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Star Trek: Enterprise – First Flight (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 April, we’re doing the second season. Check back daily for the latest review.

First Flight is a prequel to a prequel.

First Flight unfolds before the events of Broken Bow, providing something of a belated origin story for Captain Jonathan Archer. The tail end of the second season feels like an odd place for such a story. The decision to air First Flight and Bounty as a double feature meant that First Flight premiered only a week before The Expanse, an episode that changed everything that fans thought they knew about Star Trek: Enterprise. Then again, perhaps this is the perfect place for an episode like this.

Ground Control to Commander Robinson... Ground Control to Commander Robinson...

Ground Control to Commander Robinson… Ground Control to Commander Robinson…

Much of the final stretch of the second season of Enterprise is introspective and reflective. The show seems aware that a big change is coming, and takes the opportunity of these last few episodes to look back on a classic model of Star Trek. Judgment puts Archer on trial; Cogenitor wonders whether old-fashioned Star Trek morality plays can still work in the twenty-first century; Regeneration finds the Borg lying among the (literal) wreckage of Star Trek: The Next Generation. First Flight opens with the death of Captain A.G. Robinson, a character we never met before.

More to the point, First Flight opens with the death of the man who was almost the captain of the Enterprise. On the cusp of a creative change in direction that effectively kills the show as it existed in the first two seasons, First Flight is pretty heavy on the symbolism.

... Take your protein pill and put your helmet on...

… Take your protein pill and put your helmet on…

To be fair, First Flight comes with its fair share of problems. Like Chris Black’s earlier script for Carbon Creek, First Flight is framed as an extended flashback sequence. The structuring causes a number of problems. The “oral history” style of Carbon Creek lent itself to interruptions from Trip and Archer; First Flight suffers from a need to keep jumping back to Archer and T’Pol in the shuttlepod. There is a sense that First Flight would work a lot better if it were willing to just jump in and commit to the story that it wants to tell – like Judgment or Regeneration did before it.

The framing sequence hampers the episode in a number of ways. Most obviously, it saps momentum from the flashback. However, it also feels rather trite and generic. Even if Archer hadn’t already found a dark matter nebula in Breaking the Ice, the plot just eats up valuable screen time. The banter between T’Pol and Archer is awkward and cringe-worthy. It is nice that T’Pol is trying to help Archer feel better, but the dialogue feels patronising and condescending. “What happened?” she prompts at one point. “I was referring to Captain Robinson. His test flight.”

A toast to Enterprise...

A toast to Enterprise…

T’Pol is very much in “stock Vulcan character” mode here, to the point where it is hard to believe that she has spent almost two years among a human crew. (And even longer on Earth, as Fusion explained.) When Archer describes his relationship with Robinson, T’Pol seems confused. “You said Captain Robinson was a close friend,” she reflects. “From what you’ve told me, your relationship seemed adversarial.” It is a line that would feel more appropriate coming from Data or Seven of Nine than from a Vulcan. There is none of the innate understanding of Archer suggested in scripts like Judgment or Regeneration.

The framing device also lacks any real tension or stakes. This isn’t necessarily a problem – Cogenitor had minimal stakes for most of its run time, as the stronger parts of scripts like Breaking the Ice or Cold Front moved comfortably at their own pace. However, the framing sequence in First Flight consists of Archer and T’Pol sitting in a shuttlepod and occasionally setting off sets of purple fireworks. The episode would lose nothing by jumping into the flashback right after the opening credits and staying there.

Shipping out...

Shipping out…

The flashback sequences themselves are also structured a little awkwardly. The teaser opens with Archer getting news of the death of A.G. Robinson. So the audience knows that A.G. Robinson died very recently; that is the entire point of the episode. As such, it feels little pointless to structure an act break around the possibility of Robinson dying in a horrific space craft explosion. (Right down to a sensationalist shot of the horrified look on Archer’s face as he asks, “A.G., can you hear me?”)

It feels like First Flight might have been plotted and structured better – that it is straining to hit all the beats expected in a Star Trek script, even if they don’t fit. In a way, this demonstrates some of the key problems with Enterprise – the storytelling feels a little too conservative and old-fashioned. Television was getting more adventurous and confident in the early twenty-first century, feeling less obligated to hold the viewer’s hand and walk them through stilted exposition or easy-to-follow plots. First Flight feels like it talks down to its audience by refusing to just tell its story.

Ship of the line...

Ship of the line…

And yet, despite these problems, First Flight works better than it really should. Part of that is down to the sense that Enterprise is belatedly teasing out some of the promise of its “back to basics” premise. As writer Chris Black notes on the commentary, this was an attempt to get back to what originally drew him to Enterprise as a Star Trek spin-off:

I had been a big fan of The Right Stuff, both the book and also the Phil Kaufman movie. It was something, when I was first approached to do the show, that was something of the potential and the promise of the show – of Enterprise – was that it was going to be a little more of that “rough and tumble” era. You know, a hundred years before the original series with a ship that was still sort of experimental – hence the NX designation – and technology that was not yet fully proven and established. The idea of these guys being test pilots. Ultimately, for a variety for reasons, that show did not work out that way. But this particular episode was a chance to embrace that.

While there were early episodes touching on the novelty of space exploration, Enterprise quickly fell into familiar Star Trek storytelling formulas. Scripts like Civilisation, Rogue Planet and Vox Sola could have been executed on any Star Trek spin-off. There were points where the difference between Enterprise and The Next Generation felt mostly cosmetic. However, First Flight does not just extend back to the potential of Broken Bow. It reaches further.

Dark matters...

Dark matters…

First Flight stretches back to Rick Berman and Brannon Braga’s original pitch for the first season – a story that would follow the mission from its earliest stages of planning on Earth. The idea was firmly rejected by UPN, who wanted a more traditional Star Trek show, but it is interesting to wonder how that would have played out. Could the writing staff of Enterprise deliver an interesting show set on Earth for an extended sequence? There is no way to know how it would have turned out, but it would have been more intriguing than somewhat tired first season episodes like Unexpected or Sleeping Dogs.

There is a sense that First Flight is a secret history of Enterprise; an example of the show it might have been, but never officially was. It turns out that the story Archer tells T’Pol is completely off-the-record, and has never been written down or properly documented. “The history of your early warp flights is well-documented, but I’ve never read anything about two Starfleet pilots stealing the warp three prototype,” T’Pol observes. Archer replies, “It wasn’t the kind of thing Starfleet Command wanted to advertise. Don’t you believe me?”

Enterprising commander...

Enterprising commander…

First Flight offers a teasing glimpse of an alternate version of Enterprise, right before the series radically evolved into something else. However, First Flight is obviously a story that is very nostalgic about human space exploration. As Mike Okuda notes on the commentary, it entered production very shortly after the Columbia disaster, at a point where the stars seemed further away than ever. Parts of First Flight play as an affectionate tribute to the romance of space flight and pioneering exploration.

The histories of Star Trek and the United States space program are intertwined quite tightly. There are a lot of very close and meaningful relationships right there. While hardly a dominant factor in the decline of Star Trek, it is interesting how the United States’ abandonment of its space program overlapped significantly with the collapse of Star Trek. Perhaps the public were no longer interested in the stars; or perhaps those old institutions had failed to make themselves seem relevant to the public.

Cheers!

Cheers!

That said, a lot of First Flight seems interested in discussing the state of Enterprise itself. The challenges that Archer and Robinson face seem to mirror some of those facing the production team. Chris Black concedes as much on the episode’s commentary:

It’s not unlike – on a much smaller scale – producing a television series. You have a lot of grand ambitions – that in a perfect world, given unlimited resources, unlimited time and money – what you would like to do. Then you’re always slapped in the face by what you actually can do.

Given that Enterprise was about to undergo a radical change in direction, casting aside a lot of the foundation stones of the first two seasons, it seemed an appropriate time for such discussion.

Hopefully he doesn't Trip an alarm...

Hopefully he doesn’t Trip an alarm…

There are a host sequences where Archer and Robinson sit around arguing about the state of the engine, scenes that easily be read as discussions about the state of the franchise. “They want to go back to the drawing board, Jon,” Commodore Forrest notes. “Develop a new engine from scratch.” One imagines that Rick Berman and Brannon Braga had similar conversations with the writing staff after UPN decided that they wanted a heavy retool of the show in its third season. Archer protests, “We have an engine that works now.”

The “engine” works quite well as a metaphor for the narrative engines driving Enterprise. To a large extent, they were the same engines that Michael Piller had overhauled at the start of the third season of The Next Generation. Those engines were getting another pretty significant redesign, and it is interesting to imagine similar discussions taking place on the writing staff as to the viability of the classic Star Trek storytelling model. How radical would the third season overhaul be? Was the classic Star Trek storytelling mode truly broken? Was it simply the execution that was causing all these problems?

The Forrest for the trees...

The Forrest for the trees…

Robinson is cast as a radical in this discussion, a character who thinks that the fundamental principles underlying this classic design are no longer up to scratch. “Every time there’s a problem with this project, you blame it on pilot error or gravitational anomalies, or some technical malfunction,” he advises Archer and Trip. “Well, you’re going to have to face the truth this time, because there’s nothing left to point an finger at. Your father designed a lousy engine.” Robinson is angry and frustrated, but his position is understandable.

In contrast, Archer and Trip argue that the engine itself is still viable. It just needs a little tweaking and tampering to bring it up to spec, to help push a little further than it has ever gone before. “The engine’s sound,” Trip asserts. “We just need more time to balance the intermix.” Of course, First Flight eventually  sides with Archer and Trip. There is a reason that A.G. Robinson is not a regular character on Enterprise, and not only because it’s likely quite hard to tie Keith Carradine down to a twenty-six-episodes-a-year contract.

"You are both good candidates, but only one of you was willing to do convention appearances."

“You are both good candidates, but only one of you was willing to do convention appearances.”

Robinson is presented as a character who could have commanded Enterprise. He exists as a clear rival to Archer in Starfleet. Towards the end of the episode, Archer officially confirms as much. “By the end AG and I were the only two candidates left. They made the final selection six months before we launched. Maybe I just got lucky.” The episode never quite confirms why Archer was given the assignment, but it seems likely that it was because he was the safer candidate. Archer does not destroy a prototype by pushing it outside its comfort zone.

This is somewhat ironic, given that Robinson is presented as the more hot-blooded and adventurous of the duo. When he is picked to pilot the prototype, he warns Archer, “You tried too hard. You did everything by the book. You burned the midnight oil in that simulator, eighteen, twenty hour days. You shut everything and everyone out of your life just so you could be the first.” He clarifies, “You still don’t understand. Starfleet doesn’t just want a great pilot. They want a great captain.” In some respects, A.G. Robinson seems more like James T. Kirk than Jonathan Archer does.

A commanding presence...

A commanding presence…

First Flight is not subtle about this. It is revealed that A.G. Robinson even died while rock climbing, a hobby of Kirk’s established in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. (In fact, that movie features a scene where Kirk might have died while rock climbing if not for the intervention of Spock.)  Indeed, the episode’s most triumphant moment comes as a direct result of Robinson’s impulsiveness and initiative. Archer and Trip claim to have solved the problem with the ship, but it is Robinson’s reckless disregard for rules and regulations that gets them off the ground.

“Can you think of a better way to prove it’ll fly?” Robinson teases. “You want to talk about taking risks? You’re a great pilot, maybe as good as me, but you’re never going to get out into deep space by playing it safe.” Sure, Robinson turns the joystick over to Archer during the flight, but that makes a certain amount of sense. Archer is already a hyper-competent pilot; it feels like First Flight should be about watching him become a captain. Robinson teases Archer about the need to take risks, ironically observing that the first captain “won’t be able to turn to the Vulcans, unless he decides to take one with him.”

Here's to you, Commander Robinson...

Here’s to you, Commander Robinson…

Like Judgment, it feels like First Flight is offering some well-intentioned criticisms of the show and its central character. Watching First Flight, it really feels like Robinson bares a closer a resemblance to the character of Archer as originally pitched:

Early 40s. Physical. Bold personality. Intensely curious. Born and raised an explorer. Unlike the Starfleet captains in centuries to come, he exhibits a sense of wonder and excitement, as well as a little trepidation about the strange things he will encounter. He holds a grudge against the Vulcans, who he blames for impeding humanity’s progress. But his science officer is Vulcan, and he’s struggling to reconsider those preconceptions. Although he has a strong sense of duty, he’s a bit of a renegade – he’s not afraid to question orders or even disobey them if he feels in his gut that he’s right.

In First Flight, Archer is the character who plays it safe and follows the rules. In contrast, Robinson is the impulsive and excited one. It feels like First Flight is offering a gentle criticism of how Archer drifted away from that Kirk-esque character description.

Tied down to administrative duties...

Tied down to administrative duties…

The death of Robinson represents the death of a certain part of Enterprise. It is the loss of a certain potential that had existed since Broken Bow, but had never been exploited; something that was part of the show’s DNA, even if it was never obvious to the audience. Indeed, First Flight is the a consciously episodic story centring around a never-before-or-never-again-seen guest star, a storytelling style that the third season would try to escape. First Flight really is the last hurrah of a certain type of Star Trek storytelling. Sure, Bounty sits between First Flight and The Expanse, but nobody wants to think about Bounty.

First Flight very consciously pushes Archer back into something of his first season characterisation, as if to underscore the differences. Episodes like Canamar, Judgment, The Breach and Regeneration have helped to define Archer as a character in his own right, offering a unique and distinctive take on the lead actor. However, First Flight represents a return to the version of Archer that appeared in the first season – the borderline-racist daddy’s boy with entitlement issues. It is not a particularly flattering portrayal, particularly when compared to his late second season appearances.

Engines of destiny...

Engines of destiny…

In fact, First Flight has Archer and Trip bond over their thinly-veiled racism towards the Vulcans. In a line which might be the most effective distillation of first-season Archer ever delivered, Archer tells Trip, “Thanks with your help today with our Vulcan ‘friends’, Trip. My father would have appreciated it.” It honestly sounds like they are ready to go out and hurl stones at the Vulcan embassy. Given that this is how their friendship forms, it seems that something like Strange New World was all but inevitable.

The character of A.G. Robinson is an interesting addition to the Enterprise canon. He serves to explain a lot about Archer as a character; in particular, he provides a convenient and retroactive excuse for Archer’s somewhat wavering characterisation over the course of the series. When Archer is introspective and considered (and troubled) in episodes like Cogenitor or Regeneration, he is simply being himself. However, his more impulsive and reckless (and stupid) actions in episodes like Fight or Flight or Strange New World can be explained as a poor imitation of A.G. Robinson.

Everything is under (flight) control...

Everything is under (flight) control…

In effect, Archer’s self-righteousness and over-confidence are retroactively explained as posturing – it seems like Archer spent quite a bit of time early in his mission asking, “What would A.G. do?” Of course, that was not always the right question to ask; even when it was, it seems likely that Archer did not get the right answer. Fight or Flight seems to concede that Archer has always been the character that he became late in the second season, he was just wearing a mask of false bravado during certain early adventures. As far as excuses for inconsistent characterisation go, that’s more than Janeway ever got.

First Flight is also produced very stylishly. While the show’s increasingly diminished budget does limit its ability to build an entire world around Starfleet Command in twenty-second century San Francisco, the production team outdo themselves. A lot of love went into the background detail in the episode – from mission patches to artwork in the bar and labels in mission control. First Flight also benefits greatly from a guest appearance from Keith Carradine, who shrewdly plays Robinson as a character half-way between Archer and Kirk, teasing another potential captain of the Enterprise.

"Let's see what's out there..."

“Let’s see what’s out there…”

There is something oddly charming about First Flight, despite its significant flaws. It seems like an appropriate time to reflect on the show’s past, and even acknowledge some of the difficulties facing the series going forward. As with The Breach, it is nice to have an earnestly optimistic Star Trek fable before the show jumps into heavier material. First Flight is a glimpse of a past that never was, as the show gets ready to jump into a future that was never planned.

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

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6 Responses

  1. As proven in “Twlight” (the now-infamous “T’Pol is a better nurse than an officer” story), her camaraderie with Archer can work.

    I’ve seen Jolene in two other roles, and she doesn’t do “wise beyond her years” or even “military hardass” that well. I do wish T’Pol was a tad more elfin, and Archer less macho. As it stands they end the series where they began, neither comfortable friends nor particularly effective partners.

    • Yep. I’m actually a fairly big fan of Twilight, despite some of the problems it inherits from the casting of Broken Bow. (Basically, it becomes the story of how everything goes to crap if there is not a strong white male American leading the charge.)

      And I think that there is an element of it that really works well for T’Pol, in that it gets at that wonderful Vulcan conflict that made Spock so compelling – the “you work with somebody you clearly love (not necessarily in a romantic way, slash fiction writers, but whatever floats your boat), but you can never acknowledge that to them or to yourself” conflict. It’s basically “what if unrequited love (whether romantic or platonic) were the only sort of love? can that love ever be fulfilled?” And I’m so much of a closet romantic that I find the idea fascinating.

      I am, as you might have guessed, a big fan of Gravity from Voyager’s fifth season.

  2. The biggest tragedy, to my mind, about the show is that so much focus was put on the new trinity, but only one character stands out: Trip. And not just because Trinneer can act, but because he isn’t miscast.

    Archer is widely read as a victim of nepotism. But can Bakula play it? So you end up with a character who does semi-villainous things, but his performance screams earnestness. It’s no wonder SFdebris settled on just calling him crazy, because that’s pretty much what I got from his eyes. Confusion.

    Now he’s playing a semi-villainous naval officer who insists everyone call him “The King”.

    • I suspect I am significantly more affectionate towards Bakula than you are, even if I can’t bring myself to watch an episode of “NCIS: NO.” (Which is a great acronym.) I do think Bakula and the writers are sort of getting a handle on Archer at this point in the series. I like Bakula in First Flight, Regeneration, Judgment, Canamar. Heck, even The Breach.

      Right before they blow it all up and just go full “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Sisko, Can You?” with Archer’s characterisation. Which is interesting, but also not really tailored to Bakula as a performer.

      • I really had a laugh at “Similitude”. Let’s not even get into how Sisko would have a conniption if someone suggested he organ farm a clone of his trusted man.

        But the intent of season 3 — sticking Kirk, Sisko, and Janeway into a blender and hitting “puree” — is just such a loony notion that you kind of have to admire it. It’s pure prequel logic, taking a character who (chronologically, that is) has never shown any inklings of such-and-such behavior and pounding them into a desired shape! 😛

      • I’m not entirely convinced Sisko would be so adverse to the plot of Similitude – particularly if he were sold on the stakes. He wouldn’t let Verad Dax justify his survival by killing Jadzia in Invasive Procedures, but I think that being willing to make that sacrifice in the first place cut Verad Dax out of the whole “lifelong friendship with Dax” deal. He does risk killing the Dax symbiote in an effort to keep Jadzia alive.

        In In the Pale Moonlight, he does basically give a geneticist a tonne of material that could be used to make biological weapons, all in pursuit of the greater good.

        But there are lots of problems with season three Archer. Most notably, his arc makes more sense if you watch the episodes out of sequence. He hardens and softens as the script needs him to, particularly in the first half of the year.

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