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“Balance of Terror”

“I can’t figure out why there’s a camera right here. Guess I’ll call tech support …”

The Romulan Star Empire — a mysterious former nemesis of Earth unheard from for a century — returns and destroys several border outposts with a mysterious and super-scary weapon. The Enterprise responds and has protracted battle sequences (think submarine warfare … in space!) before Kirk’s tactical genius bests Spock’s dad — err, the Romulan commander (Mark Lenard) — and destroys the invading ship preventing another war and cementing our boy Jimmy as, well, our boy Jimmy. He’s apparently of a kind. And a sorcerer!

Why it’s important

“Balance of Terror” introduces one of Trek’s main villains, the Romulans, and does so in a way that is amazingly consistent with what we see of them for the next 40 years — unlike, say, the Ferengi, who go from allegedly eating their enemies to caterers and bartenders in six years flat. Of course, the episode also has the big reveal that the Romulans are offshoots of the Vulcans and introduces the concept of the cloaking device to Star Trek. It’s an extremely foundational hour of the franchise. Just think if that racist dude Stiles (Paul Comi), the Enterprise’s navigator in this episode whose ancestors fought and died in the previous conflict with the Romulans, had stuck around!

“Just a second, Enterprise. I need to make sure you get video from me even after my outpost is destroyed.”

What doesn’t hold up well

The previous conflict with the Romulans as stated by Spock and others, is too Earth-centric even for first-season TOS standards — and especially if you consider the events of “Star Trek: Enterprise” (but even if you don’t). Apparently, Earth’s war with the Romulans occurred after the coalition that would become the Federation was established in Enterprise’s final episode “These Are the Voyages …” but before the Federation itself was formed. Or something.

Dramatically, it’s interesting in “Balance of Terror” that the Romulans have never been seen by humans (and it sets up the Big Moment™ when Spock sees a dude who looks just like his pops on the viewscreen — even though we don’t see Mark Lenard playing Sarek until season two). But it’s hard to believe that no visual communication or prisoner taking was previously possible, based on the 22nd-century technology on “Enterprise,” to say nothing of the visual communications technology available in the real world in the 21st century. It’s too bad that Spock didn’t just say that the Romulans refused visual communication back in the day. That would have been more believable than the apparent lack of Skype on Romulus or Earth 150 years from now. Maybe the Romulans were just way into Snapchat?

“Enterprise” also later pisses all over the wonderment of the cloaking device by giving Jonathan Archer’s crew’s a clear understanding of the technology and knowledge that the Romulans (and others) use it. “Selective bending of light,” indeed, Mr. Science Officer.

Lastly, the bad science of TOS pops up by asserting that the Romulans are a real threat despite their vessel’s lack of warp drive. Maybe Romulans have warp (even though the Bird of Prey seen in this episode doesn’t) making the Romulans a threat to the Federation in a larger sense, as opposed to being on par with the goofy aliens from TNG’s “The Outrageous Okona.” But the cat-and-mouse game is undercut by the fact that the Enterprise should be able to outrun the Romulan vessel several times over.

“My bigotry is too big for my quarters. Sir.”

Final thoughts

Complaints aside, it’s possible that this episode set up the very idea of recurring villains in Star Trek, a huge, huge deal. Soon after, the Klingons were introduced, and the two main rivals of TOS were set (with all due respect to a certain dude in a certain rubber lizard suit and Harcourt Fenton Mudd). Beyond that, “Balance of Terror” is fascinating because it’s willing to show actual bigotry (from a 23rd-century human!) as a way to show why bigotry is wrong and something humanity was still working to move past (and mostly succeeding). It’s very effective, but it’s also unusual for Trek and would have been unheard of in TNG, when all humans were apparently beyond such things.

“The Corbomite Maneuver”

“I hope you relish my very weird upcoming acting career as much as I.”

On a routine mapping mission (stand by to photograph!) a strange cube blocks the Enterprise’s path. Forced to destroy the cube, the Enterprise continues on, until it encounters a massive ship and its hostile commander, Balok. Unable to convince him that they’re on a peaceful mission and with the crew facing destruction, Kirk bluffs Balok into thinking the Enterprise has within it a substance called “corbomite,” which would create an equal reaction to any force used against the Enterprise. Balok falls for it and rather than blowing up the Enterprise sends a smaller ship to tow it to a base. But the Enterprise’s engines overpower the smaller ship, leaving it helpless. Kirk tells his surprised crew he plans to render aid to Balok — in one of the benchmark moments of the series, if not the franchise — and encounters an alien no bigger than a small child (Clint Howard). The Balok the Enterprise had seen was a puppet and the whole encounter a test. Balok then welcomes Kirk aboard in a moment of true Trek diplomacy. I hope you relished it as much as I.

“Did you hear the joke I made earlier about being a doctor and not being a moon-shuttle conductor, Jim? It’s this running gag I’m trying to get going.”

Why it’s important

I consider “The Corbomite Maneuver” the third pilot, as it really gets to the core message of Star Trek more than “The Cage” or “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. Kirk, after facing apparent death at the hands of Balok, offers him assistance — after making speeches about how the Enterprise is in space to explore and meet new lifeforms. This episode is the pure ethos of Star Trek and why mankind builds starships. Good stuff.

Of course, we also meet Bones (DeForest Kelley) and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) in this episode and the uniforms and set take on the look we see for most of the next three seasons (though Uhura is wearing a gold uniform, for some reason). We also see the ship’s phasers fire for the first time and Sulu at the helm. Other than the absence of Chekov (who shows up in season 2) what we see here is pretty much what TOS was for the next three years.

"I'd really like to get out of this whole First Federation thing and settle down somewhere. Maybe make a little extra cash by showing up in the second-season credits. You know, a cushy retirement gig."
“I’d really like to get out of this whole First Federation thing and settle down somewhere. Maybe make a little extra cash by showing up in the second-season credits. You know, a cushy retirement gig.”

What doesn’t hold up well

Spock’s still not quite right, though the evolution of the character is starting. It’s also odd that we never hear of Balok or his First Federation again. Of course, this episode was during the era when the Enterprise was pretty clearly an Earth vessel and not a Federation ship. The United Federation of Planets wouldn’t be introduced for several more episodes.

Oh, and it’s kind of odd that Kirk leaves Bailey (Anthony D. Call) — his navigator who cracks up during the encounter with Balok — behind on Balok’s ship without really knowing more about Balok. What if Bailey couldn’t eat the foods Balok could provide? Can Bailey live on Tranya alone?

Final thoughts

This isn’t a perfect episode, as the shipboard action gets repetitive and there are some clear editing mistakes. But it is necessary viewing, as it really explains what the hell humans are doing out in space in the first place. It’s really too bad that this episode wasn’t shown in the original broadcast order until much later in the original run.

Even if the Star Trek ethos can be gleaned from other episodes — Kirk tries to render similar assistance to fallen enemies in “Balance of Terror” and even in “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” — the introduction of Kelley as McCoy is hugely important. A big part of the popularity of the original series has to do with the Big Three of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. It’s interesting that Shatner and Kelley both were so comfortable in their roles so early in their time on Star Trek. The scene in Kirk’s quarters where they discuss Bailey hardly seems like something that occurred in their first episode together.

We do see some shipboard action in “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” But both of those episodes could have worked (more or less) just as well in more generic science fiction. “The Corbomite Maneuver” is vintage Star Trek, as we learn a lot about what humans (or, at least the humans we see) are all about in Star Trek.

“The Corbomite Maneuver” is the show’s philosophical pilot, rounding out “The Cage” as Star Trek’s aesthetic pilot, and “Where No Man Has Gone Before” as the adventure pilot. Hence the decision to release the reviews of all three on the launch of this site.