“Balance of Terror” pretty much makes every “Best Star Trek: The Original Series” list. It’s widely regarded as a fan favorite episode for introducing the Romulans into the lore of the Star Trek universe and depicting the first great starship battle in the series.
However, “Balance of Terror” is rarely championed as the best episode of Star Trek: The Original Series. It always ranks highly and is given plenty of praise whenever it’s mentioned. But, a majority of prominent publications and fan sites go with episodes like “The City on the Edge of Forever” and “Mirror, Mirror”. These are undeniable classics and add vital pieces to the larger Star Trek world, but in this author’s opinion, they don’t match up to a seemingly simple story about two spaceships locked in combat.
It’s time to declare “Balance of Terror” the best episode of Star Trek: The Original Series. And here’s why.
The Real Balance of Terror
“Balance of Terror” takes its name from the term that described the delicate truce between the United States and the Soviet Union during the nuclear arms race. This tenuous agreement was to ensure the very survival of the planet, as mutually assured destruction brought about by nuclear war would irrevocably decimate Earth.
Star Trek: The Original Series was never shy about handling difficult, real-world issues through the metaphorical scenarios of science fiction, but “Balance of Terror” was arguably the most contemporary and close-to-home episode of the show’s run at that point. The tension and anxiety that loomed over all of humanity during nuclear proliferation was a part of daily life. Schools had (admittedly performative and meaningless) drills where children had to duck under their desks in the event of a nuclear detonation. For Star Trek: The Original Series to tackle this apprehension with this episode was nothing short of ballsy.
Today, this aspect of “Balance of Terror” isn’t as potent since the threat of nuclear war has diminished from the popular consciousness. However, it’s important to have this crucial context when judging the episode as the best entry in the original series. It’s a story that had to feel all too real to viewers in 1966. The fact that this little science fiction adventure show would aspire to do something that relevant to the fears of the day is worth remembering and respecting.
Submarine Warfare in Space
“Balance of Terror” is often compared to the 1957 film The Enemy Below, a submarine thriller about two rival commanders during World War II. It’s an apt correlation but it doesn’t make the riff Star Trek: The Original Series did with the story any less successful.
The conflict of “Balance of Terror” centers around two starships – the Enterprise and a Romulan Bird-of-Prey – locked in a calculating battle against each other. But, this isn’t some action extravaganza where the drama comes from high-energy pyrotechnics and overly destructive force. It’s a story where every little battle decision could be a fatal mistake. It proves that you can portray an exciting sci-fi battle and not rely on flashy spectacle to make viewers feel invested.
A big part of that investment is earned through the portrayal of the two captains. “Balance of Terror” positions Kirk and the unnamed Romulan commander as true equals in combat. The Romulans would later go on to be depicted as exceedingly duplicitous and conniving, but their portrayal here is far more nuanced and honorable. These aren’t mustache-twirling villains. A huge factor of the episode has to do with illustrating how two sides of a war are being fought by people that are more alike than they are different.
And let’s talk about portrayals because “Balance of Terror” solidifies some pretty important ones.
Kirk, Spock, and Bones
When considering what the best episode of Star Trek: The Original Series is, it has to be one that highlights the core trio of the Enterprise crew. It doesn’t have to give them equal prominence, but it should be an episode that showcases them all in the strongest light. “Balance of Terror” easily does that, and it might be one of the best showings for Kirk in the entire series.
There’s this pop-culture perception that Kirk was always some rebellious, hot-headed, rogueish type and that’s just not the case in Star Trek: The Original Series. Kirk is a great captain because he always considered every option before making what he believed was the best course of action. “Balance of Terror” illustrates the difficulty of this position by placing a huge burden on Kirk’s shoulders: one wrong move could instigate galactic war. Early in the episode, Kirk tells the entire Enterprise crew that he is ordered to do everything possible to prevent this outcome, even if it means sacrificing the ship and their lives if that’s what it takes.
At the same time, Spock is put under intense scrutiny from Lieutenant Stiles after it’s revealed that the Romulans look exactly like Vulcans. Stiles lost a number of relatives in the Earth-Romulan war and holds a personal grudge against Romulans as a race. Spock ends up taking some clear discrimination from Stiles when Kirk quickly cuts him off and tells him, “Leave any bigotry in your quarters. There’s no room for it on the bridge.” And by the end of the episode, Spock rescues Stiles from certain death after a coolant seal begins leaking in the phaser room.
Star Trek: The Original Series dealt with ideas of racism and prejudice many times during its run, but its inclusion in “Balance of Terror” is a meaningful one because it’s displayed by a Starfleet officer. It shows that intolerance wasn’t magically eradicated on Earth. Stiles learns a lesson by the end, but having Spock be the focal point of a racist character brings to light that things aren’t perfect in the 23rd century. And watching Spock ignore Stiles’s digs and do his duty only cements what a great character Spock is.
Then, there’s Bones. Ever the pacifist, Bones pleads with Kirk to do everything he can to avoid confrontation. A powerful moment occurs when Bones stops Kirk and tells him, “In this galaxy, there’s a mathematical probability of three million earth-type planets… and in all the universe, three million million galaxies like this one. And in all of that, and perhaps more, only one of each of us. Don’t destroy the one named Kirk.” It’s a plea from a friend that stands as one of the most beautiful and emotional moments from Bones in the series.
All of this plays into why “Balance of Terror” is the best episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, but there’s one factor that actually has to do with modern Trek that has made this episode get better with age.
What NuTrek Should Have Learned from “Balance of Terror”
“Balance of Terror” feels like the kind of premise that a lot of NuTrek aspires toward. It’s focus on a space battle, expands the lore of the property with a new alien race, and it has evident social commentary on its mind. Plus, NuTrek has been very adamant about coming across as something to take seriously. Only now are we seeing NuTrek begin to lighten up a bit and let some of the levity of the franchise back in.
However, “Balance of Terror” proves that Star Trek can be totally serious and function extremely well. At the beginning of the episode, a young couple is about to be married but their ceremony is interrupted by a red alert. By the end of the episode, one of them has died and Kirk ends the episode solemnly walking the halls of the Enterprise, contemplating the sacrifice of life that had to be made in order to keep the peace. It’s a somber ending that feels like the kind of emotional highs NuTrek strives for, but NuTrek often misses the mark due to being overwhelmed by a visual overload of action effects.
“Balance of Terror” demonstrates the value of reserve in Star Trek. It’s still a thrilling hour of television with its fair share of space action, but it allows the focus to be on the characters and their drama instead of the spectacle. Yes, that’s also due to budget and effects limitations, but it’s more to do with the creators making sure that character and story came first.
All this is to say that “Balance of Terror” continues to hold up over fifty years later. It exhibits the best that Star Trek can be even when it’s a smaller, self-contained little story. The acting is some of the best in the original series and the science fiction elements blend exceptionally well with the metaphorical storytelling going on. When the Romulan commander messages Kirk to tell him that they could have been friends in another reality, it never loses any of its efficacy.
There are plenty of good TOS episodes and a handful of outright great ones, but “Balance of Terror” has proven to be the best Star Trek: The Original Series episode of them all.