Star Trek Re-Watch: “Balance of Terror”

“Balance of Terror”
Written by Paul Schneider
Directed by Vincent McEveety

Season 1, Episode 14
Production episode: 1×09
Original air date: December 15, 1966
Star date: 1709.2

Mission summary
Captain Kirk is presiding over a non-denominational wedding ceremony of two members of his crew when an emergency calls him back to the bridge. There’s no time for romance on the Enterprise, at least not while Earth Outpost 4 is being attacked by an unknown vessel. Kirk orders condition red and the ship warps to the rescue.

Spock, the expositional, er, executive officer, summarizes the situation, complete with Powerpoint slides: They’ve lost contact with several outposts set up inside asteroids along their side of “the Neutral Zone.” A century ago, humans and Romulans fought a nuclear war in space, without ever seeing the face of the enemy due to the limited technology of the time. A subspace radio treaty established a Neutral Zone between their homeworlds; if either party crosses the zone, it will be considered an act of war. Presumably, coming over and blowing up the other side’s stuff is also an act of war. But regardless of what the Romulans might be doing, Kirk is under orders not to violate the treaty under any circumstances—the Enterprise and the outposts might as well be painted red, because they’re expendable.

Surly navigator of the week is played by Lieutenant Stiles, who urges them to take care of the Romulans immediately; his ancestors were killed in the Earth-Romulan war, and he’s looking for some payback. Kirk advises him to chill, and reminds him that they don’t even know what a Romulan ship looks like these days. For all they know, it could look like a giant painted bird, but that would just be silly. As they approach Outpost 4, they discover debris from Outposts 2 and 3, which were completely destroyed—asteroids and all. Kirk orders weapons ready. Briefly, we revisit the couple from the earlier wedding, who both work in Phaser Control. Well, Kirk’s certainly not one to discourage fraternization among his crew, is he?

The Enterprise finally makes contact with Commander Hansen of the beseiged Outpost 4. The situation doesn’t look good. His office is burning around him. The fact that it’s been damaged a mile deep into an asteroid made of solid iron gives an indication of what they’re up against. He helpfully tells them that a “space vessel” attacked them before it disappeared. He sends the Enterprise a feed from his viewscreen, just as the ship reappears and fires a red ball of plasma at the outpost. Before the signal is cut off, the attacking ship disappears again.

Kirk and Spock theorize that the vanishing ship has to reappear in order to fire its plasma weapon. Spock gets a read on it, but the enemy doesn’t seem to be aware of them—perhaps their systems make them as blind as they are invisible. Kirk orders Sulu to match the enemy’s course exactly, so they might appear to be only a reflection. Stiles again urges them to attack while they can, not only continuing to assume that they’re Romulans, but also proposing that they may have a spy on board. This guy is supremely paranoid, but Sulu backs him up.

Uhura intercepts a transmission from the enemy ship, and Spock patches it into the viewscreen. They get a glimpse of the commander and are astonished to see that he looks just like a Vulcan! Everyone gets a bit uncomfortable, and Stiles soon turns his suspicions to Spock. Kirk reprimands him, “Leave any bigotry in your quarters. There’s no room for it on the Bridge.”

Meanwhile, on the Romulan ship… The enemy commander orders that they maintain their cloaking system, certain that they’re being followed, while his men insist that the signal following them is only an echo. To assert his authority, the commander demotes his man Decius for sending the transmission the Enterprise detected. He has a strong sense of duty, but is clearly a bit war-weary:

No need to tell you what happens when we reach home with proof of the Earthmen’s weakness. And we will have proof. The Earth commander will follow. He must. When he attacks, we will destroy him. Our gift to the homeland, another war.

He wishes they could end the cycle of death, and even indicates he harbors a death wish to avoid his responsibility and his role in beginning another war campaign.

With the Enterprise only an hour away from the Neutral Zone, Kirk calls a meeting to analyze debris collected from Outpost 4 and discuss their options. McCoy stresses how important their actions will be in determining the fates of “millions and millions of lives.” Stiles continues to advocate attacking while the Romulans are in their space, and Spock surprisingly agrees. He admits that the Romulans are apparently offshoots of his own species, and that this makes them extremely dangerous.

Vulcan, like Earth, had its aggressive colonizing period. Savage, even by Earth standards. And if Romulans retain this martial philosophy, then weakness is something we dare not show.

The Romulan ship heads for a comet’s tail, which will give the Enterprise the best chance at seeing through their cloak. The Romulan commander, on the other hand, is gambling that the same comet will scramble the Enterprise’s sensors. They’re both right. At the last second, the commander realizes his mistake and alters his course. Kirk realizes that the commander realized his mistake and the Enterprise fires its phasers blindly, striking a lucky hit on the enemy. The Enterprise’s phasers overload, just when the Romulan Bird-of-Prey appears and fires its plasma thingey at them. Unable to fire at the approaching ball of energy, the Enterprise tries to outrun it like Indiana Jones and the giant boulder. Fortunately for them, the plasma ball loses energy over distance, hitting them with much-weakened force.

They continue shadowing the Romulans and fire on them once more just before reaching the Neutral Zone, scoring another incredibly lucky hit with the repaired phasers. Kirk decides to pursue the Romulans into the Neutral Zone, guns still blazing, and sends a message back to Starfleet Command asking for their orders.

In another Romulan ploy, the enemy commander jettisons a bunch of debris from his ship, along with the dead body of his friend the Centurion, who was killed in the Enterprise’s last attack. Spock sees through the ruse, but the Romulan ship has stopped moving and no longer appears on sensors. Kirk orders the Enterprise to hold position and maintain silence as well. And they sit. And they wait.

Kirk rests and worries in his quarters. First Yeoman Rand, then Dr. McCoy comes to check on him. Kirk opens up to the doctor about his insecurities:

I wish I were on a long sea voyage somewhere. Not too much deck tennis, no frantic dancing, and no responsibility. Why me? I look around that Bridge, and I see the men waiting for me to make the next move. And Bones, what if I’m wrong?

McCoy gives him what passes for a pep talk, telling Kirk not to make the wrong decision and destroy himself—not much help there, doc.

After Spock completes his repairs on the Bridge, he accidentally switches his Bridge station on. The Romulans detect their signal and move in. After nearly ten hours of waiting in the dark, it’s back to battle stations! Kirk continues to anticipate the Commander’s moves and deals heavy damage with their phasers. The Romulan commander decides to release more of their seemingly endless supply of debris, with a little added surprise for his enemy: an old atomic warhead with a “proximity fuse.”

The Enterprise discovers and destroys the mine, but the explosion is close enough to knock the ship on its aft. Worse still, it takes so much damage that only the forward phasers are operational, and there’s only one person to man them, Specialist Tomlinson, the groom from the doomed wedding. Mr. Stiles offers to help him, while the Enterprise plays possum, hoping to lure the Romulans out of the Neutral Zone. The Romulan commander kind of just wants to go home, but he’s pressured into finishing off the enemy.

Spock checks on Stiles and Tomlinson, but Stiles refuses his offer of assistance: “This time, we’ll handle things without your help, Vulcan.“ Spock leaves, just as purple gas begins seeping into the Phaser Control room. This is the worst time for a coolant leak, because at that moment the Romulan ship decloaks right in front of the Enterprise. Kirk orders the phasers to fire, but the gas has incapacitated Stiles and Tomlinson. Spock rushes into the Control room and manages to fire just in time, making a direct hit on the Bird-of-Prey.

Kirk orders the Enterprise closer and hails the Romulans to offer assistance. For the first time, he speaks to the commander face to face:

KIRK: Captain. Standing by to beam your survivors aboard our ship. Prepare to abandon your vessel.
COMMANDER: No. No, that is not our way. I regret that we meet in this way. You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend.
KIRK: What purpose will it serve to die?
COMMANDER: We are creatures of duty, Captain. I have lived my life by it. Just one more duty to perform.

Then the commander activates the self-destruct on the Romulan ship.

Kirk visits Spock and Stiles in Sickbay. The Vulcan has become Stiles’ new best friend after saving his life. The only casualty from the altercation was Tomlinson, the man whose marriage was interrupted. It’s small consolation, but they also finally receive word from Starfleet Command, backing up whatever decision Kirk makes.

Kirk visits Angela Martine, the bereft bride, who is crying in the ship’s chapel where she was to be married. Kirk tries to comfort her:

KIRK: It never makes any sense. We both have to know that there was a reason.
ANGELA: I’m all right.

This is an incredibly riveting and layered episode, a tense war story pitting two vessels against unknown enemies. There are obvious parallels to naval battles between seafaring ships and submarines; Kirk and the Romulan commander are essentially playing Battleship, but Kirk has much better luck at guessing his opponent’s position.

This episode always comes to mind as some of the best that Star Trek, and science fiction television in general, has to offer. Though we are obviously meant to root for the Enterprise, the Romulan commander is very sympathetic. He’s shown as a military man who has grown tired of war and longs to return home, like Gladiator in space; the worst thing he can imagine is being responsible for reigniting an old conflict with the humans, but he is also sworn to fulfill his mission to test their defenses. He confides in his friend, “Centurion, I find myself wishing for destruction before we can return.” When he gets his wish, and displays true regret for his actions, pretty much everyone feels sorry for him. Under different circumstances, that could have been Kirk and his crew facing defeat.

It’s the similarities and differences between Kirk and the Romulan commander that are most interesting. The commander says they are “of a kind”: both of them are smart and committed to their duty, strategically fairly even matched, and neither want this war. It’s their respective cultures that prevent them from meeting as friends. The Romulans are strongly militant, curiously similar to the Romans in Earth’s history (right down to planets named Romulus and Remus, an odd coincidence that no one ever remarks on in the series). When Decius makes a mistake, the commander must demote him by two ranks in order to show his strength, but when Spock blows it on the Bridge and nearly gets them all killed, Kirk gives him a free pass.

The insubordination Stiles shows on the Enterprise would get him killed on a Romulan ship, but Starfleet and Kirk have different ways of handling their crews—as people, not simply soldiers. Even in the end, the commander seems to want to let the Enterprise go, either out of respect or a last hope of avoiding war and his own destruction, but he’s pushed into going for the kill when his crewman asks for the honor. His culture’s high regard for dying in battle prevents him from surrendering to Kirk, even to save his own life. And maybe he knows he’s forestalling war by showing that Earth’s defenses are strong.

There may be some other parallels to Earth’s history, namely, World War II. There’s the reference to nuclear weapons, of course, and the Romulans are as strange and frightening to (some) humans as the Japanese were to Americans. Spock says, “Earth believes the Romulans to be warlike, cruel, treacherous, and only the Romulans know what they think of Earth.”

In WWII, the Japanese were just as demonized for their strangely selfless devotion to duty and the honor placed in dying for their country. This isn’t too far from the uninformed characterization of the Romulans. There’s also a similarity between the sneak attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and the Romulan attacks on Earth Outposts 2, 3, 4, and 8—with a familiar reaction from Stiles in demanding revenge and accusing Spock of collaborating. I thought it interesting that Sulu, the Japanese representative on the Bridge crew, backs up Stiles’ concern about spies among them.

This episode has a pretty obvious moral, that we shouldn’t judge others on their appearance, and that you can’t assume that all members of a race or species are exactly the same. Despite the culture in which he lives, the Romulan commander was a thoughtful, respectful, compassionate man who disagreed with the imperialist ambitions of his Praetor. He’s the kind of man who, in the middle of a deadly battle with a fierce enemy, stops and smells the roses; as his ship heads into the comet’s tail, he admires the sight and calls it “a marvel in the darkness.”

On another note, it does seem a little suspicious that Spock doesn’t know anything about the Romulans, isn’t it? What’s also weird is that when he talks about Romulus and Remus, the chart of the Neutral Zone clearly shows Romulus and a planet called “Romii” within the Romulan Star Empire. Oops? Well, I suppose we didn’t hear about the Remans for a while either…

And uh, is it just me, or do the Enterprise’s phasers act a lot like photon torpedoes in this episode? I guess the lovebirds in Phaser Control had their minds on other things.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 6 (on a scale of 1-6)

Torie Atkinson: Brilliant, tense, and serious: the best of Star Trek is right here in this episode. The slow, determined pacing, the tension, and the atmosphere of fear and uncertainly perfectly encapsulate the feeling of what is essentially a Cold War between the humans and the Romulans. As Eugene mentions, this is very much a post-WWII piece—an atomic past that led to terrible destruction is the backdrop for this new confrontation. Will things be different this time, or can individuals break the cycle of war? When millions of lives are at stake, do you fight to prevent a fight? McCoy asks what that fight would even be based on:  “Memories of a war over a century ago? On theories about a people we’ve never even met face to face?” Kirk reminds Stiles that this is a different time. “Their war, Mister Stiles. Not yours. Don’t forget it.”

When we first see the Romulans, the camera lingers on that image for a good long while. Everyone looks at Spock, and we see the very real and terrible act of bigotry. I re-watched that scene, and it sends chills down my spine. Stiles looks at Spock with hatred, which should surprise no one, but everyone else looks at him with fear. Who is this? Is he a friend, or an enemy? What matters more, my experiences with him or others’ experiences with those who look like him? That fear-based racism is as devastating as Stiles’ flat-out hatred (if not more so). Spock sees that fear and that hate and he swallows it and he goes on, just as so many do every day. This isn’t a world without hate, or without racism, as I’ve heard people claim. It’s a world in which they exist, but they are not okay, and the culture and society look down upon and reject that kind of response as primitive, cruel, and unenlightened. Kirk rebukes Stiles’ hatred, and makes it clear that that is not acceptable. Spock, in the end, “proves” that he is a friend—proof that wouldn’t be necessary if he had been human. The fact that Gene Roddenberry wasn’t afraid to engage with that bluntly and seriously is a testament to the greatness of the series.

This is perhaps most poignant in the final exchange between Kirk and the Romulan commander, when they realize how similar they are, and how close they could have been if circumstances had been different. The commander says, “In a different reality, I could have called you friend.” In a different reality he could have been Vulcan, not Romulan. He could have been Spock, and they could have served together. They could have been friends and fellow soldiers. Such is the nature of all wars, and duty and honor are strong forces. But what if… The optimism and hope is painfully sincere, and I think in any other show (or in a weaker episode) it would come off as foolish and ridiculous. But what if there were no struggle between individual feelings and duty to one’s country? What if those in war all saw each other as people, as individuals with their own motives, feelings, and histories, and came together on that common ground? Would shots still be fired?

“War is never imperative,” McCoy says. What if? Well… it’s hard to imagine except in SFF, isn’t it? But I’m glad Star Trek tried to imagine it nonetheless.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 6 (on a scale of 1-6)

Best Line: McCoy: “In this galaxy, there’s a mathematical probability of three million Earth-type planets. And in all of the universe, three million million galaxies like this. And in all of that, and perhaps more, only one of each of us.”

Syndication Edits: The usual slew of reaction and establishing shots; Uhura’s comment about the Romulan message sounding like it’s in code; Spock trying to lock into the transmission to see the Romulan bridge; Spock listening to the tape Uhura creates; an interaction between Sulu and Kirk in which Sulu explains that the Romulan vessel is changing course and Kirk tells him to stay with the other ship; some phaser shots; one of Stiles’ dirty looks; the Romulan commander ordering evasive maneuvers; Rand’s appearance in Kirk’s quarters; and a sequence right after Spock fires the phasers, in which Kirk orders Sulu to bring them closer and Uhura opens hailing frequencies.

Trivia: The brilliant Mark Lenard, who plays the Romulan Commander, was the first Star Trek actor to appear onscreen as three different aliens: a Romulan here, a Klingon (in Star Trek: The Motion Picture), and of course, a Vulcan—Spock’s dad, Sarek. Lawrence Montaigne, who plays Decius, reappears as Stonn in “Amok Time.”

The artist Wah Chang designed and constructed the Romulan warship. He never received screen credit for this, so we’re thanking him here.

Other notes: This episode is basically a ripoff of two movies about submarine warfare, The Enemy Below (1957) and Silent, Run Deep (1958, directed by Robert Wise who later helmed ST:TMP). And if you’re wondering why all the other Romulans are wearing Roman helmets, it’s not just for mood: it was cheaper than making them all synthetic ears.

Previous Episode: Season 1, Episode 12 – “The Conscience of the King.”

Next Episode: Season 1, Episode 14 – “Shore Leave.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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About Eugene Myers & Torie Atkinson

EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is forthcoming from Pyr. TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.