ST50 #52: “First Flight” (ENT)

“Do you remember what Buzz Aldrin said when he stepped on the moon? Nobody does — because Armstrong went first.”LCARS-52

Star Trek: Enterprise
Written by John Shiban, Chris Black
Directed by LeVar Burton
Original Air Date May 14, 2003
Guest Stars: Vaughn Armstrong (Adm Forrest), Keith Carradine (AG Robinson)

The Enterprise discovers what may be a dark matter nebula, a concentration of dark matter larger and far denser than anything ever known before. As they’re about to send a shuttle to investigate, Archer receives some bad news — that he friend and rival, AG Robinson, died in a mountain climbing accident. As Archer and T’Pol set out to chart the nebula, he recounts the story of his rivalry with AG for command of the very first warp drive flight. The episode was included on the Fan Collective DVD boxset as one of two viewer-voted best Archer episodes. In spite of that, it achieved one of the lowest viewing figures of the series, mainly due to it being in direct competition with the series finale of Dawson’s Creek.

The promise of Enterprise was that, being set prior to The Original Series, it had the opportunity to show the very beginnings of Starfleet and humanity’s voyage out into deep space. The show, from the moment it was announced, got a lot of press around that fact. It really seemed to resonate with potential audiences. The chance of seeing the Federation formed; the first encounters with Klingons, Tellarites, Andorians, etc.; to see how humans take their first shaky steps out into the cosmos . . . it all sounded quite evocative. But let’s be honest, here: Much of the time, Enterprise didn’t live up to that promise. It overcomplicated its first season with aliens that we’d never heard of before (Suliban, Denobulans) in major roles, depicted Vulcans as adversarial, manipulative and untrustworthy, and introduced a convoluted time travel subplot with the Temporal Cold War. That was all a bit hard for a lot of long-time fans to swallow (and that’s before we ever even got to Season 3!). It didn’t help, either, that the show boasted a fairly bland cast of characters. And let’s not even talk about that theme song! I remember extremely clearly how jarring it was to hear a pop ballad as the theme song that very first time. 

That’s not to say that it didn’t turn out some decent episodes. Personally, I really love what the show did with the Vulcans and Andorians, and the show is worthwhile for Season 4 if for nothing else. “First Flight” is one of the good ones. This episode is one of the few from the first two seasons that addresses and fulfills the initial promise of the show.

At the beginning of the series it was established that Jonathan Archer’s father was the one who designed the prototype of Earth’s first long-term deep space warp engine capable of surpassing Warp 2. In “First Flight,” we see that engine finally having been built and now ready for its first test flight. The episode deals mainly with Archer’s competitive and somewhat adversarial relationship with AG Robinson, the man who was selected to pilot that first test flight, in spite of Archer’s familial tie to it. The Archer we see is more cautious, more by-the-book, a little less brash. Robinson reminds him that only by taking risks is true progress made. He tells Archer that Starfleet is looking for more than just a great pilot, they’re looking for a Captain.

Upon rewatching this episode, a few questions arose. As expensive as it would be to build a prototype warp-capable ship, why build two of them? The ship reaches warp 2 in its first test flight and sustains that for quite a while before exploding. Robinson is able to jettison in an escape pod and returns to Earth. At sub-light speeds, how the hell long did it take his pod to reach home? The show portrays it like it was later the same day. And finally, how did two pilots and one engineer manage to steal and launch a highly valuable and experimental vehicle? I mean, its not like sneaking into your dad’s garage and making off with his Porsche. Oh wait, apparently it is. Were there no security guards on duty? No maintenance personnel? Nobody was there who would have seen or heard anything? As I’ve said in another blog (Rocketship X-M), I love how casually rocket launches are treated in the films from the pre-space flight era, but this is no different. Starfleet deserves to have their stuff stolen if they don’t take any measures to protect it.

Still, it’s a highly enjoyable, if lightweight, episode that illustrates an important moment in Trek history. And it seems a very fitting way to begin our 50th Anniversary countdown.

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