Bottle Up and Explode aims to explore a tradition that is unique to television: the bottle episode. Each installment will examine one such episode to understand the constraints of the form, its particular strengths and weaknesses, and what it says about both the particular television show and about the medium in general.
"Why me? I look around that bridge, and I see the men waiting for me to make the next move. And Bones, what if I'm wrong?"-Captain Kirk (William Shatner)
To begin with, a confession: I am not a Trekkie. I saw one Star Trek movie in theaters when I was a kid (a cursory search of Wikipedia tells me this is Star Trek: First Contact, but all I remember is that Patrick Stewart goes back in time and that Borg scared the shit out of me, but I was only seven at the time), and I saw J.J. Abrams' reboot when it came out as well. I enjoyed that movie immensely, but I still wasn't drawn to the television series. I have my litany of pop-culture obsessions, and Star Trek has always seemed like quite an undertaking to me. So prior to viewing "Balance of Terror" for this column, I had never seen an episode of any of the franchise's multiple series.
That being said, I didn't exactly walk into this blind. The crew of the original starship Enterprise is so well known that I didn't really need to do any research before sitting down to watch the episode. I know Captain Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy, Sulu, Scotty, and the rest well enough just from being alive that I was able to pretty much walk right in. It also helps that "Balance of Terror" is actually a very important episode in the show's continuity, introducing us to the Romulans for the first time and explaining their back-story. It seems there was a war between Earth and the Romulans a century earlier that ended in a stalemate and the creation of a neutral zone between the two peoples that neither could cross without it being interpreted as an act of war (let's leave aside the practical component of creating a neutral zone in space, which doesn't really make sense. Is this zone a line? If so, how long is it? These are just some of the problems I could delve into). Apparently during the time of this war, ship to ship visual communication did not exist, which means that Earthlings and Romulans have never seen one another. At the beginning of the episode, it appears the Romulans have crossed over to Earth's side of the zone.
Written by Paul Schneider and Directed by Vincent McEveety, "Balance of Terror" is essentially a submarine film set in space, a battle of wits between Kirk and the never named Romulan Commander (played by Mark Lenard who Wikipedia tells me went on to play Spock's father in the show's second season). The episode opens with the wedding of Angela Martine and Robert Tomlinson, whose nuptials are cut short when the Enterprise catches wind of the destruction of several outposts that are guarding the neutral zone and begins tracking the responsible ship, which has a cloaking device rendering it invisible when it isn't firing its incredibly powerful plasma weapon.
The episode's conceit that the Earthlings and the Romulans have never seen each other is a little hokey, and ultimately the pay-off of that doesn't work particularly well. As "Balance of Terror" is a famed bottle episode (hence it being covered for this feature) I somewhat expected we would never see the Romulan commander, but instead it is revealed that Romulans look like Vulcans, making the ship's helmsman Mr. Stiles suspicious of Spock, a subplot that never really goes anywhere and concludes with Spock saving his life and earning his respect.
I still maintain that the episode would have been more tense had we never seen the Romulan commander, as it would have made his ship's actions all the more mysterious and unpredictable, and the only purpose he really serves is to develop a grudging respect for Kirk's strategic mind. Yet once I got over my initial disappointment at seeing the Romulans, the rest of the episode flowed very well. The vast majority of the episode takes place on the bridge of the Enterprise, as Kirk and his crew discuss and implement various strategies to track and ultimately attack the Romulan ship, and this is where the episode is at its best.
Kirk is in a tricky moral position from the start. The Romulan Bird of Prey (again, I won't focus on how silly it is that the ship is painted like a colorful bird) did break the treaty and attack the outposts, but it is headed back to the negative zone. If Kirk attacks it, it may be seen as an act of war; if he lets it return home, it may report that Earth's defenses are weak and it may open the door for a much greater attack. Star Trek has a reputation for being a tad too preachy in its morality plays (and I certainly see this tendency in Spock's subplot), but the conceit of this episode is incredibly strong. The difficulty of Kirk's situation and the way his decisions clearly weigh on him make the episode a study in escalating tensions.
The bulk of the episode's runtime (and I should note that Star Trek episodes ran 50 minutes, which allows for a great deal more story than the standard 42 minutes we get in most network dramas today) is given over to this battle of wills between two skilled commanders, and though it's obvious Kirk will triumph, that does not reduce the tension that is sustained throughout. By the episode's end, Kirk has triumphed and the Romulan ship self destructs (but not before the Commander gets to give his "in another lifetime we could have been friends" speech). The Enterprise suffers only one casualty: our boy Tomlinson, who never got to get married. This is the sort of obvious and silly emotional manipulation I tend to hate in shows, and it isn't done particularly well here. The two characters who are about to get married are introduced at the beginning of the episode, right before a dangerous situation, and seen only once throughout, talking about how much they want to get married. It is incredibly clear from the start that one of them will die, and I would have seen it coming a mile away if I hadn't completely forgotten about the existence of the subplot by the time they got around to killing Tomlinson. His death is manipulative and handled so poorly I just rolled my eyes, but ultimately it didn't really detract from my enjoyment of the episode"”Kirk's battle of wills was so engrossing, I did not remember Tomlinson nor did I care if he was surviving the battle. All that mattered was that the Enterprise lives to fight another day.
"Balance of Terror" was a very strong episode of television, tense from start to finish and so engrossing I barely noticed the whole thing pretty much takes place on the bridge. I can't say I'm rushing off to watch more Star Trek now, but I certainly better understand now why so many people are so obsessed with this show. If Star Trek can manage to accomplish so much with so little, I can understand why it has such a devoted fan base willing to follow the crew as they boldly go where no man has gone before. If watching Kirk's ethics and strategies tested is this engrossing, I can only imagine how exciting it is when he actually leaves the bridge.
Read more Bottle Up and Explode here
Coming up on Bottle Up and Explode:
10/9: "Ice," The X-Files
10/23: "Older and Far Away," Buffy the Vampire Slayer
11/6: "17 People," The West Wing
11/20: "A Night In," Porridge