Stardate: 1709 (2266)
Original Air Date: December 15, 1966
Writer: Paul Schneider
Director: Vincent McEveety
“In a different reality… I could have called you friend.”
“Balance of Terror” is an absolute classic of early Trek. This brilliant episode examines the true cost of war and asks us to consider who we believe to be “barbarians.” “Balance of Terror” opens with a charming wedding scene between two crewmen –Ensign Angela Martine (Barbara Baldavin) and Lt. Robert Tomlinson (Stephen Mines). Kirk is set to officiate the wedding, however in truth something more sinister is lurking behind the scenes. Spock privately notifies the Captain that two outposts (Earth Outposts 2 and 3) have mysteriously gone silent, and now the Enterprise is headed toward Outpost 4. Kirk hides his consternation and begins officiating the wedding ceremony anyway:
“Since the days of the first wooden vessels, all ship masters captains have had one happy privilege, that of uniting two happy people in the bonds of matrimony…”
Suddenly an alert siren blares, all decks are brought to “Condition Red.” The scene of Matrimony is disrupted as the Enterprise is immediately sent to investigate the remaining outposts stationed on asteroids around the edge of the “Neutral Zone.” While patrolling outposts between the planets Romulus and Remus (a nod to ancient Rome), we learn a little background to this burgeoning crisis: Over a century ago there was brutal war between Earth and an alien race known as the Romulans. At the time, the conflict was fought in primitive vessels with now-dated nuclear weapons (this war predated ship-to-ship communication devices) therefore no human has seen what a Romulan truly looks like. Earth believes the Romulans are a warlike people –cruel and treacherous. The war eventually ended with an armistice treaty establishing a Neutral Zone, to violate this treaty is considered an act of war. The treaty has been unbroken since that time. However, Earth Outposts 2,3, 8 have now been pulverized by a strange disappearing space vessel believed to be of Romulan origin. While communicating with Outpost 4, the worst fears are confirmed. A Romulan Bird of Prey launches an attack on the outpost killing all of its residents, including the main point of contact, Mr. Hansen (Garry Walberg). The Bird of Prey then initiates a cloaking device and disappears.
The Enterprise’s sensors pick up a coded signal from the Romulan Bird of Prey and hail a screen image of the Romulans (thus becoming the first humans to see a Romulan, the Captain is played by Mark Lenard). It appeaars that battle may be imminent. From here, Kirk convenes his leadership team to discuss next steps –these scenes of careful, rational, and impassioned deliberation are some of my personal favorites in Star Trek. The recalcitrant Lt. Stiles (Paul Comi who previously appeared in several Twilight Zone episodes as well) explains that his ancestors were harmed in the century-old war against the Romulans, and he takes a staunchly hawkish stance contra the dove-minded Kirk and Dr. McCoy. Lt. Stiles’s argument is that if they allow the Romulans to freely escape and continue attacking outposts, only more will follow, and so a first responsive strike will prevent escalation. He wants the Enterprise to send a message to the Romulans (with more than a hint of personal vengeance in his plan). He also questions Spock’s true allegiance as a result of the biological relationship between Vulcans and Romulans, there are several scenes of Lt. Stiles behaving crudely in an openly insubordinate manner to Spock. This notion of blind prejudice is a key theme to this episode as Stiles wrongly and belligerently suspects Spock of being a Romulan spy. However, surprisingly in the course of the debate Spock sides with Stiles –Spock believes the Enterprise should attack the Bird of Prey. Kirk remarkably accepts their opinions.
After the Enterprise fires upon the Romulans, a game of cat-and-mouse ensues. The Enterprise’s phasers short circuit and the Bird of Prey then fires a blast of plasma on the Enterprise which quickly enters “Emergency Warp” and the Enterprise manages to outrun the blast’s range limit but it is still damaged in the attack. The Enterprise then shuts off its power and makes no communication effort for over 9 hours while pretending to lay dormant (this game is reminiscent of the stand-off in “The Corbomite Maneuver”). Here in the quietude, we see a fascinating moment wherein Capt. Kirk admits his own frailties (a scene reminiscent of Captain Pike in “The Cage”). He longs for escapism, wishing he was on a long sea voyage far away, opening up about his insecurities that he’s not making the wrong decisions. An alarm suddenly blares revealing the Enterprise’s true position and the battle continues. The Enterprise rapidly regains power and fires upon the Romulans, and this time it’s the Romulans’ turn to feign destruction. They evacuate their garbage, in a seemingly innocuous move –but hiding in the waste is an old “primitive” nuclear weapon which is then detonated within 100 meters of the Enterprise (which, in reality, would have likely destroyed the Enterprise) however the explosion merely damages the Enterprise, leaving the Romulans exposed. Spock rescues Stiles from certain death from a phaser coolant leak in the “phaser room” while the Enterprise fires heavily upon the Bird of Prey, leaving the Romulans mortally wounded. Kirk then hails communication with the Romulan Commander. Kirk offers to beam aboard any survivors, but the Romulan Commander declines. He speaks as if the two captains could have been good friends in another life but then he solemnly commits his final duty –initiating the self-destruction of his own ship.
My Thoughts on “Balance of Terror”
There is an interesting contrast here between Kirk and the Romulan Commander. Both men were reluctant to engage in this battle but they were actually pressured by internal war-hawks on their respective ships to fight one another. The brilliance of “Balance of Terror” lies in the audience’s exposure to both sides in the conflict. It forces us to question our own prejudices toward our perceived enemies. Indeed the title invites inquiry into the distinction between the terms “balance of power” and “balance of terror” as they pertain to international affairs.
At any rate, in the end we learn there has been one casualty in this skirmish: Lt. Tomlinson has tragically died on his own wedding day. Kirk then attempts to comfort his would-be bride, Ensign Martine, stating that at least there was a reason for his death but she is speechless and simply walks away in tears. The true cost of war hits home. Was it all worth it? This deeply personal episode reflects on the idea of heroes and villains –of “us” and “them”– as no character is portrayed as purely evil, neither the Romulan Commander nor the bigoted Lt. Stiles. We still empathize with both men despite their flaws. Here the delicate dance of battle affects all people aboard both opposing ships, from the highest to the lowest ranking members. May we always embrace a cautionary mindset and avoid the often enticing urge to dogpile into blind prejudice.
Writer Paul Schneider (1923-2008) derived this episode from the World War II naval-submarine film The Enemy Below (1957). Apparently, fellow science fiction writer Harlan Ellison was gravely upset and refused to speak with Mr. Schneider following this episode because he felt true science fiction should be wholly original rather than derivative. In addition to introducing the Romulans in this episode, Mr. Schneider also wrote fellow Season 1 episode “The Squire of Gothos” which introduced another classic character: Q (or at least a prelude to true character of Q).
Vincent McEveety (1929-2018) directed numerous television shows including six episodes of Star Trek TOS.
Star Trek Trivia:
- This episode contains the first appearance of the Romulans. Spock thinks the Romulans are “likely” an offshoot of his Vulcan blood. Like the past warlike Vulcan era, the Romulans have also likely faced the same challenges.
- Director Vincent McEveety later acknowledged that the plot of this episode is “the same story” as the 1957 movie The Enemy Below.
- Fans have often noted the similarity between the Neutral Zone and the Demilitarized Zone created to separate North and South Korea in 1953, as well as other neutral regions around the world.
- Uniquely, Lt. Uhura takes over navigation in this episode when Lt. Stiles is called away to the phaser room.
- Grace Lee Whitney technically appears for the final time in this episode according to release date, however the final episode she actually appeared in according to production schedule was “Conscience of the King.”
- Mark Lenard, who portrayed the Romulan Commander, returned in the Season 2 episode “Journey to Babel” where he played Sarek, Spock’s father. He also played a Klingon in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Thus Mr. Lenard has the distinction of having played a Romulan, Klingon, and Vulcan, the only actor to have ever done so. Mark Lenard later said the role of the Romulan Commander was his personal favorite television role.
- Bryan Fuller called the episode a personal “favorite” and a “touchstone” which influenced the creation of Star Trek: Discovery.
- This was Fred Steiner’s fourth of twelve scores for Star Trek (he recorded it on the same day he recorded the score for “The Corbomite Maneuver”).
- At one point the Enterprise screen shows that outposts 1-7 are located within “Sector Z-6.”
- The wedding ceremony in this episode reaffirms that Star Trek is a secular show, no deity or particular religious doctrine is invoked.
- This episode contains numerous references to ancient Rome including the planets Romulus and Remus, a Romulan named Decius, as well as terms like Praetor and Centurion.
- The song used in the wedding ceremony in this episode is an old English tune called “Long, Long Ago.”
- Wah Chang designed the head-covering helmets worn by the lesser Romulans in this episode. These were worn for budgetary reasons because Star Trek did not have enough time or money to apply Vulcan ears to each actor.
- Lawrence Montaigne played the war-hawk Romulan named Decius. He later returned as Spock’s rival in the Season 2 episode “Amok Time.”
- The term “photon torpedo” was only invented for a later Season 1 episode “Arena”, but the same effect was used in this episode though it was simply called a “phaser.”
- Gene Roddenberry named this as one of his ten favorite episodes.
Man, every time I read anything discussing Harlan Ellison, I learn more about what a childish hack of a man he was. Not only does he throw a hissy fit and doesn’t talk to someone else like a spoiled teenage girl, he says something so patently stupid as:
“Science fiction can’t be derivative.”
We use nuclear energy, literally the power of the stars, to toast bread. We do mundane, dumb things with miracles of scientific engineering as a rule, not an exception. If we even manage to get to space ships, half of the space and the power is going to go to keeping the frail monkeys inside alive and fed.
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Balance Of Terror is quite understandably one of Gene Roddenberry’s favorites for being one of the most serious episodes from the classic Trek. It’s one that I’ve often re-watched on Netflix and so I’m personally very fond of it too. I agree that Harlan Ellison’s comment is too harsh. As with many TV and film genres, science fiction can share several basic inspirations with shows, certainly Star Trek, making them feel more original simply by improving on them in their own special ways. It does of course make such SF classics all the more interesting, certainly Star Trek and Doctor Who, and so I think that it should be fairly easy to look beyond what might seem derivative.
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