Original Air Date: November 10, 1966
Stardate: 1512.2-1514.1 (2266)
Writer: Jerry Sohl
Director: Joseph Sargent
“Not chess, Mr. Spock. Poker! Do you know the game?”
In a distant corner of space devoid of habitable planets, the Enterprise is conducting a third day of star-mapping –documenting previously unexplored stars, a tedious task– when all of a sudden a strange cube-shaped object appears. Captain Kirk is called back to the bridge from his physical exam (unfortunately we are punished with another scene of a shirtless Shatner). After a series of maneuvers the Enterprise is forced to destroy the seemingly hostile cube in self-defense. During the scuffle, Lieutenant Bailey (Anthony Call) makes several poor decisions, he has a nervous breakdown, reacts emotionally, and soon he will be relieved of his duties. When the strange colorful cube is destroyed the Enterprise continues onward as normal, fully aware that they may be treading into unknown territory. Here, we are treated to some entertaining banter between Dr. McCoy and Capt. Kirk –in particular a scene in which Yeoman Rand brings Kirk a meal consisting of green leaves because Dr. McCoy has taken the liberty of revising Kirk’s “diet card” (apparently food replicators have not been introduced in Star Trek). Kirk then laments having a “female Yeoman” while proclaiming the only female he needs in his life is the Enterprise.
At any rate, the crew soon learn that the cube was merely a “border marker” for a superior alien race. This all becomes apparent when the fearsome mother ship appears, a large glowing orb called the Fesarius which is helmed by a seemingly vicious alien named Balok (pronounced “Bay-Lock” or also “Bah-Lock” and voiced by Ted Cassidy, who played Ruk in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”). He claims to hail from the “First Federation” and he accuses the Enterprise of belonging to a primitive and savage civilization. Balok gives the Enterprise 10 minutes (or “10 Earth time periods”), or just enough time to worship any comforting deities before facing complete destruction while trapped in the Fesarius’s tractor beam, but Kirk decides to challenge his new foe to a slow-burn game of poker (rather than a game of chess as suggested by Spock). Kirk delivers a classic bluff. He says there is a substance called “Corbomite” aboard the Enterprise and it will surely destroy the Fesarius if fired upon. Balok pauses and blinks. Instead of destroying the Enterprise he deploys a smaller vessel to tow the Enterprise to imprisonment on a “First Federation” planet which can sustain human life, but Kirk outmaneuvers this vessel and its weak tractor beam via a risky move that threatens the ship’s integrity. When the Enterprise finally breaks free, Kirk decides to do the right thing and search the now-damaged alien vessel for any survivors per protocol.
Kirk, Dr. McCoy, and Lt. Bailey all beam aboard the odd miniature-sized ship where they meet the real Balok (voiced by television and radio actor Walker Edmiston and performed by Clint Howard, child-actor and younger brother of Ron Howard). The frightening visage of Balok which had previously appeared onscreen was a mere effigy –a dummy or a puppet– the real Balok appears to be a humanoid child-like alien. Balok says this whole event was staged in order to test the humans. In truth, he wishes to learn more about humanity. Although a flawed person, Lt. Bailey volunteers to remain behind and help Balok learn about humanity. This episode ends as Balok gives Kirk, Bones, and Bailey a tour of his ship, noting that both he (Balok) and Kirk are similar in their mutual love for their ships.
Despite finding the Enterprise in the remote depths of space, the rules of engagement still apply: put up a tough facade and earn your opponent’s respect. Those who put all their chips on the table risk too much and leave themselves exposed. Even with all the advanced machinery aboard the Enterprise, nothing can really compare with a simple bluff, a psychological battle of wits. Poker becomes a kind of metaphor for modern social compact theory in this episode (i.e. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau) –even among distant alien species war reflects a certain “state of nature.” During times of duress at our highest aspirations hopefully we would all would strive to be like Kirk –a level-headed leader with a secret trick up our sleeves– rather than Lt. Bailey –an incompetent and emotionally reactive crewman. To me Lt. Bailey is the most troubling character in this episode. He freezes up, refuses to follow orders, and has a complete breakdown, putting the entire ship in danger before being entirely dismissed. But then he is welcomed back to his post later in the episode, plus he is tasked with representing humanity to a superior alien race in the end! It’s difficult to imagine a worse representative of humanity but at least Kirk is rid of him for the time being.
Notably in this episode, the Enterprise has successfully accomplished its mission. The crew makes contact with a new alien race, overcomes mutual hostilities, and builds a new friendly alliance. Peace and good-will soon replace fear and aggression. “The Corbomite Maneuver” is optimistic in tone. Nevertheless, the principle of self-preservation still applies to all living beings across this vast cosmos.
Writer Jerry Sohl (1913-2002) was a prolific science fiction author. He wrote many scripts for television shows including The Twilight Zone (notably as a ghostwriter for Charles Beaumont), Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits, Star Trek: The Original Series (once under the pseudonym “Nathan Butler”). In total he wrote three episodes of Star Trek.
Director Joseph Sargent (1925-2014) was a television and feature film director. This was his only episode of Star Trek, but Sargent was likely one of the most experienced TV and film professionals that worked on the original series. He’d been a writer and director of Lassie in the early 60s and also an actor. He later directed a number of films including The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three.
Star Trek Trivia:
- The Festarius ship was made of ping-pong balls glued together to a plaster-of-paris shell.
- This was the first episode to feature Kirk’s famous “Space: the final frontier…” monologue which is now featured at the beginning of each episode.
- Upon seeing Balok for the first time Spock merely remarks “fascinating.” The initial script had Spock emoting a more powerful response, but Director Joseph Sargent suggested he appear cold and rational instead. This change helped to shape Spock’s iconic character for years to come.
- “The Corbomite Maneuver” was the first regular season episode produced, but it aired later due to its complex visual effects (it took months to work on the effects). We can see traces of early, unrefined Star Trek in this episode such as different uniforms (Uhura wears a gold outfit which is different from her regular red clothes in future episodes) and an evolving concept of Spock’s character.
- The voice of Balok was performed by Ted Cassidy who previously appeared as Ruk in the Season 1 episode “What are Little Girls Made Of?” Of course, Ted Cassidy also famously played the role of Lurch on The Addams Family.
- At one point, Spock notes that Balok is reminiscent of his Vulcan father.
- During this episode, the power goes out but Yeoman Rand says she has zapped her coffee with a “hand phaser” –reminiscent of Sulu using a similar strategy to heat rocks for warmth while on Alfa 177 in “The Enemy Within.”
- Dr. McCoy utters a variation of his famous “I’m a doctor, not an X…” when he says the following in this episode: “What am I, a doctor or a… moon-shuttle conductor?”
- Uhura also utters her famous line for the first time in this episode: “Hailing frequencies open, sir.”
- This episode was the first to use Fred Steiner’s cello theme.
- The set of Balok’s room was actually a re-dress of the Enterprise conference room set. In fact, at one point an Enterprise control panel is visible.
- This episode was nominated for a Hugo Award in 1967 as “Best Dramatic Presentation.”
- The “tranya” drink offered by Balok was actually grape juice on the set. Apparently Clint Howard found it distasteful.
- Robert H. Justman filmed Sulu’s iconic reaction shot which was used in this and later episodes.
- We learn that an Engineering department is apparently located on “Deck 5.”
- This episode offers a rare time-stamp, placing it some 200 years after humanity’s initial attempts at space exploration.
- Lt. Bailey never again returns in the Star Trek franchise (thus far) though he does appear in a Voyager short story. However, actor Clint Howard who played Balok returns in later Star Trek installments of DS9, Enterprise, and Discovery.
- Distinctive background computer sounds on the bridge were first used in this episode, they were borrowed from The Twilight Zone.
- Clint Howard later reprised his role as a fully-grown Balok as part of Comedy Central’s 2006 roast of William Shatner. In it, Clint Howard portrayed Balok as being an alcoholic who is addicted to “tranya.” As with the original episode, Balok’s voice was again dubbed over by another actor for the comedy special.