Jammer's Review

Star Trek: Enterprise

"First Flight"

***

Air date: 5/14/2003
Written by Chris Black & John Shiban
Directed by LeVar Burton

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

"When the first warp-5 starship is built, its captain won't be able to call home every time he needs to make a decision. He won't be able to turn to the Vulcans ... unless he decides to take one with him. — Commander A.G. Robinson

In brief: Some welcome background material, although the show doesn't make us work too hard.

Enterprise is the Star Trek prequel series, but sometimes it seems to me that it needs its own prequel material, in order to preface the preface. The 90-year gap between First Contact and "Broken Bow" has always made me curious, so I welcome a show like "First Flight," which fleshes out the backstory a bit so we can get an idea of how the Enterprise came to be.

"First Flight" is good — not great — background material. It serves its purpose in supplying relevant and useful information, but it's not above invoking cliches in the process, including an almost painfully tired scene where two guys get into a testosterone-driven barroom brawl over insults to their honor.

The episode is a reflective piece, as news arrives from Admiral Forrest that an old colleague, Captain A.G. Robinson, has been killed in a mountain-climbing accident. This news is particularly distressing for Captain Archer. During a scientific mission in a shuttlepod, T'Pol accompanies the captain and he reluctantly opens up to her, talking about this old friend and their past connection.

A number of years ago, Starfleet commanders Archer and Robinson (Keith Carradine) were the two leading candidates in a team of elite pilots who were hopefuls for testing Jonathan's father's unproven warp-5 engine. The engine was to be tested to break the then-unbroken warp-2 barrier. It was a major test with some major stakes; the Vulcans, concerned that Starfleet's warp program was advancing too quickly, were looking for reasons to slow the program until Starfleet was closer to being "ready."

The question was who would be the test pilot for this potentially groundbreaking flight. The answer was obvious to many — either it would be Robinson or Archer, who were friends and also rivals. Starfleet finally made their decision: It would be Robinson. "You know why you didn't get this assignment?" Robinson later asks Archer. "You tried too hard. You did everything by the book. ... You shut everything and everyone out of your life, just so you could be the first."

As Robinson gears up for the hopefully historic flight, Archer can't help but agonize over the feeling that he's missed the greatest opportunity of his career. Certainly he'll get a chance to take his turn in the pilot's seat, but he won't be first. He'll be the second. "You remember what Buzz Aldrin said when he stepped on the moon?" Archer muses. "Nobody does. Because Armstrong went first." Adding insult to injury is the fact that the engine was designed by his own father. It's a very personal matter. Staring a missed opportunity in the eye can be one of life's great sources of pain, especially when you know how close you came.

Archer meets one of the project's engineers, Charles "Trip" Tucker III. Over a beer, we learn that Trip is short for "triple," referring to the "III" in Tucker III. Maybe I'm dense or something, but I'd never realized this before, and I liked finding out the explanation for Tucker's nickname.

Robinson's warp-2 attempt in the test craft ends up being a disaster. He doesn't heed warnings and likes to live on the edge, and rather than shutting down the engines in the face of escalating trouble, he presses on. The craft breaks apart and is lost, and Robinson barely escapes with his life. (One detail I found somewhat strange was the notion of a warp-speed-capable escape pod, which is able to return Robinson to Earth during the commercial break.) The Vulcans use this incident to recommend rethinking the program, and Starfleet caves in and decides they want to build a new engine from scratch, despite the fact they still have another test craft ready and waiting.

About here is where the episode puts forward its most obvious and ancient cliches, where Archer confronts Robinson over his unnecessary risks and Robinson counters by calling John's father's engine an unworkably flawed design. This leads to a prolonged fistfight in the bar, at which point I was wondering why bartender Ruby (Brigid Brannaugh) wasn't calling the bouncers or the cops, or at least threatening to.

The next day, bruised and calmed down, Archer and Robinson both realize that the other maybe had a point. Archer knows he's a little too quick to blame pilot error when things go wrong; Robinson probably should've eased the throttle before the ship blew up. The question is where to go from here. As has been the case in the past on this series, the Vulcan need to keep human development under a controlled pace is the real source of conflict. Starfleet — which is unwilling to challenge the overly conservative Vulcans — comes across here as, well, spineless.

So it's up to our Rogue Heroes, Archer and Robinson, with the help of Trip as a one-man Mission Control, to gain unauthorized access to the hanger and steal (borrow?) the second craft for a test flight. This will likely get them all cashiered from Starfleet. The message here: There is no significant gain without significant risk. That's probably true in real life, but you'd also better be willing to pay the price. Naturally, their flight — done in Trek-style cooperative tandem — is successful.

I enjoyed the scene where Admiral Forrest reads Archer and Robinson the riot act for their essentially criminal behavior. Vaughn Armstrong gets to show some of his range here. Usually the calm and straightforward official, here Forrest is hopping mad, and it's nice to see another side of the character. Naturally, he can't kick Archer and Robinson out of Starfleet, since they've essentially proven that the engine is sound. Archer's impassioned speech about forging ahead ("If my father were alive today, he'd be standing here asking, 'What the hell are we waiting for?'") proves quite satisfying.

Admittedly, little of this material is very challenging. I find in writing this review that I'm mostly falling back on rehashing the facts in a synopsis. In terms of subtle nuances or deep analysis, I don't feel like there's much for me to say. This story simply documents facts that shed some light on Starfleet's backstory. Of course, there's plenty more we don't know, and I still wouldn't mind going even further back — say 40 or 50 years. (How exactly was Starfleet founded, for example?)

There is a certain melancholy in the show's closing notion — taking place after Archer has been selected as captain of the Enterprise — where Robinson, hopeful to one day captain the second warp-5 starship in Starfleet, says to Archer, "I'll see you out there." We know that Robinson will in fact not be seeing him out there. It drives home the show's unspoken point: Life is fragile and can end at any unexpected moment. Years of dreams and one's hopes for the future can instantly become the missed opportunities and unfinished business of one's prematurely ended life. It is perhaps one of the more disturbing aspects of life — our fearful awareness that it's possible we may not have a chance to write the latter chapters of our own book.

With this conveyed underlying feeling and the episode showing a relevant piece of Starfleet history, "First Flight" gets the job done.

Next: T'Pol must mate within 24 hours ... or DIE!

Previous episode: Regeneration
Next episode: Bounty

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10 comments on this review

Omega333 - Tue, Sep 25, 2007 - 5:11pm (USA Central)
They have mentioned some pretty major wars that errupted in the 21st century, one might assume that part of the aftermath involved a society that very much knew it needed to expand or die, resulting in a more capable space program...

And considering in just a few episodes florida gets a makeover, I'd say the fragileness of life is again brought into the spotlight...just on less a personal level and more a 'superman save us' level. :p
Alexey Bogatiryov - Sun, Mar 22, 2009 - 11:29pm (USA Central)
Loved this episode as it provided backgound information.
Jeremy Short - Sun, Jul 31, 2011 - 12:16pm (USA Central)
I really liked the whole feel of the "Mission Control" room during Robinson's first test flight. It reminded me of Apollo 13 and From the Earth to the Moon, which I understand are both pretty accurate in that area. It was a nice touch to see early Starfleet looking a bit more like what we've done in real life space travel.
Cloudane - Fri, Jul 6, 2012 - 3:34pm (USA Central)
There being no accounting for taste, this was a 4-star for me. Maybe I was just so glad to see something that fits the theme of a prequel, rather than just Voyager with "hull plating" :P
(Ironically, I remember when Voyager got hull plating. It was badass. But I digress....)

The comment about what his father would say "what are we waiting for?" and taking risks, I could easily take as commentary for the present day. Gone is the old impatience of pushing forward with exploring space, with incidents like Columbia sadly having set us back a bit (as with the Concorde setting back supersonic flight, or you could go back the the Hindenberg having essentially ended LTA flight). Understandably, we don't like losing lives or the risk of it, and sometimes that holds us back. Nowadays we aim for zero risk, and things take 5x as long and cost 5x as much. I'm not saying it's wrong, but I can understand the frustration.

Interesting about Trip, I never cottoned onto his nickname either. NIce little detail.

Curious about the "can I buy you a drink" - still got currency in that era? Or maybe it's just a figure of speech.

On the "warp speed capable escape pod" point, I chuckled - massive plot hole, but easily sealed by the presence of the Vulcans. Let's just guess that he was rescued by a Vulcan ship and brought home.

If this was about 7 years ago they needed either some more makeup work for looking younger or younger alternative actors, but that's a minor nitpick.

Anyway, waffling. I think I just loved the history lesson, shown quite well I thought (it had me absorbed, so something was right) as well as the poignant moments about AG. Oh the irony of a Vulcan tugging at the emotions by suggesting that "Robinson Nebula" would be a more appropriate name...

Yay for T'Pol getting a kick to her scientific closed-mindedness too. "Fascinating O___O" she says. Aye - about time.
John the younger - Wed, Dec 19, 2012 - 8:28am (USA Central)
I thought this one was ok. Which, amazingly, makes 3 in a row!

But.

But I agree that it was very pedestrian (the bar-fight was particularly silly and predictable).

And I also found the technology continuity to be an issue.. Ie. They go from Warp 1 in astronaut suits to Warp 5 with 'hull plating' and particle weapons in what 10 years? Are you saying cargo ships have all been going around at Warp 1 all these years (Travis being born in space)? That's 4 years from earth to the nearest star system.. Maybe that could be solved by people using cryogenics.. Like Kahn..

2.5-3
auralgami - Wed, Jan 9, 2013 - 4:39pm (USA Central)
I thought this was boring.

There's no question of success here, since the history has been written. So the meat has to be in the story, the interactions, the dialogue, the atmosphere.

The best is clearly the last of that list. Everything looks great and feels authentic. The SFX shots are top-notch, but more than pretty graphics, we're given a time and place that seems exactly right.

However, I found it difficult to care about a character who is now dead in the present; we won't be meeting him again, and having met what was essentially a walking bag of cliches, I'm not terribly sad about that. I might have cared had the relationship been genuinely engaging, but it was stock from the get-go.

A barfight? Really? In a present day when this already seems anachronistic -- how many people get into good-natured barfights and Bond In Manly Ways anymore? -- it's just hopeless that Robinson insults Archer's dad and Archer throws his fists. When Picard gets in a barfight, we get Tapestry. Sisko punches Q, not because Q called him names, but to establish his character. Here, Archer can't stand that the bad man told him his daddy was stinky-poo. We learned things about Picard and Sisko. What do we learn about Archer, other than he's a child? (We learn that he's a bit more "by the book" -- apparently this book contains a guide to barfights.)

C'mon. This is bottom of the barrel stuff. So is the dreary 'conflict' between the Vulcans and Starfleet. What kind of Starfleet is this, where a single bad test run (that had successful elements) puts the program on hiatus? It's manufactured drama and urgency.

As an aside, I know that the Vulcans of TOS are long gone, replaced by the arrogant jerks we see on this series, but real Vulcans would have looked at the flight results, documented every trivial error, and told the humans in excruciating detail what the inadequacies were. These aren't Vulcans on the show; they're middle managers.

The best thing that I can say about Robinson is that he understands that they need to *show* that the craft works and that he wants to help. This displays an understanding of their situation. But, again, we know it will succeed, and the scene with Admiral Putdown is so dreary. Of course they will say something inspirational and humanity will go to the stars! Blah.

Archer gets one of the best lines, saying it's not the Vulcan's call. But would this really be so novel a sentiment? Everyone else at Starfleet is all, "Oh, sure, man. Let's slow it down for a few decades. No worries." That's silly. It means that Archer is speechifying for no real reason, since he shouldn't have to preach to this choir. Or he is surrounded by really dumb people that need the obvious pointed out to them.

As a point of comparison, the one-season show Defying Gravity did something like this episode in *every* episode, because while they were in space, they'd flashback to the obstacles and difficulties all the characters had in basic training. Like this episode, there was never a question they'd succeed because we saw them in space. But it was the nature of the problems and *how* they were overcome that provided the interest, and characterization went a little deeper than fistfights. What choices did they make? What sacrifices? What costs will you pay and what demons will you face to get where you want?

Here, there's little interest in the "how" and there are no choices of any consequence. Trip has a technobabble solution and Robinson turns some dials. Voila. Yawn. The only thing approaching conflict or a decision is Archer blaming Robinson, Robinson blaming Dad, and both boys going for a joyride. None of that is surprising or engaging. We know it's a foregone conclusion; it shouldn't *seem* like one as we are watching it.

There's no "drama" in hey, the design is fine and it was just a change to the Preferences and you're good to go. There's no choice there, because the alternative -- to do nothing and and have everyone sit on their thumbs while the Vulcans babysit -- has *nothing* going for it, and no sane person would choose it. Archer and Robinson are out of a job anyway if they go on hiatus. There's nothing to lose, no price to pay, and no reason for viewers to stay awake. Archer learns something he already knew, that it's okay to beat people up and disobey orders when it's convenient to the plot, and to not go rock climbing. If only Kirk and company had learned that last one...
mark - Thu, Feb 21, 2013 - 6:36pm (USA Central)
I'd rate this 4 stars, actually: Keith Carradine was wonderful, Bakula gave us some nice touches as a "pre-Archer" Archer and did a nice job on his big speech at the end, and Jolene Blalock's T'Pol came across as a real friend to Archer while still keeping her Vulcan reserve. I quite enjoyed the subtle way she got Archer to open up about Robinson, and I also liked the fact that (it seemed to me) she only insists on accompanying Archer because she believes he needs someone to talk to.

Carradine stole the show for me, though. I find myself wondering what ENT would have been like with him playing the captain...an intriguing notion.
Nick - Sun, Jun 30, 2013 - 5:04pm (USA Central)
The escape pod was probably just a life pod that kept the pilot alive until he was picked up by a human rescue ship. It's established that human freighters could make warp 1.4 so they could've rescued him within days at the most.

The tech continuity is strange, but it is worth remembering that the test ships we see were designed solely to test the engine. Not for comfort or long term habitation. This means they may not have had redundant life support systems.
Moonie - Sun, Feb 16, 2014 - 6:59am (USA Central)
Wow, three great ENT episodes in a row! I'm really beginning to love ENT at this point. This is exactly what I expected more of - Starfleet history. Well done.

Admiral Forrest's office looked like straight out of a TOS episode, nicely done.

Snooky - Fri, Jul 4, 2014 - 3:00am (USA Central)
OK episode. I felt mission control and the whole vibe was TOO old-school NASA. Today's control rooms are a lot more advanced-looking that depicted for this future. Archer was bending over watching AG take his flight on a video monitor stuck on a table -- it just felt cheap. And if they wanted that feel, they needed younger hot-shot type pilots (see "The Right Stuff," not middle-aged men with balding pates.

But mostly i was confused by this big test flight when freighters are already making regular runs. I figured Starfleet already would have a fleet with ships of various sizes, outfitted with the hull plating, the transporters, the various tech that they use every day. They can't have built it all just for the new starship, that's a stretch for a handful of years later. So the timing is screwy, as was pointed out above.

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