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[ENT] Jammer's Review: "First Flight"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Warning: This review contains significant spoilers. If you haven t seen the episode yet, beware. In brief: Some welcome background material, although the show
    Message 1 of 1 , May 20, 2003
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      Warning: This review contains significant spoilers. If you haven't seen the
      episode yet, beware.


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

      Plot description: Some unfortunate news from Earth prompts Archer to reflect
      on an old colleague and rival who had a major hand in the testing of the
      warp-5 engine.

      -----
      Enterprise: "First Flight"

      Airdate: 5/14/2003 (USA)
      Written by Chris Black & John Shiban
      Directed by LeVar Burton

      Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
      Rating out of 4: ***

      "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
      -----

      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!

      -----
      Copyright 2003 Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
      Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.

      Star Trek: Hypertext - http://www.st-hypertext.com/
      Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...
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