The late Terry Prachett wrote into one of his footnotes for a Discworld novel that the Discworld didn’t have much racism because speciesism was much more entertaining. Then I see an episode like “Balance of Terror” and see a crewman doubt Spock’s loyalty and wonder which of those two “isms” that would count as.
Kudos to Kirk for outright saying he won’t tolerate any bigotry on the bridge.
But really, there’s a lot of top notch stuff going on in this episode. There’s a lot to like about it. Opening with Kirk presiding over a wedding for two crewmembers, the ceremony is interrupted by a distress call. Some outposts along the Neutral Zone, the DMZ between Federation and Romulan space, need help. A century earlier, Earth and Romulus went to war with each other using cruder, long range weapons. Due to a series of circumstances, the two never came face-to-face with each other. No human has any idea what a Romulan looks like. Even the treaty between the two powers was negotiated over long range radio, establishing a Neutral Zone in space between the powers, with the Federation establishing a series of outposts along its side of the Neutral Zone.
So, when a Romulan vessel with what apparently is some sort of experimental cloaking device and a super-energy weapon starts attacking the outposts, there’s a problem. The Romulans destroy three, one of which happens in view of the Enterprise. From there, we get a really tense game of cat-and-mouse between Captain Kirk and the nameless Romulan Commander. Sure, the Romalan ship is basically invisible. Its superweapon can make the hardest metals known to the Federation brittle and weak.
Fortunately for Kirk, the cloaking devices uses a lot of power, reducing the Romulan vessel to impulse drive, and the super-weapon only has so many shots in it. The Romulans are on the wrong side of the Neutral Zone. Kirk knows if he crosses into the Zone itself, let alone into Romulan space, he could be starting a war, and the last one was incredibly costly in terms of lives on both sides.
Oh, and if that wasn’t enough to deal with, Lt. Uhura manages to get a transmission from the Romulan ship, giving the crew of the Enterprise humanity’s first look at a Romulan ever.
They look like Spock.
OK, they actually look like Spock’s father because actor Mark Lenard, better known to Trek fans as Spock’s father Sarek, played the Commander.
That all leads to a two-tier conflict. On the one hand, there’s Kirk and the Romulan, and that’s incredibly well-done. The two men are presented as near-equals (obviously Kirk prevails), as each stops to consider what he would do in such a situation as both realize the other reacts much the same way as each would expect to do so on his own. On the other, the ship’s current navigator, Lt. Stiles, lost family to the Romulan War a century earlier and doesn’t trust Spock. And then every so often we check in on the almost-married couple. The groom is actually the bride’s superior officer…
…you know, I think that might be a wee bit unethical…
Really, this is a fantastic episode. The script smartly shows that the Romulan and Kirk both learn as they go, matching their respective expertise and countering each move the other makes, stopping to ponder what the other may do as they both work to take down the other’s ship without necessarily starting a war. Kirk is aware (and McCoy is there to remind him) how he has to be very careful not to go into the Neutral Zone. Meanwhile, the Romulan doesn’t want to be the one to start the war. He, presumably, wants Kirk to start it.
This is the period when TV was episodic as opposed to serial, so if the Romulans have more plans than what’s on display here, we won’t be seeing it anytime soon. It mostly appears the Romulans want Kirk to defend the outposts so they can declare war over a Neutral Zone violation. And as different attacks hit both ships, it becomes more and more desperate of a situation.
And yet, the Romulan Commander is something of an admirable character. He’s smart, not some cackling madman. He’s doing this out of s sense of duty. Sure, he’s aggressive. He killed a lot of people at the various outposts. It just doesn’t look like he made those decisions. I realize as I type this that nothing there makes him sound all that admirable. It was just something in Lenard’s performance. By episode’s end, when he suggests he and Kirk could in another lifetime have been friends, and he’s resigned to die a “noble” death according to his own culture’s beliefs, well, he’s almost a pitiable character. At the least, he was a worthy adversary.
As for the other plot, well, of course Spock saves both the ship and specifically the life of Lt. Stiles. Spock was never an enemy agent. Heck, Stiles raises the possibility of Romulan spies before the crew sees its first Romulan. How would they know anyone was a spy? Or how someone would be able to infiltrate Starfleet that way?
But the episode, that began with a wedding, ends with a more morose feeling fitting for the philosophical musings of a show like Star Trek. The Romulans are all dead. Spock gets an apology from Stiles, but it’s Spock. That apology doesn’t matter one iota to him one way or the other. He saved an experienced navigator. And that engaged couple? The young groom from the start of the episode was the only casualty. There’s nothing to celebrate here.
War is like that.