Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Star Trek at 50: Balance of Terror

Season 1
Episode 8: Balance of Terror
Filmed: July 1966
First Air Date: December 15, 1966 (14th episode aired)

Karen: We've come to one of my favorite Star Trek episodes. 'Balance of Terror' is a perfect mix of suspense and social commentary, putting the Enterprise crew in a game of cat and mouse with a Romulan warship, and having to face unsuspected bigotries of their own. It's well done on every level, especially considering the extremely limited budget the show was working with. 

Karen: When several Federation outposts are discovered destroyed along the Neutral Zone between Federation and Romulan space, Kirk must decide whether to pursue the Romulan warship into enemy space, risking igniting war between the two star-faring civilizations. To complicate matters, Mr. Spock manages to lock on to signals from the Romulan bridge, getting the Federation's first look at the Romulans -and discovering they look just like Vulcans! This uncanny resemblance stirs up feelings of bigotry in navigator Stiles, who casts aspersions on the ship's First Officer, which are strongly rebuked by the Captain. In a very powerful scene, when Stiles suggests under his breath that Spock could decode the Romulan signal, Kirk says to him, "I didn't quite hear that Mr. Stiles." Stiles mutters, "Nothing, sir." Kirk says, "Repeat it." "I was suggesting Mr. Spock can probably translate it for you." Kirk says, "I assume you are complimenting Mr. Spock on his ability to decode?" "I'm not sure, sir," Stiles says. Kirk walks past him, and then abruptly spins his chair around and looks him right in the eye. "Here's something you can be sure of mister. Leave any bigotry in your quarters. There's no room for it on the bridge. Do I make myself clear?"

Karen: Kirk pursues the Romulan ship, and he and the Romulan commander engage in a battle of wits. Mark Lenard portrays the commander of the alien vessel as a noble man, every inch the perfect adversary for Kirk. It's clear that the Romulan Commander is going to do his duty, even though he does not want a war. As usual, Trek did not give us a one-dimensional villain. Lenard would don the pointy ears many more times, but as Spock's father, Sarek. The character would be introduced in the second season episode 'Journey to Babel' but would appear in two films and Star Trek: The Next Generation. He also played a Klingon in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. (The clip below also shows the remastered CGI effects.)

Karen: Kirk's defense of Spock, his declaration that he won't tolerate any bigotry from his crew, his respect for his defeated foe, really define the character and Shatner does a fine job in this episode. I also appreciated his ability to show Kirk's vulnerability. At one point, he has a heart to heart with McCoy. He says, "I look around that bridge and see the crew waiting for me to make the next move -and Bones, what if I'm wrong?" The position of captain is a tough one, a lonely one. This is really brought home in the final scene. At the start of the episode, Kirk had been presiding over a wedding, which is interrupted by a red alert. At the end, he returns to the chapel to find the young bride-to-be. Her fiance was killed during the battle with the Romulans. Kirk tries to console her, by telling her she has to know it was for a reason. But even he feels the hollowness of his words. Shatner subtly shows his regret and the weight he carries as the commander of the Enterprise, as the show closes on the captain walking down the ship's corridors. It's a very effective ending.

Karen: Leonard Nimoy also gives an excellent performance, building Spock up even more with this episode, working carefully to convey the thoughts and buried feelings of this stoic Vulcan. When it is clear that the Romulans are somehow related to the Vulcans, Nimoy gives Spock a slight uneasiness. He knows he is suspect, but is uncertain how he can prove himself. Of course, Kirk never doubts him, and Spock does wind up saving his primary accuser, Stiles, from the toxic gas in the phaser control room.

Karen: In These are the Voyages, Marc Cushman notes that with this episode, changes were made to the theme song. Fred Steiner scored the episode and a new version of the theme song was recorded that sounded less 'outer-spacey' and did not utilize electronic violins. This was the version that was used for the rest of the season.

Karen: Everyone connected with the show wanted to broadcast this episode as soon as possible, but unfortunately the effects took so long to produce that it was delayed quite some time. The Romulan ship was designed by Wah Chang, who had worked on other shows, like The Outer Limits. He designed and built a number of items for Trek, including the tricorder, the Salt Vampire from 'The Man Trap,' and other creatures. Film Effects of Hollywood shot the effects, and with all of the phaser and plasma blasts, it took four months to produce, and the optical effects came in at $47,336 -more than any other episode. I think it was worth it though!


B Smith said...

I didn't know that Wah Chang designed the Romulan ship, and had previously assumed it was Matt Jeffries work. Which could explain why it seemed an odd contrast to the Enterprise and Klingon ship seen later in the show.

It's possibly worth mentioning what a radical design the Enterprise was - in most scifi movies and TV shows spaceships were usually based along the lines of rockets (in a V2 sort of way) or saucers. Jeffries took a bit of both and combined them in a way never seen before. I have to admit that if I was asked which was my favourite character in TOS, the answer would be the Enterprise :-)

Edo Bosnar said...

Another great episode summary and review, Karen. I completely and utterly share your love for this one, and I think your arguments in favor hit all the right points: Kirk's characterization as commander and his stance against bigotry, Lenard's almost show-stealing performance as the Romulan commander, Spock's uneasiness, and yes, that framing sequence with the newlyweds and Kirk's futile attempt to comfort the grieving widow. I would also add that meeting in the briefing room as a really good moment that highlighted not just Kirk and Spock, but also fleshed out McCoy and Sulu. Great stuff.

I think the only minor criticism I would have is that "silent running" bit at the end - now I can understand shutting down most systems and trying to keep the ships from moving to avoid sensor detection, but why would everybody inside them have to whisper and refrain from making noise? They're in the vacuum of space, not underwater!
But like I said, that never detracted from my general fondness for this episode.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

All great sci fi uses the future to shine a light on its present, and nothing more so than ST. Roddenbury managed to very clearly talk about civil rights, racial tension, gender equality, social inequality and other issues which would probably never had got on the air if he had done it head on.

There is a wonderful interview with Nichelle Nichols (several actually) where she tells the Dr. King story. He praised her work and when she told him she was leaving Star Trek to be a singer on Broadway, he told her she must not, that it was critically important that she was the first black woman on American TV to be treated as a respected equal. Also, if they replaced her with a blonde, white bimbo, it would send exactly the opposite message.

Supposedly, when she withdrew her resignation and told Roddenbury why, he said ‘finally someone gets it’.

Later, she became a recruiter for NASA, directly recruiting Guion Bluford (first African American Astronaut), Sally Ride (first female astronaut) but my favourite thing is her inspiration of and then close friendship to Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space. Lt Uhura literally inspired a little girl to become Lt Uhura. Imagine how proud Dr. King would have been of both of them.

Mae Jemison also appeared in several episodes of Star Trek, so it really went full circle. Maybe the next Uhura sat watching Mae with her little mouth wide open in awe.


david_b said...

Great great episode. It basically got everything right and became the new 'measuring stick' for all later episodes (later surpassed by 'City on the Edge of Forever'..).

It had the grieving-over-death, the engrossing adversary, the tense pacing and music, more of a space-submarine adventure that Nick Meyer would resurrect in 'Wrath of Khan'. No need for some humorous ending to cap it off like other episodes.., just a straight-forward action episode worthy of all the acting talent, with tight/crisp direction and pacing. Not a wasted scene in the entire 50 minutes.

But actually Karen, Sarek's introduced in the 2nd year "Journey to Babel", not "Amok Time"..

All in all, great review.

david_b said...

Oh, and I was remiss in bestowing kudos to Wah Chang for the Romulan design. It's a shame that Wah Chang's non-union status didn't allow his model to be utilized later in the 3rd Season "The Enterprise Incident".

Not sure what the 'Voyages' books reveal on this, but the wiki entry (listed below..) for 'The Enterprise Incident' provided an interesting explanation, under 'Models'...:

Garett said...

Great episode, and Mark Lenard is super in both his Trek roles. The first and third videos you put up aren't available in Canada, but here's a condensed version of this episode:

Anonymous said...

Enjoying all the reviews Karen. Great episode.

On you used to be able to watch all the episodes for free. I just went back there to discover there is now a CBS "All Access" for $5.99 a month that has just a ton of stuff in it including all the episodes of all the Treks - TOS, NG, DSN, Enterprise, Voyager...even the Animated Series. Looks like you can do a free trial. I don't know much else about it so no hard sell just thought I'd pass that along.


Karen said...

David, thanks for catching that mistake about Mark Lenard being in 'Amok Time'. Of course I knew better, but must have had a brain freeze or something. I have fixed the error in the post.

I'm quite intrigued about the story regarding Wah Chang's Romulan cruiser. I purchased the third 'These are the Voyages' book last week and I just looked through the chapter on 'The Enterprise Incident' but I couldn't find any explanation for the change. Just that they did change the script to describe the Romulans as having an agreement with the Klingons and an exchange of ships and technology. How terrible to think that Chang would have destroyed that beautiful model! It is funny to think that we didn't see a Klingon ship until the third season.

However, an interesting tidbit about that third season episode: in the rough draft, Ambassador Sarek was a part of the story!

I'm sorry that some of the videos are not available in Canada, Garrett. I had no idea. The first one is a trailer and the third one is the final scene between Kirk and the Romulan Commander.

Edo, the whole 'silent running' thing does seem a bit silly but it amped up the drama. So I can forgive some of the scientific inaccuracy. The briefing room sequence is also excellent and I'm glad you mentioned it. Sulu actually got to show some tactical brains. It's too bad George Takei spent a good portion of the second season filming 'The Green Berets' -we would have seen a lot more of Sulu if he hadn't.

david_b said...

Ahhh yes we missed George, but we wouldn't have been treated to our beloved Walter in those more light-hearted Gene Coon episodes in Year 2 (Tribbles, I Mudd, etc..).

It was nice seeing both George and Walter in 'Fridays Child'.

pfgavigan said...


Today is Mr. Shatner's birthday, happy eighty-fifth.

There's nothing much I can add to the comments made so far except this, it was extremely rare for a tv show to get so much right about itself in the first season. Yes, there were some hick-ups. Some debatable story and character choices. but to be so good so early in it's run was . . . fascinating.



pfgavigan said...


yesterday, the twenty second was Mr. Bill's birthday,

oh no (obscure Seventies reference)



Pat Henry said...

We tend to forget, five decades on, how much a creature of the Cold War the original Star Trek was. Kirk's greatest fear in this episode is the prospect of war, a lone commander on the frontier triggering an existential crisis and clash of civilizations. "What if I'm wrong" seems to signal more a concern about war than the risk of ship and crew. He seems ready and able for the second, but not the first. The consequences of failure lie pretty far from all the post-Star Wars SF with space combats, ships blowing up, wheeee! It's a remarkably adult drama presented here.

Anonymous said...

I've always liked this one. It shows the Romulans aren't just bad-for-the-sake-of-bad...they actually have nuance (and humans aren't all perfect either). Mark Lenard was a great actor; he played the Commander perfectly.

Mike Wilson

Anonymous said...

Yeah, to me personally this was Mark Lenard's show. He really fleshed out the Romulan Commander, giving us the viewers a nuanced, reluctant, even sympathetic 3-dimensional character, a perfect counterpoint to Shatner's cautious Kirk here.

This episode also was a good introduction to the Romulans, whose physical resemblance to the Vulcans was intriguing, although I suspect part of that was due to budgetary concerns - it'd be cheaper to do the same makeup on two different species if they were related!

Edo, about the silent running bit, yeah it's ridiculous to be quiet in the vacuum of space but this episode was so obviously inspired by submarine chase movies that I guess they did that just to build up the suspense. It's also kinda ridiculous to hear laser sound effects when the Enterprise blasts its phasers but hey it sounds so cool!

- Mike 'reduced two steps in rank' from Trinidad & Tobago.

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