Saturday, May 9, 2009

Star Trek--"Balance of Terror"

While there had been a couple of entertaining episodes in the run so far, “Balance of Terror” is where TOS really begins to shine. It is a pivotal episode in several ways. It is the first time the Enterprise has truly faced a worthy adversary. The story introduced the Romulan Star Empire, a mysterious, xenophobic race with the power to destroy the Federation. Plus, it introduced us to Mark Leonard, a venerable Trek actor who will eventually play spock’s father, Sarek, in two series and several movies, as well as take a turn as a Klingon in yet another.

On a less geeky level, it is the best script since the unaired pilot. “Balance of Terror” is based loosely on 1957’s The Enemy Below, in which an American destroyer must hunt an enemy submarine. It accomplishes the paranoid, claustrophobic feel ”The Corbomite Maneuver’ was unable to pull off due to thin content. Indeed, “Balance of Terror” is similar enough to ’The Corbomite Maneuver,” one suspects one suspects it is correcting the mistakes of the former.

The most glaring example is that of Stiles. Like Bailey, he is suffering fro high emotions. While Bailey was eaten up with fear, Stiles is all bout hatred for the Romulans, who killed some of his ancestors in the Earth-Romulan War a century ago, and is suspicious of Spock once the similarities between Vulcans and Romulans become known. Unlike Bailey, the resolution to Stiles’ storyline is more believable. Spock saves his life, leaving a deep impact on his prejudices.

One significant, not to mention welcomed, difference between ’Balance of Terror” and many Trek episodes is a crewman’s death actually has an emotional impact. When the Romulans attack Outpost 4, Kirk is in the middle officiating a wedding between two crewmembers. During the subsequent battle, the husband to be is killed. Kirk has to console the bride to be, but she slaps him instead. Her love had to die in a war neither of them really cared about. It is interesting to note the slapping scene took place in the ship’s chapel. It is one of the few hints in TOS that Christianity is still practiced in the 23rd century.

There is an antiwar message at play here. It is not as heavy handed as you might expect from Trek. In war, everyone loses something important eventually. There is nothing to celebrate in victory. Both Romulan commander and Kirk reach this conclusion independently, adding an unusually deep dimension to the previously enemy. Consider the significance; this was at the height of Cold War propaganda where both sides were caricaturing the other as the heartless, evil enemy Any other show might have presented a more jingoistic story. Trek laid it all out there.

It pays to mention how weird it is to consider the Earth-Romulan War to have been fought ship to ship without either side ever getting a look at each other. I suppose that was suppose to symbolize the fear of dying in a nuclear war where victims never see the enemy coming. In that regard, the idea probably had an emotional sting. But foremost in my mind in 2009 is how ENT was eventually supposed to cover the war in a similar manner to Deep Space Nine’s Dominion War. The creative team for ENT was not in Ronald D. Moore and Ira Steven Behr’s league when it comes to plotting, so I already had doubts even without them being hamstrung by the whole “they can never see each other” mandate. It was one of those issue nagging in the back of my mind that kept me from giving ENT a fair shot. I imagine I was not alone.

Rating: **** (out of 5)

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