TOS episodes don’t come much more iconic this – the introduction of one of Star Trek’s best known antagonist races. No, not the Klingons, who have yet to show up, but the Romulans, those distant and warlike cousins of the peaceful Vulcans. In fact, this is the first introduction of a major recurring alien species, and to mark this occasion, the Romulans will even get their own section later on.
So, onto the plot of the episode. Over a hundred years ago, the Federation (or whatever we’re calling it at the moment) went to war with another space empire – the Romulans. The war finally ended with both sides setting up the Neutral Zone between their borders, with a strict agreement that either side straying into the Neutral Zone would be viewed as an act of war. In in the intervening years, Earth has built a series of outposts along their side of the Neutral Zone, and when these outposts come under attack, the Enterprise can only conclude one thing – it must be the work of a Romulan ship.
What follows is a tense game of cat and mouse, as Kirk must outwit a Romulan commander who possesses both a cloaking device and a deadly weapon powerful enough to destroy entire outposts. Of course, these weapons must have a weakness, or the rest of the series would be about the Romulans systematically conquering the Federation, and their weakness is the massive power consumption. Even so, things are tense aboard the Enterprise, especially as navigator Lieutenant Stiles lost some ancestors in the Romulan War, and takes the whole thing personally.
This episode certainly stands out from the crowd, because it’s the first time Kirk has had an adversary who isn’t so much an alien-of-the-week, as a first encounter with a power on par with the Federation. Up until now, we’ve either had godlike beings meddling in the affairs of humans, primitive planets, or simply other humans. The Romulan commander (as played by Marc Lennard, who would of course go on to portray Spock’s father Sarek) is shown to be an intelligent, sensitive man – unlike his underlings, who toe the party line with regards to honour and glory, he is thoughtful yet pragmatic, reflecting on his orders even when he knows he has no choice but to follow them. Perhaps the greatest compliment paid to him is that even Captain Kirk himself realises that he must not underestimate his opposite number.
As with the last episode, this outing gives us the chance to see Kirk, Spock and McCoy at their best – Kirk as commander, trying to outwit his enemy, Spock as pragmatist, and McCoy as a humanitarian, not wanting to do anything that might endanger lives. It might seem odd to see Spock advocating violence when Vulcans are traditionally pacifists, but I believe Spock’s advice comes from the place of putting the needs of the many ahead of the needs of the few – better to put a stop to the Romulan incursion with force here than risk the situation escalating.
There’s also time to focus on some minor Enterprise crewmembers as well. At the beginning of the episode, two junior officers are about to get married – naturally this is a set up for one of them getting killed before the end. Most of the more family-orientated stuff aboard ship doesn’t really come into play until TNG, so this is a rare sight of it in these early days.
Also receiving plenty of attention is navigator of the week Lieutenant Stiles. As mentioned above, he has a strong hatred of the Romulans due to the loss of his ancestors in the Romulan War a hundred years ago. When the Enterprise learns that Romulans physically resemble Vulcans, he transfers his racial hatred to Spock, only relenting when Spock saves his life. Whilst his character was a good angle on conflict, contrasting views, and the fact that not all humans are completely enlightened yet, it was hard to believe that he was personally affronted by the deaths of ancestors he surely could never have met, or that his racism flourished in an environment where the Romulans had not been seen or heard from for decades. Still, racism is hardly a rational stance, and perhaps his family worked hard at keeping the hatred alive and inculcating it into each new generation. Starfleet psychological exams probably brought it up, but perhaps decided the risk was minimal, as the Romulans were not currently actively interacting with the Federation.
Introducing the Romulans
The Romulans are, as their name suggests, clearly modelled on Ancient Romes, with a Praetor as leader, and centurions as soldiers. Their twin homeworlds are said in dialogue to be Romulus and Remus, but named Romulus and Romii on the Enterprise’s star map. They are a warlike offshoot of the Vulcan species – Vulcan itself has a period in its history bloodier than that of Earth, which is why they are so dedicated to emotional mastery.
At this point, the Romulans seem a lot like the Klingons – warlike and dedicated to precepts of honour and glory – but of course we will see them evolve down two distinct paths as Star Trek progresses. Where the Klingons will maintain the fight for glory ethic, the Romulans will become master manipulators, choosing to be sneaky and cunning where a Klingon would simply put all their cards on the table, charge in, and attack.
The cloaking device and pulse weapon are both powerful technologies, but due to their high power consumption and presumable expense to produce, do not render Romulan fleets easily able to wipe out the Federation by the end of season one. It is said in this episode that the Romulan ship does not even have a warp drive, although given the distances involved this is implausible.
Summary – Balance of Terror: A great introduction to one of Star Trek’s most enduring species.
A small note from the previous episode – double red alert is a thing aboard the Enterprise.