An aggressive version of balance of power.
When nations possess massive destructive weaponry then they are deterred from attacking each other not by the likelihood of effective defence, but by the probability of their own destruction.
Roger Scruton, A Dictionary of Political Thought (London, 1983)
The USS Enterprise, under the command of Captain Kirk, is investigating a loss of communication with a line of Earth outposts near the Romulan Neutral Zone, formed under the terms of the peace treaty that ended the Earth–Romulan War a century earlier. Because there were no visual communications at that time, the two races have never seen each other. While Kirk officiates at the wedding of Lieutenant Tomlinson and Ensign Martine, Outpost 4 comes under attack. The Enterprise comes to Outpost 4’s aid and contacts the base commander, Hansen, who reveals he is the only survivor of an attack by an unknown enemy with weapons of immense power. A single shot destroyed the base’s shields and killed the phaser crew. As they speak, the enemy ship reappears. The ship fires before disappearing again. The shot destroys the outpost and kills Hansen.
The ship’s sensors locate the attacker, which remains invisible. Kirk surmises that the attacker is equipped with a cloaking device. A coded message from the intruder provides a view through one of its internal cameras, revealing humanoids with an appearance like Vulcans. Lieutenant Stiles, the navigator, son of a service family that lost several members in the Earth–Romulan War, begins to question the loyalty of the Enterprise‘s half-Vulcan first officer, Mr. Spock.
During a discussion of the Romulan ship’s capabilities, Stiles suggests the Enterprise attack the vessel before it can reach the Neutral Zone. Spock agrees; he reasons that if the Romulans are in fact an offshoot of the Vulcan species and have retained the martial philosophy of the Vulcans’ ancient past, they would surely take advantage of any perceived weakness.
A cat-and-mouse game ensues. The Enterprise is faster and more maneuverable, while the Romulan ship has a cloaking device and immensely destructive plasma torpedoes. However, the range of these torpedoes is limited, and firing one requires so much power that the ship must decloak first. When the Romulans head into the tail of a comet, Kirk tries to head it off, hoping to target it as it becomes visible. However, the Romulan commander guesses Kirk’s plan, and takes evasive maneuvers. Kirk, seeing nothing, orders phasers to be fired blindly before the Romulans can counterattack.
The Romulans, almost beaten, plant a nuclear weapon amidst jettisoned debris. When Spock detects a “metal-cased object”, Kirk orders a point-blank phaser shot that detonates the device. The Enterprise is shaken by the blast and much of the phaser crew are incapacitated, requiring Stiles to act as backup. Kirk orders operations to work at minimal power to exaggerate the apparent damage and lure the Romulans in for a kill shot. Although the Romulan commander suspects Kirk’s trap, Decius, a politically well-connected member of the command crew pressures him to attack the Enterprise. When the Romulan ship decloaks to launch a torpedo, Kirk tries to spring his trap, but a coolant leak in the phaser room incapacitates Stiles and Tomlinson. Spock rescues Stiles and fires the phasers in time to mortally wound the Romulan ship. Kirk hails the Romulans and at last communicates directly with his opponent, offering to beam aboard survivors. The Romulan commander says that it is not the Romulan way to be taken prisoner and triggers his ship’s self-destruct system.
The battle’s only fatality is Lt. Tomlinson. Kirk goes to the chapel to provide comfort to a grieving Ensign Martine.
Director Vincent McEveety had seen the 1957 film The Enemy Below but only noticed the similarities between its plot and this episode later. He admitted “Obviously, it’s the same story.”
The music played during the opening scene of the wedding ceremony is the 19th century English song “Long, Long Ago.”
The term photon torpedo was only invented for a later episode “Arena”, but the same effect was used in this one although still called phaser.
Mark Lenard, the Romulan commander, is better known for playing Sarek, Spock’s father, and has the distinction of playing a Romulan, Klingon and Vulcan over the course of the series. He would reprise the role of Sarek in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
In 1993, The Star Trek Compendium stated the episode was essentially a science fiction version of the submarine film The Enemy Below, depicting a cat-and-mouse game between the Enterprise as the American destroyer against a Romulan vessel as the U-boat.
In 2009, Zack Handlen of The A.V. Club gave the episode an ‘A’ rating, describing the episode as “one of TOS‘s strongest, introducing us to a new alien race, as well as providing us with a very important piece of Trek mythology” and noting that, “watching Kirk out-maneuver his enemy, even to the point of earning that enemy’s respect, is very cool”. In 2012, they ranked “Balance of Terror” as one of the top ten “must see” episodes of The Original Series.
In 2010, SciFiNow ranked this the fourth-best episode of The Original Series.
In 2012, The Christian Science Monitor ranked this the sixth-best episode of the original Star Trek.
In 2013, WIRED magazine ranked this episode one of the top ten episodes of the original television series.
In 2013, The Hollywood Reporter ranked the scene where the Romulans are seen for the first time as one of the top 15 key moments of The Original Series.
Io9’s 2014 listing of the top 100 Star Trek episodes placed “Balance of Terror” as the number one episode of all series up to that time. “The Best of Both Worlds” and “The City on the Edge of Forever” were ranked second and third, respectively.
In 2015, SyFy ranked this episode as one of the top ten essential Star Trek original series Spock episodes.
In 2015, WIRED magazine did not recommend skipping this episode in their binge-watching guide for The Original Series.
A regional newspaper of Cleveland, Ohio, in the USA ranked 25 of the greatest episodes of Star Trek prior to Star Trek: Discovery and included “Balance of Terror” as the 4th greatest one.
2016 was the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of Star Trek, which triggered a large amount of press including TV Guide’s review of top original series episodes. They ranked “Balance of Terror” the series’ second-best episode.
In 2016, IGN ranked this the fifth-best episode of all Star Trek series prior to Star Trek: Discovery.
In 2016, Newsweek ranked “Balance of Terror” as one of the best episodes of The Original Series. In 2016, IGN ranked “Balance of Terror” the second-best episode of The Original Series. In 2016, CNET noted that “Balance of Terror” was rated one of the top ten episodes of all Star Trek episodes in an audience-based rating at the Star Trek 50th anniversary convention.
The New Yorker, in a 2016 article for the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, noted “Balance of Terror” was likely alluding to the Cold War when discussing lessons from this show.
In 2016, The Washington Post ranked “Balance of Terror” the second-best episode of the entirety of Star Trek and noting that it investigates the connection between wars and race, and also that it shows both sides of a conflict in deep space, introducing the Romulan aliens of Star Trek for the first time. A 2017 article in The Washington Post which ranked the greatest spacecraft captains of Star Trek, included a special mention for the captain of the Romulan vessel. They note the performance of actor Mark Lenard, who went on to play Spock’s father, Sarek, in the franchise, for his role in his confrontation with Captain Kirk of the Enterprise, whom they rated as the best Star Trek captain overall.
In 2016, Empire ranked this the 43rd-best in a top 50 ranking of the 700 plus Star Trek television episodes.
In 2016, Business Insider ranked “Balance of Terror” the best episode of The Original Series. In 2016, SyFy ranked guest star Mark Lenard (the Romulan captain), as the eighth-best guest star on The Original Series. Mark Lenard returned to the series as Spock’s father Sarek in “Journey to Babel”.
In 2016, IGN ranked “Balance of Terror” number 2 in a top ten list of The Original Series episodes.
In 2017, Fatherly ranked this episode as one of the top 10 episodes for kids to watch.
In 2017, Business Insider ranked “Balance of Terror” the best episode of The Original Series.
In 2017, Inverse recommended “Balance of Terror” as “essential watching” for Star Trek: Discovery.
In 2017, Vulture.com recommended this episode for audiences new to Star Trek.
In 2017, ScreenRant ranked this episode the 10th thematically darkest episode of the Star Trek franchise, noting it lacks the light-heartiness of many other episodes in the series as it explores various themes.
In 2018, Collider ranked this episode the third-best original series episode.
In 2018, PopMatters ranked this the sixth-best episode of The Original Series.
A 2018 Star Trek binge-watching guide by Den of Geek recommended this episode as one of the best of The Original Series.
In June 2019, “Balance of Terror” was rated by Screen Rant the third-best episode of all 750 plus episodes of Star Trek released up to that time.
In 2020, SyFy also recommended watching “Balance of Terror” as background on Romulan aliens for Star Trek: Picard.
Comic book publisher IDW Publishing released a prequel, Star Trek Alien Spotlight: Romulans and a sequel, Star Trek Romulans: The Hollow Crown.
- Edward Gross; Mark A. Altman (1995). Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages. pp. 34. ISBN 0316329576.
- Asherman, Allan (1993). The Star Trek Compendium. New York: Pocket Books. p. 40. ISBN 0-671-79612-7.
- Handlen, Zack (February 27, 2009). ““Conscience Of The King” / “Balance Of Terror““. The A.V. Club. Retrieved September 5, 2009.
- Handlen, Zack. “10 must-see episodes of Star Trek”. TV Club. Retrieved June 29,2019.
- “Top 10 Best Star Trek Original Series episodes”. SciFiNow. Retrieved July 9, 2019.
- “Star Trek: The Original Series: The 10 greatest episodes (+ video)”. The Christian Science Monitor. September 8, 2012. ISSN 0882-7729. Retrieved July 23, 2019.
- Staff, WIRED (May 15, 2013). “10 of the Most Underrated Episodes of the Original Star Trek Series”. Wired. ISSN 1059-1028. Retrieved July 9, 2019.
- “To Boldly Go: 15 Key ‘Star Trek’ Moments”. The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved July 28, 2019.
- Anders, Charlie Jane (October 2, 2014). “The Top 100 Star Trek Episodes Of All Time!”. io9. Retrieved May 21, 2019.
- Kaye, Don (February 27, 2015). “Long Live Spock: 10 essential Star Trek: The Original Series episodes”. SYFY WIRE. Retrieved July 9, 2019.
- McMillan, Graeme (January 28, 2015). “WIRED Binge-Watching Guide: Star Trek”. Wired. ISSN 1059-1028. Retrieved July 24, 2019.
- Cooley, Patrick. “Before ‘Discovery:’ the best 25 ‘Star Trek’ episodes of all time”. cleveland.com. Retrieved May 21, 2019.
- “The Top 5 Star Trek: The Original Series Episodes | TV Guide”. TVGuide.com. September 8, 2016. Retrieved July 4, 2019.
- Star Trek: The Top 25 Episodes – IGN, retrieved August 5, 2019
- EST, Newsweek Special Edition On 1/2/16 at 9:09 AM (January 2, 2016). “Newsweek’s top 10 episodes from the original Star Trek series”. Newsweek. Retrieved March 27, 2019.
- IGN Staff (September 5, 2016). “The Top 10 Classic Star Trek Episodes”. IGN. Retrieved March 27, 2019.
- Kooser, Amanda. “10 best Star Trek episodes, according to the fans”. CNET. Retrieved March 31, 2019.
- Saadia, Manu (September 8, 2016). “The Enduring Lessons of “Star Trek““. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved June 24, 2019.
- Drezner, Daniel (September 13, 2016). “The top 10 ‘Star Trek’ episodes ever”. The Washington Post. Retrieved June 24, 2019.
- Ahrens, Frank (September 22, 2017). “The ultimate ranking of the best ‘Star Trek’ captains”. The Washington Post. Retrieved May 21, 2019.
- “The 50 best Star Trek episodes ever”. Empire. July 27, 2016. Retrieved June 29,2019.
- Kiersz, Elena Holodny, Andy (September 22, 2017). “Here are the 13 best original ‘Star Trek’ episodes, ranked”. Business Insider Australia. Retrieved June 26, 2019.
- Kaye, Don (September 16, 2016). “The 17 best Star Trek: The Original Series guest stars (hero or villain)”. SYFY WIRE. Retrieved June 26, 2019.
- “The Top 10 Classic Star Trek Episodes”. IGN. September 5, 2016. Retrieved June 29, 2019.
- “The 10 Best ‘Star Trek’ Episodes to Watch With Your Kids”. Fatherly. October 31, 2017. Retrieved July 4, 2019.
- Kiersz, Elena Holodny, Andy. “Here are the 13 best original ‘Star Trek’ episodes, ranked”. Business Insider. Retrieved July 6, 2019.
- Plante, Corey. “5 Essential ‘Star Trek’ Episodes to Binge Before ‘Discovery‘“. Inverse. Retrieved July 23, 2019.
- “A Beginner’s Guide to the Star Trek Universe”. www.vulture.com. Retrieved July 28, 2019.
- “The 15 Darkest Episodes Of Star Trek, Ranked”. ScreenRant. January 16, 2017. Retrieved January 18, 2020.
- Lesnick, Silas (August 14, 2018). “The 20 Best Episodes of ‘Star Trek: The Original Series‘“. Collider. Retrieved July 4, 2019.
- “The 20 Best Episodes of ‘Star Trek: The Original Series‘“. PopMatters. July 16, 2018. Retrieved July 8, 2019.
- “Star Trek: An Episode Roadmap for Beginners”. Den of Geek. Retrieved July 3,2020.
- “The 10 Best Episodes In Star Trek TV History, Ranked”. ScreenRant. June 1, 2019. Retrieved June 3, 2019.
- Britt, Ryan (January 13, 2020). “9 essential Romulan episodes to watch before Star Trek: Picard”. SYFY WIRE. Retrieved January 15, 2020.