Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 6.1.9: “Star-Spangled Eyes”

Fortunate Son

Star Trek Fortunate Son

“Welcome to the Chris Messina cloning facility.”

This is quite the turnaround. “Fortunate Son” isn’t just significantly better than “Civilization”, it expertly targets and corrects that episode’s flaws. Somehow, this script manages to work as a corrective to a story that hadn’t even been filmed, let alone aired.

“Actually, This Isn’t About You”

“Fortunate Son” performs this trick in two ways. The first involves my suggested fix for the preceding episode – centering the story around someone other than the main crew. No previous installment has spent so much time on scenes which feature none of the regulars since the cold open of Broken Bow. The result gives the freighter crew and their perspectives more weight than previous guest characters have enjoyed. They’re not just being wheeled on screen so that our regulars can bounce off them. They represent more than just a puzzle placed in front of Archer so he can solve it.

This impression the Fortunate’s crew is being pushed as close to parity as possible with that of the Enterprise is heightened by book-ending the story with Captain Keene. Someone watching this while ignorant of the history of this show or its franchise could be forgiven for thinking Keene the lead, with the episode exploring how two (relatively) new captains clash over how to fill the hole his absence leaves. By starting and ending the episode on the Fortunate, the Enterprise crew are framed as interlopers to the narrative, rather than being at its centre. Seen this way, Ryan’s decision to dump Archer’s away team feels like an attempt to seize back control of the tale from those that have forced their way in. Along with his initial attempt to rebuff Archer, and much else of what he does, jettisoning cargo pod 8 represents Ryan’s need to return to being the author of his own story. [1] 

(Speaking of which, it’s interesting to note that had Enterprise not arrived when she did, Ryan might have had enough time to extract the correct shield frequencies from his captive. Absent our heroes, Ryan might actually have taken out part of the raider fleet, or even their base. His plan to deter future attacks could conceivably have worked. I’m not suggesting that would justify torturing a prisoner, of course. I’m just pointing out this episode is offering something more complicated and interesting than a tale about how the Fortunate only survives because the Enterprise sticks her prow into proceedings.)

Sea Shanties And Roots Rock

Let’s focus on the Fortunate’s story for a while, and get back to the episode’s structure later. Just as with the Conastoga in “Terra Nova”, even the ship’s name seems relevant. While the Conastoga’s name is significant for its historical context, though, Fortunate is interesting precisely because it has no such context. There are plenty of ships called Fortune (including the ship that followed the Mayflower into Plymouth Harbour, continuing this show’s links to the earliest European immigrants to America), but no Fortunate that I could find. The best I could do was a UK tug renamed after it was bought by a private company. There are records of ships called the Fortunate Son (or Fortunate Sun), but all are fairly recent, suggesting they’re referencing the same Creedence Clearwater Revival song this episode does.

It’s interesting to have so many Fortunes and so few Fortunates afloat. Perhaps it isn’t surprising, though. A fortune is something you seek; the kind of thing you might want a boat to mount your search with. Fortunate is what you call yourself when you know the worth of what you already have. By choosing this name for their freighter, Captain Keene (or one of his predecessors) is making it clear what their itinerant lifestyle is all about. The latinum earned by the ship’s cargo runs is incidental; it’s simply how the crew fund the life they love.

(The name also explains Ryan’s opinion of Mayweather. By rejecting the life of those on the Fortunate, the ensign is suggesting Keene’s crew isn’t blessed to be living the life they do.)

It’s not particularly surprising then that Ryan would resent Enterprise showing up to explain how they have to handle the Nausicaans according to Archer’s code of ethics. Starfleet’s total lack of familiarity with what’s actually going on out here renders their opinions of Ryan’s approach unwelcome, and throwing their weight around desperately counter-productive. There’s historical precedent here. The obvious analogue to the Fortunate is that of merchant shipping in the early 18th century Caribbean. This would make the Nausicaans the equivalent of Nassau pirates (note the fun similarity of names). Much more interestingly, though, it would cast the Enterprise herself in the role of a ship belonging to a heavy-handed and ultimately ineffectual colonial navy. Archer is the British captain hoping his demands and threats can cow people into following a legal code he has questionable right to push onto others, and no capacity to enforce in the long-term. His solution to repeated armed raids upon human ships is to wait for other ships to show up in a few years time. The message is clear: just do what you’re told until we can get more ships out here that will also tell you what to do.

It’s not remotely surprising that Ryan rejects Archer’s interference. Starfleet here seems only interested in offering objections, rather than solutions. Archer can’t see the real problem through his star-spangled eyes. To Ryan, this is about Starfleet waving the flag, rather than getting their hands dirty. It’s about feeling righteous at the cost of other people’s lives.

This neatly brings us back to CCR, and to “Fortunate Son”.

I’m a big fan of this song, and its awareness that how much your life in general and your attitude to patriotism in particular is dependent on your family’s wealth. With the economic workings of 22nd century humanity completely unexplored at this point, it’s admittedly murky how well that sentiment maps to the episode. In terms of putting an officer corps up against the working joes on the Fortunate, though, it certainly seems to fit. It serves as a reminder that more separates Archer and Ryan than mere light-years. If nothing else, that killer line

And when you ask them, “How much should we give?”
Ooh, they only answer More! More! More!

has resonance here, given Archer’s only response to the depredations of the Nausicaans is to insist they be returned to full strength so they can get back to trying to kill Ryan’s adopted family.

Stay In Your Space-Lane

None of which is to say Ryan using torture to enable murder is a particularly brilliant plan either. The CCR link helps to contextualise his anger, but it doesn’t let him off the hook for what that anger prompts him to do. Really, both sides of this argument come across as pretty unpersuasive in terms of the general picture, which probably reflects how difficult the issue they’re facing is. There’s no pat solution to be offered. All the episode commits to is the suggestion Ryan’s plan ends up not just failing strategically as well as tactically.

Given what I’ve said above, though, it’s clear it can’t be Archer himself who delivers the bad news (though it certainly tries). The episode is smart enough to know it has to be Mayweather to talk Ryan down. This is almost certainly the best use the show has made of the former space boomer since the pilot episode. Here we have two people with similar backgrounds clashing over their mutually incompatible visions for the future. The franchise ultimately validates Starfleet’s position – by the 24th century a Nausicaan can’t even stab a Federation officer in the heart and expect them to die. That doesn’t mean Ryan is necessarily wrong about that future coming with a cost, though.

And you can see Mayweather realise that too, as he watches his self-justifications for leaving the Horizon collapse on contact with someone with no reason to humour him. The result is a familiar enough set-up, with Mayweather caught between the culture he grew up in, as represented by Ryan, and the one he chose to move into, as represented by Archer. But then this is what sci-fi does, as a rule; it takes common tropes and throws them into the stars. The working class boy resented by his fellows for displaying upwards mobility takes on new dimensions when the question of class comes down to how quickly you can move.

The idea of Mayweather being pulled between the Fortunate and the Enterprise and thereby ultimately forming the bridge between them is similarly not a triumph of originality. Again though, the sci-fi flavouring works in its favour. Besides, we’re still in the first half of the show’s first season. A slightly hoary use of a still-new main character is massively preferable to no use at all, which from memory was what very quickly became the default mode with Mayweather. I wouldn’t list Anthony Montgomery among the greatest assets the show’s cast can boast, but he certainly doesn’t phone it in here, and I like how he plays up Mayweather’s exuberance. As I’ve said before, Enterprise is frequently in danger of forgetting that jetting around space is supposed to be fun, and Mayweather here is a useful reminder of what’s important here.

In short, there’s plenty to like about the episode. What I appreciate most is how it all comes together in the final act. I’ve mentioned already the necessity of it being Mayweather who persuades Ryan. What’s almost as important though is Archer realising that fact, and handing the mic to Mayweather as their best hope of bypassing Ryan’s stubborn pride. It isn’t a solution to the greater problem. I’m not sure there necessarily is one. For sure though it’s the best option available for pulling the Fortunate out of the hole it’s dug itself. Starfleet ultimately makes the decision to hold the Nausicaans off long enough for the space-boomers to decide for themselves what happens next.

Which finally brings me to the second way “Fortunate Son” offers a better alternative to the model of the show “Civilization” offered. Last episode, the franchise’s determination to become an action-adventure show seemed entirely misconceived, with mediocre action set-pieces simply bolted on to the ghost of a plot. The scraps in “Fortunate Son”, in contrast, are actually about something. The firefight in Pod 8 breaks out because the crew of the two ships can’t help but talk past each other. It’s the concluding space battle I really love, though, mainly because we don’t actually get to see it. Because it’s not what matters. Reed firing torpedoes at swarming Nausicaan raiders is just the sort of thing you’d expect the late-stage franchise to give us, but it’s kept off-screen because the battle that’s actually important is Mayweather’s attempt to penetrate Ryan’s skull. These heroic feats of derring-do are being used to make a point.

Which makes this a return to the actual model of the original series, rather than the vulgar image of it that this show has a tendency to fall back on. This isn’t the first time Enterprise has shown that it can make its return to the pre-TNG days seem valuable rather than simply a regression. Nor is it the best – I’d put both “Strange New World” and “Terra Nova” above it. As the titles of those previous episodes make clear, however, this episode is the first to truly demonstrate the show’s range; that it can be about the joy of discovery without just being about that, and that this era of humanity’s interstellar exploits is worth exploring in itself. It’s worth travelling back in time to experience this.

Which is exactly what’s going to happen next time round, of course, as those jackasses from the future once again get all up in the past’s grille. The Temporal Cold War is about to flare up again.

[1] This also offers a solution to the seeming contradiction of Ryan trying to initially stonewall Archer’s attempts to help, only to be horrified by his threat to tear out what Enterprise has installed. It’s not acceptable for this Starfleet captain to want to leave Ryan’s story. He needs to be tossed out of it. 

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

Ordering

1. Prime Factors

2. Dagger of the Mind

3. Fortunate Son

4. Hide And Q

5. Once Upon A Planet

6. Move Along Home

Season 1 (so far) Show Rankings

1. Deep Space Nine

2. Voyager

3. Enterprise

4. The Animated Series

5. The Next Generation

6. The Original Series

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