Balance of Terror (Star Trek: The Original Series) Review

"Fine, you're not Spock. But can you talk to Sulu about all those Facebook memes anyhow? I mean, Jesus."

“Fine, you’re not Spock. But can you talk to Sulu about all those Facebook memes anyhow? I mean, Jesus.”

Episode: Balance of Terror – Season 1, Episode 14 (1966)

Director: Vincent McEveety

Writer: Paul Schneider

The Enterprise is patrolling the edge of the Neutral Zone, the demilitarized border between Federation and Romulan space, when a string of Federation outpost is attacked and destroyed. What follows is a game between hunter and hunted that mirrors the best submarine epics to come out of World War II.

The evocation of battle is tense and tightly scripted. After investigating the wrecked stations and encountering the cloaked Romulan Warbird, it soon becomes clear that the Enterprise is evenly matched with its opponent. But while advanced special effects and rapid, challenging plotting make this a worthy episode, the real strength of “Balance of Terror” lies in its attention to character. In only a few minutes of dialogue, the Romulan world is fully illustrated, and the broad outlines of an aggressive, militant culture and politics come to life in the performance of Mark Lenard as the Romulan Commander.[1]  His bristling, terse evocation of nihilism and duty is a wonderful counterweight to the cool professionalism of Captain Kirk. In the Romulan Commander’s relationship with his subordinate Centurion (John Warburton) we see a mirror of Kirk and Spock, such that his wrangling with the commander and final death are immediately intelligible and emotionally powerful.

Hotheaded Lt. Stiles (Paul Comi) adds a layer of tension to what might have been a perfunctory CGI party with his suspicion of Spock. Are the Romulans simply Vulcans in disguise, and is the first officer a spy? Only Spock’s rescue of Stiles provides an answer. To resolve all conflicts is a dramatic counterfeit, and a more accurate depiction of how life works would have Spock go unredeemed, suffering Stiles’s bigoted suspicion for the rest of the franchise.

The Shat gives an even, fatherly performance as he meets the Romulan Commander in battle, a conflict that (for all the intermediate technology) distills to a contest of wills. Kirk’s fatigue and indecision enrich the performance even as they demonstrate there is no one else to shoulder his burden. This episode also has the happy honor of containing maybe my favorite Kirk line ever:

I wish I were on a long sea voyage somewhere. Not too much deck tennis, no frantic dancing, and no responsibility.

Frantic dancing! Just superimpose Billy Shatner over the Ray Charles scene from The Blues Brothers (1970). You’re welcome.

Treatments of “Balance of Terror” often neglect to mention the framing device of the shipboard wedding of Lieutenants Robert Tomlinson (Stephen Mines) and Angela Martine (Barbara Baldavin). Though it plays lightly, this is a constant thread of development over the episode. It adds an additional dimension of vulnerability and tension culminating in Kirk’s final scene with the widowed bride. Grief, sacrifice – the “Balance” mentioned in the episode title is less a reference to Cold War tensions than an invocation of the symmetrical pain suffered by both sides.

[1] Lenard went on to play Spock’s father Sarek in a number of episodes (throughout the franchise), as well as the Klingon Commander in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.



Filed under Childhood Memories, Star Trek Original Series

2 responses to “Balance of Terror (Star Trek: The Original Series) Review

  1. Pingback: Shore Leave (Star Trek: The Original Series) Review |

  2. You’ve written a very intelligent analysis of the episode. I also wrote a short essay on “Balance of Terror” on the theme of the doctrine of proportionality. If you would like to read it, here is the link:

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