I watched an episode of Star Trek, the original series, the other day. It was the episode Balance of Terror from season one in 1966.
After Romulan war birds destroy Federation outposts, the Enterprise pursues them. Similarities between them and Vulcans spark bigotry against Spock.
This episode was particularly well written and executed for the plot of the episode which had several thought provoking themes to it. The mood was set deep and dark, much different from the majority of the series’ episodes.
I particularly enjoyed the cat & mouse game between Captain Kirk and the Romulan Commander played by Mark Lenard – whom I will get to in a bit. The tactics of both ships, trying to destroy each other, was quite gripping. What I liked was how Captain Kirk really took charge of his officers, especially Mr. Stiles who had a family history of war with the Romulans and held a grudge against them, and subsequently Spock, since Vulcans and Romulans are related.
Kirk’s leadership and deep thought of his next move was intriguing. It’s this combination that really was what I meant by gripping. Kirk first mirrored the Romulans moves based on a sensor blip reading and heading towards Romulan space, since they crossed the neutral zone, though they were cloaked, with the hope that they would not notice this. The battle of wits between them was great and the acting, especially that of Mark Lenard, was superb. Both commanders plotted against one another with the use of the tail of a comet and Kirk misjudged his decision as the Romulans took evasive action. Kirk vowed not to make that mistake again and came around firing proximity phasers. The Romulans countered, while the phasers were down on the Enterprise, by coming at them firing their main weapon which would have destroyed the Enterprise had they not outran it, diminishing it’s effectiveness before impact, showing they had limited range. Interestingly enough, Yeoman Rand clung close to Kirk during that scene, showing almost a romantic signal between them based on some scenes in previous episodes. But that’s a different story, on screen and off screen. I also liked how the battle of wits played out in space, as if both ships were submarines, under water, playing like a hole in space, waiting for the other to make a move. Then Kirk’s inner, yet rhetorical thoughts on the battle being aired to Dr. McCoy in his quarters, just after Yeoman Rand enters offering to get him a meal, was fascinating as well.
The inevitable, in films, action of Spock mistakenly pressing a button which made noise, giving away their position to the Romulans, further cast judgement on him from Mr. Stiles, which you could read on his countenance, also ended the quiet stalemate and lead the the final battle which ended the Romulans fight when they destroyed themselves rather than surrender and beam aboard to the Enterprise.
A sub-plot, yet connected to the main plot, was that of the bigotry of Mr. Stiles against Spock, which Kirk put a quick stop to on the bridge. Stiles was bitter against the Romulans for his family’s death in wars since past, and since no human has seen a Romulan and vice versa, until now, Stiles, quickly surmised that Spock was a Romulan spy judging based solely on their similar looks. I don’t want to get into PRSI here, but I think this was certainly written into the episode given the political and racial tensions of the 1960’s. By the end of the episode, Spock had shown Stiles, by saving his life in the phaser room when the phaser coolant was leaking, that he was after all a good guy, and not to be prejudged based on his looks or distant relation to the Romulans.
Mark Lenard, for those who aren’t big fans of Star Trek and any Trekkie would know this, was the Romulan commander in this episode, and its the first time in Star Trek where the Romulans are introduced and seen for the first time. He later went on to play as Spock’s Vulcan father, Sarek throughout the series and movies. He also played a Klingon commander in Star Trek The Motion Picture. Mark Lenard, having played all three major aliens in the series has had a great impact on the show and it’s legacy.