Note: This episode was rerated from 3.5 to 3 stars when the season recap was written.
In brief: At last, an episode that plays to this series' storytelling strengths.
"Fortunate Son" is the first episode of Enterprise that really seems to break free of the past decade of Trek and take us in a fresh-feeling direction. It takes full advantage of this show's central concept of fledgling space travel and gives us some crucial information about non-Starfleet cargo-runner humans in space. The result is an episode showcasing an intriguing set of perspectives on the human role in the interstellar community and how those perspectives are likely facing near-imminent change.
The episode is also the first to get us in touch with Ensign Travis Mayweather, a guy who so far has received precious little to do, and even less opportunity to voice anything resembling an opinion. As the ship's resident "Boomer" — born in space aboard a cargo ship traveling extremely long-lasting journeys for trade routes — he's someone who has experience and should have something to say. Here, at last, he does.
The Enterprise answers the distress call of the Fortunate, a human cargo vessel that was attacked in a raid by Nausicaan pirates. The Enterprise arrives on the scene to find the Nausicaans already gone and the Fortunate about to get under way. The captain was injured in the raid, and currently in command is the ship's first officer, Matthew Ryan (Lawrence Monoson), a young man who is not particularly forthcoming with Archer when he comes aboard to offer his help.
Archer invites crew members from the Fortunate back to see the impressive starship Enterprise, which represents the wave of the future. It's a ship with some amazing amenities — where you can get a juicy steak for dinner, which isn't easy to come by where these guys come from. The episode does a good job of showing exactly how groundbreaking the Enterprise really is. We have the Fortunate for effective juxtaposition.
The Fortunate has a top speed of warp 1.8, and for interstellar cargo haulers, that makes for extremely long trips — sometimes a year or even two. During these runs, they have a lot of time on their hands. Life isn't what's conducted in between the trips. Life is the trips.
This supplies the setup for a story that is especially useful for supplying background information about a different group of space travelers — those functioning in the commerce arena. I've complained that the nature of humans in space has up to now been left a little too vague and muddled for comfort, but "Fortunate Son" fills in a lot of blanks in very reasonable and believable ways.
The tone is set in a good dinner-table scene between Ryan and Mayweather. Ryan, like Mayweather, is a Boomer, born on a cargo ship. Mayweather's parents still work on one. Unlike Mayweather, Ryan is likely a life member of the freighter team. Tensions flare a little when Ryan challenges Mayweather for "abandoning" his parents and fellow shipmates in favor of a Starfleet career. One almost can sense Ryan on the verge of using the term "sell-out." Mayweather casts an intense glare, something that up to now has gone unseen. It wasn't that simple, he responds. It was tough leaving — freighters are notorious for being understaffed and needing good people — but Starfleet was an excellent opportunity he had to take.
Starfleet at this stage in the game is still a young operation. Many cargo-ship workers have more space experience than most captains in Starfleet. And what's even more interesting is how we begin to see that Starfleet must conduct itself as the most grown-up of human endeavors. Cargo crews are out there, alone and vulnerable, and in some ways they have the luxury of being more fallible and perhaps even a little wrong-headed. In a sense, they have no one to answer to. They conduct themselves as they see fit. They take care of their own. Yes, their actions have consequences, but the consequences are theirs to face and theirs alone. Enter a Starfleet vessel, with a broader scope in its mission and a wider reach. Such a ship no longer has the luxury of autonomy, because Starfleet — specifically the Enterprise and the Enterprise alone — represents Earth and all of humanity. Starfleet serves as an ambassador for an entire world. Cargo runners are citizens representing only themselves.
And I think that's the primary message under the surface of "Fortunate Son." There's a scene where Mayweather talks with Archer about the unfolding situation aboard the Fortunate. Ryan has ignored Archer's advice and is taking matters into his own hands. (He wants vengeance on the Nausicaans for attacking the Fortunate and has tortured a Nausicaan prisoner for shield codes.) Mayweather suggests to Archer that maybe the Enterprise should just stay out of it and leave the Fortunate to its own devices. Retaliation might very well be justified, so let them retaliate. Part of me agreed with Travis as he gave the captain his opinion from the perspective of a cargo runner. When Archer got on the higher horse of exercising ideals over retaliatory action, I realized that his points indicated the wave of the future: If Starfleet is going to venture out, it must be prepared to grow up and react with logic rather than raw emotion.
One interesting fact is that the Enterprise has no real authority over the Fortunate. The rules for these matters are probably still being drafted, if the governments on Earth have even gone that far. Ryan and his crew lash out at the Enterprise rather than submitting to their would-be authority, which leads to a rather interesting jeopardy premise where Archer and his team find themselves locked in a cargo hold with the atmosphere venting through a hole in the hull. Ryan then seals the hold and disconnect it from the Fortunate. Neat. This crisis, alas, is solved very casually, but I liked how the creators established the logical flow of the scene with clear visual details that slowly build the suspense.
The ensuing action elements are familiar — Nausicaans chasing after their abducted crew member aboard the Fortunate, space battles, the ship being boarded and the obligatory shootouts — but I found the change in setting to be refreshing. The Fortunate is a believable design as a cargo ship — large, slow, and at extreme disadvantage in combat — and the interiors are most definitely not Starfleet-esque. The production design lends a very different feel to the episode, and we can tell we've stepped outside the boundaries of Starfleet into something a little grittier. I also welcomed the complete lack of shields for both human vessels; the best defensive measure either the Enterprise or the Fortunate can muster is to "polarize the hull plating."
It's a little unfortunate that Mayweather's Big Scene where he makes a Meaningful Speech over the communicator is only marginally effective; Anthony Montgomery doesn't have a flair for the histrionics, and his delivery of the grandstanding comes across as stilted, both in performance and in the writing. This is Montgomery's meatiest role to date, but my review for his performance is mixed. He's better at the quieter moments.
Perhaps my favorite scene in the show is the last one. Played in a casual, natural tone between Scott Bakula and Charles Lucia, it shows two captains who have long experience and wisdom on the subject of human nature. Particularly apt is Captain Keene's (Lucia) comment that cargo runners aren't going to be happy about change, and Archer's exceptionally true statement that they'll have to get used to sharing space — because faster warp engines mean that space is shrinking. I liked Keene's statement about Boomers feeling "that they have a special claim" to space since they've lived in it for so much of their lives. It's a detail like that which feels just right, and something that helps explain why Ryan was so reluctant to accept help from outsiders or admit that he was wrong.
It's a great little scene that perfectly captures a feeling that should become one of this series' major themes — the fact that the winds of change have arrived, and the role of humanity in the galaxy is in the process of taking giant, earth-shattering steps forward. It's almost like we can feel the universe shrinking before our eyes, in this one conversation between these two guys — and for that, "Fortunate Son" deserves high praise.
Here's an episode that knows what the Enterprise mission means to Earth, and hints at what's yet to come.
Next week: Starfleet's first encounter with time travel.