Star Trek – Balance of Terror
|Episode Title||Balance of Terror|
|Air Date||December 15, 1966|
|Written By||Paul Schneider|
Once again, a simple premise. The Enterprise is suddenly thrust into a situation of war after apparent incursions by the Romulans into Federation space. It seems that the Romulans have crossed the Neutral Zone, which was established following the Earth-Romulan War about a century before. Kirk plays a high stakes game of chess against the brilliant Romulan commander, with their ships and crews as the pieces. What follows is a study in character, suspense, and tactical decision-making.
Let’s Dig Deeper into Balance of Terror
“Balance of Terror” gives us another tightly focused character examination, from just about every angle. Relational between Tomlinson and Martine. Prejudicial from Lt. Stiles toward Spock. Tactical between Kirk and the Romulan Commander.
The episode opens with an aborted wedding between Angela Martine and Robert Tomlinson, cut short by the Romulan incursion into Federation space. This is just one of many reminders that the people involved in these world-shattering conflicts are still people, with the same feelings and foibles – the same relationships between friends, comrades, and lovers – that the other side has. What accentuates the tragedy is the death of Tomlinson at the very end. Yet another reminder of the fact that the participants in war are human – and mortal.
My enemy or my friend?
Upon the reveal that the Romulan Commander looks surprisingly like a Vulcan (though even more coincidentally like Spock’s father, whom Mark Lenard would portray in season two’s “Journey to Babel”), everyone is shocked, Spock included. Stiles, who lost family in the war of more than a century ago, begins making snide, racist comments about Spock and his race. He comments that Spock can probably decode the Romulan transmissions. Kirk will have none of it, spinning Stiles’ chair around and confronting him, coolly. “Leave any bigotry in your quarters, there’s no room for it on the bridge.” Later, when Spock asks Stiles if he needs help, Stiles insubordinately responds. “This time, we’ll handle things without your help, Vulcan.” Then Spock saves his life when there’s a phaser coolant leak. There’s justice for you.
This episode makes the incredibly timely statement that, just because a person looks a certain way, does not mean he’s the bad guy. The Vulcans are the ultimate Federation friend, yet they look nearly identical to the Romulans. We can’t always identify our enemies on sight.
With echoes of Run Silent, Run Deep, The Hunt for Red October, or The Enemy Below, “Balance of Terror” keenly focuses on tension. It’s a game of cat and mouse between the Enterprise and the Romulan warbird. Like two submarines circling one another. The Enterprise detonates torpedoes like depth charges, hoping to catch the warbird and stop it in its tracks before crossing into the Neutral Zone.
For some reason, I’m always pleased to see Kirk really being a captain, rather than the over-the-top playboy/space ninja he’s been stereotyped as over the last fifty years. He listens to his officers, considers all the options, weighs the consequences of his actions. He psychologically taxes his adversary by anticipating what he’ll do next. The Romulan commander opines to his lieutenant, Decius, that, “He’s a sorcerer, that one! He reads the thoughts in my brain!”. He and Kirk are very nearly evenly matched. It only takes one false move for Kirk to beat him.
Random Thoughts on Star Trek
What a huge creation here with the Romulans and the cloaking device in one go! They’re a great enemy, lasting throughout each of the later series (other than Voyager, but that’s really just because of their situation). The Romulans are incredibly spartan and devious, echoing the militarism of Rome. Even their character names and ranks come from Rome: Decius, Praetor, Centurion. The Romulans will always be mistrusted by the Federation, and the Federation will always be a wonderful target for conquest by the Romulans.
In addition to creating the iconic Romulan race, writer Paul Schneider wrote two other solid episodes of Star Trek: “The Squire of Gothos” and “The Terratin Incident” for The Animated Series.
I can’t help but think that, when Kirk goes to the chapel to meet the fiancée of the dead crewman, he’s thinking of all the different ways he can comfort her. Because he’s James T. Kirk.
“Captain’s log, Stardate 1709.6. We are at the neutral zone. I’ve lost contact with the intruder. No reaction on our motion sensors, but believe the Romulan vessel to be somewhere close by, with all engines and systems shut down. The Enterprise is also playing this silent waiting game in hope of regaining contact.”
McCoy: “War is never imperative, Mister Spock.”
Spock: “It is for them, doctor. Vulcan, like Earth, had it’s aggressive, colonizing period; savage, even by Earth standards. And if the Romulans retained this martial philosophy, then weakness is something we dare not show.”
If you’re not hooked with this brilliant episode, you just may never be. But that doesn’t mean stop watching! There’s plenty more to come!
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Tyler is a teacher, librarian and the Co-host of The Geek Card Check Podcast. He has been a Film Critic for Ready Steady Cut since 2018.