Xenophobia and Racism are two common themes addressed throughout Star Trek – not just The Original Series, but throughout all its other incarnations as well. Balance of Terror, the fourteenth episode of The Original Series, is no exception and very directly addresses these concepts. The plot of this episode revolves around a game of wits between the Enterprise and a Romulan ‘Warbird,’ after the Romulan ship had been suspected of targeting Federation outposts at the border of what’s known as the Neutral Zone, which separates Federation and Romulan space.
The episode’s plot very clearly serves as an allegory for the Cold War, right down to its title which doubles as a 1950s reference to the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Echoing the phrase famously coined by Lester Pierson when stating, “the balance of terror has replaced the balance of power.” However, as opposed to simply mirroring the political stalemate between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., Star Trek takes the commentary to a level that addresses the fear and xenophobia that ran rampant during the Red Scare.
First and foremost, commentary aside, this episode did an excellent job of evoking emotion, building tension, setting up a suspenseful game of tactical cat and mouse, and establishing an equal foil to Captain Kirk in the Romulan Commander (played by Mark Lenard who would later be cast as Spock’s father, Sarek). Some may find this a particularly slow episode, focusing more on the introspection of our lead characters and building tension in the plot than action, however to me it evokes a sense of nostalgia for the days when TV shows or movies didn’t have to consistently ‘wow’ us with shiny things and explosions. I digress, however, as you may have pieced together, this is one of my favorite episodes.
Nobody aboard the Enterprise has a good idea of what a Romulan looks or acts like, only basing their knowledge off of archaic prejudices and fears from a war that took place over a century prior to this story. However, when we are given our first glimpse of the Romulan commander, it is quickly evident that the newly encountered race bears a strong resemblance to Vulcans, shifting attention over to the Enterprise’s first officer Spock.
Despite the fact that Spock’s Vulcan heritage is separate and different from the Romulan’s, aside from common ancestors, the initial fear of the mysterious new race boils over into a strong sense of racism and hatred towards Spock – specifically embodied by one Lieutenant Stiles who had family that served in the Earth-Romulan War.
While this part of the story mirrors attitudes of the masses during the Red Scare and the fears people had towards Communism that led to blacklists and McCarthyism, I would argue that the message still holds strong, if not stronger, today. Not only do we still see the words ‘socialist’ and ‘communist’ thrown around as insults and dirty words, but our post 9/11 society has given way to a new level of institutionalized prejudices and profiling.
Today, within the masses of our culture and society, there still exists a deeply rooted fear of the unknown or different that, in many people, transcends into hatred and bigotry. Today, we’ve seen this first-hand through political debates over LGBTQIA rights that have led to comparatively higher proportions of LGBTQIA youth to attempt suicide. We’ve seen it in the unfettered attacks (both physical and verbal) on people who look different than us because of their perceived resemblance to “terrorists,” like the Wisconsin Sikh Temple shooting. We’ve seen it in the degradation of the Islamic religion to an insult, by using the word, ‘Muslim,’ to verbally attack others. We see it in the news in the declaration by some extremists of our first black president as being ‘not American,’ a ‘terrorist, a ‘radical socialist’ (despite his fairly status-quo and middle of the road policies and ideals), and using his race as an insult. We see it every day in the frequent and unnecessary vilification of the poor and those on welfare, the depiction of immigrants as numbers instead of people, the growing intensity of nationalism and strong allegiances to invisible borders – the list could go on and on.
By no means do I want to deny the progress and steps we’ve taken forward in the issues in our society, but I believe that as we grow more and more self-aware and accepting of tolerance as a society, the more important a powerful message such as the one found in The Balance of Terror becomes. As we make stronger and more concerted efforts to eradicate our own prejudices, we should be that much more introspective and critical of ourselves when we witness these challenges to progress.
One specific aspect of Balance of Terror that I found particularly effective is the depiction of the Romulan commander, and the scenes aboard the Romulan Warbird. It’s one thing to display scenes of xenophobia and racism on the Enterprise and tell us that it’s wrong, but it’s a completely different and more poignant tactic to show us why it’s wrong by giving us the other side of the coin. The Romulan commander is shown to be an effective and conscientious leader, only differing from Kirk in that he serves a different side and comes from a different culture. This paints a picture of a universe in which neither side of a war or conflict is ‘good’ or ‘evil,’ but simply forced to fight on the whim of a few political rulers/leaders that feel a sense of aggression towards one another. This is a universe in which men and women are motivated to fight by propaganda, misunderstandings, and fear of the unknown. This is a universe not at all unlike our own.
“I regret that we meet in this way. You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend.”
– Romulan Commander (to Kirk)