Star Trek: The Original Series

"Balance of Terror"


Air date: 12/13/1966
Written by Paul Schneider
Directed by Vincent McEveety

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

After a century of silence, the Romulans, a race with whom humans had a war long ago, appear to be on the move again—apparently testing their new cloaking technology—and the Enterprise may be the only ship to stop them from starting another conflict.

The episode is in the tradition of submarine thrillers like Run Silent, Run Deep (or The Hunt for Red October as a more current comparison), but like "The Corbomite Maneuver," it has a tendency to get too wound up in its tactical moments and special effects, which can be confusing and sometimes go on for too long. And, I'm sorry, the set design on the Romulan ship is just not convincing; unlike the Enterprise, it feels too much like a cheap set and little more. And what's with those corny helmets the Romulan officers wear? There are, of course, many strengths here; the episode takes some stabs at relevant issues, especially when the crew discovers the Romulans may be related to Vulcans and a bridge officer's bigoted aggression (aimed here at Spock) emerges.

The Cold War allegory was certainly timely, and the idea of each captains' respect for their counterpart makes for a nice theme, but I wish it had been taken a bit farther. Mark Lenard is good as a Romulan commander who begins to doubt his military's usefulness, but his thoughtfulness isn't utilized nearly as much as it could've been.

The episode's unevenness is its drawback, and it's too bad; there's the potential for greatness here that goes unrealized. Each little theme would've been more effective if given more focus. "Balance" needed more balance.

Previous episode: The Conscience of the King
Next episode: Shore Leave

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31 comments on this review

sci fi nerd
Wed, Apr 13, 2011, 7:15am (UTC -5)
i agree with you on most of your reviews, however, i MUST disagree with you on "balance of terror" i thought it developed it's themes well, and was perfectly "balanced"
Sat, May 21, 2011, 5:31pm (UTC -5)
I've never been a huge fan of "City On The Edge Of Forever" and while it's not bad, I actually prefer "Balance Of Terror" because not only is a good old fashioned submarine story, it's also one of those could easily have been told in any of the recent Star Trek series with out losing a beat.

In fact DS9 had a similar episode "Starship Down" but to do to budgetary reasons, it didn't quite live up to the original idea. That being said, I think you should have given "Balance Of Terror" at least 3 stars.
Sun, May 27, 2012, 12:01pm (UTC -5)
Love your website and your reviews are consistently solid and insightful. In this case, however, I have to disagree with your review! In this episode, we see Kirk at his tactical and command best, revealing why he is a legendary Star Fleet officer. The cat and mouse drama and tesion is superb, with or without a high budget set. The intro to the Romulans sets a foundation for their race that has endured across the Star Trek universe. This episode was, is, and remains CLASSIC Star Trek. Should be at LEAST 3 to 3.5 stars.
Fri, Jul 20, 2012, 9:47am (UTC -5)
Strangely, as deeply as I respect Mark Lenard as an actor, I thought he was missing a bit of an edge that I would have expected from a Romulan on such a war-provoking mission. He was so angsty. Not that Romulans don't think deeply about their missions, but they're also decisive officers and ruthless combatants. Lenard really displays more of that do-what's-necessary edge as Sarek.
Wed, Sep 18, 2013, 9:10am (UTC -5)
"Someguy" says it best. I'd give this episode 4 stars.
Thu, Nov 28, 2013, 12:39am (UTC -5)
I'm a big fan of your reviews (I started reading with your early DS9 reviews). I disagree with this one. I started watching TOS in the 70's when it was in syndication. This is easily one of my top ten Star Trek (any series) of all time. I completely agree with the Hunt for Red October analogy. Easily 4 stars for me.
Tue, Feb 11, 2014, 6:21am (UTC -5)
Sorry, but this is just one review where you're WAY off base. Balance of Terror is essential Star Trek. Worthy of 4 stars, or at least 3.5
Thu, Apr 3, 2014, 9:52pm (UTC -5)
3.5 at least
Mon, Aug 11, 2014, 4:44pm (UTC -5)
I completely disagree with your assessment of this episode. First off, who cares that the Romulan bridge was cheap looking? We all know they were on a shoe-string budget, and the helmets were obviously to save on the cost of having to put pointed ears on the entire Romulan bridge crew. Star Trek has always been about the story, and this was a damn good one. Yes, the mutual respect theme was great, but they did as much with it as they could have, especially when you have to fit a lot into a 45 minute episode... No question, this was a 4-star episode!
Wed, Aug 27, 2014, 7:07pm (UTC -5)
Wow Jammer. I can't believe this earned such a low rating from you. Easy 4 star episode for me.
Mon, Sep 8, 2014, 11:20pm (UTC -5)
Jammer, I've got the join the chorus on this one. I usually concur with you, but not this time.

To me, this is classic and essential "Trek." It's one of the best episodes to me off any of the five series. It stands on its own, plus it gives us the Romulans. For that alone, it gets two of its four stars.
Wed, Nov 19, 2014, 12:19am (UTC -5)
If you like this episode I would recommend "The Enemy below"

It illustrates the hide and seek game against submarines, and respecting the enemy and their skill.
Sat, Nov 29, 2014, 5:42am (UTC -5)
2.5 stars again? (After the last ep.) Jammer, you're a tough customer sometimes. ;)

I didn't even notice the cheap-looking Romulan bridge - I was more focused on the characters and what the Romulans were doing and thinking.

And yeah the helmets are funny looking, and obviously a cost-saving measure - but Romulan wardrobe has always been funny-looking, even when TNG got a much bigger budget than TOS ever had. Perhaps alien sensibilities cannot be expected to match ours? Perhaps to Romulans, those helmets and, later on, the (to us rather goofy-looking) giant grey quilted shirts with giant shoulder pads look the epitome strength and power. They are a warlike people, after all, plus they are also rigidly heirarchical, so it makes sense that they would value a show of strength and status in their dress. Klingons were never fashion plates either, although their Japanese-inspired uniforms look more badass to our human eyes. And Cardassian fashion is no fashion at all - purely utilitarian and, to us, very ugly. A reflection of their highly militarized, and by human standards, oppressively fascistic culture.

Also: Something in the traditional robes of Vulcan culture harkens back to a common culture with the Romulans. Such clothing is also kind of funny-looking to us, and seems to be very concerned (against the logic of modern Vulcan culture) with a display of status and power (esp. in the resplendent robes T'Pau is wearing, compared with the Vulcan guards around her in "Amok Time"). Romulan culture retained some of that, but their clothing perhaps isn't as strangely beautiful as Vulcan traditional clothing because in leaving Vulcan, as much as they did take the violence and obsession with duty and power, they had no room on their ships for beauty and softness and colourful fabrics, not when riding off to conquer a new home and a new empire for themselves.

Anyway, this episode rates as a 4/4 for me. This calibre of a cat-and-mouse space battle is partly what made "The Wrath of Khan" great some 16 years later, and it makes this episode shine too. The acting on all fronts is spot-on. (And I believe much of the "angst" of the Romulan commander is due to him losing his best and oldest friend so rapidly in battle. And even before that, it might reflect a weariness of not knowing whether he can fulfill his duty while also ferrying him and his crew back to home, alive. Maybe he knows, on some level, that his end is near, and his despair shows). I also thought the b-plot of the never-to-be-married Tomlinson and Martin to be tragic, but also helpful as a window to what operations are like in the lower decks. When Kirk yells "Fire!" on the bridge, what actually has to happen to fire that torpedo? It's evidently not like it is in TNG, when presumably the computer does the firing, and more like a submarine in action. (Which helps with the submarine battle theme).

Anyway, I could go on about this episode, but for me, it's one of the best of Trek, and a real gem of Season 1.
Sat, Nov 29, 2014, 5:46am (UTC -5)
P.S. It just boggled my mind a bit that there's less distance in time between first season TOS and The Wrath of Khan than there is between the final season of TNG and now. O_O
Fri, Feb 6, 2015, 12:29pm (UTC -5)
This episode was almost directly lifted from The Enemy Below; watch the back to back and you can almost make a drinking game out of the similarities.

Concur with the chorus of people that say Jammer had underrated this episode. This is classic Trek and Kirk right here, in fact I'm pretty sure BoT makes the essential ten episodes list for TOS.
Thu, Mar 12, 2015, 10:11pm (UTC -5)
I just watched this episode again after many years, and was glued to the edge of my chair even though I knew what was going to happen. This is a top Trek episode, and deserves at least 3.5 stars…probably 4 stars. The cat-and-mouse game was gripping, and Kirk was at his best as the legendary starship captain in battle. Mark Lenard was warlike but gave a richly-layered performance. Just the fact that this episode introduced the Romulans made it important. Who cares if their helmets looked stupid and their bridge cheesy. The love story with the tragic ending gave some depth and meaning to what the casualties of battle really felt like for the crew. (No disposable red-shirt death of the week this time!) Classic, top-notch Trek. Jammer, I usually agree with your reviews pretty closely, but not this time.
Sun, Jun 7, 2015, 1:48am (UTC -5)
Very well done episode. Thrilling and captivating. Banter between captains was a highlight. Also Spock's alien ethnicity and the Vulcan connection to Romulans provided added thematic complexity.
Sun, Jul 5, 2015, 8:16pm (UTC -5)
I have to agree with everyone else here. I just watched this episode for about the 10 time and still love it. It's epic Trek, along the lines of The Wrath of Khan and worthy of 4 stars. The sets are cheesy but who cares, the plot and acting are great. The is definitely among the top 5 of my favorite Trek episodes period.
Sat, Aug 1, 2015, 5:07pm (UTC -5)
Yep, 4 stars for me. I give it that for all the little things, too, like after the briefing the way Sulu tracks just behind Kirk, both faces grim set in determination--it lasts only a few seconds by I found it captivating both in its effortlessness and its portrayal of a war-time commander with his tactical officer on their way to battle. Or McCoy's counsel to Kirk in his quarters, even as he enters the room maintaining a smile in the midst of the possible horror about to unfold. I guess I was more focused on those aspects than on what hats the Romulans were wearing.
A fellow Kalandan
Tue, Oct 27, 2015, 3:48am (UTC -5)
I watch war movies and so I've seen Run Silent Run Deep and The Enemy Below. And I liked the homage paid to them in this episode.

Lots of action, drama and suspense. This is classic Star Trek and is what makes Wrath of Khan a favorite.

4 stars for this episode my friend
Chris Lindsay
Wed, Nov 18, 2015, 8:23pm (UTC -5)
I agree with your comment: "The Cold War allegory was certainly timely." The Romulans represent the Soviet Union in this episode; however, "Balance of Terror" has more parallels with The Enemy Below (1957) than Run Silent Run Deep (1958). I read somewhere that the script was loosely based on the Robert Mitchum film. I wrote a short essay on Balance of Terror called "The Doctrine of Proportional Response." If you would like to read it, here is the link.
Fri, Dec 4, 2015, 4:02am (UTC -5)
This was a great episode of Star Trek - I have just watched TNG, V, DS9 and Enterprise in that order and this is top 10 material across all ST versions. Taken in the timeframe it was made it ranks even higher, Kirks acting range and way his line 'There's no room for bigotry here' was delivered were compelling viewing. Sometimes less is indeed more - I suspect if that episode were made now we would have had endless drawn out special effects battle scenes - as the technology of the time forces the acting and script to the fore it forces them to be very good to carry an episode. And the final shot of Kirk walking haunt consoled the widow speaks volumes - I'm sure that Patrick Stewart took inspiration from it.
Tue, Mar 29, 2016, 9:40am (UTC -5)
Who cares about how many stars? This ep is so outstanding it stands alone in a class of its own. Understated, naturally acted even by the hammy Mr Shatner, and Mark Lenard just lights up the screen...much better here than the sulky and stilted Sarek elsewhere. Who cares about the silly sets? That's not what eps like this one are about. The depth of characterisation and the dramatic tension are top notch. Better than some of the feature length movies. ST GLORIOUS ST.
Tue, Mar 29, 2016, 10:14am (UTC -5)

I'm with you. Top 10 Star Trek episode for me too.

Agree Luke, nothing really to nit-pick here. Outstanding trek!!
Fri, Jun 10, 2016, 2:09pm (UTC -5)
Without a doubt, a 4 star episode. Watched it with my kids the other night and they were all set to leave when I said I was going to watch "classic Trek". 45 minutes later they were still there and commented that that was an amazing episode as it concluded. No one cared about cheesy Romulan sets, they were all captivated by the Romulan commander.

BOT is among the best Trek episodes ever of any of the series.
Sun, Jul 24, 2016, 9:46pm (UTC -5)
Everyone has an episode that they are in complete opposite opinion of the vast majority. Apparently, for Jammer, it's Balance of Terror. Seriously, this is one of the best TOS episodes there is, and certainly the best so far in the series.

Part of it is that this is the first time we see an alien species on par with The Enterprise. Sure, there were the all powerful Talosians and Bartok, also the all powerful, but this is the first real ship to ship battle. This is the first peer to peer battle, not humans justifying themselves against someone more powerful. So it expands the scope of the Trek universe, and does so admirably. We now know what the Enterprise is capable of against an equal crew, and we see how Kirk and company react. Sure, by the time we get to Voyager, this is just standard background stuff they throw in every episode, but for now it feels very fresh.

Part of it is, of course, the performance of Mark Lenard and the Romulan presence. They could have remained enigmas, they could have just been generic villains. But instead, we spent a fair amount of time with them, getting to see different personalities. Sure, they were fairly standard - the eager and blind patriot lieutenant, the aged yet wisened adviser, and the thoughtful, philosophical captain - but Lenard's performance was masterful. He helped to clarify the episode and give depth to the Romulan empire. Watching him doing his duty even when he knew it was wrong, swearing loyalty to leaders he didn't believe in, was immensely satisfying. Even though the morality of the Romulans may be different, you can tell that these are a thoughtful, intellectual people.

As an aside, I'm curious as to the reason why they are a Vulcan offshoot. Trek never did do too much with that relationship (except perhaps the Unification story), and it doesn't add too much to the Romulan people. It seems to exist only as a reason to get Stiles even more riled up against Spock. On the other hand, perhaps it's also there to immediately show that these people are a force to be reckoned with. By now, we know Spock is very intelligent and highly analytical, so presumably it's an immediate hint that the Romulans will be similar.

Meanwhile, I like that there is more going on than just the battle. We see how it affects everyone. We see Stiles still burning with anger. We see Martine struggling with the loss of her fiancee. We see Kirk having to work his hardest to come up with the proper strategies. And we see Spock having virtually no reaction to discovering the Romulans. It focuses the episode rightly on the characters (on both ships), rather than the technical details of the battle itself.

Not that the battle itself was bad, far from it! There was a ton of tension there, particularly when the Romulans fired their weapon on the Enterprise. I like that the two ships were evenly matched, but with different advantages for each. Made the battle more of a battle of wits than just a slug fest. Yes, it was blatantly taken from submarine battles, and that got a bit silly at times (especially the "everyone must be quiet" part), but I think the tension was still there. It's very reminiscent of Wrath of Khan's final battle as well. And really, the mental battle between Kirk and the Romulan matched up fairly well to that between Kirk and Khan, even if the characters have an actual history in the movie.

Enh, I don't have too much more to say. It's just a great episode, y'know?
Peter G.
Mon, Jul 25, 2016, 1:51am (UTC -5)
@ Skeptical,

I must agree about this episode; it's not just great, it's superb. The entire thing is riveting, and the tension is really there. The characters the pacing, everything, as well as meeting a new foe that seemed almost stronger than the Federation ships.

Not that much is done about the Vulcan offshoot thing, but it subtly tell us that these people are as super-intelligent and even strong as Vulcans, but that unlike Vulcans are also wild and prone to temper and deception. In other words, they're pre-Surak Vulcans who are pretty much out of control. I like that tone a lot, because it does put the spotlight on Spock regarding this, and actually even a threat contained within, since in principle if Spock and other Vulcans dropped the logic lifestyle they could have turned out just like the warlike Romulans.

Mark Lenard as well - brilliant. I give this one 4 stars outright, and it's in my top 20 list for all Trek series combined. Top 2 for TOS (along with The Enterprise Incident). I might have to think about that some more but I think it's those two.
Mon, Jul 25, 2016, 9:03am (UTC -5)
"Everyone has an episode that they are in complete opposite opinion of the vast majority. "

That would make a fun chat topic. Pick the most beloved episode that you hate and the most hated episode that you love.

I'd definitely pick "Genesis" for the second category. I don't know if I hate any beloved episodes, I'll have to think about it.
Mon, Jul 25, 2016, 12:16pm (UTC -5)
Challenge accepted.

Most beloved episode that I hate:
Hmmm...that's a surprisingly tough one. I'd probably have to go with TNG's "Conspiracy"; a surprising number of people seem to like it, but I don't.

Most hated episode that I love:
Definitely TNG's "Genesis" for me too. I enjoyed it despite the many scientific implausibilities.
Mon, Jul 25, 2016, 1:10pm (UTC -5)
I think Conspiracy gets graded on a curve. It was really decent for S1.
Peter G.
Mon, Jul 25, 2016, 2:38pm (UTC -5)
For Robert's challenge:

Beloved episode that I hate: Nothing satisfies this exact category but a beloved episode that I think is middling, at any rate, is "The City on the Edge of Forever." It's decent, a bit dated, and certainly has its oddities that don't quite work (such as Bones and Kirk ending up in the exact same building by coincidence). The message is classic sci-fi, but also not even as visionary as a lot of TOS episodes that take their premise in stride rather than announcing it through a proxy. One or two great scenes with Kirk and Spock but otherwise I think a lot of this was overtrumped on account of getting a name actress involved.

Most hated that I love: DS9's "Fascination." Call me crazy but I think it's a lot of fun and gave the actors a chance to goof off in a good way. A few classic moments from Sisko (when Bareil tries to hit him) and Odo (deadpan look when Lwaxana 'dances' with him), and otherwise has such a strange energy from Brook's direction that I can see how it would be off-putting for those who prefer the more standard DS9 tone. This is DS9's version of "The Naked Time/Now", I guess, but where it's about sex for everyone.

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