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Balance of Terror

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at August 26, 2005 - 7:27 PM GMT

See Also: 'Balance of Terror' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: Captain Kirk is preparing to perform a wedding between two crewmembers, Robert Tomlinson and Angela Martine, when an emergency call from Neutral Zone Outpost 4 summons all crewmembers to alert status. It is presumed by many on the crew that the station was attacked by the Romulan Star Empire - particularly navigator Stiles, whose ancestors died during Earth's previous conflict with the Romulans. It is soon discovered that Outposts 2 and 8 have also been pulverized and the crew witnesses the horrific destruction of yet another. The intruder seems to have a cloaking screen, for it disappears from the sensors except when it is firing. When Uhura intercepts a message directed toward Romulus and Remus, Spock is able to decode it and reveals that the Romulans look very much like Vulcans. Stiles, who suspects that Spock may be a spy, wants to pursue the enemy, but Kirk insists upon a parallel course, saying that he will not risk entering the Neutral Zone and triggering another war. After a gambit to follow the ship's trail through a comet's tail and a narrow escape from a blast from the Romulan plasma weapon, Kirk pretends that the Enterprise has been destroyed, powering down to lure the Romulans in closer. A leak in phaser control nearly derails the plan, but Spock saves Stiles and fires the weapons, damaging the Romulan ship. Kirk tells the Romulan commander that the Enterprise will beam his survivors aboard but he insists that that is not the Romulan way and allows himself to be destroyed along with his ship. McCoy tells Kirk that there was only one casualty: Tomlinson, the young man who was going to be married.

Analysis: "Balance of Terror" is one of Star Trek's nearly perfect hours, with an unforgettable guest performance by Mark Lenard (who is of course more famous for playing Spock's father, Sarek) and an introduction to one of the franchise's enduring villains, whose menace was still being felt years later in the final motion picture, Star Trek: Nemesis, long after the Klingons had become allies. The story is framed by a rare glimpse into the personal lives of Enterprise crewmembers, revealing that on long Starfleet missions, married couples may serve on the same ship and even in the same chain of command. But the rare glimpse into the ship's chapel is not so intriguing as a rarer glimpse into the mind of the enemy - in this case a reluctant adversary who has been ordered by his superiors to carry out a mission that may well end in war, and thousands if not millions more deaths.

The first part of the episode is a taut thriller in which Kirk and crew cannot even be positive that it is the Romulans they are pursuing; he too is aware that a mistake could lead to a much larger assault, and Starfleet is too far away for communication that might help clarify the decisions he must make. No one knows what the Romulans look like, for we are told that ships from the first conflict had no visual communication and established a treaty via subspace radio (some inconsistencies with this would later be created in Star Trek: Enterprise's "Minefield"); not even Spock realizes that the Romulans are a long-lost Vulcan offshoot until he sees them on the screen, and only then does the magnitude of the threat they may represent become clear to him. It is Stiles, who holds a personal grudge against the unseen Romulans, who knows that their ships resemble birds of prey. For quite a long stretch of time, Kirk can only watch helplessly as outposts along the Neutral Zone are destroyed, unable to see his enemy and unsure how far he can pursue when he does, for protecting the Neutral Zone and preventing a war is his first obligation.

Once it becomes evident that the enemy is indeed the Romulans and they are heading to the Neutral Zone, Kirk understands that stopping the invisible ship before it gets there must be his priority. Meanwhile, his adversary urgently wants to cross the Neutral Zone and see the stars of home, for he knows that with the Starfleet vessel destroyed, there will be another war, "death and more death," and he finds himself longing for destruction before he can arrive with his report of how easily the Earth outposts fell. This is a rather shocking confession to hear a commander confessing even to a centurion who is apparently his best friend, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, yet the commander's sense of duty keeps him meeting Kirk's offensives and they are quite evenly matched until the end. Kirk expresses similarly troubled sentiments about his duty to McCoy, wishing he were on a long sea voyage somewhere without the responsibility of making decisions that could cost him his ship or start a war. McCoy's response is that in a universe of three million million galaxies, but only one of each of them, the captain's first responsibility is not to destroy the one named Kirk. The scene echoes Captain Pike's discussion with his ship's doctor from "The Menagerie" as well as the Romulan Commander's dilemma.

Stiles is both a hindrance and an asset in this situation. His hatred of the Romulans makes him impulsive and potentially dangerous - Kirk asks him at one point whether he is questioning orders - yet Spock, whom Stiles regards with deep distrust from the moment it is revealed that the Romulans are Vulcanoid, ultimately agrees with him that attacking the slippery ship is necessary even if it might mean the destruction of the Enterprise. There should be no place for Stiles' dismissive reaction to Spock in the phaser control room, which is very close to insubordination, yet it is the fact that he sends Spock away that allows Spock to realize something has gone wrong in the room and to rescue both Stiles and the ship. The navigator's frustration is understandable: the Enterprise must destroy the Romulans on the Earth-patrolled side of the Neutral Zone to prove that it was the Romulans who broke the treaty, yet the risk to the Enterprise is far greater because the alien ship has both a cloak and more powerful weapons, and if the Starfleet vessel becomes an easy target, the Romulans will perceive weakness and, as Spock agrees with Stiles, are likely to send an invasion force.

McCoy, taking the humanist approach, remains adamant that it is not worth risking another war over incidents that happened a century ago and warns Kirk that he is taking a big gamble by pursuing the invader (interestingly, the Romulan Commander receives almost the opposite advice, told that he is taking a big gamble by not pursuing the Enterprise to finish it off even if it means risking his own ship). On the bridge, the doctor reminds Spock that if the Enterprise violates the Neutral Zone it will have handed the Romulans a reason to go to war. Yet from the time Kirk makes his decision, McCoy backs him and tries to comfort him when Kirk worries that he might have made the wrong decision. The captain knows that this decision must be made on his responsibility alone, and sends a message saying so to Starfleet.

So worn down is the Romulan Commander that in the end he calls the leader of the Romulans "your Praetor" to a subordinate officer. He has seemingly removed himself from loyalty to the one in whose name they have carried out such destruction, particularly after the wounding of the Centurion beside whom he sits in the midst of crisis until the man is dead. His brash subordinate reminds him that it is their duty to crush the Praetor's enemies, saying, "If you refuse, permit me the glory of the kill." The Romulan Commander knows that this is the wrong course of action; he has already guessed Kirk's plan, just as Kirk has guessed his. Still, he agrees to go forward, declaring, like Kirk, that the order will come from the commander alone.

Kirk and the Romulan Commander both acknowledge the other's intelligence and the Romulan says that in a different reality, he could have called the Starfleet captain a friend. He cites duty in his decision to die, just as Spock cites duty as his reason for saving Stiles, though in both cases there are clearly more complicated motives at work. There are obvious Cold War parallels in the political machinations of the Neutral Zone, the balance of power that requires both sides to demonstrate equal strength, and the use of nuclear warheads with subsequent radiation injuries (an anachronism not only with Enterprise but with later episodes in the original series). In the only other original series episode to deal so directly with the Romulans, The Enterprise Incident, Kirk will steal a cloaking device to try to maintain the equity. Ultimately he understands this reasoning, yet when he addresses Tomlinson's bride, he can only tell her that it never seems to make sense, and they can only believe that there is a reason.

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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.

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