“But I remember his words as though they were yesterday.”: Balance of Terror
|“I’ve just seen it happen too many times.”|
After weeks of stumbling half-starts, frustratingly retrograde moves and absolutely awe-inducing spectacles of catastrophic, system-wide failure, we at last have the very first episode of Star Trek that can be unambiguously called an absolute masterpiece. “Balance of Terror” is an unmitigated triumph on all accounts and is exactly what the series needed to make up for the misfires of the past few episodes. In a bit of actually lovely irony, this still doesn’t save this incarnation of the show. Not only does it not save it, it gives even stronger evidence that it should be killed off and retooled as quickly as possible: Far from redeeming the Star Trek we’ve been watching since “The Corbomite Maneuver”, everything that makes “Balance of Terror” work as well as it does is something that decisively proves Gene Roddenberry’s original version of Star Trek is completely unworkable. We’re nine episodes in and we already have the show’s definitive deconstruction.
“Balance of Terror” is almost the inverse of “The Corbomite Maneuver”: While that episode went out of its way to glorify militaristic bravado and the chain of command, this one shows us in stark, terrible detail the tragic consequences of this way of thinking at a very intimate, personal level. Where Balok was an unseen Other throughout the majority of “The Corbomite Maneuver” before being revealed as friendly baby Clint Howard at the last minute, half of “Balance of Terror” is dedicated to the Romulan crew. We get to know each and every person on the Bird-of-Prey personally, especially Mark Lenard’s commander, and their tired, beaten down and world-weary demeanor bleakly, and all too well, foreshadows their ultimate fate.
Ah yes, the Romulans. A reveal so historic it threatens to overshadow the rest of the episode (though perhaps not as much so as that of the Klingons will to their debut episode later in the season). As one of the pre-eminent alien cultures in Star Trek, it would be beneficial to spend some time talking about them, although in this sentence I’ve already touched on the first important thing about them: The Romulans are a culture, and that’s a significant milestone for the series. Up ’til now, aliens in Star Trek have been portrayed as blunt metaphors for the show’s moral-of-the-week: The Talosians are an extension of the Platonic cave theme of “The Cage”, Gary Mitchell was absolute power incarnate, Charlie Evans embodies the troubles of puberty and Salt Vampire was…a Salt Vampire. Or a buffalo. “The Man Trap” wasn’t especially clear about that. Anyway, if they weren’t straight metaphors, they were Deus Ex Machina: The Thasians exist primarily to provide a convenient way to get Charlie Evans off the Enterprise so he wouldn’t blow it up. We don’t get any sense of what their culture or lifestyle is. Balok is just an Other for Kirk to practice his manly command skills with, albeit one who happens to be friendly We get no idea of what the First Federation is like, though the design of the Fesarius is certainly imaginative.…