science fiction critique – star trek – balance of terror

Romulan Weapon of Doom

The Star Trek original series “Balance of Terror” (S1E14) is considered one of that series’ best episodes (the best is always open to debate). The episode’s many strengths lie in its stars and co-stars, such as Mark Leonard who played the Romulan Commander and Paul Comi, who played Lt. Stiles, as well as the multiple plot threads carefully woven into the story, such as the dangers of prejudice (Stiles) and the horrors and fruitlessness of war. And yet, there is this one issue I have with the story; the use of the Romulan plasma weapon.

While I’ve read descriptions of the story that call the device a plasma torpedo, it appears in fact to be a directed energy weapon, a plasma canon that requires nearly all the Romulan ship’s power to fire. It’s an interesting plot twist because it requires the Romulan ship to go from invisibility to visibility before firing the weapon. Both weapons, one defensive, the other offensive, require too much power to operate together. It’s implied several times in the story that the ship and its new weapons are prototypes, with not quite all the kinks worked out. Unfortunately future writers failed to note this important plot detail and made the cloaked-and-invisible-ship-appears-before-firing shtick a boring part of the Star Trek canon.

The problem I have is what happens after the weapon is fired at the Enterprise (see screen shot above). For static, unmoving defenses the plasma weapon is ideal, and it’s used to full and horrifying effect against every asteroid post it goes up against. It works in a strait line, the one that intersects the ship and the stationary target. However, the Enterprise is not a stationary target unless its captain is willing to make it such. The Enterprise is much more nimble than the Romulan ship in a straight-up ship to ship fight. Thus, when the Romulans opened fire with their plasma weapon, all the Enterprise had to do was move out of the way at a sharp angle out of the direction of fire instead of moving in reverse. They’re all in space, and space is three dimensional. The idea of backing up in reverse, under warp, was nothing more than a crude way to build drama in the show. Enterprise was in no real danger from that ball of plasma except from the decision by Kirk to just back up.

The other problem I have with the episode is the Romulan Commander’s decision to leisurely head home after the final attack on Outpost 4. It’s one thing to slowly sneak in under the invisibility cloak, but once all tactical actions had been performed, the captain should have dropped the invisibility cloak and made all possible speed back to the Neutral Zone and Romulan space. They knew that the cloaking device “consumes much fuel.” Perhaps the Romulan commander had such a deep death wish he really did want to die by Federation starship.

No matter the flaws, in the end it doesn’t really matter. It’s just a TV show, written on a tight schedule and budget, at a time when a lot of this was new. Calling out flaws some forty-plus years later is a bit unfair. This is more along the lines of lessons learned; what might I do different if I had the opportunity to redo this particular story.