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Star Trek: Enterprise – Fortunate Son (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This January, we’re doing the first season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Fortunate Son is a solid premise ruined by an overly simplistic execution.

One of the more interesting aspects of Star Trek: Enterprise is a chance to return to the pioneering spirit of the original Star Trek. It’s an excuse to imagine what the early years of humanity’s exploration of space must have looked like. More than any other spin-off except Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, this show lends itself to world-building and expansion. What does space look like before the Federation was established? How was it regulated before a gigantic conglomeration of space-faring races decided to impose their own laws and rules upon the spaceways?

Well, that sucked the air out of the room...

Well, that sucked the air out of the room…

Broken Bow made a big deal about how the Enterprise was the first human ship capable of travelling at warp five. In essence, it is the beginning of the Star Trek franchise as fans know it. The speed that engine brings and the distance the ship can cover serve as a gateway to the wider Star Trek universe. So, logically, if Enterprise is the first step in that direction, the ship must be emerging into a universe that looks radically different – a culture that is very distinct from that depicted on the other Star Trek spin-offs. With slower engines, fewer ships, less known about the universe, this should be an entirely different world.

Fortunate Son touches on this idea a little bit, throwing Archer into conflict with the crew of a long-haul space freighter over intergalactic piracy. The problem with the episode is that it feels very much like Archer is arguing from a position grounded in the Star Trek franchise as it is yet to develop, rather than the current status quo. In his debates with Ryan, Archer gets to be right for two contrived reasons: Ryan is written as an idiot; and Archer’s philosophy applies to the status quo of over five hundred other episodes.

Beaten to the punch...

Beaten to the punch…

Archer’s position is very stereotypically Star Trek. It’s a philosophy that argues humanity are fundamentally brilliant, and so should behave in a manner that befits being so fundamentally brilliant. It’s a philosophy that comes dangerously close to evoking Gene Roddenberry’s simplistic utopianism, indicating that mankind is wired with a fundamental decency that is almost unique in the entire cosmos. While Fortunate Son isn’t as heavy-handed about it as The Last Outpost or Lonely Among Us, it is there.

When Travis questions Archer’s decision to meddle in Ryan’s command of the freighter, Archer has a philosophical justification handy. “Human beings have a code of behaviour that applies whether they’re Starfleet officers or space boomers, and it isn’t driven by revenge,” he lectures Travis. “Just because someone isn’t born on Earth doesn’t make him any less human.” Apparently Ryan doesn’t have any right to make his own decisions. He is a human, dammit, and humans act the way that Archer expects them too.

Baby boomers...

Baby boomers…

This is a somewhat worrying development in Archer’s character, but sadly one that feels quite in keeping with how the show has approached our protagonist. In Terra Nova, Archer believed that the colonists’ humanity justified his decision to meddle in their affair. Coupled with the anti-Vulcan sentiment on display in episodes like Broken Bow or The Andorian Incident, it portrays Archer as a decidedly racist character, in a more blunt and aggressive manner than the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation during that show’s early and troubled years.

There is, of course, a massive irony here that Enterprise never bothers to address. Archer is horrified that Ryan would take a prisoner from the hostile alien pirates who have been attacking his freighter. “What gives you the right to take prisoners?” Archer demands, what seems like a particularly absurd question. Ryan’s decision to torture the prisoner is unconscionable, and his decision to launch a direct attack is foolhardy; but taking a hostage to defend his ship against a bunch of rampaging pirates is a perfectly justifiable act.

Ho ho ho, it's a pirate's life for us!

Ho ho ho, it’s a pirate’s life for us!

In Silent Enemy, Archer faces a similar crisis as his ship comes under siege from an unknown adversary. When democracy doesn’t work, Archer responds with force – he even tries to stun some intruders that have boarded the ship. In that context, the show never even hints that Archer is making a morally questionable decision. His people are under threat from an enemy that will not respond to negotiation or reason. Stranded in deep space with no support, Archer has to defend his crew. There may be morally ambiguous challenges that arise from that premise, but taking prisoners is perfectly reasonable.

More than that, though, Fortunate Son structures itself as an episode about how there is no shame in accepting assistance from people with more advanced technology. When Archer shows up to help the crew of the Fortunate, Ryan responds with a chip on his shoulder. Ryan just about manages to hide the resentment in his voice as he tries to get Archer out of his hair, “I’m sorry we took valuable time away from your mission.” When Archer arrives during the siege of the Nausicaan base, Ryan doesn’t bother to conceal his sarcasm, “What a relief. Starfleet’s come to save the day.”

He was a little too Keene to get out there...

He was a little too Keene to get out there…

However, the point of Fortunate Son is that Ryan is wrong in his attitude. He is arrogant to assume that the Fortunate can operate entirely independently, and reckless to assume that he can take on a superior foe without assistance. When Captain Keene recovers, he tries to explain Ryan’s actions to Archer. “Going it alone is all I’ve ever done, and for some of us it’s the reason we’re out here. A chance to prove ourselves.”

Keene’s words are just as applicable to Archer as they are to Ryan. Archer has spent a significant portion of the first season complaining that he doesn’t need to listen to the Vulcans. In Fight or Flight, he engaged the ship in combat with a superior enemy in order to prove a moral point – he was lucky to escape. In Strange New World, his decision to send away teams down to a planet without doing a proper survey first led his Chief Engineer to almost murder his Science Officer. In Breaking the Ice, he rather reluctantly accepted the assistance of the Vulcans during a major crisis.

Thrown by the responsibility...

Thrown by the responsibility…

So you would imagine that Archer would feel some measure of empathy and sympathy for Ryan. After all, Archer hasn’t completely gotten over the chip on his own shoulder. However, Fortunate Son never makes the connection explicit, never underscores what this story means in the larger context of Archer’s character arc. As such, Fortunate Son makes Archer seem like a racist hypocrite. He takes it upon himself to impose his own standards of human morality on Ryan, but with no acknowledgement that he may not be the best person to judge such things.

It doesn’t help that Fortunate Son tries to solidify Archer’s position in the most awkward and clumsy of ways. Archer is right because he is espousing traditional Star Trek dogma. It is nice when people get along, and people should behave decently to one another. This makes sense in the context of The Next Generation, where the Federation is essentially a galactic peace-keeping force with the capacity to enforce these rules and regulations. However, Archer’s argument makes little sense in the context of the episode itself.

Are you a Nausicaan or a Nausicaan't?

Are you a Nausicaan or a Nausicaan’t?

Mayweather points out that the Enterprise is the only ship of its class. There are plans for three more in development, but humanity is still new to the larger cosmos. As Forrest points out to Archer, the second-nearest Earth ship is “three weeks away at its maximum warp.” There is no search and rescue in outer space at present. If the Fortunate were attacked, there is nobody to help. Even if the Nausicaans let the crew reach the escape pods, would there be enough food and drink to sustain them for the three weeks it took help to arrive?

Piracy is a pretty big deal. Historically, it has always carried the harshest sentences. The reasons for this are obvious – ships travelling on the high seas are particularly vulnerable, and piracy disrupts trade routes and preys on people trapped in the middle of a wide-open space with no support or rescue available. As a crime, piracy is phenomenally hard to prosecute. The Royal Navy has to release many arrested pirates, even those caught with weaponry.

"If I'd known this was about to go down, I would have brought four or five disposable ensigns..."

“If I’d known this was about to go down, I would have brought four or five disposable ensigns…”

The question of how to punish pirates – and who holds the authority to do so – is a thorny moral and legal issue. Historically, international law had supported the “extrajudicial killing of pirates when encountered on the high seas.” At present, the United Nations is rather open-minded when it comes to the prosecution and punishment of pirates, leaving the decisions about such cases to individual countries.

Fortunate Son was written a few years before the emergence of pirates off the coast of Somalia brought the issue of piracy back into focus. Given the high-profile and infamous cases of real-life piracy in recent years – like the murder of American citizens by Somali pirates – it is very hard to reject Ryan’s arguments out of hand. Archer’s arguments make a great deal of sense in the context of The Next Generation, where there is a large Starfleet presence to support such operations. They are less convincing in the context of Enterprise, where help is weeks away.

"I've been watching 24..."

“I’ve been watching 24…”

(That said, the episode itself undermines the sense that the Enterprise is a pioneering space vessel out in the unknown and breaking new ground. Even with a “subspace amplifier”, Archer is able to have a real-time conversation with Admiral Forrest back on Earth. The decision to frame the discussion as a live conversation between the two characters feels like it undermines the pioneering spirit of Enterprise. The show would convey a greater sense of how far out the ship was by having Forrest record a message that took a day or two to reach the ship. Far from a captain blazing a trail, it seems like Archer simply isn’t too far from home.)

Much is made of the fact that the universe is changing. “If Starfleet gets all the good crews, who does that leave to run the freighters?” Ryan wonders, perhaps realising that the “boomer” lifestyle is coming to an end. When Mayweather tries to justify Ryan’s decisions, Trip is less than convinced. “Things are changing,” he assures Mayweather. “Ryan’s going to have to figure that out.”

Keeping the enemy at bay...

Keeping the enemy at bay…

However, Fortunate Son never really addresses the point that the times may be changing, but they have not changed yet – this is an intermediate stage between the wild frontier on which Ryan grew up and the more civilised space culture that Archer is hoping to build. After all, the Enterprise is only one ship, and an exploration ship at that. It cannot impose galactic order single-handedly. The episode makes no concession to the point that Archer’s view is an ideal that might be just a few years away from being realised, and that Ryan in that intermediate phase.

Fortunate Son compensates for the weaknesses in Archer’s arguments by casting Ryan as an idiot. His capture of the Nausicaan might be justified, but his torture is not. More than that, his decision to single-handedly launch an attack on the Nausicaan base is fool-hardy. He has no way of knowing whether the information given to him is accurate, but just lunges in blindly. He doesn’t try to organise a bunch of like-minded freighters to act in unison, he sends the Fortunate into the fray alone. Ryan’s stupidity and foolhardiness, seems like an attempt to make Archer seem more convincing. Instead, it feels contrived.

"Trust me, I know a reckless hot-head when I see one..."

“Trust me, I know a reckless hot-head when I see one…”

It’s a shame about the episode’s plot, because Fortunate Son is a fascinating glimpse at the wider context of Archer’s mission. It’s full of nice little details that sketch a picture of what life must have been like in those early years of space exploration. It’s also one of only two episodes to focus on the origin of Travis Mayweather, the member of the crew who grew up in space as a “boomer.” That’s a wonderfully fascinating concept for the future history of Star Trek – an entire generation of people who have never even been to Earth.

In many respects, although Archer is the focal character in Fortunate Son, this episode is the first time that the show has focused on Mayweather as a character. Mayweather was notoriously one of the more difficult members of the ensemble – he was frequently reduced to sitting on the bridge and pushing buttons. It’s ironic, because he arguably has the richest character back story of any human member of the main cast, with the casting call identifying him as “a unique product of 22nd century life.”

The Freight stuff...

The Freight stuff…

During the In Conversation feature, producer Brannon Braga cited Travis’ back story as an element of the show that sounded great on paper, but didn’t work in practice:

There are some things that you think are cool when you first create a show. Like the space boomer idea, that didn’t really go anywhere. I think we did one space boomer episode. It sounds good on paper – born in space, never been to Earth – but when everybody gets on a ship, week-to-week, it’s like “who cares what the boomer has to say?”

It’s a shame, because the “boomer” part of the mythos is actually the most interesting aspect of Fortunate Son. Still, it is nice to get an episode focusing on Mayweather as a character – even if it doesn’t quite work.

It turns out that all humans do not, in fact, play dom-jot...

It turns out that all humans do not, in fact, play dom-jot…

Fortunate Son is not an episode that plays to Anthony Montgomery’s strengths as an actor. It’s a script that requires him to be a bit confrontational and stand-off-ish. His scenes with Ryan in the mess hall and Archer in the ready room both require a bit of weight and bite. His closing monologue requires an actor with gravitas and dramatic weight. These are not areas where Montgomery’s strengths lie – he is an actor who is charming and engaging, not confrontational and aggressive.

Looking at Fortunate Son, it’s easy to see why the writers really stopped trying to develop Mayweather as a character. Fortunate Son simply didn’t work as a story with focus on Mayweather. So it makes a certain amount of logical sense that the show would really stop trying build episodes around him. It is quite similar to the issues that Star Trek: Voyager had with characters like Harry Kim or Chakotay, where it was very difficult to get a handle on them, so the show just stopped trying.

"How come this never happens to Archer?"

“How come this never happens to Archer?”

Of course, simply ignoring Mayweather was not the only solution to this particular problem. The show had tried to write a Mayweather-centric episode, and it hadn’t worked. That doesn’t mean that it was impossible to get a Mayweather-centric episode to work. Deep Space Nine faced a similar problem with the characters of Dax and Bashir during the first season – both were characters that were rough around the edges and hard to build stories around. Dax and The Passenger rank as two of the weaker stories of that first season.

However, acknowledging that the characters were problematic, the show didn’t simply shuffle them into the back of the ensemble. During the second season, the writers spent a considerable amount of time trying to find the right pitch to strike with Terry Farrell, finding a comfort zone that played to the strengths of the actor and the character. Excluding The Wire in the second season, Deep Space Nine didn’t figure out how to construct a solid story around Bashir until the fourth season, when three came at once.

T'Pol had trouble grasping that "Fortunate" was one of those ironic names...

T’Pol had trouble grasping that “Fortunate” was one of those ironic names…

Maybe there was a way to make Travis work as a character, but the show never seemed to try. Like Hoshi, Travis got pushed into the background – playing Sulu to her Uhura. While the show was built around the leading trio, it is a shame that Travis could never be as developed as other supporting performers like Reed or Phlox. It feels like one of the more frustrating missed opportunities from that first season, and it is a shame that Mayweather could almost be trimmed from the show without losing too much.

There is a lot of great material here, particular the stuff that focuses on how life on the Enterprise differs from the experience of other space-faring humans. It’s fun to see characters gossiping about the transporter as if it is something they’ve only heard whispers about. “They say that for a split second you can actually feel yourself in both places at once,” Ryan remarks, raising all manner of delightful existential queries.

Slightly re-dressed corridors of power...

Slightly re-dressed corridors of power…

“Boomers” themselves remain fascinating – from Travis’ observations about their large families through to the harsh necessity of a “five-year cargo run.” There’s something deeply interesting about the idea of generational ships. “I’ve still got my sister and her husband aboard the Horizon, but I know my dad expected me to take over at some point,” Travis reflects, suggesting that there may be cargo ships that have been run by generations of the same family.

It might be interesting to explore that relationship between the Starfleet and these cargo-runners. Do they ship exclusively to human colonies? Do they pay tariffs? Are they independent operators, or are they regulated by central agencies? How do different ships relate to one another? How do they relate to intergalactic politics? Do they travel the same space-lines? Are they territorial? How often do they get news from home? How do they coordinate with each other?

"Thank goodness they aren't shipping anything explosive..."

“Thank goodness they aren’t shipping anything explosive…”

These are all big and fascinating ideas. Indeed, one gets the sense that Fortunate Son might have been a bit better had it toned down the whole “Archer believes humans are bigger than space piracy” plot line and instead indulged in a more relaxed approach. Perhaps a story plotted as gently and as smoothly as Breaking the Ice would have worked better, allowing the show to bask in the day-to-day realities of deep space life. The opening scene of Ryan and Keene throwing a football across the hold is strangely beautiful, as is T’Pol getting involved in a game of hide-and-seek. More of that sort of thing would be nice.

That said, there is one unfortunate side effect to the episode’s exploration of “boomer” culture. It makes the Enterprise look a lot more advanced and more comfortable than it really should be. “You know the last time I had a steak?” Ryan asks Mayweather. “Eighteen months ago. All we’ve got left now are hydroponics and nutri-paks.” It’s a nice illustration of how tough life on the frontier must be, but it really should be coming from a member of the Enterprise crew rather than at the expense of one.

He's beaten that poor Nausicaan green and purple...

He’s beaten that poor Nausicaan green and purple…

One of the biggest problems of the first season of Enterprise is the sense that everything is just too easy. This is supposed to be the story of mankind’s first adventures into deep space. They are supposed be pioneers. The ship is constructed to look more like a submarine than a cruise liner. There is no support, there is no back-up. The transporter is still a mystery. However, the show seems reluctant to suggest that the mission could be in any way uncomfortable. It looks like the crew eat more comfortably in the middle of deep space than most people on Earth do.

Fortunate Son is a failed experiment. It’s actually a fascinating collection of world-building details, but built into a fairly disappointing and underwhelming story.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Star Trek: Enterprise:

7 Responses

  1. Interesting review. There seems to be a weird hostility throughout Star Trek towards humanity that doesn’t buy into the Starfleet, or at least Federation path. Sometimes this is explicit – the inexplicable disgust directed at the cloning based society in ‘Up the Long Ladder’ springs to mind. Sometimes though it’s more subtle, like the indifference towards the entire Delta Quadrant human civilisation in ‘The 37’s’.

  2. Nice Trejo reference.

    It really unfortunate that the Roddenberry box survived so long. And I rather blame Majel, Shatner and the rest of the old gang. Shatner’s base of power rests on his bi-annual documentaries where he pokes at the later shows and enshrines a kind of personality cult around himself and Gene. The way he chastises Ira Behr and Hewitt Wolfe makes my blood boil! Majel was the typical widow from hell, locked in righteous indignation. None of them could see past the end of her own nose. And, of course, shame on Gene for feeding his own ego and stifling the franchise he helped make.

    I am not a fan of the Abrams films, but on the bright side, I think it’s exorcised the lingering demons of the eighties. Whatever else you can say about Into Darkness, for example, it doesn’t romanticize the human race.

    • Of “the old gang,” D.C. Fontana doesn’t seem at all bitter – she appears to regard DS9 very warmly, possibly because she recognizes it tried to play heir to the original series through more than mere lip service or genuflections to Roddenberry.

    • I do feel a bit sorry for Majel Barrett Roddenberry. It can’t have been easy to be the first lady of Star Trek.

      But I worry that the reaction to the Abrams films might seem to galvinise fandom back into hero worship of Roddenberry as a creator as a counter-measure – which is something that Deep Space Nine worked quite hard to push beyond.

      That said, I quite enjoy the Abrams films as far as Star Trek movies go; I think they are better than most Star Trek movies, which is not the hardest bar to pass. I don’t think they’re brilliant or classic Star trek, but I think they invite new viewers to the franchise. (They allowed me to convince the better half to watch The Measure of a Man and The Offspring, which is really all the endorsement I think they should need.)

  3. I agree SO much with your review! I love the idea of the boomers, and exploring their culture and how they interface with the development of Starfleet could have been really cool, but the writers chose to paint with the broadest of brushes and make the whole thing half stupid, half bland.

    Archer seems to have delusions of grandeur that the position of Starfleet in this era does NOT support, and it doesn’t really feel as if this ship belongs to the era it claims to be from.

    Once again, Enterprise has had a cool idea, then squandered that idea in a bad script. I agree with you that a “Breaking the Ice” type of treatment could have made the most of the exploration of boomer culture; it didn’t require the plot they forced onto it to make it interesting.

    I thought for awhile that we were going to get an episode withOUT a moment where Archer wants to do something stupid and T’Pol is the only person with a clue, then Archer ordered the ship to follow the Fortunate, even though he could SEE that there was an air leak in the compartment they were in. Earth must be a very safe place in 2151, for Archer to consistently overlook and underestimate dangers the way he does. It makes me wonder what those Starfleet simulations he mentioned in “Strange New World” consisted of — walks in the freaking PARK?

    This show could be so cool, if only the writers thought things through a bit more. Geeze, Louise, *I’ve* written stuff that’s better thought out than this, and I’m only an amateur. *sigh*

    • Yep.

      The great irony of Enterprise was that it was supposed to be new and exciting, but fell back on too many old clichés. It also suffered from a refusal to have Archer learn from his mistakes. He keeps falling down the same pot holes, over and over and over again.

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