The Good: Fills in a gap in the Star Trek Universe’s history, Fleshes out Archer’s backstory all right.
The Bad: No real character development, Not exciting or terribly engaging, Nothing stellar on the acting front.
The Basics: “First Flight” is a great example of how sometimes less is more as Archer’s backstory gains a story, but it is hardly an exciting or realistic chapter in his life.
There is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” aspect to prequels and flashback episodes in a show that show characters from a series as they existed before the pilot episode of their series may be some of the most problematic episodes a series can do. The reason for there being a prejudice against flashback episodes is simple: such episodes might create fan satisfaction in that they get the thrill of seeing how their beloved characters met or achieve a new appreciation for the characters they love by seeing them at an earlier stage of development, but truly sophisticated works have to tell a story that both illustrates how the character became the person fans are familiar with while still making their eventual position in the primary narrative make sense. Sadly, Enterprise is not a terribly sophisticated series and their flashback episode “First Flight” which details an early adventure with Jonathan Archer (and Trip Tucker) only exposes how sloppy such an episode can be.
The crux of the issue with “First Flight” is simple: nothing significant is revealed about Jonathan Archer’s character and the episode makes it far, far more unlikely that Jonathan Archer would never be given a starship to command as a result of its content. Far from expanding Jonathan Archer’s character, “First Flight” feels very much like Captain Archer . . . the early years, as opposed to Commander Archer’s misadventure. Unlike an episode like Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Tapestry” (reviewed here!), which clearly illustrated how young Lieutenant Jean-Luc Picard nearly died at the hands of an alien, which led him to change from a brash young man into an adult who was much more hesitant to taking risks, “First Flight” does not stretch Scott Bakula to play Jonathan Archer in any meaningfully different way than he has always played Captain Archer. The result is a thoroughly uninspired episode.
Opening with Archer, Tucker, and T’Pol debating the possible existence of a dark matter nebula near Enterprise’s current position, Archer is saddened with news from Earth A.G. Robinson has died. Somber and clearly in mourning, Archer prepares to explore the dark matter nebula in a shuttlepod on his own when T’Pol bullies her way into accompanying him. In the shuttle, Archer tells T’Pol of the historic Warp Three program that he was a part of. When the NX Project was building test ships to break the Warp Two and Warp Three barriers (for humans), Archer was one of the final candidates for the NX test flight. Commodore Forrest, however, informs him that his rival, Commander A.G. Robinson has been tapped to fly the historic flight instead.
Jealous that someone else has been tapped to fly the ship with his father’s experimental warp engine design, Archer watches in horror as A.G. Robinson loses the NX Alpha Test Ship after pushing it up to Warp 2.1. While Robinson survives, the Vulcan Advisory Council recommends StarFleet stop its tests and Forrest reluctantly agrees. After Robinson argues that pilot error is not to blame for the destruction of the Alpha test ship and postulates that Archer’s father’s design caused the destruction and set the program back, Archer and Robinson have a fistfight and then team up to go rogue. In stealing the Beta Test Ship, the two men work together to break the Warp 2.5 barrier. As Archer reminisces about the past, he and T’Pol explore what Archer believes is a Dark Matter nebula and he becomes determined to prove it exists, despite the fact that it is not visible!
“First Flight” undermines the already shaky premise of Enterprise by making it utterly unrealistic that Jonathan Archer would ever have been in a position to take command of Enterprise. Forrest, who is the archetype for the StarFleet admirals, appears to have rewarded Archer’s insubordination and youthful aggression with the command of the first Warp Five vessel. “First Flight” makes it seem entirely unlikely that StarFleet was a viable organization at its inception. After all, this episode forces viewers to accept that there was no better choice for command of the first human ship than a guy clinging to petty jealousy who would get into a bar brawl because someone spoke bad about his father. After the events of this episode, Jonathan Archer should have reasonably been kicked out of the service.
Moreover, the idea that T’Pol has no idea what happened in the story Archer is telling her makes no sense considering that Forrest is accompanied for all of the important scenes by the two Vulcan observers to the Warp Three program. T’Pol claims to have studied all of the StarFleet warp trial records, but that there is no record whatsoever of this flight makes no sense.
“First Flight” is similarly devoid of character development or interesting performances. Scott Bakula portrays Archer without any change, even a nuance of difference, between the past and present scenes. Even Vaughn Armstrong’s portrayal of Forrest is more laid-back than he usually appears. Jolene Blalock is once again caught smirking and Connor Trinneer similarly gives viewers nothing new as Trip Tucker.
In the end, “First Flight” illustrates the folly of going back to an earlier point in a story when important character developments are not respected. That makes it a poor episode and generally unremarkable television.
[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Star Trek: Enterprise - The Complete Second Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the sophmore season here!
For other Star Trek episode and movie reviews, please visit my Star Trek Review Index Page!
© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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