Star Trek: The Original Series Rewatch

Star Trek The Original Series Rewatch: “Balance of Terror”

“Balance of Terror”
Written by Paul Schneider
Directed by Vincent McEveety
Season 1, Episode 8
Production episode 6149-09
Original air date: December 15, 1966
Stardate: 1709.1

Captain’s log. In the ship’s chapel, Kirk is performing a wedding for two crewmembers, Angela Martine and Robert Tomlinson. Before the ceremony, Spock reports Outpost #2 along the Romulan Neutral Zone still is quiet, and now Outpost #3 has gone dark as well. The ceremony itself is interrupted by a distress call from Outpost #4, which is under attack by an unidentified vessel.

Spock briefs the crew on the Earth-Romulan War of more than a century ago, a brutal conflict between primitive spacecraft using atomic weapons. There was no ship-to-ship visual communication, so no one even knows what the Romulans look like. The war ended with a treaty, negotiated via subspace, establishing a Neutral Zone between the two governments’ territories, with outposts on asteroids monitoring. Kirk then adds that his orders are to avoid violating the treaty at all costs—to avoid war, the outposts and the Enterprise are considered expendable.

Lieutenant Stiles reveals that he had several ancestors who died in the previous war, and Kirk has to remind him that it was their war—not his.

Star Trek, Balance of Terror

Spock reports that Outposts #2-3 have been destroyed, as have the asteroids they were constructed on. Kirk orders Uhura to send regular reports to Command and orders Sulu to call battle stations. Down in the phaser room, Martine assures Tomlinson that he doesn’t get off her hook that easily, and she fully intends to marry him.

The Enterprise approaches Outpost #4. Uhura raises Commander Hansen, whose command post is a fiery wreck, with deflectors gone—and it’s deep underground on an asteroid composed of iron. The enemy ship seems to appear and disappear. Hansen reports that not just #2 and #3 but also Outpost #8 are all destroyed.

Star Trek, Balance of Terror

A ship appears suddenly, fires a high-energy plasma beam, demolishes the outpost, and disappears again—all while the Enterprise watches helplessly, still too far away to assist, and the ship is ignoring Uhura’s challenges and hails.

Spock can’t detect the enemy vessel—it only became visible when it fired the weapon—but he finds a blip on motion sensors that may or may not be it. The blip has changed course, and in a leisurely manner. The invisibility screen they’re using consumes tremendous power—probably why it needs to be dropped in order to fire—and that may also keep them from seeing the Enterprise.

The course the ship is taking is directly back to Romulus. Kirk orders Sulu and Stiles to follow a parallel course, to match the enemy ship move for move—make them think the Enterprise is a sensor ghost, a shadow. He also stands down from battle stations. Stiles—who is already whiny that they’re not on an intercept course—expresses a concern that there might be Romulan spies on the ship. Kirk is ready to dismiss the notion as paranoid fantasy until Sulu agrees and recommends they go to security alert. Only then does Kirk agree.

Star Trek, Balance of Terror

Uhura picks up coded communications from the ship, and Spock is able to lock onto them and get a picture of the enemy bridge.

The Romulan commander looks just like a Vulcan. Everyone is shocked, especially Stiles. When Uhura says that cryptography is working on the code they intercepted, Stiles mutters, “Give it to Spock,” at which point Kirk tears him about fifteen new assholes with regards to being a bigot on his bridge.

The ship becomes visible. Sulu maintains the parallel course.

Star Trek, Balance of Terror

On the Romulan ship, their commander orders the cloak reactivated. He knows the outpost called a ship, and that ship could be what’s following them. His subordinates believe it is an echo—just as Kirk had hoped—but the commander isn’t so sure, and so the Romulan vessel becomes invisible again.

The commander then upbraids one of his people, Decius, who sent the coded message Uhura intercepted. Decius broke the rule of silence and is reduced two steps in rank. The commander’s centurion cautions that Decius has powerful friends, but the commander has no shits to give on that score. He’s tired of death and war, and sometimes even finds himself wishing for their destruction before they can return to Romulus and report back that their old enemy can’t stand up against their shiny new weapon.

Star Trek, Balance of Terror

Kirk calls a meeting that includes Spock, Scotty, McCoy, Sulu, and Stiles. Spock shows a piece of Outpost #4’s debris that Scotty brought on board. The Romulan weapon turned a piece of rodinium, the hardest substance they know, into a substance as flimsy as tissue paper.

Stiles thinks they should attack, otherwise they’ll report back to Romulus that they saw the weapon and ran. Sulu points out the issues with firing on a target they can’t see, plus the report would be so much more awesome if they could say they also destroyed a starship.

Spock, amazingly, agrees with Stiles. Vulcan had an aggressive, savage colonizing period, and if the Romulans are an offshoot of that time, then they dare not show weakness. McCoy, for his part, thinks they’re insane to start a war that will cost millions of lives over theories about a people they know nothing about.

Star Trek, Balance of Terror

Checking the course ahead, Spock sees that the Romulan ship will go through a comet—which means it’ll be visible for a bit. Kirk’s plan is to do an end run and catch them as they enter the comet and become visible.

On the Romulan ship, we learn that the commander’s plan is to disappear within the comet and then turn around quickly and double back on the Enterprise. But when the sensor readings go clear when they enter the comet, the commander figures it out and calls for an evasive course.

Star Trek, Balance of Terror

When Kirk realizes his trick didn’t work, he goes hard to starboard and orders Stiles to fire at random. They hit the Romulan ship, so he diverts all power to weapons and decloaks long enough to fire on the Enterprise. Unfortunately for Kirk, the phaser control circuit burned out, and Spock won’t be able to repair it before they’re hit by the plasma bolt. Sulu floors the accelerator, but the weapon is still overtaking them. However, the weapon starts to get diffuse, and Kirk realizes it has a limited range. It still does a bit of damage by the time it hits, but nothing like what it did to the outposts.

The Romulans are back on course for home, and Kirk orders Sulu and Stiles to ghost them again. When the Romulans report that their reflection is back, Decius thinks it’s impossible for the Enterprise to still be intact, but the commander is concerned enough to re-cloak, despite their low fuel reserves.

Star Trek, Balance of Terror

Once the Enterprise is one minute from the Zone, Kirk decides to go on the offensive. He fires on the Romulan ship while it’s still on their side of the Zone, and then follows them in, ordering Uhura to report to Command that he has no choice but to do so.

The commander refuses to decloak and waste energy firing the weapon again, especially since he isn’t sure it’ll work. He orders Decius to put all debris in the disposal tubes—as well as the body of the centurion, who was killed saving the commander’s life from falling debris during the Enterprise’s earlier attack at the comet.

Spock detects the debris, but reports that it has insufficient mass to be the ship. However, motion sensors have gone quiet, which means the Romulan ship hasn’t moved since dumping the debris. Kirk orders all power shut down, assuming (correctly) that the Romulans have done the same. For nine hours, both ships sit, playing possum.

Star Trek, Balance of Terror

In his quarters, Kirk has a brief crisis of faith, wondering what happens if he’s wrong. McCoy bucks him up with a bit of existentialism.

While doing further repairs on the phaser circuit, Spock accidentally pushes a button, which creates a signal—the Romulans pick it up and move toward the Enterprise. Kirk immediately powers up and fires. The commander, frustrated, orders Decius to flush more debirs, this time with a nuclear warhead, used for self-destruct. The Enterprise doesn’t detect it until the last minute and detonates it with a phaser, but the damage is done. Lots of circuit burnouts, and lots of people with radiation burns. The forward phaser room is the only one available, and Tomlinson is staffing it alone. Stiles volunteers to help out, and Kirk sends him down, putting Uhura at navigation, and orders Spock to play dead, in the hopes of luring the Romulans back to their side of the Zone.

Decius insists that they move in for the kill, but the commander doesn’t trust Kirk. Still and all, he agrees to finish the Enterprise off.

Spock goes to the phaser room for a damage control report, and Stiles mouths off at him. After Spock leaves, Stiles notices a phaser coolant leak.

Star Trek, Balance of Terror

On the bridge, the Romulan ship becomes visible. Kirk orders phasers to fire—and nothing happens. When Spock hears Kirk bellow for Stiles to fire, he runs back to the phaser room to find Stiles and Tomlinson out cold on the floor, the room filled with coolant. Spock fires the phasers, which does horrendous damage to the Romulan ship, leaving it dead in space.

Uhura opens a channel to the Romulan ship, and Kirk and the commander share a bonding moment before the latter falls on his sword by destroying the ship. (How he did so without the warhead used for that purpose is left as an exercise for the viewer.)

Star Trek, Balance of Terror

The only casualty was Tomlinson. Stiles would have died also, but Spock pulled him out in time to save his life. Stiles is rather baffled by this. Kirk goes to the chapel to comfort Martine.

Can’t we just reverse the polarity? Scotty says the Romulans’ power is “strictly impulse,” which mostly shows that Paul Schneider doesn’t understand interstellar distances, since faster-than-light travel is the only way the Romulan ship would get back home in a time frame that could be measured in anything less than decades.

Star Trek, Balance of Terror

Also the phasers seem to fire like photon torpedoes (which hadn’t been conceived yet) and like torpedoes in submarines. This episode is the only time the firing of weapons on the ship is done by relaying commands from captain to navigator to phaser room—though there is a reference to “phaser crews” in “The Corbomite Maneuver.” After this, weapons are fired directly from the navigation console, either by the helmsman or navigator. (The notion of a separate tactical console won’t be seen until The Motion Picture.)

Fascinating. Spock is surprisingly quiet when Stiles treats him like crap—if nothing else, his line in the phaser room when he calls him “Vulcan” with disgust should get him written up, not to mention his attitude in the briefing room—and also reveals that Vulcans weren’t always rational, logical, peaceful types.

Star Trek, Balance of Terror

I’m a doctor not an escalator. McCoy’s trademark humanism is on display in the briefing room, as he’s against war at all costs, and he also gives Kirk a rather hokey speech about how there’s billions of planets in the universe, but only one Jim Kirk.

Ahead warp one, aye. Sulu saves Stiles’s ass by nominally agreeing with his racial profiling and suggesting security alert and then in the briefing room—probably because Stiles didn’t even thank him, the ungrateful bastard—argues against every point the navigator makes with regard to attacking the Romulans.

Hailing frequencies open. Interestingly, after Stiles makes his nasty suggestion that Spock decode the Romulan communiqué, Uhura goes ahead and makes a copy for him without being told to. She also gets to take over navigation again, but still has to open the damn hailing frequencies from there…

Star Trek, Balance of Terror

I cannot change the laws of physics! Scotty is apparently the ship’s videographer—he beams the abortive Tomlinson-Martine wedding to the whole ship.

Go put on a red shirt. Amazingly, the only Enterprise crew member who dies is Tomlinson. Poor Martine…

No sex, please, we’re Starfleet. Besides the we’re-almost-newlyweds banter between Tomlinson and Martine, we also have a totally gratuitous moment where Kirk clutches Rand to him when the Romulan weapon’s about to hit.

Star Trek, Balance of Terror

Channel open. “We are creatures of duty, Captain—I have lived my life by it. Just one more duty to perform.”

The Romulan commander’s last words.

Welcome aboard. Paul Comi is the latest member of the navigator derby as Stiles, while Stephen Mines and Barbara Baldavin play the ill-fated couple of Tomlinson and Martine. (Baldavin will return in the role in “Shore Leave”). Veteran character actor Garry Walberg plays Hansen, John Warburton plays the centurion, and Lawrence Montaigne plays Decius; Montaigne will return in “Amok Time” as Stonn.

Recurring regulars DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichos, and Grace Lee Whitney are all here, too.

Star Trek, Balance of Terror

But of course the big guest is Mark Lenard as the commander. Lenard will be cast again in season two’s “Journey to Babel” as Spock’s father Sarek, which will become a recurring role on the animated series, The Next Generation, and several of the feature films. Lenard will also play a Klingon in The Motion Picture, making him the first person to play a Vulcan, a Romulan, and a Klingon.

Trivial matters: This episode introduces the Romulans, an enemy of the Federation that will continue to recur in this series, as well as all the spinoffs and a couple of the feature films.

This is the first of half a dozen episodes directed by Vincent McEveety, and the first of three written by Paul Schneider (the others being “The Squire of Gothos” and the animated episode “The Terratin Incident”).

Star Trek, Balance of Terror

Schneider’s script was heavily inspired by two submarine films, The Enemy Below and Run Silent, Run Deep.

The Earth-Romulan War discussed by Spock in this episode was dramatized in the two-volume Romulan War novels by Michael A. Martin. Had the TV show Enterprise continued to a fifth season, it is likely that the show itself would have covered the war.

Because this episode established that this was the first sighting of Romulans by the Federation, the TV show Enterprise had to go through major contortions to feature the Romulans but not allow any of the main cast to see them.

Star Trek, Balance of Terror

While Mark Lenard’s commander is never named onscreen, the Star Trek Collectible Card Game gave him the name Keras (an anagram of Lenard’s more famous role of Sarek). The comic book story “The Khitomer Conflict” written by Mike Johnson, issues #25-28 of IDW’s current ongoing Star Trek series that takes place in the alternate timeline of the JJ Abrams films, named him L’Nar.

The studio was considering both Lenard and Montaigne to possibly take over the role of Spock had contract negotiations between Leonard Nimoy and the studio broken down between seasons one and two.

Spock commented that Balok bore a resemblance to his father in “The Corbomite Maneuver,” yet he made no such comment about the Romulan commander, who is played by the same actor who would play his father. The Myriad Universes short novel A Less Perfect Union by William Leisner in Infinity’s Prism has the commander making use of that resemblance in an alternate timeline in which the Federation was never formed.

The commander also plays a large role (and remains unnamed) in John Byrne’s various comics featuring the Romulans for IDW, one of which, Alien Spotlight: Romulans, serves as the prequel to this episode. Byrne also adapted the episode in comic book form.

Stiles appears in several works of tie-in fiction, including Constitution by Michael Jan Friedman and the comic book Debt of Honor written by Chris Claremont. His first name has been given as John and Andrew. His ancestors who fought in the Earth-Romulan War are seen in Starfleet Year One by Friedman and the Romulan War duology by Martin. His descendent, Eric, appears in Red Sector by Diane Carey.

Star Trek, Balance of Terror

Several novels by Diane DuaneMy Enemy, My Ally; The Romulan Way; Swordhunt; Honor Blade; and The Empty Chair—developed a detailed history and language for the Romulan people, including the name “Rihannsu” as the name the species has for itself.

The wedding ceremony Kirk performs will be seen again given by Picard when he married the O’Briens in TNG’s “Data’s Day” and by Ross when he married Sisko and Yates in DS9’s “Til Death Do Us Part.”

To boldly go. “He’s a sorcerer, that one, he reads the thoughts in my brain.” What an amazing thrill-ride of an episode. There’s tension, there’s action, there’s suspense—but all of that is secondary, because what makes this episode so particularly great is that it’s about people. Yes, there are stakes here, and yes the potential consequence of an interstellar war is a devastating one, but it works on an emotional level because throughout the entire episode, we see that it’s not about governments fighting or space ships firing on each other, it’s about people.

It’s about Martine, who’ll never get to marry the man she loves. It’s about Stiles, whose family history in the last war has made it impossible to look at the possibility of a new one rationally. It’s about Spock, subject to Stiles’s bigotry, as well as a revelation that affects his entire species. It’s about the Romulan commander, tired of war, but too much a creature of duty to do anything but follow orders. It’s about McCoy, unwilling to accept war as a given.

Star Trek, Balance of Terror

And most of all, it’s about Kirk, who holds the weight of history in his hands, as just a simple decision to move forward into the Neutral Zone is one that has overwhelming consequences, ones that could change the course of so many people’s lives.

So many great scenes here. The briefing room, with Sulu poking holes in Stiles’s gung-ho attitude, with McCoy doing the same for Spock’s insistence on war being an imperative. The interrupted wedding. The glances at Martine and Tomlinson throughout, making their tragedy at the end all the more poignant. The sidelong glances at Spock by everyone on the bridge after they see the Romulan bridge. Plus, every single scene on the Romulan ship, giving us a complex character in the commander and a wonderful glimpse at the politics of life in the Romulan Star Empire.

Star Trek, Balance of Terror

Mark Lenard gives a bravura performance here. His commander is a complex person, a smart one, a worthy adversary for Kirk—which in turn helps us look more strongly upon Kirk, who is elevated by his ability to keep up with him.

The episode isn’t perfect, for all that I can watch it a million times and be enthralled by it. Paul Schneider’s script doesn’t just wear its submarine-movie influences on its sleeve, it wears the whole damn shirt. Unfortunately, it’s at the expense of understanding how space works. As Douglas Adams reminded us, space is big—really big. There’s just no way in the huge-ass vastness of space that being visible really matters all that much. Sensors—portrayed in every other Star Trek story ever as being super-efficient methods of detecting things—are shown here to be less reliable than sight, which makes them useless in space. Everything is too far away from everything else for sight to really matter all that much, so the fact that they can “only” target with sensors is a feature, not a bug.

Star Trek, Balance of Terror

But that’s a minor nit in what is otherwise a brilliant episode, one of Trek’s finest that also gave us the franchise’s longest-running antagonists in the Romulans.


Warp factor rating: 9

Next week:What Are Little Girls Made Of?

Keith R.A. DeCandido’s latest story is “Down to the Waterline,” a story featuring Cassie Zukav, weirdness magnet, and taking place in Key West, Florida. It involves nixies, scuba diving, rock and roll, the ghost of a wrecker captain, and the evils of spam filters. It’s available for free on Buzzy Mag online.


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