Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: Balance of Terror

(Note: This post is also viewable as a page elsewhere on this site. If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start. Previous essays on specific episodes can be found here.)

Original Air Date: December 15, 1966

Crew Death Count: 1 (Also, Earth Outposts 2, 3, 4, and 8 are destroyed by the Romulans, but we have no information on staffing levels)

Bellybuttons: 0

The director of “Balance of Terror,” Vincent McEveety, later acknowledged that the plot of this episode is “the same story” as the 1957 movie The Enemy Below, a World War II film about a cat-and-mouse chase between a U.S. naval destroyer commanded by Robert Mitchum and a German submarine led by Curt Jurgens. I’m not generally a fan of war movies, but if you want a film that combines tense action with genuine human empathy, The Enemy Below is a fine example, and beautifully filmed in glorious CinemaScope. McEveety was being honest, because the stories are remarkably similar.

Image from Star Trek episode Balance of Terror (left) showing Sulu, Kirk, and Scott on bridge; image from movie The Enemy Below (right) showing Robert Mitchum and supporting cast members on bridge of naval vessel
Two dreamboats commanding their dream boats: “Balance of Terror” and The Enemy Below

In “Balance of Terror,” we learn that humans and Romulans fought a war a hundred years ago and ended hostilities by dividing their territory with a Neutral Zone, similar to the Demilitarized Zone created to separate North and South Korea in 1953. Earth set up a series of remote outposts to monitor the Neutral Zone. Now those outposts are being destroyed by the enemy below, er, an unknown assailant which turns out to be a Romulan Bird-of-Prey, with a powerful new weapon and a cloaking device. Somehow, the earth-Romulan war occurred entirely without either side seeing the other. So when we finally get a look at the Romulans, everyone is surprised that they look like Vulcans. The Enterprise and the Bird-of-Prey engage in a tense cat-and-mouse chase that tests Kirk’s wiles against those of the Romulan commander (Mark Lenard).

Both “Balance of Terror” and The Enemy Below begin by offering insight into our characters’ personal lives. In The Enemy Below, the U.S. captain recently lost his wife while she was in transit on another ship under his command. In the “Balance of Terror” prologue, two crew members, Martine (Barbara Baldavin) and Tomlinson (Stephen Mines) are about to be married, with Kirk conducting the service. An imminent attack on one of the earth outposts forces them to delay their plans (of course it does, because we weren’t meant for paradise). Tomlinson is later killed during the combat between the two ships. It’s a reminder that large-scale dramas, between countries or planets, have consequences at a personal level. The scene also links us with earth history and the tradition that ship’s captains are authorized to conduct weddings. We’re further connected to history by the use of the traditional 1833 song “Long, Long Ago,” composed by Thomas Haynes Bayly. We only hear an instrumental arrangement, but the lyrics are appropriate to the setting: “Then, to all others, my smile you preferred, Love, when you spoke, gave a charm to each word, Still my heart treasures the praises I heard, Long, long ago, long ago…”

Wedding scene from Star Trek episode Balance of Terror
“Bones, if you catch the bouquet again, so help me…”

There’s no obvious religious iconography in the wedding scene, but the bride, Martine, appears to pray prior to the ceremony, while the groom does not, implying both that religion still exists in the Federation and that mixed-denomination marriages are not unusual. After Tomlinson is killed, we again find Martine appearing to pray in the same chapel. A TOS character bowing her head in silence seems consistent with the fact that, while Gene Roddenberry was not a religious person, he seems to have rejected the ideology of organized religion rather than the concept of God or a Creator. The pending Martine/Tomlinson marriage also raises questions about fraternization among the crew, as we later see that Tomlinson is Martine’s superior officer. Tomlinson describes the situation as temporary: is Martine expected to give up her career post-wedding? The wedding is an awkward (why are they all still wearing their uniforms?) but rich scene emphasizing that the Enterprise isn’t just a workplace, but home for hundreds of people.

The heart of the story begins with the Enterprise approaching Outpost 4, already under attack. Kirk makes a quick tour of the bridge, receiving status updates from his officers one at a time. I always enjoy Kirk’s bridge surveys, the Enterprise equivalent of Management by Walking Around (MBWA). MBWA is exactly what it sounds like: managers literally walking around, interacting with staff on-the-job. Used wisely, it’s an effective way to keep informed and to demonstrate an interest in employees by coming to them, rather than confronting them in the stuffiness of an executive office or conference room. The practice, informally, has been around as long as there have been managers, but the term was first put in use at Hewlett-Packard in the 1970s and was popularized in the 1982 book In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. MBWA is such a durable practice that Tom Peters recently included it in his “Excellence Twelve,” a summary of his key lessons from more than four decades studying business practices (note that Peters’ puts “People first,” just as Starfleet does). On the Enterprise, MBWA is a logical way for Kirk to quickly grasp a situation and makes for dramatic visuals. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) features a poignant Kirkian MBWA scene, just after the Enterprise has been battered and the admiral tries to hold his crew together while identifying their attacker.

Kirk walking bridge of the Enterprise in Star Trek episode Balance of Terror (left) and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (right)
Kirkian MBWA past and future

The MBWA scene in “Balance of Terror” introduces us to the episode’s “problem child,” Lieutenant Stiles (Paul Comi). Stiles is first to voice the opinion that Romulans are behind the outpost attacks. Stiles’ ancestors were killed in the war that established the Neutral Zone and, for some reason, a hundred years later he still holds a grudge. Was this Stiles’ motive for joining Starfleet in the first place? It creates a disturbing trend, after learning that Lieutenant Riley’s family was killed by Kodos the Executioner in “The Conscience of the King.” However, it’s Bailey from “The Corbomite Maneuver” who Stiles really brings to mind. As with Bailey, we’re left wondering how Stiles even made it into Starfleet, much less onto the bridge of the Enterprise. He’s eager to attack the Romulans, even after learning of the Bird-of-Prey’s superior firepower, and with no evidence whatsoever he predicts Romulan spies are on board the ship (Sulu even agrees with this paranoia, and Kirk takes it seriously!). Worse, Stiles begins passive-aggressive harassment of Spock as soon as we see the visual similarities between Romulans and Vulcans. While Kirk is quick to confront Stiles, he doesn’t go far enough. “Leave any bigotry in your quarters,” Kirk says, “there’s no room for it on the bridge.” On the bridge? Unless we want a Klan rally in the rec room, keeping bigotry off the ship entirely should be our minimum standard. An occasional outlier can slip through the tightest screening process, but Stiles appears to have been around a while, so his attitudes should be no secret.

Of course, Stiles has a new perspective by the end, after Spock risks his life to save the junior officer, in another scene that calls to mind Star Trek II. While the Romulan crew also includes a troublesome officer, the uber-patriot Decius (Lawrence Montaigne), Kirk is free to manage Stiles as he sees fit. Decius, however, talks repeatedly of “glory,” has “powerful friends,” and clearly doesn’t approve of his commander’s “humanist” (for lack of a better term) tendencies. The Romulans are a militant bunch, but the Romulan commander appears fatigued by his experiences in war and cynical toward the status quo. In him, and in Kirk, we see leaders who would rather have met over a chess match than in the battlefield. The Romulan commander complains, “Obedience, duty. Death and more death.” He understands the correlation: the establishment requires obedience among its enforcers, but it is those very enforcers, along with any rebellions they suppress, who will suffer and die, while the powerful remain comfortably out of harm’s way.

Image from Star Trek episode Balance of Terror showing Romulan commander and friend on bridge of Bird-of-Prey
“Maybe we’re losing because our uniforms are cozy pajamas?”

Another contrast between Federation and Romulan methods is the conference room scene, where Stiles and Sulu engage in a debate that would be intolerable to the Romulans. The meeting ends when Stiles and Spock, disturbingly, join forces to persuade Kirk to prevent the Bird-of-Prey from entering the Neutral Zone and returning home, despite the risk of triggering an all-out war. Kirk’s decision is suspect, as our reliable pacifist McCoy points out (“War is never imperative…”), because history has rarely shown meeting aggression with even greater aggression to be a sustainable strategy. Still, Kirk does engage his officers and consider differing opinions, something the Romulan commander doesn’t have the luxury of doing. He bears the burden of leadership alone, except for the one friend with whom he can honestly confide his fears (as does Kirk, in his own revelations to McCoy). Does a conference room even exist on the Bird-of-Prey? We can only wonder.

Yet another aspect of “Balance of Terror” reminds us of Star Trek II: just as Kirk sought refuge from Khan in the Mutara Nebula, the Romulan commander uses a comet’s tail to conceal his ship from the Enterprise. It’s not plausible, of course. A comet’s “tail” results from solar radiation vaporizing material away from the comet’s nucleus (a second tail is formed by ionized particles, but that also requires the presence of a star). We have no mention of a nearby star to generate a tail. In deep space, comets are extremely difficult to detect, and they lack the traditional tail that we associate with these objects. Study of comets was only possible from a distance until 1986, when the European Space Agency’s Giotto probe and the Soviet Union’s Vega 1 and Vega 2 probes flew by Halley’s Comet. The absence of a tail in deep space was certainly understood by scientists at the time “Balance of Terror” aired, but we allow our science-fiction writers considerable dramatic license when they tell a good story, and this episode certainly qualifies.

Image from Star Trek episode Balance of Terror showing Romulan Bird-of-Prey firing weapon at Enterprise
The Bird-of-Prey fires the Genesis Wave, er, its powerful new weapon

A few other elements of “Balance of Terror” deserve mention:

  • The Bird-of-Prey dumps trash while cloaked, hoping to trick the Enterprise into believing the enemy is destroyed. The Empire Strikes Back (1983) inverts this trick when the Millenium Falcon hides in the trash dumped by an Imperial star destroyer.
  • Poor Yeoman Rand: this is her final episode. Here we find her standing behind Kirk at the wedding; her purpose is not clear, as she’s not correctly positioned to be a maid of honor. She’s just there. Later, she offers to bring Kirk coffee while he broods in his quarters. Still later, she stands behind Kirk again, this time cowering at the Romulan attack. Her character’s considerable potential was never realized.
  • On the subject of gender, an interesting question is raised when Tomlinson addresses Martine as “mister.” It seems like sarcasm, but is it? Kirk repeatedly talks about “the men,” as though there are no females among the crew. Is it possible this is not really a gender faux pas but paving the way for unisex forms of address used in…wait for it…Star Trek II? That may be a stretch, but I’m beginning to wonder if this episode was Harve Bennett’s real inspiration.
  • Uhuru takes the helm! It’s a nice callback to “The Man Trap” when Uhuru takes over after navigator Stiles leaves his post to assist in the weapons section. As much as I like Sulu and Chekov, they should have let Uhuru drive more often.
Left: Image from Star Trek episode Balance of Terror showing Uhuru and Sulu at helm; Right: Photo of Willa Brown in airplane cockpit
In 1938 Willa Brown became the first Black woman in the U.S. to earn a pilot’s license

While “Balance of Terror” is primarily about the duel between the two captains, Spock is also central to the episode. The most shocking moment comes when we realize how much Spock looks like his father, er, the Romulans. Spock’s loyalty to the Federation despite his resemblance to Romulans reminds us that the good guys don’t all look the same, and sometimes the bad guys look just like the good guys. “The other,” as often as not, is just a variation of our own reflection. This is exploration the hard way, in the heat of battle. However, the scene reveals a major story-telling credibility gap. How exactly did humans and Romulans start, conduct, and negotiate an end to an entire war without learning anything about each other’s appearance? How did Vulcans not know of Romulans, particularly if the two races have a shared heritage? We have seen, and will continue to see, Spock demonstrate a startling degree of knowledge about 20th century earth; how does he know nothing about his Romulan cousins?

Yet, here we are, so we have to make the best of it. Spock often gets credit for being a pacifist, despite repeated demonstrations of his cutthroat nature. In the past, we’ve seen Spock regard conflict in chess terms, but he’s considerably beyond chess in “Balance of Terror.” He defies logic in urging Kirk to attack the Bird-of-Prey, arguing that primitive Romulans will only appreciate a show of force. This is hauntingly familiar to the hawkish Cold War attitude toward communism that resulted in disastrous U.S. interventions in Korea and Vietnam. It’s no surprise that at the end, even as Spock saves the Enterprise, he’s the one who fires the kill shot on the Bird-of-Prey.

Image from Star Trek episode Balance of Terror showing Kirk, Spock, McCoy standing and Stiles on sickbay bed
“Quick, Bones! Give him the anti-racist vaccine!”

Ultimately, the finest achievement of both “Balance of Terror” and The Enemy Below is to humanize the enemy. Stiles, particularly, vilifies Spock because he looks like the enemy, much as Japanese Americans were vilified after the attack on Pearl Harbor and, even more bizarrely, as Chinese Americans have been vilified solely because early Covid-19 cases occurred in China. Early in the episode, Spock reports that earth considers Romulans to be “warlike, cruel, treacherous,” as if these criteria must apply blindly to all Romulans. Governments paint their enemies in broad brushstrokes and make war for mystifying reasons, sending individuals to battle those they might otherwise have met under bonds of cooperation. (“In a different reality,” the Romulan commander tells Kirk, “I could have called you friend.”) “Death with honor” seems to be the code for militant societies in Star Trek, Romulans and Klingons being the prime examples. This contrasts with the Federation’s “life first” philosophy. Romulans are often compared to American Cold War opponents, either the Russians or Chinese (though it was Japan that sent 3,800 kamikaze pilots to their deaths in World War II). In fact, “Balance of Terror” writer Paul Schneider created the Romulans by imagining that the Roman Empire had survived into the era of interstellar travel. Much of Western culture derives from the Roman Empire, including our fondness for political and military misadventures.

The Enemy Below ends with (spoiler alert!) the U.S. captain saving his opponent. Kirk attempts the same at the end of “Balance of Terror,” but “We are creatures of duty,” the commander says with deep regret, and that inflexible adherence to duty is what costs the Romulans a victory and their lives. That establishes the irony of the final scene, as Kirk receives confirmation from Starfleet Command that they respect his judgment as the captain on the battlefield and support whatever decisions he makes. The presence of Decius showed us the Romulan commander could not expect such leeway from his own superiors. Kirk’s mission, and his orders, balance long-term Federation objectives with short-term situational needs. The Romulan’s orders, however, are dictated in advance by a rigid culture and they will not waver. His gesture of respect to Kirk at the end is only possible because none of his crew will survive to tell the tale. We hope his sacrifice will not be in vain, because he has offered a subtle olive branch that Kirk can return to the Federation. If one Romulan can be reasoned with, maybe more will follow. When Martine mourns the loss of her fiance, Kirk tells her, “You have to know that there was a reason.” We’re not completely reassured, and neither is Kirk, walking through the Enterprise, as alone now as his Romulan counterpart was. For now, Earth and Romulus will continue to glare at each other across the Zone, as North and South Korea do to this day, where hundreds of Korean and American soldiers have died in the decades after the DMZ was established. War may have been averted, but the price shouldn’t be so high.

Next: Shore Leave

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