First Flight

From: tlynch@alumnae.caltech.edu (Timothy W. Lynch)
Newsgroups: rec.arts.startrek.reviews,rec.arts.startrek.current,rec.arts.sf.tv
Subject: [ENT] Lynch's Spoiler Review: "First Flight"
Followup-To: rec.arts.startrek.current,rec.arts.sf.tv
Date: Mon, 7 Jul 2003 22:50:24 +0000 (UTC)
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Keywords: ENT, Archer, warp program, Right Stuff
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WARNING: You wouldn't dare read these spoilers for ENT's "First Flight" without proper authorization, would you? Apparently you would.

In brief: Goofy in spots, but fairly charming overall.

"First Flight"
Enterprise Season 2, Episode 24
Written by John Shiban & Chris Black
Directed by LeVar Burton

Brief summary: Archer gets word than an old colleague has died, prompting him to tell T'Pol about the early days of warp test flights.

Last time, I mentioned that "Regeneration" had fallen victim to one of the easy lures of a prequel series, namely the temptation to bring in "secret" early appearances of villains or situations you know will pop up in the future.

The advantage of a prequel series, however, is that you can explore situations where only the bare facts were previously "known," if that - - and in so doing flesh out the history of your universe a bit. "First =46light" takes advantage of this facet of _Enterprise_, and in so doing puts together an awfully watchable hour.

The story revolves around the death of one of Archer's old friends, A.G. Robinson (played by Keith Carradine) -- apparently he was caught in an accident while climbing Mount McKinley. Archer takes a shuttlepod out, ostensibly for a mission but really to brood =8A and T'Pol winds up coming along due to her insistence that the captain can't leave unaccompanied. Before long, of course, Archer starts talking, and we see almost the entire episode in flashback.

Archer and A.G., it turns out, were two of the top pilots during the attempts to break the warp-2 barrier and the warp-3 barrier. The first flashback we see, in fact, comes just as A.G. gets the mission to take "first flight," meaning the first attempt to break warp 2. A.G., supremely confident, not only buys Archer a drink ("consolation prize"), but tells Archer that the reason he missed out is that he's done nothing with the last few years *except* prepare for this flight. Starfleet isn't just looking for good pilots, A.G. says, but good captains, and implies that Archer won't be in that category so long as he shuts everyone out and does everything by the book.

I assume that everyone involved made a very conscious attempt to capture a "Right Stuff" vibe when creating this early-2140s scene of early warp engine tests. Hell, even the control room we see bears a strong resemblance to early NASA control rooms. There are certainly things to criticize about that approach (and I will, shortly), but more than anything I got a sense of liveliness about the whole thing. In fact, it's tempting to say that I'd rather see a show set in the era shown here than the early-2150s setting we've gotten. That's probably not a realistic appraisal, since (among other things) you'd be almost obliged to keep such a show set on Earth or at least within our solar system =8A but the livelihood there seemed interesting enough.

Oh -- the main criticism? One of them, at least, is that I think it's very unlikely that the same "everyone swaggers around hyper-macho before heading off to a bar to grab a bourbon, flirt with the waitress and get into bar fights" ambience would really exist to that degree in the 2140s -- the astronaut corps isn't much like that *now*, after all. It's not an especially huge issue, but I think in some ways that the attempt to recreate the 1950s-60s vibe was perhaps a little too slavish.

That said, however, there's a lot to like about "First Flight." The story itself is fairly simple -- a warp-2 test goes badly, destroying one of the NX prototypes and nearly killing A.G. When the Vulcans use that destruction to push Starfleet into putting the program on hold, A.G. and Archer steal the second prototype and use it to show that the engine design is in fact sound, thus laying the way for the continuation of the program. That's pretty much the whole plot right there. What makes this story work isn't any sort of complexity, but simply its ability to capture a moment in time.

"First Flight" shows a time when Earth was walking a fine line --
every technological step forward was something of a risk, and the
Vulcans were hovering over humanity just waiting to pull them back if
they stepped out too quickly.  In short, it's showing the same sort of
era Enterprise *should* be showing on a semi-regular basis, but
doing a better job of it.  Here, the tension feels much more real, and
everyone involved seems to know that one mistake could conceivably
set everything back years if not longer.

It's also a time when people can legitimately compete about being "first" at something -- not always the most healthy of motivations, maybe, but a very human and very honest one. Archer gets a great line in the 602 Club, when Ruby tries to cheer him up. "Do you know what Buzz Aldrin said when he stepped on the moon?" he asks. When she says no, he replies, "Nobody does -- because Armstrong went first."

Another entertaining bit about "First Flight" is that we get a look at how Archer and Trip met. It's no wonder Archer values Trip so much and fights for him whenever possible -- Trip basically saved Archer's career a decade earlier. Trip, as impulsive here as he is later in life, is first seen telling off the Vulcans when they question the engine design as unsound. Later, he's the one who comes up with an intermix formula to keep the warp field stable above warp 2.1, and he's the one who helps get the second prototype off the ground without anyone else noticing. I'd have a few questions about why Trip isn't better known in later centuries given his actions here, but it was fine for what it was.

I also appreciated the slightly earlier look at Admiral Forrest, then a commodore. Of all the people who have to walk fine lines, his is probably the finest, as he tends to interact with the Vulcans more directly than anyone else in the program. Possibly as a result of that, he's also much more direct with humans than he might otherwise be (blowing off steam, maybe). I especially liked his reaction when an aide comes in to tell him that NX-Beta has been spotted but that the instruments show it in the hangar: "Has anyone bothered to *look*?" Not exactly Feynman-level insight there, but it's the same sort of bluntness.

Then, of course, there's A.G. Not the most subtle of characters, by any means, but great fun to watch. A.G. must stand for "Awfully Grandiose," given Carradine's portrayal, but he's one of the more riveting things about the episode, not least because it becomes clear fairly quickly that Archer's current command style is a mixture of the old goody-two-shoes Archer and A.G.'s swaggering. The bar fight after everyone's laying blame for the program's hiatus was something of a cliche, but the dialogue leading up to it seemed entirely plausible given the situation -- if I'd grown up idolizing my father's work the way Archer has, I think "you're gonna have to face the truth ... your father designed a *lousy* engine" might send me over the edge too, especially if I'd been drinking as much as Archer had been by that point. Given his willingness to apologize in the hangar, it seems that he's not entirely averse to noticing mistakes -- he'll just never do it in public, that's all. He's one of the program's more ardent defenders, and can probably get away with it more easily than Archer can since he's not seen as trying to live up to daddy's reputation.

What it comes down to, I think, is that I liked the guy. He's the sort of person who'd probably gather a fiercely loyal crew just by force of personality -- I'm not sure that's quite the way I'd want my fleet to work were I running it, but dramatically it'd be a great thing to see as an occasional alternative to Archer's command style. Anyone my age may remember "Battlestar Galactica" -- one of the very few bright spots about that show was the two-parter with Lloyd Bridges' Commander Cain, who I think serves the same function that A.G. does here. When A.G. jokes around with Archer about getting Enterprise (saying, among other things, that he'd just as soon wait for NX-02 and let Archer make all the mistakes), I was looking forward to seeing him as captain -- which made the moment all the more bittersweet knowing that he never made it. "Seeya out there" didn't quite bring a lump to my throat, but it's definitely one of the more successful emotional moments of the series.

When it comes down to it, the thing "First Flight" had to separate it out from a lot of episodes is passion. So much of this series is going through the motions that it was nice to see a situation where the characters had so much invested in the situation that their emotions boiled over from time to time. It could be the bar fight, it could be Archer's "if my father were alive today, he'd be standing here asking what the hell are we waiting for?", it could even be the look on present-Archer's face when T'Pol suggests that the dark matter nebula be named the Robinson Nebula after A.G. ... these felt more like real people than they usually do, and I value that greatly.

Speaking of T'Pol, it's a good thing that writers John Shiban & Chris Black decided to keep the framing sequences to a minimum, because they were definitely the weakest part of the show: not exactly unwatchable, but awfully predictable and extraordinarily thin. (It also had at least one really horrible moment -- T'Pol discussing the bar fight and observing that "I guess we'll never know ... who would've won." No, that's not a shallow viewpoint at all...)

Other notes:

-- Trip says that he's part of Captain Jefferies' engineering team. That's a great touch for long-time fans.

-- I suspect everyone already picked up on this, but Ruby is undoubtedly the same Ruby who gets mentioned repeatedly in "Shuttlepod One" -- both Trip and Reed had a serious lust for her.

-- The "A.G. ... can you hear me?" line from Archer was perhaps just a bit over-the-top.

-- I like the way the NX prototypes launched. Visually quite cool.

-- It would've been nice if past-Trip had been different in *some* way from present-Trip. I'd have difficulty believing that current Trip is any older than mid-thirties, which would make the flashback Trip in his mid-20s ... and I certainly don't look or act exactly the same now as I did in my mid-20s. Similar, yes, but these two were virtually identical.

That's about it.. "First Flight" is hardly the most subtle or deep of shows, but it's quite entertaining and even compelling for what it is. Well worth a look or three.

So, to wrap up:

OVERALL: Call it an 8.5. Much fun.

NEXT: To quote the trailer: "T'Pol's in heat! And she's out of control!"

Tim Lynch (Castilleja School, Science Department)
tlynch@alumni.caltech.edu	<*>
"We didn't build this engine to make test runs around Jupiter.  We
built it to explore.  If my father were alive today, he'd be standing here
asking what the hell are we waiting for?"
				-- Archer
Copyright 2003, Timothy W. Lynch.  All rights reserved, but feel free to ask...
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-----

Hans-Wolfgang Loidl <hwloidl@dcs.glasgow.ac.uk>
Last modified: Sun Aug 26 21:35:15 1996 Stardate: [-31]8019.28