There are two things which, when they come together, guarantee memorable Trek: a good script and a good guest. This episode has both in abundance, and it also has excellent performances by our regulars, masterful direction, and a memorable musical score. It falters only slightly at the very end, but definitely represents among the best the show would ever offer.
As in so many great episodes, the foundation is a marvelous script from Fontana (by way of Roddenberry). The awkwardness of the central character is beautifully drawn. As the product of quasi-experimental parenting, the holes in his knowledge must be carefully chosen. Here they definitely are, and in some cases he doesn't even know how to ask the question. It's a subtlety that really makes the character sing. He's also arbitrary about what he will and won't say or do (won't do the fall, won't answer some of Kirk's questions). Luckily, these things are never critical to the progression of the plot, merely critical to the progression of the character study.
Walker is perfectly cast, and makes great work of the character. With good material to trust, he has worked on the nuances of awkwardness, including an artificiality in how he holds his hands which gives way to an appropriately uneasy pseudo-confidant approach as the episode progresses. He manages to create a convincingly deep portrait of a teenager despite the fact that he was in his mid-20s when this was shot. His range is well-utilized, as if the part were written specifically for him. There are many opportunities to stumble, and he neatly avoids them all. He's intense and believeable as he pursues Rand, up to and including his most risky line: "When I see you, I...I feel like I'm hungry...all over." In lesser hands, this might have been laughable. As said by Walker, it's crushing.
Most of the regulars shine as well. Shatner is at his very best during the awkward scenes, and in the gymnasium. The steeliness he gives to the showdown scenes is a conscious choice well-made. A lesser actor might have turned the brinksmanship into bombast at some point. He resists this nicely. Until, that is, the very end when he rears back to punch Charlie. This is exactly the moment when the script finally veers off track. More on that in a moment.
The episode represents another big opportunity for Whitney, although she is clearly overmatched. Her portrayal of Rand is consistently thin and shallow. She is unable to convey any compassion for the boy, and essentially pats him on the head and sends him off to Kirk. It's not the fault of the script, however. There is much opportunity in her dialogue, but the actor is simply not up to the challenge. Her performance goes off track early when Whitney comes up with a virtual non-reaction to Charlie's noticing her. It would have been appropriate for her to recognize the problem early, and work each subsequent encounter toward a gentle let-down. Then, when the final confrontation came, a distinct firmness (not the anger she actually displays) would have seemed justified. As it is, the whole thing seems to emerge from nowhere and go too far. (Whitney will get one more big chance, "Miri," before the creative team finally gives up on her.)
Major credit for the performances must be given to director Dobkin, himself an accomplished actor. Clearly, the creative team knew they needed good acting to pull off this particular piece. Even with the best script, it could easily have turned into a monster-of-the-week episode. Dobkin manages to get everything underplayed, and the result is quite effective.
Some other aspects of the production lag a bit. The lighting, though frequently dramatic, has two very noticeable missteps. Half of Kirk's face is deep in shadow on the bridge while talking to Janice, and shots of Charlie late in the gymnasium scene are weirdly dark.
Two special effects are worth noting. In one, Charlie removes the face of a laughing crewmember. This is a most haunting image, very well accomplished. Another is actually not an effect at all. Charlie looks at a young crew member as she passes and she slumps against the wall. We cut to another angle on her hands, now old, and pan up to an aged face. This type of simple effect can often trump the more complicated and expensive. For example, when Charlie makes Sam disappear in gymnasium, the towel is left behind. It's a very strange choice because it undermines the effectiveness of the optical, essentially calling attention to the fact that this is a special effect.
Similarly, the Thasian who reclaims Charlie is done with an eery green glow and wavy effect. It's a bit ominous, to be sure, but a cheaper and more effective solution would have been to use voiceover and no visual. The desire to include an effect has superceded what is best for the storytelling. It's rare for such a mistake to make it into an episode, and this is the only one of its kind in this episode.
But the optical effect is not the biggest problem with the ending. Having backed Kirk and crew into a corner (so much so that Shatner has his fists out and ready), there's simply nowhere to go. The only option is to have someone or something swoop in and save them. Trek episodes are always better when the characters figure out their own way out of trouble, but they don't get that opportunity here. It's a cautionary lesson in how not to build a problem. In the interest of maintaining tension, it's very easy to create an unsolvable problem (frankly, I think the Borg may qualify in this regard). This is actually the easiest way to maintain tension-- by having your enemy always six or seven steps ahead of you with seemingly unlimited powers and resources. It's much harder to build believable flaws into your villain and have the heroes discern and exploit those flaws.
In the case of this story, the villain's flaw is actually already there. Charlie has developed a respect for Kirk which the rest of the crew has realized. They speak of it, and use it for a short while to control the boy. By continuing down this path, Fontana and Roddenberry might have worked out a solution Kirk and all could have used, and at the same time established a deeper strength for the Kirk character (one which would eventually come, but not until midway through the second season). Instead, they take a more typical sci-fi approach and let an all-powerful alien step in (after having inexplicably "taken my form centuries ago, so that I may communicate with you.") and rid them of their too-big problem. It's the only misstep in an otherwise wonderful script.
There is, however, some redemption. What partially saves it is the palpable sense that Charlie is now condemned to an empty life on a faraway planet, permanently separated from his own kind. The quick fix is a cheat, but director Dobkin salvages a deeply tragic ending simply by controlling how the actors respond. Charlie's panic is met by dispassionate, almost disbelieving looks from the Enterprise crew. His pleas have no effect as the crew remains silent, watching to see how this will end.
But as Charlie disappears, still pleading for compassion, in the midst of their relief the crew is bewildered and sad. They, too, wish they had been able to solve it themselves. This is the mark of great Trek: We feel for the characters and share their sense of loss.
Rating: Very Top (1)