Favorite Star Trek Episode: Balance of Terror
Time to refresh my credentials as Chief Geek of TAC!
A condensed version of my favorite Star Trek episode Balance of Terror. Originally broadcast on December 13, 1966, I have always found it riveting. It introduced us to the Romulan Star Empire, an offshoot of the Vulcans. Mark Lenard, one of the most underestimated actors of his generation, gives one of the best performances of the Star Trek franchise as the commander of a Romulan Bird of Prey vessel, equipped with a new cloaking device, making a foray into Federation territory. Destroying Federation outposts along the Neutral Zone, his mission is to test Federation defenses. If his mission is successful it will be the signal for an all-out Romulan invasion of the Federation. Lenard portrays the commander as world-weary and tired. An extremely able commander, he has seen too much of war, and dreads the massive interstellar conflict his political masters will unleash after he successfully completes his mission. A Romulan of honor, he will do his duty even though he hates it.
The conflict between the Enterprise and the Romulan Bird of Prey is basically a remake of the 1957 film The Enemy Below, telling the clash between an American Destroyer Escort and a German U-Boat, with the action followed from both perspectives. In Balance of Terror, the Enterprise is in the role of the Destroyer Escort and the Bird of Prey is the U-Boat. The moves and counter moves of both commanders are fascinating, and the episode is the best depiction on television of naval combat, albeit in outer space.
There is a subplot where Spock comes under suspicion by Lieutenant Stiles, a descendant of a family that fought in the First Federation-Romulan War and who suspects that Romulans and Vulcans are racially linked, a suspicion born when the Enterprise scanners reveal the appearance of the Romulans to be identical to Vulcans. It therefore is a dramatic moment when Spock agrees with Stiles at a council held by Kirk before he makes his decision to chase the Romulan ship across the Neutral Zone and destroy it:
Stiles: These are Romulans! You run away from them and you guarantee war. He’ll be back. Not just one ship, but with everything they’ve got. You know that, Mr. Science Officer, you’re the expert on these people, but you’ve always left out that one point. Why? I’m very interested in why.
Captain James T. Kirk: Sit down, mister.
[Stiles does so, there is an awkward silence]
Mr. Spock: I agree, attack.
Captain James T. Kirk: Are you suggesting we fight… to prevent a fight?
Dr. McCoy: Based on what? Memories of a war over a century ago? On theories about a people we’ve never even met face to face?
Stiles: We know what they look like…
Mr. Spock: Yes indeed we do, Mr. Stiles. And if the Romulans are an offshoot of my Vulcan blood – and I think this likely – then attack becomes even more imperative.
Dr. McCoy: War is never imperative, Mr. Spock.
Mr. Spock: It is for them, Doctor. Vulcan, like Earth, had its aggressive, colonizing period. Savage, even by Earth standards. And if the Romulans retain this martial philosophy, then weakness is something we dare not show.
Star Trek, and television, doesn’t get any better than Balance of Terror.