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Season One:
-1: "The Cage"
-2: "Where No Man Has Gone Before"
-3: "The Corbomite Maneuver"
-4: "Mudd's Women"
-5: "The Enemy Within"
-6: "The Man Trap"
-7: "The Naked Time"
-8: "Charlie X"
-9: "Balance of Terror"
-13: "The Conscience of the King"
-16: "The Menagerie"
-20: "The Alternative Factor"
----: _Time Travel Season 1
-21: "Tomorrow is Yesterday"
----: _Prime Directive Origins
-22: "The Return of the Archons"

-23: "A Taste of Armageddon"
-27: "Errand of Mercy"
-28: "The City On the Edge of Forever"
-29: "Operation -- Annihilate!"
-Season 1 Rankings

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Balance of Terror

(Star Trek story #9 in production order)
  • written by Paul Schneider
  • directed by Vincent McEveety
  • music by Fred Steiner

Balance of Terror

Now here's a story that I like primarily for its tremendous success at "world-building" in the Trek universe, as well as delivering the first real ship-to-ship battle sequences that Star Trek ever put on screen. However, it's not that great at philosophy, doing little more than empathetically showing how soldiers can doubt themselves and contemplate their navels.

It's hard not to notice, appreciate, and like the world-building here. We introduce the Romulans, the Neutral Zone, and the entire historic backstory of Human-Romulan relations, which is basically "WAR!" and describes a very primitive way of achieving that (which the later "Enterprise" series couldn't properly adhere to). That's a huge chunk of Trek mythology, and probably spun out purely as part of a one-off episode. If only they'd known how much mileage the franchise would later make out of what was first wrought here.

It's also a bit funny in retrospect to see actor Mark Lenard in this one. He later became so endeared to the franchise as Spock's father Sarek, the Vulcan Ambassador to Earth, and with this same basic appearance to boot, that one almost has to make an effort to remember that he's playing a different character entirely here, of a different species. The big revelation of the Romulan's appearance almost feels like a personal revelation, as though the crew want to say, "Spock, what's your papa doing on the enemy ship?" But of course, none of them have met Sarek yet.

The visual effects people make significant effort to put good visuals on our screen to depict the battle and the arena in which it takes place. Interestingly, the trailer uses only one model shot recycled from "The Corbomite Maneuver", showing the Enterprise's phasers firing. But "Balance of Terror" now changes to a much different effect. Though the dialogue insists quite heavily that the Enterprise is firing phasers throughout the battle, the effect we get will later be much better known for depicting the launch of photon torpedoes, which I guess the writers hadn't thought of yet.

But the Trek team does very well here in creating a satisfying model for the Romulan ship, and letting it visually demonstrate the now infamous cloaking device, which must disengage to allow the ship to fire weapons. - All staple tactics that will be repeated in countless future episodes. And the Romulans get a decent effect for firing their weapons too. All good.

Nevertheless, we wonder how much good the invisibility cloak is, if sensors can typically detect the ship anyway. At the vast distances involved in space, visual invisibility wouldn't really count for much tactically all on its own. Well, I guess the cloak is meant to be brand new here. There is room left to improve it for "The Enterprise Incident", room which will work for that story.

More Logic of Fear

The episode's philosophical territory is of dubious note though. Most prominent in my mind is that this is the second of two anchor points for the primitive end of the evolution of Spock's philosophy. As was the case previously in "Where No Man Has Gone Before", his logic serves a philosophy of fear here, as he recommends action for protection and survival. Attack so as not to appear weak. I'd say it's a tad more balanced and reasonable here than it was in the show's second pilot. But we should also keep in mind that Spock will end up far on the other end of the spectrum by the time we get to "Unification", and pretty much with these same "adversaries". There he recommends understanding, compassion, and a stance much closer to the celebration of Infinite Diversity.... and it is all equally logical, of course. For now, we're just stuck watching the dark beginning.

Another bizarre philosophical entry is Kirk's navel-examining scene in his quarters with McCoy. The actors do such a fine job of emoting everything that such a scene should be, we may not notice that their actual dialogue doesn't really seem to mean anything. Kirk feels the weight and pressure of so many lives depending on his decisions, and McCoy basically pats his back and tells him how poetically someone thought he was special enough to be exempted from destruction. Huh? To whom was that speaker talking, who might otherwise want to bump off Kirk? What should we the audience take from that to help us in our daily struggles? Wait for "special" Kirk to show up and rescue us?

Other philosophical tidbits fail to rise to any significantly interesting or profound levels. Today's navigator Lt. Stiles struggles with bigotry and learns a canned lesson. Spock maneuvers more delicately around Stiles than he otherwise would, aware of the issue... but is that what causes him to slip and accidentally reveal their position to the enemy? (And this sequence betrays tactics that probably can't really make sense in space).

Though the episode's action remains good, and builds to a decent climax, with victory and a regret that the adversaries were adversaries to begin with, "Balance of Terror" also attempts something with its bookending subplot of an engaged couple on their wedding day.... and I'm not sure what the writer was trying to say there, because none of the characters involved are very articulate about anything in particular. Yeah, war sucks because people die. It's kind of obvious without hitting it so painfully. At any rate, keep an eye peeled for Barbara Baldavin playing Angela Martine. She'll be back to serve on Enterprise again one day (very last episode ever, if I remember rightly), although I think her surname changes. Perhaps she eventually married after all.

Yeah, though I like this episode, I'm just not prepared to rave over it or rank it quite as highly as most other Star Trek fans, and it really is only in the philosophical arena where the episode isn't delivering quite strongly enough to sit well with me. I think we see here in this episode a lot of actors doing really well to emote philosophical speeches with charisma and the power to convince, all of which is great for character building. The Romulans benefit most from this, as a culture, making their numerous returns in the franchise highly welcome and worthwhile. But the primary philosophical flavour emerging in this episode is quite hypocritical - talk eloquently about one thing, while doing another - and actions always speak much louder than words, even if words are great for clarifying what a character thinks his actions are accomplishing or working towards. But there's just too much divide between the spoken words and the entrenched policies of action on display here, and the spoken words remain quite muddled when looked at clinically, when one looks past the "selling power" of the actors' emotions. It's got all the warning signs of propaganda, and that's not surprising if indeed this story was modeled after the war film "The Enemy Below" as producer Robert H. Justman admits on the extras. Saddest of all, Star Trek will do this kind of show a bit too often... a one-on-one substitution with Starfleet imitating the real-world military of contemporary present day or recent past, filled with soldiers struggling to appease their consciences and excuse their actions. I'd really rather see them take the beautifully articulated philosophies and wisdoms and insist on finding a way to act on that. That's when Star Trek becomes great. For my money, TNG did it most often during the middle of its run, but TOS here will have its great moments too. "Balance of Terror" isn't really one of those examples, so it's not in my top ten episodes. But hey, not every episode has to hit all the nails on the head in order to be enjoyable. This one is still good.

Perhaps the episode just went a bit TOO far by making Tomlinson a fatal casualty (and indeed the ONLY fatal casualty), and then by also offering the most common, canned, lame cop out for an explanation - that it was senseless. Firstly, I believe you CAN find much better sense in such things if you truly dig deep enough into someone's psyche, into their soul and their beliefs, into the thoughts they were focusing on that day, into what they may have drawn into their world through the Law of Attraction, and if you're wily enough to stay out of the traps of blame and stay focused on seeking the empowerment to make more conscious choices in future. It's not common to find any such depth of examination in the kind of war films that this episode was patterned after, and so could be a great area into which Star Trek could break out and explore new territory. But there REALLY isn't the screentime to do justice to that kind of thorough metaphysical examination in "Balance of Terror" with all the other more successful elements quite rightly taking center stage. I'd just prefer something different to the impression that Kirk's attempts to console the widow were limited to the canned 1940's war film cliché, and then nothing more. Leave something off-screen, to the imagination... Or change the events themselves to something more manageable and satisfying within the spare time available to the episode.

Anyway, this little bookend debacle ensures that "Balance of Terror" has a VERY downbeat ending, such that the often alluded to Trek optimism is still a bit on the elusive side. Trek is trying its best to really do sci-fi with these early episodes, and succeeding nicely, but I think anthology sci-fi was quite accustomed to the downbeat ending that really tried to make you think. The real Trek essence was still struggling to achieve some kind of episodic regularity.

At any rate, "Balance of Terror" is a good episode, but not really an outstanding one. But it laid a lot of good groundwork for the franchise's action stories, and remains a nostalgic success.

Read the next Star Trek review: "The Conscience of the King"

This story is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Click on the Amazon symbol for the desired disc format and location nearest you for pricing and availability:

Star Trek Season One "Purist" Standard DVD Box Set:

Watch the legend develop from its infancy. Set contains 29 episodes from the first season in their original wacky broadcast order, including "The Menagerie Parts 1 & 2" which used footage from the original unaired pilot "The Cage". However, "The Cage" itself is only included with the Season Three Box Set.

As someone interested in researching how the episodes actually looked and sounded originally, and when and exactly how certain musical cues first debuted, this was the DVD set for me, and it remains the most untampered-with full-season collection of Star Trek out there. Unique extras include pure text commentaries on select episodes. Sadly, these sets are starting to become rare, and prices are now rising as these become collectors' items....


DVD Canada


Standard DVD Extras include:

  • original restored broadcast versions of the 29 episodes.
  • "The Birth of a Timeless Legacy" documentary (24 min.)
  • Text only commentary by Denise & Michael Okuda on "Where No Man Has Gone Before", "The Menagerie Parts 1 & 2", and "The Conscience of the King".
  • "To Boldly Go" featurette (19 min.) discussing
    "The Naked Time", "City on the Edge of Forever",
    "The Devil in the Dark", and "The Squire of Gothos".
  • "Reflections on Spock" featurette (12 min.)
  • "Sci-Fi Visionaries" writing featurette (17 min.)
  • "Life Beyond Trek: William Shatner" featurette (10 min.)
  • "Red Shirt Logs" Easter Eggs (7 min. total)
  • Photo Log (still menus)
  • Original Trailers for every episode (1 min. each)

Season One - Blu Ray

  29 episodes @ 51 minutes
Star Trek sets are now available on Blu Ray. Picture and sound quality restoration has gone up yet another notch, and new CGI effects and optical shots have replaced many space scenes, matte paintings, and phaser effects.... but this time the upgrades have the same respect and user-functionality applied to select Doctor Who DVD releases since 2002, as the CGI effects can now be turned off to see the original effects. Good show. It seems that the music has still been tampered with too much for my liking though.

Blu-ray U.S.

Blu-ray Canada

Blu-ray U.K.

Blu-ray features add:

  • option to watch episodes with original or new CGI effects.
  • Spacelift: Transporting Trek into the 21st Century featurette (HD, 20 min.) covering the restoration, CGI effects, and music upgrades.
  • Starfleet Access - Okuda interactive trivia plus picture-in-picture interviews on 6 episodes:
    • Where No Man Has Gone Before
    • The Menagerie Part 1
    • The Menagerie Part 2
    • Balance of Terror
    • Space Seed
    • Errand of Mercy
  • Behind-the-scenes 8mm home movies (HD, 13 min.) from Billy Blackburn (Lt. Hadley / Gorn)
  • Kiss 'N tell: Romance in the 23rd Century (8 min.)
  • Interactive Enterprise Inspection (HD)
  • plus all documentaries, featurettes, and episode promos from the "purist" standard DVD set listed far above.

Article written by Martin Izsak. Comments are welcome. You may contact the author from this page:

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Read the next Star Trek review: "The Conscience of the King"

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