“BALANCE OF TERROR”
Season 1, Episode 14 (Production 9), Story 14
Written by Paul Schneider; Directed by Vince McEveety
PLOT: Out near the Neutral Zone, Romulans are attacking Earth bases and it’s up to the Enterprise to stop them.
SUBPLOT: Will Angela and Tomlinson get married?
KIRKISM: “Leave any bigotry in your quarters. There’s no room for it on the bridge.”
HEADER QUOTE SPOKEN BY: McCoy
I have been relatively lukewarm about STAR TREK to this point. There are some good episodes and, for the most part, watching the show has been an enjoyable experience but there hasn’t been anything that elevated the show to a special level.
BALANCE OF TERROR is gripping television from start to finish with a simple plot enhanced by the nuances of characterization that provide the proper context to the story to elevate the drama.
The episode opens on a wedding, as Angela and Tomlinson, two crazy kids who wear the gold shirts and work with the phasers, are about to get hitched by Captain Kirk. I love moments like this that show us the personality of the crew because it gives the feeling that the Enterprise is a living, breathing collection of humans and not just extras walking around in uniforms taken off the wardrobe rack.
There’s been precious little of that kind of world building – what we see are a similar collection of faces and outfits and corridors but there’s so little in the way of development and personality that the Enterprise still feels like sets instead of a ship. As nice as it is to see Uhura singing (and for all of Roddenberry’s alleged beautiful future, it’s a shame that the one black member of the cast has so far been used almost strictly to provide some singing and dancing) in the lounge, because so few of the people in the room have any kind of personality, she might as well be singing in a coffee shop in front of strangers. To see a marriage, then, is a huge breath of fresh air into the still, recycled air of a starship.
Another moment like this in the episode is the bigotry displayed by Stiles. When it’s revealed that Romulans look like Vuclans (somehow an entire war was fought without humans ever seeing Romulans … go ahead, roll your eyes, it’s insanely stupid), Stiles family animosity towards the Romulans manifests itself with Stiles’ ire towards Spock and Vulcans.
Wait. Did I say Romulans? You know I did.
The wedding ceremony is interrupted by an alarm, and we find out that someone is attacking Earth Outposts near the Neutral Zone. Romulans are, of course, suspected, and the Enterprise rushes off to find out who’s behind the attacks. The Earth Outposts aren’t just being attacked, but annihilated, and Stiles and his bigotry get all mouthy with the captain.
I understand that a drama needs conflict and it would be boring if everyone on the bridge either simply did whatever Kirk ordered them to do without question or waited until Kirk took them into the conference room and gave them permission to speak their mind, but there’s a lot of mouthiness and brushback coming from the navigator chair during the course of this series and it would be nice to see it addressed. I get that STAR TREK favors the episodic to the serialized form of storytelling, but it’s weird to see a new face in that seat practically every episode, have them almost be universally mouthy or incompetent, and rarely see it addressed like it was back in CLINT HOWARD’S PUNK’D.
Here, however, it works wonderfully. With Stiles beating the war drum and the Outposts getting destroyed by some unknown power, tensions run high on the bridge, which adds to the tension of what amounts to a submarine movie.
The Romulans are behind the attacks and the Romulan commander (played by Mark Lenard, who would grow up to play Spock’s daddy) and Kirk engage in a very entertaining, tension-filled battle of wits and guns.
When they finally find the Romulan ship, they notice the ship can render itself invisible but has to appear when it fires. Surmising the Romulan ship might not know the Enterprise is there, Kirk orders the Enterprise to mirror their enemy’s, hoping to hide themselves as long as possible by making the Romulans think they’re just an echo on the ship’s computers.
After Spock figures out a way for the Enterprise to see the bridge of the Romulan vessel by jumping on some communication signals, Stiles keeps hammering away at Spock and the connection between Vulcans and Romulans. Kirk rebukes Stiles skillfully and succintly. After Stiles says that Spock shouldn’t have any trouble interpreting the Romulans, Kirk forcefully but calmly tells him that he hopes Stiles is referring to Spock’s decrypting skills and that he should leave his bigotry in his quarters because there’s no place for it on the bridge.
There’s a really solid starship battle that is enhanced by Yeoman Rand and Captain Kirk watching the screen but slightly holding each other, taking some physical comfort in the face of the danger. It’s such a good moment in such a series of good moments between Rand and Kirk that it’s a shame Rand isn’t more flushed out as a character.
Vincent McEveety’s direction is spot on – he’s able to effectively build the tension of the “submarine” battle, and there’s some beautiful shots of character interaction (between Rand and Kirk, and then at the end between Kirk and Angela) – and he brings out the best in his actors and in Schneider’s tight script.
The Romulan Commander is played as an experienced man who’s grown tired of his peoples’ ways and he’s got a younger officer nipping at his heels. Lenard plays the Commander as tired but trapped and it’s a wonderful performance. At the end, he tells Kirk that he respects him and that, in another life, they could have been friends, which is a tad melodramatic, but not inappropriate given that he’s about to blow his own ship up. He may be trapped but he’s going down with the Romulan customs.
The human elements of the show are tied up together. Stiles and Tomlinson are down with the phaser banks and there’s a coolant leak. Spock saves Stiles but is too late for Tomlinson, so one man learns the lesson of bigotry and the other doesn’t get married.
It’s a stock, obvious ending and not befitting the tension that preceded it, but it’s not enough to take away from a marvelous, gripping episode.
The final scene between Kirk and Angela, who Kirk finds praying in the chapel, is powerfully realized and beautifully shot, and a much better conclusion to the best episode of the season, so far.