Saturday, September 18, 2010

Star Trek Goes Into Masterpiece Territory With “Balance Of Terror!”

The Good: Tense, Wonderful acting, Moments of character, Effects, Message
The Bad: While the story is full, the plot falls just shy of perfect.
The Basics: In the first episode that Star Trek knocks it out of the park, the Enterprise encounters the Romulans with "Balance Of Terror!"

Star Trek succeeded in its first season at creating a memorable television show by being quite different from anything else that was on at the time. Even sitting down to watch the show in syndication, on DVD, on tape (whatever) it is quite evident that the show was strong because it was something quite different each episode. One week it was heady and dramatic, the next comedic, the next pure science fiction. In its first few episodes, it took a while for the show to truly hit a stride, but when it did, it knocked one out of the part. That first real success was with a tense thriller episode called “Balance Of Terror.”

“Balance Of Terror” is a political thriller, an episode that is overcome with the threat of war and battle and it is pretty wonderful. Indeed, all that brings this episode down is a faint drift of plot; there’s just an intangible quality that keeps it from perfection. Is it better than most television you’ll see today? Absolutely. Is it easily accessible to all adult audiences? Certainly.

When Federation outposts are being destroyed along the Romulan Neutral Zone, the U.S.S. Enterprise is dispatched to investigate. Despite any incursions into Federation space being an act of war on the part of the Romulans, the Enterprise is sent to investigate and avert a war, if at all possible. As the ship arrives at the latest outpost to be attacked, Captain Kirk and his crew discover that the Romulans have a new tactical advantage, a cloaking device that allows them to make their ship invisible! Desperate to keep the Romulan ship from returning to Romulan space with the knowledge that their device works (and of the Federation’s weakened capabilities because of the lost outposts) Kirk pursues the Romulan ship. While the bridge crew works to combat the Romulans outside, they work to combat prejudice on the inside when Spock manages to get the first images of the Romulans over the viewscreen.

You know what? Writing up the plot summary made me think of the complexity of this episode and the truth is, it is almost perfect. Here’s why: this is probably the first episode with real menace to it. “Balance Of Terror” has a bodycount, it’s complex – fighting the war against prejudice while fighting a battle against an enemy -, and it is tight with the tension. And it works!

Starting with – of all things – a wedding aboard the Enterprise, “Balance Of Terror” attempts to illustrate that the starship (and Star Trek) has a lot going on in it. While Tomlinson attempts to marry the woman he loves, Federation politics intervenes and forces them to postpone. While the Romulans attack, Spock employs his curiosity to tap into their communication’s system to get a look at one of them, resulting in racial tensions on the bridge.

One of the interesting concepts in this episode is what makes the revelation of the Romulans so intriguing. The Romulan War, fought quite some time ago in the Star Trek universe was a conflict wherein the humans and their allies never actually saw who it was they were fighting. They never knew what the Romulans looked like, despite fighting a war against them. That idea is a clever and disturbing one and it plays out extraordinarily well in this episode. When it turns out the Romulans have a striking resemblance to the Vulcans, one of the bridge officers, Stiles, begins to be suspicious of Spock. Why the Romulans look like Vulcans is theorized but not explicitly mentioned in the show until Star Trek: The Next Generation’s "Unification, Part II.”

The battles inside and out work very well over the course of the episode, especially because the moral of the piece plays out well on both fronts. The Spock/Stiles plotline illustrates wonderfully the misconceptions of prejudice and the Kirk/Romulan Commander plotline does that as well. But equally smart is the narrative technique employed to reinforce the explicit themes implicitly. No episode before this one spends so much time away from the primary crew of the Enterprise. But in “Balance of Terror,” the viewer is treated to several scenes on the Romulan ship. The result, we see that they are honorable, principled and cunning. The Romulan Commander is a patriot, much in the way Kirk and his crew are. The changes of perspective throughout the piece work beautifully to drive home the idea of the basic (for lack of a better term and it IS the wrong one in this context) humanity of all living sentient beings.

Part of the reason this works so well is the character aspects. While this is a very plot-intensive episode, when “Balance Of Terror” gives the characters moments to display their courage, character and resolve, it rises above the plot and the characters move the plot, not the other way around. So, for example, the highly principled Romulan Commander begins to make choices that illustrate a sense of tactics, honor and cunning, which force Kirk and Spock to rise to the occasion or die. Spock illustrates his unflappable (yet still logical) heroism for his fellow officer when he assists Stiles, despite the man’s prejudice of him. And even Stiles is a memorable character. In a clean as new snow universe, Stiles illustrates some character by being prejudice when he associates Spock with the Romulans.

Furthermore, the characters work because all of the actors are bringing their a-games to the episode. All of the guest actors carry a sense to them that they are a part of this universe and have a backstory in it. Instead of appearing awkward, all of the guest actors seem perfectly natural in their fantastic surroundings. The actors playing the couple to be married have decent on-screen chemistry. The actors portraying the Romulans have a unified sense of purpose and concept to their performance. Indeed, they set the bar high for what one will expect of the Romulans because all of the actors perform in a way that clearly establishes a sense of culture and reality to this new alien race.

The epitome of this is the performance by Mark Lenard. Lenard, who would later play Spock’s father, Sarek, in Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and three of the Star Trek films is dignified and compelling as the Romulan Commander. Lenard has a strong leadership sense to him and his performance embodies the qualities one hopes to see in someone who is supposedly leading people into battle. Here, Lenard is able to balance appearing completely in charge with illustrating – through his body language and contemplative tones- that he is strategizing at key moments. Lenard sells the viewer on the sense of honor with the Romulans.

This is also one of the classic episodes where William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy work together to advance the relationship between Kirk and Spock. Shatner’s Kirk exhibits great trust in Spock, though one has to wonder what it is about Spock that compels him to hack into other ships’ systems (we saw him do it in “The Corbomite Maneuver” as well, with much the same effect!). But Shatner and Nimoy have great on-screen chemistry in “Balance of Terror” that establishes the depth of their characters’ relationship.

“Balance Of Terror” continues to ratchet up the tension and as the episode progresses, there is a very real sense that not everyone will survive the episode and that works quite well in establishing the mood and keeping the viewer on the edge of their seat. And while it is pretty much just a chase episode after a point, it keeps the viewer engaged because of the character elements thrown in and . . . well, it’s a good chase!

Even after forty years, this episode holds up for all audiences (not just science fiction enthusiasts) as a worthwhile piece.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete First Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the premiere season by clicking here!


For other Star Trek episode reviews, please check out the index page!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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  1. Hi. I've always found the Romulans fascinating as vilains. I would have loved to see them a whole lot more than the Klingons because they are much more deceitful and complex individuals.

    For that reason alone, it's a shame that Enterprise have been cancelled because seasons 5 or 6 would have no doubt developped their background story a little bit further.

    1. The Romulans can be wonderful villains and actually they are characterized much more consistently throughout the franchise.

      Thanks for the comment!