Each time Star Trek celebrates a significant milestone, up crop the lists of everyone’s favorite episodes. For years, it seemed like “City on the Edge of Forever” would inevitably make the top spot on just about any list. But in the last decade or so, I’ve noticed a bit of a re-examination of all things Star Trek has begun and that a couple of “dark horse” candidates have been slowly rising in the estimation of fans while certain “accepted classics” have lost a bit of ground.
One of those episodes is “Balance of Terror,” which topped io9’s list of the best of all 700 plus episodes of Star Trek a few years ago.
On the one hand, I can see why this episode could be in a top twenty or so of all Trek episodes. Our introduction to the Romulans works on so many levels from a standard suspense thriller to a deeper parable on prejudices to examining once you strip away geographic boundaries, we’re really not that different from those we call our enemies.
As I’ve stated several times before, one of the fascinating things about early classic Trek is how willing it was to give us glimpses of what life on board a starship might be like. “Balance of Terror” opens on a wedding ceremony between two lower decks crewman with Scotty noting that the ceremony will be carried to all viewing screens. It’s scenes like that world-build the universe of this show in small ways.
The big world-building happens with the introduction of the Romulans.
I’m always fascinated that it was the Klingons who took off and became the definitive antagonists for the original series as opposed to the Romulans. Described as war-like, the Romulans have been off the Federation radar for a few years following a peace treaty signed by subspace radio. But now with some new technology on their side, the Romulans may be willing to go to war again.
That tension drives much of the last three quarters of the episode. Kirk can’t allow the Romulans to report home that the Federation doesn’t share their cloaking technology and their new type of energy weapon. He must destroy the ship or at least prevent the crew from reporting back.
On the other side of the coin is the Romulan commander. The character examination of both commanders and the high stakes involves makes for a suspenseful, entertaining hour of television. And while we get to see some interesting space combat sequences, I’d argue that the battle of wills between these two commanders is what makes this episode stand out.
There’s also a very examination of prejudices. Weapons officer Styles family fought in the first Romulan war and there are some old wounds lurking just below the surface for him. When it turns out that the Romulans and Vulcans are related, Styles old hatreds and attitudes rise to the surface. Styles isn’t subtle in his criticism of Spock and his assumptions about Spock and his probably sympathies because Romulans and Vulcans both have pointed ears. When Styles says that they should give Spock a shot at decoding scrambled Romulan transmissions, Kirk is quick to jump up and say that it better be a compliment to Spock’s decoding skills and not something else.
Kirk quickly makes it clear that old grudges have no place on his bridge or his ship.
It’s in moments like these that Star Trek is at its most effective as a parable story. This isn’t a “bonk, bonk” on the head type of moment – though it does set one up for later in the episode.
By giving us the parallel stories of Kirk and the Commander, we see that these are two sides of the same coin. Each captain has to make hard choices, out on their own on and without necessarily the approval or back-up of their command. It’s easy to see how either side could make one “bad” choice and it leads to even more war, bloodshed and examination.
A lot of the ship being on its own to make decisions springs from the era in which this was produced. Kirk is alone on the front lines, risking not only his ship and his crew but his career in the decision making process. It might be interesting to see an episode like this produced today when communications is virtually instantaneous and how that might impact the decisions Kirk or the Romulan commander would or could make.
I think where the episode loses a few points for me is in how the Styles/Spock conflict is apparently resolved. When there’s a leak in the weapons department, Spock runs back to save Styles. I realize that we can’t necessarily show a Federation crewman with a grudge like this and allow it to continue. But the accident and Spock dragging Styles to safety all while saving the ship feels like a “bonk, bonk” on the head that the episode so easily avoided earlier.
This doesn’t mean that it’s a bad episode. It’s a very good one and possibly one of Trek’s best. But I’m still not quite sure it makes the top ten of all time for me.
Interestingly, this was one of the first episodes given the upgraded special effects. While not quite as huge as “The Doomsday Machine” or “The Cormbomite Manuever” it’s interesting to see what stays and what goes. The exterior shots all get a remastering (and you feel like CBS Digital is trying to show off a bit here) while the star maps and screens which scream “this is the 60’s” don’t.