Themes of ‘Other’, Respect, and of Understanding
Watch the Star Trek: The Original Series episode entitled ‘Balance of Terror’ for themes that may be relevant to the new series
The Romulans were first introduced in Star Trek: The Original Series episode ‘Balance of Terror‘ during the show’s first season. Their introduction is one of war mongering as they attack Federation stations along the neutral zone. At this point in Star Trek canon, Romulans have never been seen by any human, nor have they been heard from in over 100 years. What transpires in the episode is just as valuable a lesson today as it was in the 1960’s when it first aired.
The Romulan commander, played by Mark Lenard, sets up a game of cat and mouse. Most Star Trek fans will recognize Mark Lenard as being Spock’s father Sarek, in later episodes.
Having never seen Romulans, it comes as a shock that Romulan bodily appearance is almost identical to that of Vulcans. Specist (as in racist) tension heats up for some human crew members who “other” Spock. After all, he looks just like their enemy. Meanwhile, thanks to a ship cloaking device, the Romulans manage to evade the USS Enterprise.
An Enemy Understood
It’s very much a submarine battle story set in space. But in the 1960’s, during cold-war tensions between the USA and USSR, an interesting theme is presented. Rather than write the Romulans as one-dimensional scary foe (like propaganda in the 60’s), writer Paul Schneider made them highly relate-able. Their intellect, motives, and emotions were more than familiar.
Throughout the episode, the Romulan commander gains respect for Captain Kirk as each tries to outwit the other. They may be enemies but there’s also an understanding that they’re more alike than different; just under different circumstances.
Touchstone of Star Trek: Discovery
Earlier this week, Star Trek Discovery show runner Bryan Fuller tweeted that Balance of Terror would be a “touchstone” of the new series. It’s unclear if his tweet referred specifically to the Romulans or to the themes presented in Balance of Terror. This writer believes Bryan was referring to the latter. Discovery takes place at least 10 years prior to Kirk’s Romulan encounter, at which point Romulans had never been seen.
— Bryan Fuller (@BryanFuller) September 9, 2016
Bryan specifically mentions the “story arc” in his post. So it sounds like we may also be looking at a submarine-in-space tale over a 13-episode span. Star Trek Discovery’s first season is slated to be 13 episodes.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this all feels more than familiar given the current political climate, including notions of xenophobia in the global zeitgeist.
In this writer’s opinion, Balance of Terror is Star Trek at its best. If Star Trek Discovery’s writers take a cue from it, the series, and first season story arc, are bound to be one of Trek’s finest.