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Recap / Star Trek S1 E14 "Balance of Terror"

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A very chaotic debut for Spock's dad...I mean, the Romulans.

Original air date: December 16, 1966

The USS Enterprise is on duty near The Neutral Zone between The Federation and the Romulan Empire, and things are calm enough that Kirk can preside over a wedding between two crew members. An urgent call from an Outpost interrupts the wedding, and the ship discovers that a series of outposts have been destroyed by a new energy weapon. A lucky interception of a message from an unseen space ship allows Kirk and crew to find out who they are up against: the Romulans. Using a single cloaked ship firing the most lethal weapon ever witnessed. And the Enterprise is the only one who can stop them...

One of the show's (and franchise's) most acclaimed episodes, the introduction to one of Trek's most enduring baddies, the Romulans (who were introduced before the more popular Klingons), and the first appearance of Mark Lenard (more famous for his portrayal of Spock's father, Sarek) as the (nameless) Romulan Commander. An Alternate Timeline version of the events of this episode are explored in the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds episode "A Quality of Mercy", produced and aired 56 years later.

Tropes of Terror:

  • Abandon Ship: After the Romulan ship is disabled, Kirk tells the Commander to abandon his ship so that the Enterprise can rescue the crew. The Commander refuses, however, insisting on Going Down with the Ship instead.
  • Achilles' Heel: The Romulan ship's Invisibility Cloak and Wave-Motion Gun both use a lot of energy, such that the ship must de-cloak before firing. They both use so much energy, in fact, that the Romulans deplete their fuel reserves by the end of the battle.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: The Romulan Commander makes it obvious to his crew that he isn't looking forward to the war with the Federation that a successful mission will bring, but he considers himself bound by his duty. When directly confronting Kirk he says they are "one of a kind" and that he may have called Kirk a friend "in a different reality".
  • Attack Pattern Alpha:
    Romulan Commander: Escape Maneuver One, quickly!

    Stiles: Transverse pattern! All phasers fire!
  • Ballroom Blitz: the Romulan attack interrupts two crew members' wedding. Played for Drama — the groom is killed in the incident.
  • Batman Gambit: Kirk and the Romulan commander pull these on each other in rapid succession. They are able to predict each other's behavior as being "just what they would have done."
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: "Just one more duty to perform..." Cue the Romulan Commander flipping one final switch which causes his ship to explode while he remains onboard, wanting to avoid getting arrested by Kirk's crew.
  • Blood Knight: Decius really wants to attack the Enterprise, more so than his war-weary commander.
  • The Chains of Commanding: Kirk reflects on this at one point with Bones.
    Kirk: I wish I were on a long sea voyage somewhere. Not too much deck tennis, no frantic dancing, and no responsibility. Why me? 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?
    Bones: Captain, I—
    Kirk: No, I don't really expect an answer.
    Bones: But I've got one. Something I seldom say to a customer, Jim. In this galaxy, there's a mathematical probability of three million Earth-type planets. And in all of the universe, three million million galaxies like this. And in all of that, and perhaps more, only one of each of us. Don't destroy the one named Kirk.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Kirk and the Romulan commander, both. As noted below the Romulan is prepared to use the body of his dead crew to fake their destruction, and Kirk learns pretty rapidly from his earlier mistakes in confronting the Romulans. This leads to them ultimately acknowledging each other as Worthy Opponents.
  • Death Before Dishonor: The Enterprise and a Romulan warbird are locked in a game of cat and mouse. Eventually, Captain Kirk outmaneuvers his foe and permanently disables the warbird. He then offers to beam survivors aboard the Enterprise. The Romulan Commander tells him it is not the Romulan way to be taken prisoner. He laments that they could not meet on more civil terms and then triggers his ship's self-destruct sequence, destroying the ship and killing the crew.
  • Diving Save: During an attack by the Enterprise on the Romulan ship, the Centurion sees that the ceiling is about to fall on his friend the commander. He rushes forward and pushes the commander out of the way, and the ceiling falls on him instead.
  • Due to the Dead: The Romulan commander orders the dead Centurion's body dumped into space along with a bunch of debris to make it seem that his ship has been destroyed — but he is clearly distressed about it, and asks his late friend to forgive him.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness:
    • Scotty states that the Romulans' "power is simple impulse." This caused many people (including the writers of the Star Trek Encyclopedia) to assume that the Romulans only had impulse engines and not warp drive. However, considering it would take decades for the Romulans to travel space without faster-than-light travel, it would be nearly impossible to fight an interstellar war, much less forge an empire. Eventually, this was retconned by clearly showing that the Romulans have warp capabilities in Star Trek: Enterprise. Although Star Trek: The Next Generation DID establish that Romulan vessels were powered by artificial singularities as opposed to a warp core familiar to Starfleet. One of the EU novels, set in Captain April's era, explains this by having Birds of Prey capable only of sublight be deployed to their duty sectors by a warp-capable mothership. Impulse engines on Starfleet vessels are powered by fusion reactors. Knowing this and that a fusion-powered ship would have much shorter range than an antimatter-powered one, just like the Bird of Prey, it's probable that Romulan ships of the era were powered by fusion reactors and that Scott just meant that, and that artificial singularities (that would ensure pretty much unlimited range) were still to be developed.
    • The Enterprise fires phasers in short bursts which detonate at a specified interval, in reference to depth charges. This could have easily been done by photon torpedoes had they been invented by the writers sooner (and indeed, the sound used here for the "phasers" was later used for the torpedoes, and in the remaster in particular, the "phaser" shots behave like torpedoes for all intents and purposes).
    • The Enterprise, in this episode, is depicted as having a separate phaser control room where a crew works to maintain the power, fuel and temperature of the weapons, with sometimes a long delay due to mid-battle maintenance. In later episodes, this task would be done remotely by Sulu from the helm with little communication with the phaser crew.
    • The bases along the Neutral Zone are referred to as Earth outposts rather than Starfleet outposts. While it's understandable Earth would have founded them after the Earth-Romulan War and before the founding of the Federation, it's weird to still refer to them that way when Starfleet has long since assumed the defense of Earth and the Neutral Zone. (This episode was early enough that the writing team was still figuring out the exact nature of the interstellar government.)
    • It's stated pretty explicitly that cloaking devices, while theoretically possible, had never been seen before. Star Trek: Enterprise muddies those waters by giving the Romulans, the Xyrillians, and the Suliban primitive cloaking tech in the 22nd century (a full century before this episode is set) and Star Trek: Discovery explicitly retcons it by giving the Klingons cloaking devices in 2256, set ten years before "Balance of Terror". The closest justification may be about the sheer efficiency of the cloak, as prior depictions have said there was some warning signs of a cloaked ship in the area even before they decloak.
  • Fantastic Racism: Lt. Stiles. From a long line of Stiles who fought in the first Romulan War. When he finds out Romulans and Vulcans look alike (and Spock himself confirms the possibility the species are related), he starts viewing Spock as a traitor. Spock saves his life during the final attack, and Stiles learns his lesson.
  • Fatal Flaw: The destructive capabilities of the Romulan plasma torpedoes give everyone an Oh, Crap! moment, but it soon becomes apparent that it has very limited range.
  • Give Away the Bride: Scotty does the honors.
  • Glass Cannon: The Romulan ship has a very powerful weapon that can easily destroy the Enterprise if it gets off a solid shot, and has a cloaking device. But both systems consume tremendous amounts of power, keeping them from being used at the same time, and much like a submarine, the ship doesn't hold up under direct fire.
  • Heroic BSoD: Commander Hansen - his outpost is in shambles, his phaser crews dead, and the Enterprise is too far away to prevent the Romulan vessel from firing the killing blow.
  • Honor Before Reason: The Romulan subcommander taunts the Commander into one final attack on a wounded Enterprise, even though the Commander knows that his Federation opponent is too dangerous to be viewed as an easy kill.
  • Innocuously Important Episode: The Romulans are introduced as, at the time, one-off opponents of the week. They go on to be major players throughout the TNG era, with their Vulcan ancestry having massive ramifications. The Romulans are also given hints at having a very complex characterization, which catapulted them to fan favorite status and was explored in Diane Duane's Rihannsu novels, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek (2009), and Star Trek: Picard. Even Star Trek: Voyager had, in "Eye Of The Needle," a Romulan acting with a peculiar sense of honor towards people he had no reason to see as anything other than enemies.
  • Ironic Echo: Both Kirk and the Romulan Commander have a scene where they admit they're exhausted, with The Confidant providing support.
  • Irony:
    • Stiles's Fantastic Racism. The Enterprise had more than its fair share of troubles with human and Human Alien antagonists. This is not seen as any reason to start viewing all humans with distrust. That Stiles himself doesn't get this emphasizes his bigotry, since while Vulcans and Romulans are obviously related, they explicitly live on different planets.
    • Realising his actions could start a war, Captain Kirk sends a message to Starfleet asking for instructions. After everything is over, he gets a reply saying he's free to use his initiative. Nice to know Starfleet doesn't micromanage.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Both Sulu and Spock admit that some of Stiles's jerkass statements are valid. First, Sulu agrees with Stiles that due to them not knowing what Romulans look like, there could be spies onboard ship, so it is reasonable to restrict people’s movements. The second instance is when Stiles advocates launching an attack on the Romulan ship, and Spock agrees - reasoning that if Romulans are Vulcanoids, they will have the same bellicosity that Vulcans once had, and therefore "weakness is something we dare not show."
  • Jerkass Realization: After Spock saves his life, Stiles admits that he was wrong to treat Spock the way he did.
  • Married at Sea: Recycled In Space with Captain Kirk making mention of the tradition of captains marrying passengers to each other. This is something of a myth (it depends on the laws of the country that the ship is registered in), but since this is The Future, and he is the highest civil authority on a ship billions of miles in deep space, it makes sense that The Captain would be allowed to perform a duty like this. Kirk's speech at the beginning of the wedding is paraphrased whenever a Federation officer officiates a wedding in later series, implying that it's a standard spiel.
  • Mauve Shirt: Tomlinson, so that his death at the end will be meaningful. (And no, he doesn't wear a red shirt.)
  • Men Are the Expendable Gender: 21st century viewers may think that, because both Angela and Tomlinson are getting married, they have an equal chance of being dead by the end of the episode. However, a 1960s audience would have found this unacceptable.
  • Mildly Military: Stiles is openly disrespectful and insulting towards Spock (his superior officer by at least one grade, possibly two), yet receives nothing more than a stern talking-to from Kirk. He's lucky that he wasn't confined to quarters — or the brig.
  • Mister Exposition: Spock gives a shipwide infodump about the history of the long-ago war between the Federation and the Romulan Empire and the current situation between the two governments.
    Spock: Referring to the map on your screens, you will note beyond the moving position of our vessel a line of Earth outpost stations. Constructed on asteroids, they monitor the Neutral Zone established by treaty after the Earth-Romulan conflict a century ago. As you may recall from your histories, this conflict was fought, by our standards today, with primitive atomic weapons and in primitive space vessels which allowed no quarter, no captives, nor was there even ship-to-ship visual communication. Therefore, no human, Romulan, or ally has ever seen the other. Earth believes the Romulans to be warlike, cruel, treacherous, and only the Romulans know what they think of Earth. The treaty, set by sub-space radio, established this Neutral Zone, entry into which by either side would constitute an act of war. The treaty has been unbroken since that time.
  • Noble Bird of Prey: The Romulan symbol.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: From the Romulan Commander to Captain Kirk: "You and I are of a kind. In a different reality... I could have called you friend."
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Everyone on the bridge (sans Spock, of course) when the Romulan ship decloaks and fires its Wave-Motion Gun.
    • Also when Stiles notices the leaking coolant in the phaser control room.
    • The Romulan Commander also gets one. When flying through a comet, about to ambush the Enterprise, one of the crew says they're no longer being tailed. The Commander realizes that the Enterprise is ready to ambush them and he immediately orders an escape manuever.
      Officer: At last the screen is clear, Commander.
      Commander: Clear?
      Officer: Our reflection no longer follows us.
      Commander: (dawning realization) Escape Maneuver One, quickly!
  • Old Soldier: The Romulan Commander and the Centurion, who have fought "a hundred campaigns". Probably an exaggeration, but you get the idea.
  • Outrun the Fireball: In this case, outrun a warp-speed plasma ball. While they're not fast enough to outrun it entirely, the plasma energy dissipates enough to weaken its deadly effects to little damage.
  • Phlebotinum Breakdown: The Enterprise's phaser weapons burn out after just a couple of shots. Later a coolant duct starts leaking, but at least that time the ship had the excuse of already having suffered battle damage.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: The Romulan Commander turns out to be one. He's concerned about the weapons test itself, and what it means for the future of his people. If the cloaking device and plasma torpedo means Romulan ships can sneak up on and One-Hit Kill Federation vessels and outposts, will this be all that is needed to start a new war? Nevertheless, the Commander has his orders.
  • Recycled In Space:
    • The 1957 WWII submarine movie The Enemy Below IN SPACE! Even the bearing of the unidentified initial contact and the captain's maneuvering orders to the helm are copied nearly verbatim. The Romulan ship is cramped and has lots of piping and conduits in all background scenes. The Enterprise's phasers act like depth charges, and at one point the Enterprise and the Romulan ship both go to Silent Running Mode, fearing to talk loudly lest the other vessel hear them.
    • The Romulan commander jettisons a dead body to make it look like his ship's been destroyed, similar to the trick used in Run Silent, Run Deep.
    • The Romulans, in this episode at least, were The Roman Empire IN SPACE!, as exemplified by Mark Lenard's dignified Commander character.
  • Repeat to Confirm: "Phaser one... fire!" "Phaser one, fire!"
  • Save the Villain: Kirk attempts to save the crew of the Romulan ship after crippling it, but its commander politely declines and chooses to activate the Self-Destruct Mechanism and go down with the ship.
  • See the Invisible: Kirk decides to expose the cloaked bird-of-prey by leading it through the tail of a comet.
    Kirk: And when an object passes through it, even an invisible object...
    Spock: It leaves a visible trail.
  • Shoot the Dog: Spock unexpectedly agrees with Stiles that the Enterprise should attack the Romulan ship.
  • So Much for Stealth:
    • The Enterprise and the Romulan warbird are both attempting Stealth in Space until Mr. Spock accidentally activates a control, giving their position away.
    • The Romulan commander chews out and demotes Decius for violating Radio Silence and sending a message home about their initial success, worried (correctly) that the signal would be detected.
      Commander: A message was dispatched. You've broken the rule of silence!
      Decius: Only in code, Commander, to inform our Praetor of our glorious mission.
      Commander: Your carelessness might have ended this "glorious mission"! You're reduced two steps in rank. Return to post.
  • Space Is an Ocean: A bit more even than usual, what with all the submarine movie tropes.
  • Space Romans: Mark Lenard's Romulan commander is given a hairstyle that many associate with Emperor Nero. The old warrior is called "Centurion" and has a hairstyle with bangs often attributed to Julius Caesar. The subcommander is called Decius. And their ruler is called the Praetor. The Romulan salute is identical to the Roman salute. Romulan soldiers wear metallic helmets like Roman legionary. The old Centurion fears that Decius has friends in high places, which was also a way to climb the ladder in the Roman Empire.
  • Stealth in Space: The Trope Codifier for Trek, if not all of Science Fiction. And yet, an Unbuilt Trope: it is a plot point that while under cloak the Romulan ship has the same problems with detecting the Enterprise as the Enterprise has detecting the Romulan ship. Both playing the trope realistically (giving the cloaking device the logical disadvantage of a double-blind effect) and providing an excuse for stealth to enter the narrative in the first place.
    Spock: Blip has changed its heading. And in a very leisurely maneuver. They may not be aware of us.
    Kirk: Their invisibility screen may work both ways. With that kind of power consumption, they may not be able to see us.
  • Stock Footage: A shot of crewmembers in a corridor, listening to Kirk's speech on the intercom, is recycled footage from "The Corbomite Maneuver". The same shot appears in "The Menagerie, Part I" and "Assignment: Earth" as well.
  • Strange-Syntax Speaker: Downplayed. The Romulan characters consistently use the simple present verb form (e.g., "we approach") in situations where human characters, and most English speakers, would use the present continuous (e.g., "we are approaching"). This is most likely because the Romulans are emphatically Space Romans at this point, and the Latin present tense corresponds to both the simple present and present continuous in English.
  • Sub Story: The episode is essentially a submarine duel but with starships.
  • Subspace Ansible: Being so far from the nearest outpost, Kirk doesn't get a response to his intent to enter the Neutral Zone until the end of the episode.
  • That's What I Would Do: How Kirk and the Romulan Commander talk about each other.
    Romulan: First study the enemy. Seek weakness. If I were their commander, that is what I would do.

    Kirk: He did exactly what I would have done. I won't underestimate him again.
  • Truce Trickery: The Federation has a peace treaty with the Romulan Star Empire that established a demilitarized zone along their mutual border, the Romulan Neutral Zone. This episode revolves around a string of Romulan raids on Federation listening posts along the Neutral Zone, meant to test the Federation's willingness to retaliate for breaches in the treaty.
  • Violence is the Only Option: Spock of all people advocates this against the Romulans, making the case that if they've retained the barbarism of ancient Vulcans, then they must be fought.
    Spock: And if the Romulans are an offshoot of my Vulcan blood, and I think this likely, then attack becomes even more imperative.
    McCoy: War is never imperative, Mister Spock.
    Spock: It is for them, Doctor. Vulcan, like Earth, had its aggressive, colonizing period - savage, even by Earth standards - and if the Romulans retain this martial philosophy, then weakness is something we dare not show.
  • Wave-Motion Gun: The Romulan plasma torpedo.
  • Weapon Running Time: The Romulans' plasma bolt travels faster than the Enterprise can at warp (at least while the Enterprise is going in reverse), but has a limited range. This gives the fleeing Enterprise enough time to reach a distance at which the bolt is significantly weakened before it hits. It's the only reason the Enterprise survives; a full-power hit at short range would certainly have destroyed the ship.
  • Wedding Smashers: Not directly, but the Enterprise is called into battle during the wedding. Sadly, Tomlinson is killed before they can resume.
  • Wham Shot: Our heroes get their first look at the mysterious Romulans... and they look just like Vulcans. Stiles in particular is shocked, and this fuels his Fantastic Racism against Spock.
  • What Measure Is a Mook?: The episode opens with the wedding of a never-before-seen character, which is broken up when the Romulans attack. Throughout the episode we keep cutting back to him, until he's killed in the fight, leaving his fiancée distraught, and the whole crew mourning the death of a man whose last day alive started as the happiest of his life, indicating that, even if the audience doesn't see it, those disposable crew members are still people, and their deaths are still mourned.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: The plot of this episode is based on The Enemy Below, with the Enterprise taking the part of the American destroyer and the Bird-of-Prey with its cloaking device taking the part of the submarine. Director Vincent McEveety had seen the film but only noticed the similarity later, when this was pointed out to him. He commented, "Obviously, it's the same story."
  • Widowed at the Wedding: Poor Angela Martine loses her future groom Lt. Tomlinson when he dies in the Romulans attack.
  • Worst Wedding Ever: The wedding between Lt. Tomlinson and Ensign Martine gets interrupted by a Romulan incursion, and then Tomlinson is killed during the battle.
  • Worthy Opponent
    • The Commander quickly recognizes Kirk as one: "He is a sorcerer, that one. He reads the thoughts in my head."
    • The bulk of the episode is essentially the lethal chess game between Kirk and the Commander, each anticipating the other's strategies as soon as (and sometimes before) they're implemented. On a purely tactical level, the Romulan Commander stands out as the villain who gave Kirk the most serious run for his money, and Kirk respects him for it.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: McCoy suggests that the Romulans might pull this if the Enterprise enters the Neutral Zone.
    McCoy: Do we violate the treaty, Captain?
    Spock: They did, Doctor.
    McCoy: Once inside, they can claim we did. A setup! They want war; we furnish the provocation.
  • You Called Me "X"; It Must Be Serious: When Spock first discovers the unknown vessel is headed for the Neutral Zone, he addresses Kirk as "Jim." Later, in Kirk's quarters, McCoy addresses him as "Captain."