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Posts Tagged ‘Mark Lenard’

You could make a pretty strong case that Balance of Terror marks the point at which the slightly odd early Star Trek upon which I have recently been commenting begins to slowly metamorphose into the Iconic Show Which Everyone Remembers. Possibly I am overstating the case, as pre-Balance of Terror the series still features a relentlessly priapic captain, astonishingly fragile uniform shirts, supporting crew members with life expectancies┬álike mayflies and Stock Plots #1-5, but even so – this is undeniably the point at which the programme starts universe-building in a big way.

The Enterprise is on patrol near the Neutral Zone separating Earth-administered space from that of the enigmatic Romulan Star Empire, and Kirk has the happy duty of officiating at the wedding of two junior crewmembers (Kirk being Kirk, one half expects him to produce some regulation granting him droit du seigneur, but he does not).

However the wedding is effectively crashed by the Romulans, who choose this moment to venture across the Neutral Zone and launch a series of devastating attacks on the outposts on the Enterprise’s side. Facing an opponent with exotic alien technology and weapons, Kirk has to attempt to ensure the enemy vessel never makes it home, in the hope that this will persuade the Romulans from launching another full-scale war with Earth.

What new SF elements Balance of Terror introduces – a hostile alien political block, the Romulan cloaking device, and so on – are mainly there to facilitate the way in which the episode appropriates wholesale the trappings and tone of a Second World War submarine movie (the 1957 film The Enemy Below is generally accepted to be the main donor), with the Romulans playing the role of a German U-boat and the Enterprise as a surface ship. It’s a neat idea and well-executed, with the episode solidly plotted and genuinely tense.

‘It’s just really well done’ isn’t much of a review, of course, and so let’s consider some more tangential issues. The Romulans, for example, are the first of the major alien races to appear in Trek – unless you count the Vulcans, in the form of Spock – certainly the first of the adversarial races. And this is, as mentioned, a really good episode. So why have the Romulans never quite made it to the top of the pile when it comes to Trek villainy? Almost at once they are eclipsed by the Klingons in the original series, are hardly prominent in the movies, and then are successively displaced by the Ferengi, the Borg, and the Cardassians in the various sequel series. It’s not that they never appear at all, but when they do it’s usually in Vulcan-related or change-of-pace episodes.

lenard balance

It may just be a question of logistics – all those pointy ears cost money, which is why the Romulan crew in this episode wear those snazzy helmets, and the dark-skin make-up used on original-series Klingons is much cheaper. But I suspect there may be other factors: one of the things that makes Balance of Terror so memorable – and something that the novelisation of the episode omits, if I recall rightly – is the way it operates as a game of cat and mouse between Kirk and his opposite number on the Romulan ship, with each attempting to predict the other’s moves and outwit them. This works as well as it does because the Romulan Commander (played by the great Mark Lenard) is actually a rather sympathetic character – he’s careworn more than belligerent, an intelligent, decent man in thrall to the sense of honour and duty inculcated in him by his culture. Balance of Terror isn’t any kind of action thriller; rather it’s an account of a futile skirmish between two men who have more in common than they have differences. That’s not really something you can build upon in terms of creating an recurring adversary – not without a fundamentally different take on the Romulans, anyway.

(I’m rather glad they stuck to the same one as here – broadly speaking, anyway. My Classics teacher at school tried to engage our interest in the period by explaining how Gene Roddenberry intended the Federation to represent the classic Athenian values of tolerance and education, with the Klingons representing the militaristic Spartan philosophy and the Romulans, obviously, being the Roman Empire – their fondness for eagles and the fact they are ruled by a Praetor (not to mention their actual name!) make this a bit too obvious for my taste, but whatever. I’m not sure this reading of Trek has any basis in reality, but it was a nice try, Mrs Hughes.)

Watching this episode again also makes me realise what some of my Trekkie associates were on about with their persistent moaning about how Enterprise wrecked existing Star Trek continuity (then the dreaded Abrams came along and they realised they hadn’t known when they were well off). It’s made clear here that the cloaking device is an invention that the Romulans have cooked up since the War, so how one explains their apparently having it in Enterprise episodes set prior to that event I would not like to guess. Apparently the unmade fifth season of Enterprise would have focussed on the Earth-Romulan war in some detail, which makes me quite sad the show was cancelled (but also on some levels quite relieved – it’s a funny old world).

But as I say, all of this is fairly tangential. This is a strong, taut episode, intelligently scripted and played with conviction (Lenard in particular works in a minor miracle in playing a cod-Shakespearean alien without the whole thing descending into outrageous camp). And if it is the start of the Star Trek that everyone recognises, then it’s telling that it’s an episode featuring Kirk making a premeditated choice to go on the offensive agains the Romulan raider: if there are progressive values and liberal ideas at work here, they are thoroughly masked by military realism and harsh political fact. This may have been the 60s, but Star Trek was very rarely the flowerchild we often remember it as.

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