With the Write-a-Thon over, I finally have some time to focus on what really matters: my super timely recaps of a 50-year-old science fiction television show!
Yes, my friends, we are back to TOS again. Today we’ll be discussing “Balance of Terror,” which, you know, isn’t a bad episode, per se, just sort of . . . meh? Like, it’s more “meh” on a personal level than a technical one, but still. It’s middling for me. That being said, there are definitely some worthwhile bits, like, we get our first glimpse at the Romulans! Also, Sulu and Scotty are actually in this episode!
Let’s just get down to it, shall we?
There will be SPOILERS for this episode and probably the Star Trek franchise in general. You’ve been warned.
WHAT GOES DOWN, BASICALLY
There’s a wedding on board the USS: Enterprise–but no one has time for that marriage nonsense, not when outposts along the Neutral Zone are getting attacked. No one has entered the Neutral Zone in over 100 years, not since a brutal war between the humans and the Romulans ended. The Enterprise is under orders to adhere to the treaty at all costs, but the Romulans and their mostly-invisible ship are making that difficult. So the Enterprise does some spying, and discover that Spock’s Daddy is leading the Romulan crew!
Okay, not really. But it is Mark Lenard, who will play Spock’s Dad in later episodes/movies, and he does look Vulcan. It seems that no one’s ever seen a Romulan before (I guess the war was the take-no-prisoners kind), so they had no idea that Vulcans and Romulans shared a common ancestry. Unfortunately, this revelation leads Lieutenant Stiles–already kind of a hothead/prejudiced asshole–to acting like an insubordinate dick and all around meanie to Spock. (Apparently, a lot of Stiles’s ancestors died in that war, see. He’s very tiresome about it.)
Kirk and Commander Mark Lenard then spend the majority of the episode trying to outsmart one another. There’s a lot of stuff going on here–CML is weary of fighting, Kirk’s worried about accidentally restarting this devastating war, they’re both dealing with shitty dudes on their respective crews, etc–but there’s definitely a whole “in another world, we coulda been bros” vibe, and by vibe, I mean, they literally say that. In the end, however, the Romulans are defeated, and CML chooses to self-destruct, rather than let his people and ship be captured. Meanwhile, Spock saves Racist Stiles’s worthless ass, and the only Enterprise crew member who dies is the groom who never even got to say “I do.”
So, there’s nothing very wrong with this episode. It’s basically a sub movie in space, right, and I can totally see why people might get into that. I just think that, ultimately, I never really felt that tension, you know? Like, you’ve got the high stakes, the relatively compelling antagonist, the smart calls and miscalculations on both sides. And yet, I was never particularly invested in the outcome, possibly because I already knew none of the main players were gonna bite it, but, more importantly, because I knew Kirk couldn’t possibly screw up so much that he led the Federation into all-out war. And mind you, I didn’t know that because of my vast Trek history knowledge or anything; I knew it because until Deep Space Nine came along, Star Trek has been, by and large, an episodic franchise.
There are advantages and disadvantages to serialized storytelling, but one of the things working strongly in its favor? Stakes. For instance, consider a serialized SF show like The Expanse. (Don’t watch The Expanse? START.) If Jim Holden found himself in Jim Kirk’s shoes, afraid that his decisions might ultimately kick off an alien war, I’d definitely be worried too, because that’s pretty much how that show works: a character makes a choice in one episode, and everyone deals with the fallout for the next ten. But that kind of thing just doesn’t happen in a show like TOS. Cause, like, Kirk can’t restart a century-old war in one episode, and then just fritter around, dealing with away mission hijinks the next. On a truly episodic show, plot consequences can only last for roughly 50 minutes.
So, there’s that. There’s also the wedding business, which isn’t a bad idea, exactly, but it’s also a pretty obvious setup for a tragic end. It might work better if we were at all familiar with these characters, like, say the groom was Kevin Riley or something, surviving his glass of poisoned milk, only to get killed off here. But these people are total newcomers and we’ve spent, what, three minutes with them before Groom Whose Name I Can’t Be Bothered To Look Up bites it? I mean, it’s still kinda sad, but not that sad. And it doesn’t help that Lt. Groom is literally the only person on the Enterprise who dies. Like, come ON.
Still, for all that, “Balance of Terror” is a totally decent hour of Star Trek. I like how each captain gains, loses, and regains the upper hand at some point. The acting is pretty decent. And I’m amused that Spock doesn’t seem to notice any resemblance between the Romulan commander and his father, even though some other alien dude reminded Spock of his dad just a few episodes ago.
So, yeah. It’s all fine; I just didn’t find any of it super compelling, that’s all. But it’s also probably fair to point out that submarine movies aren’t exactly my go-to, either.
Here’s a genuinely surprising thing about this episode: Spock makes a mistake! Yeah! While both ships are playing possum, Spock accidentally hits some button that releases a signal, letting the Romulans know where they are. Spock done fucks up!
We forgive him, though, cause he’s Spock, and we love him (when he’s not being a random asshat, that is), and also because he spends the majority of this episode having to deal with Racist Ass Stiles, who gets tedious very quickly. (One of the more pathetic moments is when he calls Spock “Mr. Science Officer” like it’s an insult. It physically pains me.)
Hell, even before Racist Ass Stiles learns that Vulcans and Romulans share a common ancestry, he makes some rather peculiar leaps in logic, passionately arguing that there could be traitors on board the Enterprise, based on . . . honestly, I don’t even know. Stiles also argues that the Enterprise must attack the Romulans immediately, despite the not insignificant fact that the Enterprise can’t see the Romulans. Sulu, at least, offers up some much needed scorn for this plan. You know why? CAUSE SULU KNOWS WHAT’S UP.
First Time We’ve Encountered: The Romulans. The Neutral Zone. Any kind of cloaking device. It’s all pretty awesome. (Although a cloaking device that also blinds you is not what I’d call an amazing trade-off in battle. Still. It’s interesting. I like seeing technology that’s both cool and comes with major drawbacks.)
FASHION REPORT: Dude, the Romulans have some amazing costumes. I think they’re going for, well, a Roman look, but this, just . . . HA. The gold helmets alone are hilarious, but combine those with . . . Jesus, how do you describe this . . . like, a hot pink and black toga sash that attaches to a pair of matching Bermuda shorts? It’s utterly delightful.
I’m also amused that the Romulans are literally whispering while they’re hiding their ship. Like, no one on the Enterprise can hear you, guys. Talk as loud as you want; just try not to press any unfortunate buttons, like Spock did.
Commander Mark Lenard tells Kirk, “You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you a friend,” which, really, is just the more tragic version of a supervillain gloating, “We’re not so very different, you and I.”
Captain Kirk tells Racist Ass Stiles, “Leave any bigotry in your quarters. There’s no room for it on the bridge.” This is a wonderful sentiment, although it’s one Kirk’s gonna have some trouble with in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
Throughout this whole episode, Kirk is trying to get orders from his superiors on how to handle the situation. Their final decision (basically ‘do whatever, we totes trust you’) only arrives after the action is already over. Typical.
Pretty sure this is the last episode we’ll see Janice Rand in, so it’s doubly depressing that the majority of her role in “Balance of Terror” is to be held and comforted by Captain Kirk when all seems nigh. I’m sorry, Grace Lee Whitney. You deserved better.
Holy shit, Uhura just took over navigation? I didn’t even know she could do that! Can she do it again? Please do it again!
LINE OF THE EPISODE
“He’s a sorcerer, that one. He reads the thoughts in my brain.”