TV Series Review: “Balance of Terror,” from Season One of STAR TREK: TOS

By far, one of the best episodes of STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES is the suspenseful, tightly-paced “Balance of Terror.”  It’s my personal favorite.

This is where viewers are first introduced to the fascinating warmongering Romulans, distant descendants of the Vulcans, of which Science Officer Spock is half of through his father’s line.

The narrative plays out like a short war movie of cat and mouse, with the U.S.S. Enterprise facing off against a Romulan warship.  Responding to a group of Federation outposts mysteriously being destroyed, the Enterprise comes to the edge of the Neutral Zone, a demilitarized zone in which a peaceful alliance of many worlds (i.e., the Federation) has agreed to keep its vessels clear of in order to maintain a tense truce with the Romulans.  These warlike, pointy-eared humanoids have long refused to join the Federation.  A trespassing Romulan vessel is identified as the attacker of the outposts, instigating a hot pursuit by the Enterprise.  Captain Kirk must apply his shrewd military strategy skills.  His brave leadership yet compassion come through very believably here.  The commander (movingly played by Mark Lenard) of the Romulan ship proves to be Kirk’s perfect match as an enemy, albeit a reluctant one.  Tragic, gripping drama ensues.

It is too bad that more high quality episodes like “Balance of Terror” were not produced for STAR TREK: TOS, particularly in regards to pacing, plot/logic of storyline, character portrayals, and even special effects.  All of these suffered to varying degrees in several of the shows, especially after the series’ first season.  Still, it is gems like this particular episode from the first season that remind me why I so enjoy this classic 1960s sci-fi television drama.  At its best, the original STAR TREK was able to draw from older movie genres, specifically Westerns and war films, to create something truly ground-breaking, compelling, thought-provoking, and entertaining.

6 thoughts on “TV Series Review: “Balance of Terror,” from Season One of STAR TREK: TOS

  1. Another great critique that brings back long-forgotten memories. Star Trek was a staple at our house while I was growing up. My father and my sister loved this science fiction series. When I was married and had my two oldest sons, my husband and boys would sit down and watch reruns before dinner each day. My youngest son, who is 15 years younger than his oldest brother, often gives me his opinion of the most recent movies (not so good) compared to the old series which he loves. I loved Leonard Nemoy and William Shatner as actors but found watching the series was out of my bailiwick of understanding. Thanks for the walk down memory lane.

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    1. And thank you for reading and commenting! I too loved Nimoy and Shatner in their respective roles on the show. Because I was a young child when I started watching the reruns of STAR TREK, the cast became like a second family to me. Of course, I did not realize this until I was much older.

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      1. Isn’t it so interesting that television and film characters can become like family? (I was really sad when my son told me that Shatner wasn’t a very nice person.) I’m sure there’s psychological commentary on this bonding…I think academics call it “suturing to the character”–not just for children, but also for adults! Whatever the interpretations, Mr. Rogers saved my life, other characters (many from books) became mentors for me, and I spent many years looking for pointy ears on people and imagining I was Scotty. (Why I picked Scotty, I have no idea…guess I was always a nerd). Who was your favorite character?

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      2. Yes, it is indeed so interesting how TV and fictional characters in general can become like family for us. In modern American society, I think it has been hard for many people’s real family to feel like enough. Perhaps that is an existential/archetypal phenomenon beyond any particular time and society. (Hence, why people look to higher power/s, etc.?)

        I loved Mr. Rogers very much. I think he was like a kind uncle to me, someone securely and warmly present– simply there– whenever I watched him. I can see why you would say he saved your life.

        As a child, I had a hard time having a favorite character on START TREK TOS because I loved something about all of them. Over time, who stuck with me the most in my mind and heart were Spock, Capt. Kirk, and Lt. Uhura. Capt. Kirk was like a father figure for me, but that sense eventually, finally wore off around my late 20s/early 30s. And, indeed, what partly helped with this was reading several autobios and bios of Shatner’s cast mates, all of whom described him as being self-centered and controlling, very narcissistic.

        I loved Uhura for her beauty, grace, and uniqueness among the crew, which developed into my feeling like she was a close, sisterly friend. That has lasted for me to this day. I only wish she got to sing on the show far more than she did. Actress Nichelle Nichols was a trained singer and dancer. She had a lovely voice. I’d love to meet her someday, but I don’t know if even that is worth venturing to an over-crowded STAR TREK fan convention.

        That leaves Spock, a man and being I loved for his deep struggle to integrate the wonderful rational, logical brain with the depths of human feeling, a person questing to integrate parts of his psyche into full access to Self, which holds both the rational and emotional into a wisdom (“Wise Mind” as some circles refer to it, but, for me, that term over-focuses on the mental as opposed to the more holistic concept of mind-body Self). Spock is ultimately my top favorite for these reasons, though I had to grow into that understanding of why this is the case for me.

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  2. I love the original Star Trek! My experience of it is pretty fragmented because I wasn’t allowed to watch it (or pretty much any tv) so I was dependent on the availability of my neighbor’s secret basement TV. I keep thinking someday I’ll binge watch and get it all straight. Much as she tried, my trekkie and brilliant best friend was never able to summarize it all for me. I do remember the Romulan episode you discuss–it was terrific.

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    1. If and when you watch the series all the way through, you will want to take it in with a grain of salt. The rampant sexism in it dates the show in several places, with some episodes more problematic than others. That said, it’s still a fun show with great reflective, thought-provoking moments. Also, the regular cast and many guest stars are simply wonderfully entertaining.

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