50 Years Ago This Week – Star Trek: Balance of Terror
One of the very best episodes of Star Trek, “Balance of Terror” (season 1, episode 14), first hit the airwaves on December 15, 1966. A great show even with an average episode, "Terror" rolled out the best of everything that The Original Series (the kids call it TOS now) had to offer: a thoughtful and suspenseful plot (it is more about waiting for the action than the action itself—and all the better for it), soul-searching conversations about the meaning of life (no episode of TOS can make do without at least one), a very sophisticated but nevertheless clear-eyed take on the nature of international (or inter-planetary) conflict, and assertively and laudably daring for its time on the issue of race. Not only is Lieutenant Uhura an officer featured prominently on the bridge (Martin Luther King once told her she couldn’t quit the show), but the episode also slaps down, aggressively and definitively, what today we call racial profiling—it is a pity we still need to have such lectures handy. (It must be mentioned, however, that just like many other well-intentioned liberal efforts of the era, TOS could be just shockingly retrograde on issues of gender; in “Balance of Terror,” this results in some ridiculous framing about a wife-to-be, and a Yeoman who really ought not be on the bridge during combat.)
There are three extraordinary elements to keep an eye out for in this episode, two of which are political (sue me, it’s the day job—I have actually screened this one for a class on “International Politics and Film”). It is a helpful, chastising admonition to see that the adversary is not a caricature of unmitigated evil. Rather, the Romulans (making their first appearance along with their dastardly cloaking device and devastating plasma weapon), if clearly in the wrong, are nevertheless plagued by internal divisions, and led by men we come to admire. Indeed one theme of the episode is the mutual respect that develops between Kirk and the Romulan commander. (Mark Leonard, who would eventually spend a few decades playing Spock’s father – love his beautiful curtain call in season three of The Next Generation – brings real depth and pathos to this role. “In a different reality, I could have called you friend,” he tells Kirk, before fulfilling his final obligation.)
“Balance of Terror,” written by Paul Schneider (he also wrote “The Squire of Gothos” which would air a few weeks later), also impresses with its facility in puzzling through the complex dilemmas of deterrence theory. The crucial question on the table: should the Enterprise pursue and attack the Romulan vessel—and promptly, without authorization, before it crosses the neutral zone? Will picking a fight, now, and early, prevent a larger, unwanted war—or tragically ensure that such a war will occur? Kirk has to decide, and, as always, and at the heart of any TOS episode, he must weigh the merits of the radically conflicting counsel proffered by his intimate confidants, Spock and McCoy. Ultimately, what is special about “Balance of Terror” is not the choice Kirk makes (that deck seems fairly stacked), but rather, his self-doubt about making it. The best scene in the episode takes place in the quiet of the captain’s quarters, when Kirk, a pretty confident fellow, whispers this thought: “I look around that Bridge, and I see the men waiting for me to make the next move. And Bones, what if I'm wrong?” McCoy knows just what to say.
Hawks and Doves
Real Losses . . . On Both Sides of the Conflict
"Don't Destroy the one Named Kirk"