Thursday, 2 September 2010

Star Trek: Balance of Terror


This is a Classic episode of Star Trek in every sense of the word. It’s an Original Series episode (which I tend to refer to by the rather less flattering TOS but which is often called Classic Trek), it’s an absolutely brilliant episode (it would be the best of season 1 if season 1 didn’t also include ‘City of the Edge of Forever’, the Best Episode of Star Trek Ever Made™) and it’s got a Classical basis. This is the episode that introduced us to the Romulans, one of Star Trek’s most enduring bad guys. In their later appearances, the Classical link is sometimes downplayed or buried under their Trek-related history, though it’s not forgotten; they have a Roman-inspired political structure, Romulus has a twin planet called Remus, and the new movie named its Romulan bad guy Nero. But in this introductory episode, their Romanness is more essential to their identity than it would ever be again. Spoilers follow.

Mum and I were both surprised to discover, on re-watching season 1 on DVD, that the Romulans were introduced earlier than the Klingons – the Klingons are such iconic Trek baddies that we just assumed they were also the oldest of them (not to mention the fact that here, it’s the Romulans that fly a Bird of Prey, associated in all the movies with the Klingons). Whereas the Klingons, in their original series incarnation, are Asiatic warriors with a battle-obsession, the Romulans are much colder customers and, most importantly, they look exactly like Vulcans. This story is one of Trek’s excellent Cold War metaphors, with the Enterprise and the Romulan ship having, essentially, a submarine battle in space (complete with a ‘Crazy Ivan’-type move and a nuclear warhead) and one of the B plots concerns a racist crewmember’s obsession with the idea that Spock might be a Romulan spy, because Romulans and Vulcans are related. Although Klingons in the original series look human, and Klingon spies appear in episodes like the classic-for-a-different-reason ‘The Trouble with Tribbles’, the particular metaphor here concerns Spock as an outsider on the Enterprise who appears, superficially, to have more in common with the Romulans, presumably standing in for people with a loose connection to Russia or a Slavic country in the States in the 1960s. [Edited to add: It's been pointed out in the comments below that the submarine battle probably reflects World War Two more than the Cold War per se, and on Tor.com that the Romulans also share traits with the Japanese as preceived by the Americans, so that may be the metaphor they were going for at the time - to me, a British child of the 1980s, it reminds me of the 1980s Cold War movies I grew up with!] The episode consists of a battle of wits between Kirk and the Romulan commander, rather confusingly but compellingly played by Mark Lenard (better known as Sarek, Spock’s father). I won’t recap the whole episode, because it’s much more about the building tension between the two captains than anything else and a blow-by-blow rehash of it would destroy the drama, but I will say that any episode that starts with a wedding ceremony that gets interrupted is Not Going to End Well.

So, the writers of this episode needed to create an intelligent and threatening enemy that looked like Vulcans. What made them think of the Romans? I suspect it was the Empire and the legendary skill of the Roman Army that appealed to them. The Romulans inhabit an Empire on the other side of the Neutral Zone – and the Roman Empire is the classic archetypal empire for science fiction writers (see the Senate in the Star Wars prequels, for example). Perhaps this was the original inspiration behind their Roman characteristics (there’s no in-universe explanation for the similarities given, it’s just accepted as part of the narrative). The Romulan commander, rather than emphasising glory and honour in battle (also Classical traits of course, but not necessarily specifically Classical, used later for the Klingons) tends to emphasise training and military order and duty, like the highly trained and extremely well-organised Roman army. Devotion to military duty is another crucial issue in this episode; the deaths of the unnamed Romulan commander and the bridegroom Tomlinson are the same tragedy, both men killed in the line of duty.

Having made the comparison, other, more superficial elements of Romanness are easy to include. The Romulan commander’s second-in-command, for example, is referred to as ‘Centurion’ and their ultimate boss is a 'Praetor'. The Romulan costumes echo the line of a toga as it comes over the shoulder, though unfortunately the Imperial purple or the traditional red has been replaced with a rather camp pink – but this particular shade of pink was something of a favourite in the psychedelic 60s Original Series. They also look like they’re wearing the carpets – clearly, Star Trek costume designers are convinced that the Romans, if they were around in the future, would be wearing floor coverings.

'What's wrong Commander?' 'My carpet-suit is itching like crazy!'

Both the Romulans and the Klingons, in their first appearances, are part of a ‘we’re not so different after all’ theme that echoes across Original Series bad guys (in marked contrast to later series' favourite bad guys, the Borg). In the case of the Klingons, Kirk’s interactions with the Klingon commander force him to confront the fact that he’s as bad as the Klingon is. In the case of the Romulans, however, it is more a case of realising that the Romulan commander is no worse than Kirk – certainly not less intelligent and not less considerate or caring either – he’s a man doing his duty, it’s just unfortunate that he’s liable to cause an intergalactic war in the process. For this reason, the Centurion is a really important character – he demonstrates both his commander’s compassion, as we see how affected he is by his death, but also his ruthless dedication to his mission, as he is not above using his friend’s dead body in a military manoeuver.

Ultimately, we are intended to admire the Romulan commander, and to care what happens to him. The Roman Empire is the perfect model for such a character, because Western culture has such a love-hate relationship with it. On the one hand, we have a democracy that failed and was replaced by an dictatorship occasionally taken over by madmen, which conquered thousands of miles worth of other people’s territory and hung on to it tooth and nail – not behaviour we’re supposed to approve of. On the other hand, we have a civilisation that gave us Latin, great literature, baths, roads, central heating and garlic ice cream – the list of the Romans’ accomplishments is well known. So what better basis for the commander who is equal to Kirk, who is compassionate but ruthless, whose defeat is necessary but not glorious? Not!Sarek spells it out for us with his final words to Kirk: ‘You and I are of a kind. In a different reality I could have called you friend.’ Whereas the later Klingon commander’s insistence on their similarity was horrifying to Kirk, partly because it was based on bloodlust, he is honoured by this comparison. This is why the Romulans have never gained the cultural status of the Klingons; for a long time, the Klingons had few redeeming qualities and could be held up as really bad bad guys, there to be hated and defeated (which is often more fun in fiction). The Romulans, however, were a bit more complex, and were not designed to be hated utterly, which makes them harder to fit into popular songs, but rather more interesting as antagonists.

This episode also featured Yeoman Rand and Kirk's last inappropriate cuddle - having been his love interest from the start, she disappeared after this episode and did not reappear until the feature films in the 1980s.

(Oh, if you haven't already, click on that last link - it's strangely awesome).

13 comments:

  1. Tiny nitpick, but the Romulans were actually a stand-in for communist China. Like the Romulan Empire, it was fairly isolated at the time. (A bit like North Korea today.) China only opened up after Nixon normalized relations in 1972, thus inspiring an old Vulcan saying. Also, a lot of that distrust of Spock may reflect back to WWII more than the Cold War, since this episode was also a deliberate remake of a couple of WWII submarine movies.

    But the Romulans were always much more interesting adversaries, though also more difficult to work into a script. That's probably why the TNG writers worked so hard to make the Klingons deeper and more interesting.

    And just to come full circle, since I pointed them here when we discussed "Bread and Circuses" there, you can see another discussion of this episode at Tor.com as part of their Star Trek Rewatch here.

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  2. That's interesting... I think who each race is standing in for can vary from episode to episode, to be honest, but I can see what you mean, and it perhaps explains why they wanted an Empire in particular, since China is generally more associated with ancient imperialism than Russia. And I had forgotten about WW2 submarine movies, though I seem to remember reading somewhere that this episode is a partial remake of one movie in particular - The Enemy Below maybe? I think Billie Doux's website mentioned it. I tend to associate submarines with the Cold War, but of course, I'm thinking of 1980s movies, not 1960s ones. Which means, presumably, that some elements of the romulans make-up are supposed to reflect Nazis, or possibly WW2-era Japan.

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  3. it would be the best of season 1 if season 1 didn’t also include ‘City of the Edge of Forever’, the Best Episode of Star Trek Ever Made™

    A woman of exquisite taste and incomparable intellect. I am smitten.

    this episode is a partial remake of one movie in particular - The Enemy Below maybe?

    Run Silent, Run Deep, I think.

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  4. It was indeed The Enemy Below. In Run Silent, Run Deep, the submariners were the good guys. Given the specific movie reference and the semi-good guy nature of the Romulan commander, I suppose the Romulans are intended to represent not so much Nazis as Prussian military correctness and honor, which I suppose also ties back to the Romans sort of. Lots of weird reception questions going on there.

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  5. Nazis, schmazis....

    Spock: Gentlemen, this romanticism about a ruthless dictator is --

    Kirk: Mr Spock, we humans have a streak of barbarism in us, apalling but there, neverthless.

    Scott: There were no massacres under his rule.

    Spock: And as little freedom.

    McCoy: No wars, until he was attacked.

    Spock (astonished): Gentlemen!

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  6. Classic summary of a classic episode.

    The Romulans were always my favourite of the Trek 'villains' Some of the episodes featuring them in The Next Generation were absolutely superb.

    Keep up the great work Juliette!
    H

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  7. Great post! One minor nitpick, though (hey, it's Trek, nitpicking is part of the game!): Yeoman Rand did appear in four of the first six movies, prior to her appearance in the Voyager episode 'Flashback'; in fact, because the bulk of that episode is set during the events of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, her appearance in that episode is basically an expansion of her appearance in that movie. But her movie appearances were all very brief -- and at least one of them (in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock) was dialogue-free -- so it is very easy to miss them.

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  8. Ah, she was in the movie - that's what I couldn't remember! I wasn't sure if she'd been added for Voyager or used in Voyager because she was in the film. Which other films was she in? I've seen them all but Wrath of Khan a lot more than the others and Final Frontier and the Motionless Picture hardly ever (because they're a bit crap!)

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  9. Anisha Roofi15 June 2011 19:55

    "Whereas the Klingons, in their original series incarnation, are Asiatic warriors with a battle-obsession, the Romulans are much colder customers and, most importantly, they look exactly like Vulcans."

    They Look exactly like Vulcans as they are Vulcanians.

    "After a time the portion of Vulcan society who rejected Surak's teachings left the planet for the stars. This migration of Vulcan separatists would eventually become known as the Romulans. Knowledge of the common ancestry of Romulans and Vulcans would obscure into myth over the millennia, and while some Vulcans had direct dealings with Romulans in the 22nd century, the common ancestry would not become widely known until the mid-23rd century."

    Ref:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vulcan_%28Star_Trek%29

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  10. What I meant was, in this episode, which was written before any backstory was established, the important thing about Romulans is that they look like Vulcans, allowing for a look at racism regarding how some of the crew treat Spock. But yes, that's true, it was later established that they are related!

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  11. This was an excellent episode, in fact one I like more than City (Heresy!).

    It is unfortunate that the series, in all of its incarnations, never used the Romulans to full effect and indeed their use in both the last TNG film and in the Trek re-boot film, was rather thin and lackluster.

    One note, unless I missed it in the comments, Mark Lenard is the only actor to have played characters from all three major Alien races: Vulcan, Romulan and Klingon (he is the Commander of the Klingon Battle Cruiser destroyed by V'ger early in the film Star Trek The Motion Picture.)

    As always a fun and insightful post.

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  12. Thanks :) I agree, the Romulans in later series - really, from Next Gen onwards - never seem to be used in such an interesting way. They seem to become cardboard cutout villains in a way.

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  13. The producers writers screwed up in Star Trek Enterprise because in the Balance of Terror episode Spock said neither side in the Federation Romulan war had visual communication between or among their allies. Much like the reboot of Battlestar Galactica and the chose to use the uniforms of TNG instead of something closer to the original series unifroms. Thou I say this the STE had one of the best opening theme songs of all the Star Trek series.

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