Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Star Trek -- Season 1 Episode 14 (Balance of Terror)

There were some things about the original Star Trek that made you wonder.  For instance, exactly how did stardates work?  It was supposed to be a way of having a standard calendar, but what was a year?  How did you measure a week or a month?  I don’t think it was every explicitly stated.  (To make matters more confusing, The Next Generation seemed to use a different system.)

Balance of Terror introduced the Romulan Star Empire, which posed an interesting problem: The Romulans didn’t have warp drive.  This meant that they had to go between stars at sublight speeds.  Romulans are suspected to be an offshoot of Vulcans, which would make them long-lived.  However, even if we assume this, that’s no way to run a star empire.  The closest star outside of our system is 4 light years off.   That means that it takes light four years to get from there to here.  It would take years (if not decades) to travel interstellar distances.  (For that matter, how did they destroy the outposts in short order?)

We can ignore that for now.  Why?  Because the Romulans have a cloaking device.  The have to become visible to use their super weapon, but they can travel and not be seen.  It makes for a pretty good episode because the commanders of both ships (Kirk on the Enterprise and the unnamed Romulan Commander) have to use their wits.  Both seem equal in skill.  The Romulan Commander even admits that they may have been friends under different circumstances.

The episode works because it deals with the issues.  At least one crew member is paranoid.  No one has ever seen a Romulan, meaning anyone could be a spy.  When the appearance of a Romulan is revealed, it ups the paranoia.  Not only do they look like Vulcans, the Romulan Commander is played by Mark Lenard, who would go on to play Spock’s father.  Does this mean that Spock is one of them?  Even though Spock has been in Starfleet for years, his pointy ears are a liability now.

This is to say nothing of the potential for war.  The Romulans have crossed The Neutral Zone.  This would be an act of war, except that the Romulan ship has some deniability in that they usually can’t be seen.  If the Enterprise crosses in, that would give the Romulans cause to start a war.  (Does it really even matter who started a war?)

The thing I like most about the episode is the use of appearance.  Romulans and Vulcans look similar.  This is the only reason that doubt is cast upon Spock.  Simple appearance.  This still holds true today, where people of a certain nationality or skin color are suspect simply because of the way they look.  Sometimes, no other consideration matters.

The Romulans are also portrayed in a sympathetic light.  The Romulans all have families waiting for them.  They really aren’t much different that the crew of the Enterprise except that they’re from the other side of a border.  Reacting out of fear and impulse might be understandable, but will often lead us to the wrong conclusion. 

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