid the over-intellectualizations of Spock, the abrupt passions of McCoy and, finally, the murderous impulses of Charlie. So, Kirk in the episode becomes the analyst/father--the supporting ego that we can transfuse to overcome the competing demands of law and desire.