‘Star Trek: The Original Series’ Revisited: “Balance of Terror”

“Balance of Terror” is a classic cold war suspense drama, which maneuvers its propaganda into viewers’ endocrine systems as craftily as Captain Kirk (William Shatner) pilots his starship to victory. Writer Paul Schneider and director Vincent McEveety reference World War II era submarine battles, Western movie Indian raids, Roman gladiator pictures, and the contemporaneous Iron curtain in Star Trek’s first real masterpiece.

The term “Balance of Terror” during the Cold War referred to the deterrent effect of the nuclear arms race. Here, though, it refers to the tense peace around the Romulan neutral zone, which can only be maintained if the Romulans believe that the Federation (our heroes!) are too strong to attack. A century before, Romulans and the Federation fought a withering war with nuclear weapons. The result was a stalemate and the establishment of a Romulan Neutral Zone which neither side may cross without provoking war.

The Federation has a number of asteroid outposts along the Neutral Zone, and the starship Enterprise learns that these are being attacked one by one. Upon investigating, Kirk discovers that the assailant is a Romulan ship which has a devastating plasma weapon and the ability to cloak itself so it is invisible to sight and mostly to censors. Invisibility takes a great deal of energy, however, so the Romulans have to uncloak when firing. Their ship also lacks warp speed, giving the Enterprise an advantage in maneuverability.

Kirk engages, and the bulk of the episode is a wonderful cat-and-mouse game as he and the Romulan Commander (Mark Lenard) try to exploit one another’s weaknesses, both to destroy each other’s ships and to lure one another over to the wrong side of the Neutral Zone. Unlike in the inferior “Corbomite Maneuver,” the stakes here feel real, and the tactics employed—using comet tails to locate a cloaked ship; concealing a nuclear device amidst jettisoned debris; feinting; anticipating; playing dead—are all well thought through. It’s like watching a very suspenseful game of chess.

An exciting narrative makes war look cool. But (as with most war movies) “Balance of Terror” also wants to convince you that war is necessary and profound. Here, too, it’s both clever and effective. It refuses to cast the conflict in black and white, showing the nobility of the Romulans and the Federation’s occasional ugliness—but insists that the Enterprise has to use force nonetheless.

Lenard as the Romulan Commander is an enormously compelling and charismatic figure, his sharp features (set off by those pointed ears) shift between weariness and resignation as he condemns violence and war personally even as he annihilates his enemies in the name of duty. The quasi-Roman outfits and rank titles make no sense in story, since obviously the space aliens aren’t descended from Earth cultures. But thematically it’s a perfect fit for a tale of the tragic conflict between personal conscience and state duty. In the end, after calling Kirk “friend,” the Commander self-destructs, simultaneously demonstrating that there is no hope of compromise and absolving Kirk of guilt.

On the Federation side, the shades of grey are supplied by Lt. Stiles (Paul Comi), who lost many family members in the Romulan war. When the Enterprise manages to establish visual contact with the Romulan bridge for the first time, the crew sees that the Romulans look like pointy-eared Vulcans. This leads Stiles to decide that the Vulcan First Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is a Romulan spy.

Kirk refers to Stiles’ attacks on Spock as “bigotry,” and (since Spock’s a continuing character and Stiles is not) we never really buy into the paranoia ourselves. But the back and forth allows Kirk, and through him, the Federation, to draw firm moral lines and repudiate racism and revenge as motives in their war.

Spock himself cosigns parts of Stiles’ anger and bigotry as reasonable—he says that Vulcans used to be extremely warlike and that therefore showing weakness to the Romulans would be very dangerous. But then he demonstrates that not all pointy-eared people are dangerous by saving Stiles’ life when there’s a phaser-room malfunction—and firing the death blow against the Romulans himself. Stiles realizes he was wrong, showing that the Federation can rise above its worst impulses, even as Spock, as a kind of good Romulan, pronounces judgment on the bad Romulans, cosigning and justifying their destruction.

Spock’s imprimatur isn’t enough though. The show also leverages romance in the name of war. The episode opens as two of the Enterprise crew —Lt. Robert Tomlinson (Stephen Mines) and Lt. Angela Martine (Barbara Baldavin) are about to be married. The Romulan crisis interrupts the ceremony, and before the end of the episode, Tomlinson is killed in that phaser-room malfunction. The last scene is of Kirk hugging Martine. “We both have to know that there was a reason,” he says, to which she responds, “I’m all right.” Tomlinson’s sacrifice was justified and necessary; even his bereaved fiancé agrees.

The episode is powerful enough and thoughtful enough, to connect to real-world situations where Tomlinson’s sacrifice does seem necessary, and the show’s ethics seem persuasive. The Romulan incursion resonates with the attack on Pearl Harbor, or with the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, for instance. As with the US providing aid to the Ukrainians, and as with the Allies fighting Hitler, the Enterprise is resisting an imperial assault. In doing so, it’s protecting both those under immediate attack (the people on those Neutral Zone border stations) and others who might be next in the path of the aggressor state’s expansion.

It’s worth remembering, though, that in 1966, the relevant Cold War battle was Vietnam. “Balance of Terror” is framing the Vietnam War as a necessary show of strength to prevent Communist territorial acquisition in Asia. It’s a brief for Domino Theory. As such, it’s a lot less convincing. Vietnam was a complicated conflict, but it strains credulity to frame it as an act of invasion by the USSR. The US pouring weapons and bodies in certainly didn’t demonstrate strength or reduce the possibility of war. “Balance of Terror,” in context, feels like a duplicitous leveraging of World War II tropes to justify very different Cold War conflicts. Out of context, it’s a nail-biting romp.

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Star Trek: The Original Series (“Balance of Terror”)

“Balance of Terror,” in context, feels like a duplicitous leveraging of World War II tropes to justify very different Cold War conflicts. Out of context, it’s a nail-biting romp.


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Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.