Saturday, December 22, 2007

TOS Rewind #13: "Balance of Terror"

Today's episode:  Balance of Terror (12/13/66).  The drink:  Auchentoschen Triple Wood scotch.

Just for fun, we're going to not only look at the original episode, but also the CG-enhanced remastered version.  Content-wise, they're really the same, but the new effects work is an interesting contrast.

Let me just start off my saying that this is one of the best TOS episodes, period.  I don't know if it's the best one, but it's got to be in the top 5 or perhaps 3.  The show contains a lot of ideas and story for a single episode and despite being cribbed from a WW II movie, still seems fresh and exciting. 

When I was watching Trek growing up, this one was always a favorite for obvious reasons:  space battle!  None of this romance or Earth-like societies run amuck, this has ships fighting, phasers, and explosions.  And watching Kirk out-maneuver the Romulan commander was sweet.  Today, those aspects do still hold up, but the character and story ideas are what puts this one over the top.

Story-wise, this episode is a re-work of the film The Enemy Below (1957).  I haven't seen the movie (I've been meaning to check it out), but there's at least one other WW II submarine film that resembles this episode.  The similarities are quite apparent from the dueling captains in their game of space war chess to the Romulan bridge which looks a bit like a submarine control center.  It almost looks like there's a periscope in the middle of the console! 

The Romulans:  the idea of these people being an offshoot of the Vulcans was a great idea, one that was taken well advantage of in TNG and other Trek shows.  Sure, they look like Vulcans with different costumes, but there's a well-defined difference between them and it allows the writers to work in the tension between Spock and Stiles.  On that note, I find it interesting that even though Roddenberry made great pains to show that racism is a thing of the past in the Trek universe, it's on display with Mr. Stiles.  I guess he just meant that to be regarding human racism, not bigotry directed at other species. (!)  Nonetheless, it adds character tension and provides the chance for some backstory:  the previous war between Earth and the Romulans.  The Romulan commander is a classic sea captain, one who is ruthlessly efficient, yet intelligent enough to respect a worthy opponent.  He is also wise enough to question the motives of the Romulan leadership's desire for war.  Mark Lenard puts in a great performance here.  This remains one of the best single performances of the Original Series.

Kirk is very cool-headed and thoughtful in this episode and, in a way, has similar attitudes to his Romulan counterpart.  He has a scene in his quarters that seems right out of "The Cage" where he questions whether or not he's really making the right decisions.  Swap Pike for Kirk and Dr. Boyce for McCoy and you have it.  I don't really mind it being here as it provides a break in the otherwise fast pace of the story, but it is awfully similar.  Spock gets to do some background on his race, which is nice and be a hero when he pulls Stiles out of the control room, saving his life.  Stiles clearly doesn't know what to say when Spock says he's merely doing his job.

The suspense and drama in this episode work very well.  The way they don't reveal the enemy right away is very effective and even though the cloaking device is a stand-in for a submerged submarine, it works.  The first time the ship de-cloaks, it looks almost ghostly, an apparition preparing to unleash its cloud of fire.  The way we watch the outposts get blasted builds the tension; we don't know who they are of why they're doing it.  The human tragedy angle revolves around the Martine/Tomlinson couple, whose wedding is interrupted by the Romulan attack on the outposts.  This is one of the only times in TOS where religion is really shown in any way; Martine's clearly praying (some have ID'd this as Catholic) in some kind of chapel.  She also prays at the end scene where she's mourning her dead fiance'.  I know I'm probably reaching a bit here, but I have to wonder about the fact that she's the one person who is outwardly religious and loses her beloved, the only casualty in the battle.  Nothing to it, I'm sure, but I found it interesting.  I also noted the end scene where she's mourning and Kirk tries to comfort her.  He says something about there being a reason for it; in a way Kirk is playing the part of a priest I suppose.  He doesn't sound like he really believes it himself.  Martine finds this welcome, but not helpful.  This scene appears to be a bookend to the story, a closing bit, but I found it containing a lot more meaning, even in what wasn't said.  Kirk wasn't feeling victorious.  Between watching the Romulan commander, whom he seemed to respect on some level destroy his own ship and having to place some meaning in the death of one of his crew, he seemed to be feeling empty and unsure of his own beliefs.  You could argue that I'm going to far with this, but that's the way it played for me.

Another World War II idea in this episode that occurred to me surrounds the Neutral Zone outposts and the first Earth/Romulan war.  This setup reads like another WW II scenario:  the earlier war is WW I and the outposts are The Maginot Line.  The first World War idea is obvious.  The outposts, which are easily bypassed by the invaders (Germans/Romulans), are the symbol representing a false sense of security.  The wall is sundered, the conflict begins again.  I often see metaphors for the Cold War in original Trek, but clearly Roddenberry was heavily influenced by WW II; this episode really demonstrates it.

So, a very good episode that has really stood the test of time well.  Let's talk briefly about the CG-enhanced version that I watched.

In case you're not up to speed on the "remastered" versions, they basically replaced all the exterior shots with new effects.  So, anything that has the actors in it stayed the same.  I've always found this a bit jarring.  When they go back and forth between the modern-looking space effects and the 1966 bridge, it just doesn't match.  However, I do find it interesting to see what they can do with the new technology, so I am a bit mixed on this.  The thing that surprised me most about this particular episode is how little the new effects added to the space shots, which are an important part of this show.  They tried to keep the look of the ships true to the original, so they don't really look that much more impressive.  The only stuff that really looked better to me were the shots of the star background and the comet; nice looking visuals.  One effect that was worse, to me, was the shot where the Romulan ship appears for the first time.  In the original, the ship fades into view using some kind of optical effect, I assume.  It looks fuzzier/grainier than the new shot where the ship just sort of pops in.  The rough look gives it more of a ghostly/scarier look to me.  This effect has always worked very well for me; a somewhat creepy entrance of a new villain. 

My, that was a long, rambling entry!  Now, let's see what Eric had to say about this one:


Let me say first that “Balance of Terror" is one of my favorite Star Trek episodes. It succeeds brilliantly on many levels, so I’m really jazzed to do this review. At the same time, it has turned out to be very difficult because there is so much I could address. I’m merciful, however, so I narrowed it down to three reasons this episode works so well: the development of the Star Trek universe is
creative and imaginative, the overall production is great, and it is a superbly crafted story that is a metaphor for the Cold War and other important social issues from the 1960s.

Before I get to the actual review, I watched the remastered version of this episode and compared it to the original version. The story and dialog were (thankfully) untouched in the remastered version. but
the special effects were cleaned up and enhanced digitally. It was cool to see what the FX might’ve looked like if Roddenberry had had today’s CGI technology in 1966, and the new shots of the ships and battle were well done. In this particular episode, however, it really didn’t make any difference to me. The original FX worked well enough, and the strength of this episode is in the story and the characters.

So, to begin with, the introduction of the Romulans into the Star Trek universe was brilliantly imaginative and effective. They’re an interesting and complex race and culture that has provided grist for many episodes and other interesting extrapolation in various forms. The fact that they’re related to the Vulcan race is fascinating and gives the Trek universe a sense of depth and ancient history. It also
provides some delicious intrigue: When, how, and why did the two races split? We also learn that the Federation fought a war with the Romulan Empire over 100 years before “Balance of Terror" takes place. I would’ve loved to see “Enterprise" (the Trek spin-off series) deal with this, but they never did. And although I haven’t kept up with the Star Trek novels, I don’t think the Romulan War has ever been covered substantively. In any case, this episode introduced several important elements to the Star Trek universe, and it did it in an entertaining, believable, and interesting way.

In addition to making major contributions to the Trek universe, “Balance of Terror" was very well produced. The writing, direction, and acting are all top notch, but what I appreciate most of all is that the characterizations are spot on. Characters like Scotty, and Uhura, and Sulu, don’t get much time, but they are exactly as I expect them to be. I liked seeing Uhura take the helm when the
navigator is called away and Sulu’s argument with Stiles in the briefing room is well-done. The so-called supporting characters don’t get much screen time, but they’re the ones who really give the show an ensemble feel. But on to the main characters. Kirk is at his best as a tactician, but it’s good to see that his confidence is tempered by a healthy dose of humanizing self-doubt. Kirk’s compassion also comes through movingly when he comforts the young woman whose fiancé was killed in the battle. And to give credit where credit is due, Shatner does an excellent job keeping his performance reined in. Similarly, DeForest Kelley imbues McCoy with his characteristic humanism without getting sappy or maudlin. The reassuring talk McCoy gives Kirk is one of the best in the whole series, and it highlights the quality of their friendship. Spock, as usual, provides the vital scientific/technical support, but there is much more to Nimoy’s performance. He conveys a subtle but very real sense that Spock feels like an outsider (a feeling that is significantly aided and abetted by Stiles’ overt racism). I also like that there is a definite impression that Spock is distressed to learn that the enemy (the Romulans) are an offshoot of the Vulcan race. Finally, Mark Lenard (who later played Spock’s father, Sarek) was superb as the Romulan commander. He managed to tell us volumes about the Romulan race in just a few scenes. And we feel for him too. He isn’t a bloodthirsty martinet, he’s a soldier doing a hateful task because he is duty and honor bound to do so. I’ve seen this episode dozens of times, and I still find it poignant when the Romulan commander tells Kirk: “In a different reality, I could’ve called you friend".

Finally, there are quite a few themes woven into this episode, but one of the most noticeable is the situation between the Federation and the Romulan Empire and how it parallels the constant game of
brinksmanship the United States was waging with the Soviet Union in the 60s. (I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that there’s an allusion to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.) And I like the way the
comparison is made without bludgeoning the audience. It’s a good example of why Roddenberry created Star Trek, he wanted to talk about current issues (and the human condition in general), but he wanted to do so through science fiction rather than outright punditry. Another issue this episode deals with is racism, which was a major issue in the 60s (and still is, unfortunately). Lieutenant Stiles is
prejudiced against the Romulans because several of his family members were lost in the Romulan War. This is understandable, if unacceptable, but he transfers this bigotry to Spock when they learn that the Romulan and Vulcan races are related. Kirk reprimands him for it, in a nice show of personal loyalty to Spock, but Stiles doesn’t come around until Spock saves his life at the risk of his own. The lesson may be a little overt, but it is well taken and it was just as important then as it is now.

In the end, the underlying theme of this episode is arguably the cost of war. The Romulans needlessly lost an entire ship and crew, and the young Enterprise officer who was going to get married (just before the battle started) dies manning a phaser station. Kirk tells his fiancée, “It never makes any sense".  It never has, it doesn’t now, and it never will.

Next time:  “Shore Leave"