There’s a pretty good reason why the sky-ship shows up so much in fantasy and steam punk novels; it is simply an idea that is so natural. Water and sky are very similar for thematic purposes. Both can be navigated, and moved through, and the sky can make a handy substitute when it comes to writing modern stories about dogfights or space conflicts. Towards the end of “Return of the Jedi,” the small Rebel fleet attacks the enormous armada size Star Destroyers of the Imperial fleet, in what could easily be compared to the British’s battle with the Spanish Armada. Comparisons between the two come natural, but few make it as blatant as Star Trek’s “Balance of Terror.”
Human observation points have come under attack near the neutral zone of the Federation/Romulan border. Kirk and some of the crew are concerned that a Romulan vessel is cutting through the station’s deflector shields and destroying the posts, but the crew of the Enterprise realizes the threat when they find the cloaked ship destroying posts in a blast or two. Kirk eventually decides to attack the ship before it can reach the Romulan side of the border and could deem the Enterprise’s actions an attack on their empire. It’s a race against time, with the Enterprise playing the role of the destroyer, and the Romulan bird of prey, taking the part of the submarine in this naval homage.
Like “The Conscience of the King” before it, “Balance of Terror” really loses nothing for its aping of genre conventions. The episode is explosive and intriguing, and it might be the most consistently exciting yet, but there are several things that really make this one work.
Of course, there are the Romulans. I’ve talked a lot about Star Trek widening the scope, and the introduction of a sophisticated alien race that has crossed with humanity before is one of the better ways to expand the universe in a satisfying and organic way. Kirk and Spock’s exposition dump to the audience, I mean crew, draws up the history between the races a little bit awkwardly, but it is satisfying to have that information presented. It seemed a little silly that no human had ever seen a Romulan, but it makes the reveal work well and Spock’s theory about the Romulans being genetic relations to the Vulcans is another way that the mythos expands in an interesting and believable way.
The plotting itself is what initially draws people in. For the most part, combat in space is generally depicted as fast, deadly and fraught with explosions. This is a handy way to make a blockbuster, but it doesn’t work as well for television, and it certainly doesn’t work as well for Star Trek. Having the Enterprise have to search for the Romulan vessel and continuously plot on how to catch it manages to create a sense of tension, but more than that, it allows both Kirk and the Romulan captain to shine as characters and as leaders of their respective ships. Instead of turning this into a firefight, “Balance of Terror” is more akin to a contest of wills.
There is some subtext to the action in “Balance of Terror” and it manages to focus on two current events of the time, but still remains relevant today. The conversation in the briefing room makes clear the episode’s feelings about the nature of a preliminary strike. McCoy argues that “war is never imperative,” but he is outvoted by Spock, Stiles and Kirk, which speaks both to the Enterprise’s need to defend the Federation as well as the place of honor and revenge. Kirk makes clear that the attack is not for the reasons that the prejudiced Stiles would encourage, but the attack is necessary in the preservation of human interests and peace.
The concept of peace in the midst of diplomatic and military tension is one that is explored in an even more subtle way, but it would have been considerably more blatant at the time of the episode’s airing. The title, “Balance of Terror” is a reference to the escalating threat of nuclear war, particularly during the Cold War era, and the promise of mutual destruction that it brings. Both powers have the ability to crush one another in “Balance of Terror,” but it is not until the Romulan commander jettisons the nuke with his waste that the threat of military escalation really hits. Kirk and his opponent have passed the point of escape or submission. One of the ships will be destroyed. It is zero hour.
I don’t want to read too much into an episode that is mostly just a Romulan ship getting crushed by the Enterprise. There is a subtext that is mostly undeniable, but I really want to avoid rushing into an analysis of a subject that really has no implications or answers of the war. By no means is “Balance of Terror” actually “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.” If there is a nuclear subtext, it is subtle and offers no answers. If anything, “Balance of Terror” shows the choices that leaders have to make when they enter combat and the lives that they find themselves responsible for.
You may note that I didn’t mention the wedding B-story. That’s because it’s fucking ridiculous and predictable.
Sulu is back. I am working on a theory that explains my love/appreciation for Sulu in the navigator seat, but we’ll wait until an episode where he really has something to do to unleash it.
I like the design of the Romulan ship, but it seems strange that they would have an Earth falcon-esque bird painted on the bottom of their ship.
Spock’s talk of why he saved Stiles is more reasons to love the Vulcan. He does it because he has to. It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.
Next Up: “Shore Leave” which hopefully features Sulu doing things that will allow me to break out this Sulu theory. Fuck it, it’ll probably be a shitty vacation-esque episode.