It’s time for Star Trek Saturdays #8!
This week’s episode is another legendary one, “Balance of Terror.” It’s legendary not only for being the first appearance of Trek mainstay baddies the Romulans, but also considered one of the best episodes of Trek, period.
But let me unpack things a little, first. The phrase “balance of terror” refers to the wary peace between the United States and Soviet Union after WWII in light of the fact that both countries had vast amounts of nuclear weapons stockpiled and both wished to avoid all-out nuclear war. John F. Kennedy, in his 1961 inaugural address, used the term when he said that both the USA and USSR were “rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind’s final war.” (Full address is here). Suffice it to say, this episode’s title is an apt one, as it depicts a conflict that both sides, Enterprise and Romulan, want to avoid, but cannot.
Now another point about the ’60s: when most people hear the word 1960s, they usually think of hippies, the Civil Rights Movement and the Countercultural Revolution. And all of those things are important, sure. But there was another side to the ’60s: that of the USA as an uncertain global superpower, struggling to deal with the threat posed by Communism, leading to the Cold War against Russia and, in 1965, when this episode was first broadcast, beginning to deploy combat units in Vietnam in a conflict that was already a decade old at that point.
That’s the era of global history that this episode offers–a snapshot of its time–and it does so wonderfully with a gripping plot, fearless acting and ingenious staging.
The episode opens with Kirk, Scotty & several crew members in the ship’s chapel, about to witness the wedding of 2 crew members who serve in weapons. Kirk begins his speech–which, incidentally, was repeated by Captain Picard in the Next Generation episode “Data’s Day”–but is interrupted by a warning siren; he’s notified by the bridge that two of the Earth Outposts along the Romulan neutral zone have been destroyed and a third is under attack.
Once on the bridge, we find out through the magic of exposition that the Netural Zone between the domain of Starfleet and the Romulan Empire was established after the Earth-Romulan war a century before. Spock explains that, as the war was fought on primitive ships and viewing capabilities weren’t around yet, and no prisoners were taken, the entire war and the subsequent treaty were conducted without either side never seeing what the other looked like. Add to that the fact that the Romulan ship–or Bird-of-Pray–has a cloaking device that conceals it at all times except when it fires its weapons and this is one doozy of a conflict.
The stakes get higher when Uhura picks up a communications signal and Spock is able to tie into it and enable the crew to view the bridge of the Romulan ship. And they find, to their amazement, that the Romulan Commander (Mark Lenard) bears an astounding resemblance to Spock.
It’s a race against time as Kirk struggles to take down the Romulan Commander for his crimes while avoiding entering the Neutral Zone and triggering all-out galactic war…
Both Wikipedia and Memory Alpha inform me that episode writer Paul Schneider was heavily influenced by submarine films like The Enemy Below–remember, this is long before Das Boot–and that tense spirit shows, with the Romulan Bird-Of-Pray acting as a submarine and the Enterprise as a warship on the hunt. The way director Vincent McEveety stages things, keeping a tight view of the principal players on both sides, along with the genius placing of Fred Steiner’s terrifying score, really keeps your attention.
But like any episode of this sort in television, the cast has to hold it all together and they do wonderfully. Kirk, Spock & McCoy have a wonderful scene in the briefing room as the man caught in the middle (Kirk), the attack-ready military strategist (Spock) and the cautious one (McCoy) and Bill Shatner, Leonard Nimoy & DeForest Kelley make us feel the strain between them beautifully. For the first time, it seems we see all of Kirk from the taciturn captain to the world-weary soul pondering just what is the right thing to do.
But special mention must be made for Mark Lenard. First off, he underscores the word Romulan with his visage; he looks every bit like he could have just been performing as Shakespeare’s Caesar. Second, he manages to be, like Kirk, both completely exhausted by combat, yet still devoted to his duty as a military commander. Thirdly, he makes us feel for him and his viewpoint, in spite of the fact that he and Kirk never even see each other until the end of the episode and even then, not face to face. It’s brilliant, hands down.
As other Trekkies out there no doubt know, this isn’t Lenard’s first appearance on Trek. He shows up as Spock’s father Sarek in season 2, a role he later reprised in three of the films and The Next Generation, as well as being a Klingon captain in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I can’t wait for him to come back.
This is one of the most famous episodes of Trek in history and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a brilliant hour of drama that had resounding implications for viewers watching it in the ’60s and maybe even today. Recommended without a second thought.
Thanks to Memory Alpha, the official Star Trek wiki for the pics and episode information, as well as Amazon Instant for hosting the show. We’ll see you next Saturday and until then, live long and prosper.