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Star Trek: Balance of Terror

Kirk: "He did exactly what I would have done. I won't underestimate him again."

Terrific introduction to the Romulans, arguably the coolest bad guys in the Star Trek universe. A whole race of warriors that look like Spock. What's not to like?

The heart of this episode (in more ways than one) was the battle of wits between Kirk and his opposite number, the Romulan commander whose name we never learn. The commander's growing respect for Kirk and his reluctant but exacting adherence to orders he disagreed with made him remarkably sympathetic. Although they were both following orders, Kirk and the Romulan Commander had a tremendous amount of responsibility on their shoulders, and they were both fully aware of their role in history. The message of the episode was that enemies usually aren't monsters; they can be an awful lot like us. Or in this case, like Spock.

There was again more xenophobia directed at Spock, and from the same chair on the bridge (Stiles), which was apparently staffed by revolving buttheads. Spock's loyalty was never questioned for a moment by Kirk, though, or by the others on the bridge. If Spock felt even a moment of indecision at firing phasers at beings who looked like him, he didn't let it show.

This episode featured the first real space battle in the series, and it was a good one. I particularly liked the cloaking device, and the way Kirk had the Enterprise shadowing the Bird of Prey like a reflection. I also loved the Enterprise warping out and outrunning the Bird of Prey's phaser blast. Guess you can't swerve when you're at warp, huh?

The universal translator hasn't been mentioned yet (sorry, that's a bit of a spoiler) and the fact that there has never been contact between humans and Romulans makes us wonder how the Romulan commander could give that final farewell to Kirk and be understood. But it was still a strong scene that worked for the story, and actor Mark Lenard, who was undoubtedly cast as the Romulan Commander because of his strong resemblance to Leonard Nimoy, did a wonderful job.

Mark Lenard returned later in the series as Spock's father, Sarek. (How could they throw such a strong resemblance away?) Sarek was a popular character with the fans, and Lenard did conventions for years. I remember he used to tell Klingon jokes.

Ben says...

Two things come to mind when I ponder this episode: cool outer space action and man-love.

This was my favorite episode as a kid, mostly because of the exciting action and tense drama, but it may also have been the pinnacle of Star Trek bro-mance. This episode had the Kirk-Spock bond, the Commander-Centurion love, the brooding mixed race sexual tension of Stiles-Spock, and then finally the Romulan Commander's and Kirk's expressions of dominance/submission at the end.

Perhaps I read too much into it all, but I was always struck by the intensity of the male relationships in this episode. Although I don't think it was this episode in particular, it's this emotion in the relationships between the men in Star Trek that I think has inspired so much of the homoerotic "slash" fan fiction over the years.

And, yes, it was a rip off of every World War II submarine movie, but so much fun. While watching it I was struck by the old nuke as a booby trap/mine trick, which you may recall was exactly the method Commander Sheridan used to destroy the Black Star, silly Minbari just don't learn from history. (This last aside to demonstrate, if there was any lingering doubt, that I am the complete Nerd).

Back to Billie for Romulan stuff:

— It was established in this episode that there was a war with the Romulans a hundred years ago under more primitive conditions, and that a Neutral Zone was set up between them and us.

— The names of the Romulan homeworlds (Romulus and Remus) come from our own mythology, evoking negatives that we associate with the worst of Rome. They have a ruler, a "Praetor," who didn't sound very nice. The Romulan commander's second was called "Centurion."

— Loved the Bird of Prey ship exterior. The interior was sort of cramped, though, and pink seemed an odd decorating choice for Romulans. They appeared to have color-coded uniforms, too, much like Starfleet. (Actually, I don't think we've heard the term "Starfleet" yet.)

— The helmets that the crew wore were appropriately bird-of-prey-like, and looked uncomfortable. They were undoubtedly created so that the make-up crew wouldn't have to do half a dozen ear jobs.

— The Romulan Commander's crew was a lot worse than Stiles; after the Centurion was killed, the Commander was left with a ship full of bloodthirsty morons. One of them returned later as a Vulcan idiot in "Amok Time."

Bits and pieces:

— Stardate 1709.2. Space, on our side of the Neutral Zone. And Outpost 4, one of a number of outposts on our side of the Zone.

— The plot of this episode was ripped off from a submarine movie called The Enemy Below. But hey, it worked.

— McCoy mentioned that there were three million Earth-type planets in our galaxy. That would be nice.

— The wedding "chapel" was decidedly non-religious, with an altar consisting of candles and a backdrop that looked like an abstract Christmas tree. As Kirk was performing the wedding ceremony, Janice Rand stood behind him and gazed at him longingly. (Her character description in a nutshell.) The two of them did some unprofessional clutching on the bridge, too.

— There was a Commander Hansen at Outpost 4. Any relation to the absent Lieutenant Hansen?

— Um, Spock on the floor "fixing the phasers"? I get that he was fixing a relay, but it was an overly dramatic and clumsy plot device.

— At one critical point, most of the bridge crew trooped into the briefing room. Who was left in command? I'll pretend it was Uhura, since she was practically the only one left. Later, Uhura took over navigation from the nasty Stiles, who ran down to help out with the phasers.


Spock: "Earth believes the Romulans to be warlike, cruel, treacherous. And only the Romulans know what they think of Earth."

Spock: "Vulcan, like Earth, had its aggressive colonizing period – savage, even by Earth standards. And if the Romulans maintain this martial philosophy, then weakness is something we dare not show."

Stiles: "I was suggesting that Mr. Spock might be able to decode that transmission."
Kirk: "I assume you're complimenting Mr. Spock on his ability to decode."

Romulan Commander: "You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend."

Classic episode. Four out of four cloaking devices,

Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.


  1. Hi Billie,

    I'm curious about a couple of things mentioned here.
    In the episodes of Star Trek I've seen, Romulan ships are usually referred to as Warbirds while the Klingons have Birds of Prey. Not having seen this episode, is it possible the writer's just hadn't made the distinction at this point in the series?
    Second, do you remember any of the Klingon jokes?

  2. If I remember correctly, and I'm not that good with the technical Star Trek stuff, at some point in the future Star Trek episodes, we learn that the Klingons stole Romulan technology and that's why their ships were similar.

    How many Klingons does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Two, but they have to be really small.

  3. Iirc, the Romulans were the ones who originally called their ships Birds of Prey and Warbirds because they were designed to look like birds.

    The first Klingon ships we see are the D-classes and they're pretty tubular, not at all bird-like. It wasn't until after an alliance between the Klingons and Romulans that the Klingons started building their Birds of Prey and they copied the Romulan name.

    Klingons never had Warbirds because they never developed any particularly big ships, at least not when compared to the other powers.

    It's scary that I haven't seen an episode of Trek in years and I still remember all of that and more.

  4. This is a favorite of mine as well for many reasons.

    On a related note, the awesome war game Star Fleet Battles, which is unfortunately hard to get played these days as people choke on the massive rule books, has an entire rules section for nuclear space mines based on this very episode! It has other mines too, but only old Romulan ships like the warbirds carry the NSMs.

    Lots of tension, a very sympathetic villain as is pointed out here, some interesting premises, and yes very much a sub hunt similar to war movies of a more terrestrial nature, but it all works, and it works extremely well. This is TOS at its best.


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