“Balance of Terror” is one of those Star Trek episodes that fans often rank as one of the best of the original series, and deservedly so. It’s suspenseful, exciting, intelligent sci-fi action, essentially an extended space battle between two ships. Based on The Enemy Below, the episode has the obvious structure of a submarine movie, and this trope of recycling world war II plots for science fiction was fairly well-established even back in the 1950s. But it’s fun to see Trek go that place of sci-fi adventure, rather than the more heady, creepy and conceptually rich episodes of the early series. “Balance of Terror” is Star Trek candy: it makes for great viewing, but beyond some ham-fisted lectures about racial tolerance, there isn’t a great deal of the deep substance here that gave the best episodes of Trek that strange, intangible quality that hints at the deep secrets of the universe.
If for nothing else, this episode is remembered as the one where we first meet the Romulan Star Empire, Star Trek’s second great villain, after the Klingons. While the Klingons were essentially a paranoid mid-century American fantasy version of the Soviets, the general wisdom is that the Romulans stood in for the Chinese, but in truth, for this first appearance, they were loosely based on the Viet Kong. The tactics they use — stealth, surprise ambush, evasion — were what was facing, and beating, the US Army in Vietnam at the time. While Star Trek is famous today for bringing up challenging contemporary social issues thinly disguised in a science fiction metaphor, it’s interesting to contemplate what this episode actually says about the “Viet Kong”. Far from being portrayed as violent, detestable schemers, the Romulans have wit, grace, intelligence, honour and dignity: they simply have the misfortune of being a political enemy of the Federation. So, there really isn’t that much social commentary here, at least not critical of either US policy in Vietnam or the enemy they faced there. It’s just recognition, a parallel that adds a nodding resemblance to the proceedings and no more.
The episode starts with one of the most unusual sequences in the whole history of Star Trek: a wedding, officiated by Captain Kirk and held in what appears to be the ship’s Chapel (actually just a redress of the rec room set). Today, it would be odd to have such a specifically Christian place in the middle of a multicultural sci-fi world, but once again we’re reminded that Trek was the product of an earlier time in America, where cultural norms were more firmly established. For the record, Kirk keeps the proceedings denominationally neutral, mentioning that the ceremony takes place, “In accordance with our many beliefs,” but the setting conveys a subconscious specificity that reflects the mid-60s culture, just as much as making the Viet Kong as the villain of the week. The sequence sets up a wedding between two crewmembers we’ve never seen before (and will never see again), ostensibly to personalize the dramatic stakes. (Zero points are awarded to the first-time viewer for guessing that one or both of them will be killed before the end of the hour.) But frankly, the characters are so “stock” and forgettable that the device feels like heavy-handed fake sentiment.
The decision to make the Romulans look just like the Vulcans is interesting. Even as a child watching these shows for the first time, that seemed like an odd choice to me. Was it artistic laziness (i.e. they just didn’t feel like designing a new species)? Or was it all an elaborate device to introduce the concept of racial sensitivity to the episode? If so, then it seems like a long way to go for a very obvious pay-off. One of the bridge officers, Lt. Stiles (Paul Comi), is descended from veterans of the great Romulan War of a century ago, and carries a deep grudge. When the enemies are revealed as having an identical appearance to the Vulcans, Stiles turns on Spock, questioning his loyalty and suggesting that he has sympathies with the villains. This is an obvious and classic parallel to the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II, something George Takei himself was caught up in, but literal parallel is never quite drawn. Stiles comes around, of course, and learns to move past his prejudice because this is Star Trek and a positive message regarding human interactions in the future is required. This subplot, like the newlyweds, hasn’t aged well.
What still works in “Balance of Terror” is what people remember most about this episode: the ship-to-ship combat between the Enterprise and the Romulan bird of prey. When it’s Kirk vs the Commander (he isn’t given a name), it’s glorious science fiction space action. Playing the Commander is Mark Lenard, making his first of many appearances on Star Trek. (It’s well-known trivia but worth repeating: Lenard was the first, and probably the only, actor to play a Romulan, a Vulcan and a Klingon. He was also one of the only actors to appear in both Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation, playing the same character.) Lenard was a fine actor, with a powerful screen presence, and he hits all the right notes here, playing a worthy adversary for Kirk. The beats in this sequence inform the battles in The Wrath of Khan and beyond, so that visual and dramatic vocabulary adds an important piece of the Star Trek universe. It isn’t by accident that when Paramount gave the series a CG/HD makeover in 2006, they started with this instalment.
“Balance of Terror” still provides great thrills, but in retrospect it reads as one of the safer, more conventional episodes of the original series. The next episode, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” is a different kettle of fish entirely.