|“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.
But the Romulans are actual people, and within the span of one episode we learn pretty much everything we need to know about them. Firstly, and most obviously, the Romulans are the Roman Empire extrapolated into outer space. More to the point though, they’re the Roman Empire past its pinnacle and entering into a decline: Though his crew seem eager to secure a Glorious Victory for their emperor, the commander himself seems from another age, openly questioning the value of imperialistic expansion, war for the sake of war and the cost in lives it demands. The Centurion sympathizes, but feels too bound by duty and tradition. The primary reason this works and the reason the Romulans are so memorable and easy-to-read is because the show gives us three different individuals (four if you count the subspace radio operator) and each one has a distinct personality: We see how the culture plays out across an actual group of people. What this means is that without really needing a bunch of exposition, “Balance of Terror” gives more depth and characterization to the Romulans than any episode of Star Trek has for its aliens-of-the-week before and, arguably, will after. There is absolutely no question why they get brought back.
But there’s also another side to the Romulans’ imperialism: “Balance of Terror” explicitly makes it clear the Romulan commander and Kirk are, for all intents and purposes, the same person and furthermore, that the Bird-of-Prey is just a reflection of Enterprise. There are numerous scenes where the two captains remark on how similar their thought process are (i.e. “that’s what I would have done were I in his place”), how both are forced to work in dangerous, dehumanizing situations because they’re at the behest of duty and circumstance and how neither desires to take the other’s life because of how much they respect each other as equals.
The editing jumps back and forth between the Enterprise and the Bird-of-Prey, taking care to point out how each character has a compliment on the other side. The ensuing pointlessly destructive battle thus becomes a reiteration of an ancient scenario two groups of likable people are forced to act out against their will that prevents them from moving on to greater, happier things. Arguably the most moving scene comes in Act 3 as the Bird-of-Prey attempts to hide itself in a comet’s tail: The commander gets a lovely line where he remarks on the comet’s beauty, “shining in the dark”, before his crew presses him to explain its strategic merits. The majestic wonders of the universe must take a backseat to the mission. We’re not explorers, we’re conquerors, soldiers and policemen.
This is not an entirely original concept: Indeed, this episode is pretty much an exact shot-for-shot remake of the 1957 World War II movie The Enemy Below which concerned a US destroyer crew hunting down a German U-Boat (a fact which allegedly caused Harlan Ellison to flip out and refuse to speak to writer Paul Schneider). Certainly just taking a superficial look at both texts this seems obvious, and the Bird-of-Prey is a more than fitting stand in for a submarine with its small array of windows and cramped, self-contained bridge helping to craft an appealingly claustrophobic atmosphere. Indeed, it’s the best bit of model work on Star Trek so far: With all due respect to legendary designer Matt Jeffries (and apologies to the generations of fans who will surely hunt me down for this remark), I never found the original Enterprise an especially inspiring bit of design. The Fesarius was provocative in a kind of Asimov Golden Age sense, but given how little of it we actually saw its effect is muted somewhat. The Bird-of-Prey is amazing though: Designer Wah Ming Chang gives us a truly evocative and iconic look, bringing together elements of raptors, rocket ships and flying saucers to produce something immediately distinctive and memorable.
But I’m going to make a bold claim here: “Balance of Terror” is actually a far more effective telling of this story than the movie on which it’s based. Part of this is the acting; William Shatner, DeForest Kelley and Mark Lenard are all absolutely chilling, each one delivering what has got to be a career high water mark performance. But the bigger reason is the setting: In The Enemy Below the German U-Boat captain is shown to be in some sense “special” because he isn’t a Nazi and is in fact quite hostile to Hitler’s regime, he’s just following orders and doing his job which makes him easier to compare with the destroyer captain. “Just following orders” has always been a flimsy excuse however: The Romulans are culturally obligated to valorize duty and glorious conquest and the crew of the Bird-of-Prey are just products of their time. It’s much easier to sympathize with them than it is a bunch of Nazis. Furthermore, The Enemy Below is historical fiction, and in my view, this is a genre with a very noticeable limit on how emotionally compelling it can be.
I’ve never found the fictionalized past effective as a setting because the cinematic tradition’s pretenses of realism at once require us to take it seriously as a work of representationalism while at the same time accepting it’s weaving a yarn. Also, as history books are inevitably written by the “victors” (i.e. authority and hegemony) works of fiction based on them almost always wind up with a glorification of master narratives that inevitably marginalize certain viewpoints. Like, say, for example, the idea that the Europeans were the bold discovers of the Americas and thus “exploration” becoming equated with “European colonialism” when pretty much all historical evidence points to the Polynesians being familiar with the shores centuries beforehand but not settling them because they were already inhabited and the fact the ancient navigators were more interested in free exchange of goods and ideas and weren’t imperialist assholes.
But as speculative fiction “Balance of Terror” doesn’t have any of these problems, and what this also does is really highlight the theme of reiteration: What, exactly, makes the Romulans so very different from us? Yes, they crossed the Neutral Zone and launched an unprovoked attack against the Earth Outposts, but Stiles was also chomping at the bit to cross into Romulan space and exact vengeance on them for the pain his family endured during the Romulan War and one could imagine an alternate scenario where Earth made the fist move. No, if the commander and Kirk are the same, as are the Enterprise and the Bird-of-Prey, then so are the Romulan Star Empire and Earth Command.
Schneider is making an impossibly strong claim here, and I’ll be honest: The fact this episode got greenlit under Gene Roddenberry is utterly shocking, Because “Balance of Terror” is nothing if not a gravely serious treatise on imperialism in all its forms and the devastating cost it extorts from everyday people and a definitive claim that Star Trek is absolutely imperialistic. The episode just revels in showing us the ugly reality of military bravado: The very first scene has Kirk about to preside over a wedding and he gives a heartfelt speech about how one of his “happier duties” is officiating shipboard weddings. All of a sudden he’s interrupted by Uhura, who informs him Outpost 4 is under attack. The tone shifts suddenly and dramatically like a switch has been flipped. We get a painfully graphic scene of the outpost’s complete destruction, with its last survivor dying in brutal agony live on camera before the entire bridge crew. As the Enterprise trails the Bird-of-Prey it slowly dawns on the crew a battle is imminent and unavoidable and Kirk informs the crew that should the conflict break out into war, in the eyes of his superiors they, him and the ship are all considered expendable. The show plays this as a tragedy with the music swelling dramatically and various low-angle shots of Kirk which, combined with Shatner’s wonderfully expressive acting that displays every single iota of his exaggerated pensiveness and guilt-wracked consciousness, makes Kirk look for all the world for a man walking to his death.
Once the two ships finally do engage, we don’t get some glorious and thrilling action set-piece where the Enterprise and the Bird-of-Prey exchange a manly amount of firepower, we get an excruciatingly drawn out cat-and-mouse game where the ships take turns brutally crippling each other and maiming each others’ crew. First the classic scene where the Romulans turn out to be an offshoot of the Vulcans, immediately casting doubt onto Spock’s loyalty and bringing Stiles’ generations of pent-up trauma and rage to the surface (which results in one of Kirk’s best lines so far: “Leave any bigotry in your quarters. There’s no room for it on the bridge.”). Then the Enterprise picks away at the Bird-of-Prey with proximity blasts, each one tearing into the ship and causing the bridge to visibly collapse around the commander with each successive charge, ultimately resulting in the death of the centurion. The Bird-of-Prey responds by unleashing its plasma weapon, capable of vaporizing entire planets in one shot, which also saps its own energy reserves. As the bridge crew watch helplessly while the plasma blast overtakes them, Kirk and Rand get what they expect to be their first, last and only moment of intimacy as they hold each other close, fully prepared to face death together. The Enterprise gets lucky: It’s out of range enough that it doesn’t get hit by the blast at full power and is merely rendered immobile with its electrical systems overloaded, but that just as easily might not have been the case.
On the Bird-of-Prey the situation is considerably more dire. With the ship in critical condition and his officers perishing one by one, leaving him the sole survivor of his ship as much as the doomed Command Hanson was the last left alive on Outpost 4, we can not only see, but *feel* the moment where the Romulan commander realises his mission is forfeit and, more to the point, that he’ll never see the skies of his home again. Mark Lenard plays this with absolutely gut-wrenching conviction, depicting a person fully ready to take his death and those of his crew upon himself, but deeply saddened that he has to. And with that we get the horrifically tragic emotional climax-The single greatest line in the episode, arguably all of the Original Series. As Kirk contacts the Bird-of-Prey and asks for their terms of surrender, the commander politely turns him down and, just before he destroys himself and his ship in a nuclear explosion, looks Kirk dead in the eye and says:
“I regret that we meet in this way. You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend.”
And then he’s gone. The Enterprise has ended the battle and prevented another Romulan War, but Earth hasn’t won anything. All this has accomplished is the deaths of four people who were no different from us: People just as motivated by a desire for peace, love and cooperation, but who, just like the crew of the Enterprise, were never allowed to find it in their lifetimes. And the cost on “our” side is no less devastating: In its closing moments “Balance of Terror” helpfully reminds us we began by interrupting a wedding as McCoy tells Kirk the only fatality among the Enterprise crew was Lieutenant Tomlinson in the phaser wing, who was supposed to get married today.
Kirk tries to console Angela Martine, Tomlinson’s fiance by saying “It never makes any sense. We both have to know that there was a reason”. Martine briskly tells Kirk she’s “fine” and walks away. She’s not convinced. We’re not convinced. Neither is Kirk. There was no reason for this, for any of this: There was no reason for the Praetor to order the Bird-of-Prey to attack the outposts and violate the nonaggression pact, there was no reason for Earth to demand a swift militaristic response from the Enterprise and there was certainly no reason for people to sacrifice their lives in a bloody, messy conflict to prove nothing except why it’s pointless to fight this way at all. It’s far beyond the days where empire building was considered the norm, if indeed those days ever existed.
Rome is in decline: It’s time we stopped looking to the city on the hill for guidance and instead looked to it as a monument for the tragic, failed and misguided aspirations of generations long since departed.