Classic Star Trek is always fun to revisit, but only a handful of episodes really are that powerful that they should rank in a top ten list. Balance of Terror consistently makes that top ten list even if it often appears around #9 or #10. And it deserves it, despite some blatant silliness. Because this episode is so good, it probably pays to poke fun at the oddities and plot holes first, so we can sink into those highlights that make this one so impressive.
Let’s start with the wedding. Even on board a starship, one would hope time off allows the crew to dress however they want, as we saw briefly in The Cage/The Menagerie (flashback sequences). But the wedding takes place in regular Starfleet attire. At least Jim gets something special: an eye lamp. Why he needs a lamp that just highlight his eyes is anyone’s guess. The room doesn’t appear to be that dark and the light should be focused on the bride, but hey, Jim is the captain. It’s also very convenient for the Romulans to be naming their planets after Earth mythology. Speaking of the Romulans, why does Kirk insist everyone stay quiet? I get it: this is a “submarine battle” story, but underwater, sound carries. In space, we have a thing nature abhors: a vacuum. This means, sound does not travel in space. (Hence why no one can hear you scream! See how that works?) Did Jim forget this? Did Spock find it too embarrassing to mention to Kirk? Lastly, and possibly the most glaring of the issues I take with the episode: the Romulan weapon! Yes, it’s a great, tense scene as the Enterprise is trying to reverse fast enough to outrun the plasma blast but why not turn left or right? Imagine a car being on train tracks trying to reverse fast enough to outrun the train. It would be far easier to veer left or right off the track! Did this simple idea elude even the helmsman??
So with that out of the way, we can get to know our intergalactic neighbors. Kirk is on a mission to investigate missing outposts. No human had seen the Romulans before so the fact that they looked like the Vulcans is a surprise. That makes sense for the humans, but Spock doesn’t seem to know that they are an offshoot of his own race. I couldn’t help but wonder if he actually did know and, possibly due to some order from his own people, have to pretend? Regardless, this episode is exactly why Star Trek: Voyager sucked. Voyager had an opportunity: leave Jeri Ryan in full Borg costume for her time on the show. Yes, we would have been deprived of her lovely curves, but the drama would have been outstanding. We could have addressed prejudice and bigotry in outstanding ways. Instead, 7 of 9 was able to get all of her Borg-ishness removed excepting that pesky eyebrow and hand, and she was allowed to wear a non-regulation skin-tight suit. (The excuse of costume design is lame and I give it no credence. First, they could have removed some of it in every episode or two. Second: Babylon 5.) In this episode, we see where Kirk’s strength as a commanding officer comes into play. When Kirk notices the looks Stiles is giving Spock after seeing the similarities between Romulan and Vulcan, he won’t tolerate it. “Leave any bigotry in your quarters. There’s no room for it on the bridge!” (Kudos to the director for the filming of those looks between both Stiles/Spock and Kirk/Stiles!) Of course what does this say about all the races they meet that look completely human? Still, one episode at a time, eh? I do have to laugh when Spock leans over Stiles for seemingly no reason. Perhaps his human side is trying to rub his nose in it. But Kirk’s aggressiveness toward Stiles is magnificent and presented well. I wish Doctor Who would learn a thing or two about subtle life lessons. Kirk doesn’t give a speech about what’s wrong with racism, he just makes a clear cut comment and we have no question about who the hero is in this scene.
The episode is well titled too due to the balance of personality between Kirk and the Romulan commander. They are almost mirror images of one another. The parting discussion “In a different reality, I could have called you friend,” is outstanding. What makes it truly interesting is that the Romulan knows that to return victorious will mean a war and he wishes early on that he and his crew fail in their mission. Is he actually able to outthink Kirk? Does he intentionally act a little slower, make decisions a little less confidently, simply to save his people an unnecessary war? Perhaps we’ll never know but I love the indecision between both captains. “What if I’m wrong?” Yes, what if, indeed!
It’s not all Kirk and Spock either. McCoy reminds us that “war is never imperative”. He is often the fulcrum between Kirk and Spock, offering a balance between the two characters. It’s no wonder they were such a great trio! Uhura finally shows us why she wears a yellow outfit from time to time: she can take over navigation. So my guess is that she probably does both shifts and Kirk sees no issue allowing her to stay in one uniform all day. Perhaps she only wears yellow when she expects to be substituting for the helmsman! And speaking of yellow, we get only one death in this episode; the groom from the beginning; a yellow shirt, no less. It offers a somber ending to an extremely good episode. War is never imperative, and it is seldom fair… ML
The view from across the pond:
I think this is an episode that is impossible to watch in its original context, in the way a contemporary viewer would have seen it. Even though I am new to the original series of Star Trek and have never seen this before, I have watched TNG and DS9, so I have some idea about the Romulans, and therefore the significance of their first appearance in this episode. What I hadn’t realised was the extent to which they are a representation of the Roman Empire, with their praetors, centurions, and empire building. As the foe whom they struggle to defeat despite vastly superior capabilities, that has to make the Federation a representation of Britain. Sorry, America.
Several things struck me about this episode. Firstly, I think the pacifist stance of the Federation is something that would rarely be seen in sci-fi, unless it was being used by the writer to illustrate the futility of pacifism, especially in the 1960s. Doctor Who’s The Daleks from 1963-1964 is more typical: a race refuses to fight against a superior foe, and is shown to be incorrect and cowardly, and shown the error of their ways by Ian and the Doctor. So when Kirk said his orders were that “these outposts and this vessel are to be considered expendable”, in order to avoid war, I was pleasantly surprised. Here is a 1960s sci-fi show daring to do something different, to put forward a different idea about war. Even more striking was Kirk’s respect for those orders, finding a way to deal with the aggressor without violating the neutral territory. He refused to be the one to be seen to be starting a war. More striking still was how the writer offered us the opposing viewpoint, and then showed him to be wrong. The voice of aggression, which in most sci-fi would have been the voice of bravery and the voice of truth, was instead our idiot of the week on the bridge (there always seems to be one of those), the voice of stupidity, xenophobia and paranoia.
“I’m pointing out that we could have Romulan spies aboard this ship.”
Where did that come from, and why does Sulu agree? It’s clearly paranoid nonsense with zero evidence. But this, from Kirk, blew me away:
“Their war, Mr Stiles, not yours. Don’t forget it.”
What a line. Stiles thinks he has a proud and tragic family history. His brave ancestors, you see, died fighting the Romulans. So he is going to do what so many fools in this world do all the time, and have done for centuries. He’s trying to make his grandparents’ war into his own war. That kind of thinking, often wrapped up in notions of “remembrance” and “pride” and “justice”, condemns us to endlessly repeat history and reheat old conflicts. And the bravery of writer Paul Schneider is to unflinchingly show the futility of that position. Kirk is our hero, and he shows us a better way, while Stiles is the xenophobic fool who is trying to get them all killed.
“Leave any bigotry in your quarters. There’s no room for it on the bridge.”
Not only does this episode have its heart in the right place, it is very exciting as well. This kind of drama is always hugely effective when the enemy seems to be an unstoppable, all-powerful force, and that is certainly the case with the Romulans, with their super-weapon and their cloaking device. However, Kirk knows that an enemy who appears to be superior in every way probably isn’t, and he looks for the chink in the armour. He finds two: the Enterprise has superior speed, allowing them to keep up with the Romulans or outrun them, and even outrun their plasma weapon; and their cloaking device takes a huge amount of power. The one thing that didn’t quite work for me was the extent to which Kirk was achieving lucky shots when firing at nothing. Considering he’s firing a relatively narrow beam at a vague area of space, that seemed unlikely, but every attempt saw a shot find its target.
This week we had death #19 in our Trek Tally of minor crewmen deaths, and it was a particularly sad one, the saddest yet in fact, because of all the people who could have died it had to be the guy who was getting married. But that gave weight to the burden Kirk bears, and it was impressive to see some of the ideas from the pilot episode being carried through to the actual series, with a captain who gets depressed by deaths under his command, feels the weight of responsibility, and is capable of self-doubt:
“What if I’m wrong?”
But this is one thing that I think sets Star Trek apart from many contemporary television shows: it doesn’t just give us good vs evil. It shows us shades of grey. Mark Lenard’s stellar performance as the Romulan commander was a great example: a man who is sick of aggression, wishing for death rather than a return to his warlike superiors, and feeling nothing but respect for Kirk, a man who could have been his friend. It brings to mind the Christmas football games in no man’s land. In a different life, I wonder how many mortal enemies could have been the best of friends. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Star Trek: Shore Leave