Welcome to this week’s installment of ‘Final Frontier Friday‘! It’s an original series week around here, so settle in and fire up your Netflix account as we tackle ‘Balance of Terror’.
If you’re a regular reader, you know I like to offer a little background on the episode before getting into the meat of the review. That might be a taller order than usual this week, since ‘Balance of Terror’ is arguably the most important episode I’ve covered to date. Why is that? Well, it marks the first appearance of the Romulans!
Originally conceived as sort of a “Roman Empire in space” archetype (as evidenced by the name, their twin homeworlds of Romulus and Remus, the rank of Centurion and various other allusions to both the myths and sociopolitical structures of ancient Rome), they were also meant to serve as an analogue to the USSR, with history Spock provides outlining a Cold War style tension between the Romulans and the Federation. As the concept suggests, the Romulans were meant to have appeared far more often than they did (ultimately showing up a total of three times in the show’s run, one of which I’ve covered previously). This was thwarted by the expense involved in creating the deceptively simple Vulcan/Romulan makeup, hence the helmets worn by most of the Romulans who appear on screen. If that frustrates you, take heart, as that expense is the entire reason the Klingons were developed (note the barebones Klingon makeup of the ’60s – that wasn’t an accident), and ‘Star Trek’ would be a much poorer world without them!
The episode opens in the Enterprise’s chapel as Kirk prepares to officiate the wedding of crewmen Angela Martine and Robert Tomlinson. The ceremony is interrupted, though, when the ship goes to red alert.
Arriving on the bridge, we learn that the emergency is related to a Federation outpost that is believed to have been under attack before falling silent. As they begin to investigate the fate of the outpost, Spock briefs the crew (and the audience) on the nature of the the Neutral Zone and the history between the Federation and the Romulan Empire, including “the Earth/Romulan conflict of over a century ago” and the fact that, due to the nature of combat in that war, “No Human, Romulan, or ally has ever seen the other.” Kirk adds that his orders explicitly state that they’d to defend themselves if attacked, but not to enter the Neutral Zone under any circumstances, further explaining that the ship and the outposts alike are considered expendable if it means preventing a war. As they approach the Neutral Zone, Spock’s scans show that a number of the border outposts are simply gone, and the asteroids o which they were constructed have been pulverized. They establish contact with Outpost 4 just long enough to confirm that three others have been destroyed and the fourth was overwhelmed despite having been warned of the attack. The outpost’s commander is able to tie the Enterprise into the outpost’s viewscreen as the attacking ship appears out of nowhere and, ignoring the Enterprise’s hails, destroys Outpost 4. Determining that the attacker is proceeding at a leisurely pace toward Romulan space, Kirk orders the Enterprise to take a parallel course, shadowing the Romulans. It’s at this point that Lieutenant Stiles – whose family lost several members during the Romulan War – points out with some degree of paranoia that there could be Romulan spies aboard the ship. Nearing the Romulan vessel, Spock is able to intercept a signal and in doing so produce an image of their bridge. This reveals for the first time just what the Romulans look like – and they look like Vulcans!
As they approach the Neutral Zone, Spock’s scans show that a number of the border outposts are simply gone, and the asteroids which they were constructed have been pulverized. They establish contact with Outpost 4 just long enough to confirm that three others have been destroyed and the fourth was overwhelmed despite having been warned of the attack. The outpost’s commander is able to tie the Enterprise into the outpost’s viewscreen as the attacking ship appears out of nowhere and, ignoring the Enterprise’s hails, destroys Outpost 4. Determining that the attacker is proceeding at a leisurely pace toward Romulan space, Kirk orders the Enterprise to take a parallel course, shadowing the Romulans. It’s at this point that Lieutenant Stiles – whose family lost several members during the Romulan War – points out with some degree of paranoia that there could be Romulan spies aboard the ship. Nearing the Romulan vessel, Spock is able to intercept a signal and in doing so produce an image of their bridge. This reveals for the first time just what the Romulans look like – and they look like Vulcans!
The crew reacts to this revelation with shock, and Stiles makes a snide remark about asking Spock to decrypt a Romulan code only for Kirk to remind him that there’s no room for any bigotry on the bridge. Meanwhile, on board the Romulan ship we see a conversation between the Commander and his Centurion which reveals that they are on a mission to test a new weapon (the plasma device that devastated the outposts) and also that the Commander is deeply conflicted about the apparent success of his mission, aware as he is that it will likely lead his people into another war. Back on the Enterprise, Kirk and his staff analyze the effects of the Romulan weapon, the capabilities of the ship, and debate tactics, with both Stiles and Spock advocating immediate attack.
Expecting it to conceal their movements long enough to double back on the Enterprise, the Romulans head for a nearby comet. At the last moment, the Commander realizes that their approach to the comet will reveal they’re exact position and breaks away. As this becomes clear to Kirk, he orders the phasers to be fired like depth charges, scoring a few lucky hits in the process (including one that kills the Romulan Centurion). The Romulans respond by decloaking and firing their plasma weapon, which the Enterprise is just barely able to outrun. After making a last ditch effort to destroy the Romulan ship in Federation space, Kirk decides that he has no option but to follow them into the Neutral Zone. As a decoy, the Romulans jettison some debris, causing the Enterprise to lose track of them.
It is a waiting game now as both ships linger, powered down, in the Neutral Zone. Detecting the Enterprise at last, the Romulans move to attack, though Kirk is able to turn the tables and land some shots. The Commanders orders more debris jettisoned, this time with one of the nuclear warheads used in their self-destruct system. The blast catches the Enterprise off guard and the Romulans turn toward home. Kirk hopes to lure the Romulans back by playing dead. As the Romulans approach to finish the job, the Enterprise’s phasers malfunction. Spock manages to repair the damage in time, and the barrage leaves the Romulans crippled. Rather than surrender, the Romulans self-destruct. As the Enterprise recovers from the attack, McCoy reports that there was only a single casualty: Tomlinson, the young man who was going to get married. The episode closes with Kirk once again in the chapel, this time trying to console Martine.
Wow, where to start? Honestly, this is an episode that I’d almost certainly recommend checking out regardless of quality, if only for the fact that it introduced the Romulans. That said, you should watch it. Romulans notwithstanding, it’s an excellent episode. The combat between the Enterprise and the Romulan vessel is more akin to submarine warfare than what we typically see in ‘Star Trek’, drawing heavily on movies like ‘Enemy Below’ and ‘Run Silent, Run Deep’. This turns the episode into a fifty minute game of cat and mouse, ratcheting up the tension with every strike and near miss.
I would be remiss if I got through this review without mentioning Mark Lenard, though I don’t honestly know how that’s possible. One of the things that make this episode work as well as it does is the periodic cuts to the bridge of the Romulan vessel, and those scenes are only as effective as they are because of Lenard’s turn as the Romulan Commander. With a relatively small amount of screentime, Lenard paints a nuanced portrait of a reluctant warrior, a noble adversary with any number of small moments contributing to the larger picture, not least of which are his palpable albeit restrained grief at the loss of the Centurion and his parting words to Kirk: “You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend.” With all of this in mind (not to mention the fact that they’d already made a set of ears for him), it’s easy to see why Lenard was brought back to play Spock’s father the following year.
I am of two minds, though, about how the episode handles the tension that Stiles’ family baggage creates after the reveal of the Romulans’ appearance. On the one hand, we get a few irrational outbursts from Stiles and Kirk putting the Lieutenant firmly in his place, telling him to leave the bigotry in his quarters. There is more that could have been done with that, and in a more contemporary setting, there may well have been. But on the other hand, we can also see it as an example of the humanist idealism with which Roddenberry infused the series. That is to say that while Stiles’ has some understandable prejudices toward Romulans based on his family’s history, he is (as Roddenberry’s conception of an evolved humanity) able to move past it more easily than we might expect of a twentieth-century man in the same position. Ultimately, though, whether it’s Spock saving Stiles’ life that buries the hatchet (and the episode doesn’t focus enough on this plot thread for us to define whether it’s genuinely underdeveloped) or a deliberate, if subtle, statement on the show’s part. (Though honestly, it’s probably a little of both.)
Do you think ‘Balance of Terror’ is as much of a classic as I do? Let us know in the comments and be sure to join us when we return in two weeks!
Until then, live long and prosper.