Balance of Terror

I recently watched the first season of the original Star Trek for the first time ever. It was sort of weird to realize that the local Fox affiliate that had licensed Trek back when I was into the whole franchise a blazillion years ago was seemingly terrified of the prospect of delving further back into the archives than the second season, but yeah — the whole box set was entire new to me, besides of course what I knew of the old episodes via reputation. Because there really were some legendary shows in that first season, groundbreaking television that shaped and influenced an entire genre. Of the nearly thirty episodes from that year, though, the one that most impressed me was “Balance of Terror.”

“Balance” is best known as the debut of the Romulans, and that’s a pretty good legacy to have. Romulans are a lot more interesting as enemies than the more familiar Klingons, because they’re less one-dimensional. On the contrary, part of what makes them so unusual — especially in their debut — is how much they resemble Spock’s noble, self-controlled race in all but demeanor. The most striking resemblance in “Balance,” though, isn’t within the characters but rather in the plot and structure of the episode itself.

Trek was basically a big Cold War parable, and here we have the obligatory submarine story — and a tightly-knit one, at that. Captain versus captain, a battle of wits and cunning. It’s a facet of Trek that I’ve only really seen in The Wrath of Khan. I never, ever saw it in The Next Generation for all the years I watched it, in the future’s future, everyone mostly just has internal conflict and is more concerned about how they feel about the threat of the week and never need to deal with a desperate fight for survival in the face of a devious foe. I used to really like Captain Picard, but ultimately I think I have to give the advantage to Kirk. He’s just as clever as his successor, but he’s a lot less angsty about it.

More than that, though, “Balance” did a fantastic job of humanizing (so to speak) the antagonists; while they were on a military mission, hoping to probe Federation defenses to find weaknesses in advance of a first strike, the Romulan captain was weary of war and was ultimately motivated by the drive to get the heck out of enemy territory and back to safety. (Also, he was later reincarnated as Spock’s dad, which I assume involved a time-travel trick similar to the new movie’s.) In the end, you know the Enterprise has to win the day’s encounter, ’cause otherwise it’s WAR!! But you don’t really feel good about the hard-fought victory. That’s quality television.

There’s a lot of speculation that future Trek feature films in the wake of the reboot will revisit situations and encounters from the old TV series. I would be totally fine with them using “Balance” as a starting point. Yeah, that means three movies in a row with a Romulan villain, but this one would actually be compelling!

21 thoughts on “Balance of Terror

  1. I only watched Balance of Terror for the first time last year (when these episodes all came out in the last wave of TOS DVD releases), and yeah, it’s good enough that it didn’t even occur to me until *this* year that the whole “shhh, everyone be quiet lest the enemy ship hear us” bit at the end of the episode makes absolutely no goddamned sense in a show that takes place in the vacuum of space.

    I’m usually the first jerk to notice those things, but I was so caught up in the damned story that those quibbles just flew right over my head.

  2. According to, Balance of Terror was based on the classic submarine movie, The Enemy Below. Since I really enjoyed the episode, I think I’ll check out that movie.

  3. I’m surprised no one has brought up to you the Deep Space 9 episode “Starship Down” which is also, nakedly, a submarine story. The Defiant and a Jem’hadar ship fight within a gaseous planet’s atmosphere, giving a handy excuse for why they can’t detect each other with sensors. Getting too close to the planet even acts as “critical depth”. Anyway, if you want more Trek as submarine story, check it out. It does a good job of creating tension.

  4. I just recently showed The Menagerie to a bunch of coworkers who had never really watched any original Trek, after we all took in the new film, and I could see them doing something with that, especially since it involves Pike.

  5. Personally, I appreciated TNG when it wasn’t blatantly ripping plots from TOS. Have you forgotten TNG Season 1, Jeremy Parish? Have you? We’ve all seen “The Naked Now,” and it was not a pretty sight.

  6. Mister Parish? Sir?

    I know this probably isn’t the right place to do this, but anyway… Would you let me into your forumzez please? It’s been a month since I applied. And I am a bright young man with a lot of emotional baggage! So I should be interesting for all the nice people! On the forumzez.

  7. Balance of Terror is definitely one of my favorites. As for TNG, you’re right when you say they never did the say thing, but I thought they came close with “Best of Both Worlds.” Not only was that the last time the Borg were scary, it was the last time the Enterprise had to use all of it wits to defeat a seemingly unbeatable foe. And, of course, it scarred Picard for life.

    Hmmm, I kind of want to watch it again now.

  8. By the time Deep Space Nine purportedly stopped being boring, I’d given up on Trek altogether. (I didn’t even see Insurrection until a couple of years ago… and I kinda wish I hadn’t bothered.) I intend to check out DS9 someday, though, since I hear it’s really good, even if it’s not entirely “Trek”-ish in tone.

  9. The fat-free way to watch DS9 would be to skip to season 4 or so – you’ll miss out on a lot of world-building, but at least you’ll spare yourself being bored away from the show entirely.

  10. I’d go the opposite of Mudron if you’re going to watch ds9. Watch seasons 1-6 than pretend 7 never existed and make up your own ending it couldn’t be any worse than theirs. But also like Kat said Babylon 5 was better, but both shows last seasons were equally terrible in my opinion.

  11. Regardless, if you only watch one DS9 episode, make it “In the Pale Moonlight” (it’s a season six episode, I think).

    You could power Las Vegas for a week and a half with the kinetic energy created by Gene Rodenberry’s corpse spinning in it’s grave as a result of that single episode.

  12. The actor, Mark Lenard, that played both the Romulan Commander and Spock’s dad Sarek also played the captain of the Klingons in the opening scene of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”, making him the only actor to play all three primary alien races from the original series.

  13. I just watched “In the Pale Moonlight” for the first time the other week, expecting something awesome, and instead getting something only so-so. I think the episode could have done without the narrative; I like Ben Sisko, but his “Capitan’s Log” was rather ham fisted. DS9 was boring and lame as a kid, but these days I find it very interesting. They probably did a better job developing interesting, multifaceted characters in that series than any other Star Trek.

  14. DS9’s the best one. I love the first three shows dearly, and I admit it never develops the iconic aura that its predecessors managed, but the character interaction is just so much richer. It feels so much more like a world as opposed to a bunch of isolated individuals standing around. And Babylon 5 does the same thing even better.

  15. addendum: I’ll admit that DS9 doesn’t have TNG’s patented “there’s something wrong with reality, and one crew member gradually figures it out” episodes, which are all awesome.

  16. I like Babylon 5 and all, but man, these days I can’t watch it without being put off by the horrible acting and ham-fisted exposition.

  17. Bruce Boxleitner? Claudia Christiansen? Mira Furlan? The guy who played Sinclair whose name I’m forgetting?

    I loved Babylon 5 when it originally aired but rewatching it now, I realize that I was able to put up with a lot because it offered something I couldn’t get on television at the time. It’s still a good show and builds a great world.

  18. It’s not like the acting on Trek was ever top-shelf either, Patrick Stewart excepted. With TV sci-fi all that really matters to me is charisma.

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