Star Trek: The Original Series episode 14 review

Balance Of Terror, from Star Trek's maiden series, is next for a high-def assessment...

Episode: 14Title: Balance Of TerrorStar Date: 1709.2Writer: Paul SchneiderFirst Shown: 15th December 1966

The strongest influences on the original series were both the relatively recent experiences of the Second World War, and the subsequent cold war standoff with the USSR. The Balance Of Terror explores the military role of the Enterprise as it reacts to the raiding of a Romulan bird of prey. In my own mind I’d always thought that Kirk had encountered the Klingons first, and then the Romulans later. But this episode contradicts my recollection, and is reminiscent of those classic submarine dramas popular in the fifties such as The Enemy Below (1957).

The back story that we’re given is that a 100 years earlier a war raged between the Romulan Empire and Earth, using primitive spacecraft and nuclear weapons. Since then a state of peace has existed with a ‘neutral zone’ creating a buffer zone between the portions of space each occupies. On the Earth side of the neutral zone the Federation has placed outposts to monitor for incursions, and when these are attacked the Enterprise goes to investigate.

Rather than the Romulans being a faceless or unseen enemy, we’re given a perspective that moves between the Enterprise and her Romulan opponent, as each tries to strategically outflank his opponent. But there is an additional component in this mix – racism. Spock manages to pick up a signal showing a view of the Romulan bridge, and to the surprise of many on the Enterprise, the Romulans look very like the Vulcans.

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This is the start of a narrative which has been carried through to the very latest film version of Star Trek, about the Romulans having a common ancestry with the Vulcans. But here it’s all about creating some tension between Spock and one bigoted bridge officer, who concludes Spock might have loyalties with their opponents.

What’s slightly confusing for the hardcore Trek fan is that the Romulan commander is played by none other than Mark Lenard, who is actually more famous for playing Spock’s father, Sarek. He’s great in this as the conflicted captain who fears he’ll start a new war if his mission to test Federation defences succeeds.

His ship has the advantages of cloaking, while the Enterprise is faster and more manoeuvrable, creating a balance that can only be divided by the abilities of those in command.

Eventually, pressured by his second in command, the Romulan commander makes a mistake and his ship is disabled. Kirk offers to beam off his surviving crew, but the commander explains ‘it’s not our way’, and destroys the ship using self destruct.

Unusually, this story doesn’t end with a chat on the bridge. Kirk talks to a woman crew member who lost her finance in the battle, and seems amazingly calm about that. He leaves her and walks through the busy Enterprise, his burden of command a little heavier.

For me this is quintessential Trek. The Enterprise shows she’s not just a ship of exploration but a man-o’-war, and it’s possibly one of the stories that most directly demonstrate the influence that Roddenberry admitted the works of C. S. Forester (the Hornblower series) had on his vision. The remastered Blu-ray version has some brilliantly crafted effects of the Enterprise firing phasers and the Romulan bird of prey, which only adds to the tension.

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This story was written by Paul Schneider, who also penned another season one episode The Squire Of Gothos. The director’s chair was filled by Trek mainstay, Vincent McEveety, who had previously done good work with Dagger Of The Mind.

Having covered the futility of war in this story, in the next the series encounters one of those stories where the weird and unexpected collide head on, in Shore Leave.