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!