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  • Ric Crossman

1.1.14 I Hope The Romulans Love Their Children Too

Updated: May 11, 2022

Balance Of Terror

The Romulan Commander, with his back turned to his Centurion.
"I'm sorry, I just can't look at you in that helmet."

Where can I start here? What course does one set to best approach an object of such immense, reality-warping mass? There’s clearly a super-dense core to the object – a (flagrantly plagiarised) WWII submarine movie translated into the language of Roddenberry’s interstellar Western, which troubles or takes the top spot in pretty much every “TOS Best Of” ever compiled. But there’s more to it than that. We’ve also got the accreted matter that core drew into its orbit over the decades. A vast circle of remakes and responses and references, as unmissable and fractured and reflective as a gas giant’s ice ring. This episode is one half of the pairing that gave us Wrath of Khan, for Kahless’ sake.

So how do we proceed? We’re approaching an object of unprecedented size. Where should we point the sensor array first?

Previously On IDFC…

Luckily, IDFC’s format provides a leg-up. Not to hammer my own xylophone, but what other Trek retrospective (Trektrospective? Maybe not) could argue the best way to consider this episode is by way of comparison with not just “The Man Trap” and “The Corbomite Maneuver”, but Enterprise‘s “Silent Enemy” too?

The link between the four episodes is clear enough – they’re all centred around an alien force which presents (or seems to present) an existential threat to our protagonists. They’re stories about how the infinite void outside our atmosphere hides hostile entities that want to kill us, leaving no option but to (threaten to) kill or be killed. This, as I’ve argued before, is a story template Trek has never made use of particularly often (we’ll talk someday about whether the Dominion War fits in all of this), which is to the franchise’s credit. “Space is scary and we’re gonna need to shoot our way through it” is a framing with massive problems, and one antithetical to the ethos that made the franchise the powerhouse it once was.

(It's a shame neither Discovery nor Picard seem really to have grokked this. Discovery has been gradually tending back toward it, in fairness, but even its latest season can't quite move past the idea that galactic threats arrive at regular intervals to ruin the business of enjoying space responsibly. Thank the Prophets for Lower Decks.)

This is why I was so down on “The Man-Trap” – it gave the world its first glimpse of Roddenberry’s galaxy, and portrayed it as a place of lurking, murderous danger. “The Corbomite Maneuver”, in contrast, I loved for how well it inverts that framing, consciously finding something more interesting to do than “bad aliens are bad”. Finally, “Silent Enemy” – which isn’t a good episode overall – was able to deliver its tale of remorseless Lovecraftian mushroom-dudes without too much problem because it recognised the implacable alien threat as an aberration. Hell, the second-biggest crisis that particular week was that a senior officer’s birthday might go by without him getting the cake he wanted.

What, then, are we to make of “Balance Of Terror”? From one perspective, this looks like it should count as a step backward. The inversion of “The Corbomite Maneuver” is nowhere to be seen – the Romulans absolutely are an existential alien threat. Far more so than even Not-Nancy, really; she only wanted to eat her way through a starship. The Romulan Praetor, in contrast, is mulling over invading an entire civilisation. There’s no way to use the argument about abberations deployed for “Silent Enemy”, either. It’s only been four episodes since ”The Corbomite Maneuver”. Less than a month after the show effectively started for a third time, and comprehensively rejected the idea that space is a scary place fit only for the square of jaw and quick of draw, we seem to be back in that mode again.

And yet it clearly works. Exceptionally well, in fact. I’ve no intention of slaying this particular sacred space-cow. So why is that? How did this episode, which at least in the most general terms makes use of a template I’m leery of at best, and turn it into one of the unquestioned highlights of the entire damn franchise?

Appropriately enough, it’s all about balance.

Tell Me Ten Words

There are three ways (at least) in which we can interpret this episode’s title, and each one of them helps us focus on something being done very well here. I’ll stick with my standard approach, and run through my points in rough order of decreasing blatant obviousness.

That means starting with the historical allusion. Let’s head on over to Wikipedia Towers and check in with Lester B Pearson, the then Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs. This is how he summarised the global situation in 1955:

The balance of terror has replaced the balance of power.

You can see his point. The era of superpowers being limited by their ability to use or project the force they could summon was over. Instead, they found themselves limited by their horror at the possibility of nuclear apocalypse. That isn’t and couldn’t be the full story, naturally, but as ten-word summaries of the Cold War go, one could do far worse.

And this is clearly a Cold War story. From the pointed reference to the last Federation-Romulan conflict being fought using “primitive atomic weapons”, to the Romulan Commander’s admission his vessel’s destruction would be preferable to them returning home to ignite another war, the terrors that swirled around that conflict like a firestorm threaten to scorch the edges of every frame here. Even the idea the Enterprise might have enemy agents planted inside the crew is evocative of Cold War paranoia. The Nazis had their spies and sympathisers in America, no doubt, but the preoccupation with betrayal and infiltration (“the enemy within”, you might say) is far more an artefact of America’s war with Communism, not fascism. Certainly, there’s no sign of concerns about enemy agents in The Enemy Below, the film script-writer Schneider himself confessed this episode’s story had been lifted pretty much wholesale from.

Schneider’s admission notwithstanding, then, “The Enemy Within” isn’t a simple respray of a WWII film. Yes, the source material means there’s plenty of similarities (and I noted with amusement that one of the scenes from The Enemy Below that didn’t make it into the episode was swiped for Wrath of Khan instead). There’s also a more general parallel to the Second World War here. By framing Stiles’ paranoia in racial terms, “Balance Of Terror” obliquely references the treatment of Japanese-Americans during the period (not that I’ve ever seen that disgraceful chapter in US history referenced in an actual WWII film, of course). Nevertheless, this isn’t a straight-up WWII story. It’s a WWII story refracted through a Cold War lens.

And that’s a very smart thing to do, because it highlights how completely different the two conflicts were, and how much and how quickly the world in which The Original Series was produced in was changing. As I’ve said, the fear of a nuclear winter is everywhere here, warping the stories of the past into new and frightening shapes. In The Enemy Below, the character of Von Stolberg was no fan of the Nazi regime, but there was never any question that he was desperate to return home. Here, in contrast, the Praetor is so terrified of the destruction his return would unleash that he’d genuinely rather die than see Romulus again.

By invoking the risk of interstellar armageddon, “Balance Of Terror” fundamentally alters the relationship between the two captains. The Enemy Below was a game of cat and mouse. That’s still what this episode is about, except now both animals ultimately want the cat to win, because the virus the mouse is incubating could end up killing everything. “The true enemy”, as Denzel Washington says in Crimson Tide, “Is war itself”.

Ready Player Two

All of which gives a context to “Balance Of Terror” that lets it float effortlessly above “The Man Trap” and “Silent Enemy”. It’s not, though, the episode’s secret weapon. That would be the second balance here – the decision to focus upon the crew of the Romulan vessel almost as much as that of the Enterprise. This too is shamelessly lifted from The Enemy Below, but its provenance is less interesting to me than its effect, which is – the Romulan’s alien heritage notwithstanding – to humanise the episode’s hostile force. These people aren’t insatiable killers like Not-Nancy, or sadistic hunters like the Cthuloid octagons of “Silent Enemy”. They’re a whole other culture, presented as different but in no sense inferior. They take the role of antagonists, not villains.

(In truth, it could be argued the death-toll they rack up in the opening minutes of the episode makes that call a little questionable. In a story about the existential horror of modern war, though, it would be odd to sanitise the government-ordered inciting incident.)

No small part of why this works is down to the Romulans themselves. Mark Lenard is repeatedly and deservedly praised for how he plays the Romulan Commander, but in truth John Warburton does just as well as the Centurion. Between them they convincingly make the honestly rather lazy idea of space-Romans actually work, as two veterans of endless expansionist campaigns discuss what the actual point of any of it is. They couldn’t be more different to the brownface Fu-Machu-moustached Klingons we’ll have to deal with in June.

And even the (barely) reshuffled references to the Roman Empire have some use here. Since this is a Cold War story, it’s logical to make reference to east and west. And while Spock’s star-charts might put the Romulan Star Empire to the “east” of the Federation, using so quintessentially a western historical reference point rather nicely muddies the water as which superpower this race of violent expansionists is supposed to represent.

(And yes, thank you, I am perfectly well aware that the Eastern Roman Empire was a thing. Don’t write in.)

We don’t have perfect balance between the two crews here. We never could. The narrative gravity of the Enterprise can’t be matched – even if we spent more time on the Romulan vessel than the Federation one (which we don’t), the fundamental logic of the series would always place Kirk’s crew over the newcomers. But it’s precisely because of that fact that the episode’s attempts to fight against that gravity matters. Even “The Corbomite Maneuver” otherwise impressive twist falls foul of the same issues that damaged “The Man Trap”, to some extent. Balok is revealed as a suspicious but friendly presence rather than a hostile one, but there’s still no attempt to explore who Balok actually is, beyond how he’s perceived by the crew of the Enterprise. Our heroes learn their lesson, but we ourselves learn very little.

It’s not until here, just before the halfway point of Trek’s first season, that we’re finally granted access to an alien culture on its own terms. It’s our first step onto a larger star-chart. Our heroes will remain our heroes. The USS Enterprise will remain the centre of this fictional galaxy.

For the first time, though, it genuinely feels like a galaxy Kirk’s crew are sharing with someone else.

All of this is easily enough to justify another episode demonstrating the dangers of interstellar life. And yet we’re still not done. Let’s talk about how “Balance Of Terror” opens on a wedding.

Get Me To The Church Alive

The opening moments of "Balance Of Terror" might actually be the happiest we’ve ever seen Kirk. He’s clearly delighted to be officiating a wedding (indeed he calls it a “happily privilege”), beaming throughout as he checks everything is ready for the nuptials of two people among his crew. It’s rather lovely in itself, but in the context of the episode it also serves as a reminder that there’s more to Starfleet – and this show – than an endless parade of crises and existential threats. Kirk’s obvious joy isn’t just here to provide contrast when he’s told of the latest attack (though Shatner, as you’d expect, sells the absolute hell out of that moment). It’s to show Kirk isn’t in space for the thrill of phaser-fire and torn shirts. What really makes him happy is getting to spend time with his crew away from the action. To put it in its simplest terms, he’s both looking for and determined to provide a balance to the terror.

(It’s here that we see the greatest difference between “Balance Of Terror” and “Silent Enemy”. The former explicitly contrasts the joys and terrors of living aboard a Starfleet vessel, ultimately and tragically letting one bleed into the other. The latter features an alien attack that just so happens to take place on Reed’s birthday.)

Ultimately, Kirk fails in his balancing act. Or at least, he doesn’t succeed completely. The postponed wedding never takes place, because one half of the happy couple dies in the confrontation with the Romulans. There might be a temptation to see this as a lapse back into the idea that the galaxy is inherently hostile. That it’s a place where you can show up for your wedding at noon and be dead before the DJ was supposed to be playing “Uptown Funk”.

I think that would be a misreading, though. It isn’t the hostility of the Romulans that gets Tomlinson killed. It’s Stiles’ racism. Spock, after all, is clearly less susceptible to the toxic gas leak which ends Tomlinson’s life, even once it has flooded the room. Had he been there when Stiles had first noticed the leak, he could have turned it off sooner, and no-one would have had to die.

The episode is oddly coy on this point, focusing upon Stiles’ volte face on Spock, rather than the cost of his bigotry. The message scrawled in the margins is clear enough, though. It’s not some fundamental hostile streak smeared across the galactic plane that kills Tomlinson. It was the bigotry we’ve carried with us out among the stars.

(While we’re on the topic of bigotry, it’s notable that Stiles sees it as suspicious that the Romulans look so much like Spock, despite both of the last two sentient species the Enterprise came across having looked exactly like humans. Hell, just six episodes ago the ship came across a literal copy of Earth in an unexplored solar system, and that got less comment than the similarity of Vulcan and Romulan ears. Obviously this stems from the realities of the show’s production costs, but it’s also a reminder about how bigotry works – the further people are from one’s own experience, the easier it gets to lump them all together.)

While the episode is oddly coy on the cause of Tomlinson’s death, though, it’s utterly remorseless in portraying its effects. Kirk’s arrival at the chapel to find Crewmate Martine is one of the starkest and strongest shots in the franchise’s history. Kirk here becomes a lurking presence, the exact opposite of the larger-than-life avatar of happiness he played when last he shared the frame with Martine.

Martine, in the foreground, praying in the chapel. She has her back to Kirk, standing in the background, in the doorway, and in shadow.
Kirk, small and in shadow, outside the chapel. He's captain, not God.

The final moments here are more than just a gut-punch, though. They could have been, and that would’ve been fine. The episode does more than enough to earn it. But we get another important twist to the source material. There’s a moment in The Enemy Below where our Kirk analogue Captain Murrell makes an almost offhand reference to the new bride he watched die during a U-boat attack. As fridgings go, this one leaves so small a footprint on the film as to barely register. It’s still a bum note, though, and one this episode refuses to play, insisting instead on both screen-time and (at least a little) depth for the lost love, while also smartly flipping the genders.

“Balance of Terror” thereby manages to invert - and so undermine - the concept of fridging over a generation before Gail Simone coined the phrase. This demonstrates how “Balance Of Terror” exists in dialogue with its own source material, no less than does “The Conscience of the King”. The whole is respected, but work is still done to update some of the more outdated aspects. Reasonable people can disagree as to which of those two back-to-back stone-cold classics is actually the better episode. It seems inarguable, though, that “Balance Of Terror” is the more successful adaptation, if only because – meaning no disrespect to Wendell Mayes, co-writer of no less a film than the Poseidon Adventure – managing to not screw up Shakespeare is rather less impressive a feat than rejigging a meat-and-potatoes war film into an indelible cultural artefact.

“Balance Of Terror” is an episode so strong - so completely of its time, yet also timeless - that it formed the basis of the second-best Trek film of all time (and therefore by extension the cynical, pointless mess of Star Trek Into Darkness), as well the last-ditch attempt to save the ailing TNG movie series. What was Nemesis, after all, but a remake of Wrath of Khan‘s remake of “Balance Of Terror”, with the Romulans shoved back in.

We’re a long, long way from covering the failings of Nemesis, though. Like, I'll-probably-die-first long. Right now, we’re still in 1966, watching conclusive evidence of the difference between unoriginal and derivative, and the difference between belonging perfectly to a time and place, and being unable to function outside of it.

“The Conscience Of The King” announced Star Trek had reached a new level. “Balance Of Terror” demonstrated it could remain there.

The future, at very long last, was finally here.

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