What Star Trek’s Balance of Terror Can Teach Us About the Ukraine Crisis

Trek Through Trek – Part IX

ariane179254_StarTrek_1x14_BalanceOfTerror_1098Extremites, when I sat down today to watch the news I was bombarded with coverage of the Ukraine crisis. I have been following this event with great interest; being a political nut, historical fanatic, and Russophile, this conflict plays on my chords.

The news coverage of the Crimea conflict shows just how off base Western Culture is when talking about Russian people. If you are a Western Child, you grew up with a stereotype of Russians as bad guys who live there lives in the soul purpose of destroying everything the West holds dear. This stereotype has led to an oversimplification of Russian relations; making it a black and white scenario.

Nothing is black and white.

No piece of literature, no piece of cinema, no television show, has illustrated that more than Star Trek.

Today’s Trek TroughTrek focuses on one of the best Star Trek episodes of all time: Balance of Terror. This episode is a prescient and important piece that is more import now than it has ever been.

If you read this blog on the regular you are aware that I love to talk about the Cold War. It is near impossible to discuss Silver Age comics without a rudimentary understanding of what made up that period in history. What is astounding to me about this time is how close the Earth was to thermo-nuclear holocaust. This is not hyperbole. The leaders of both sides entertained nuclear weapons as a viable military option; an idea that seems less prominent today.

Diplomats in the period had a death scenario that hang in the back of their minds like a cobweb. Called the ‘single soldier scenario’, it went something like this: in a period of heightened tensions, one soldier lets loose a bullet which kills an enemy soldier. This then butterflies into a larger scenario that forces both governments to retaliate with armies and major war actions. The actions would snowball to the release of nuclear weapons, ending in complete destruction.

Lots of works of the early Sixties were obsessed with this possibility. Kubrick’s masterpiece Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb took that scenario to a frightening end. Multiple books and plays capitalized on this fear as well. Balance of Terror takes influence from this scenario and extrapolates it into an intense military nightmare.

Balance of Terror was not coined as an allegory for the Cold War. It was an adaptation, by Paul Schneider — in space, mind you— of the 1957 film The Enemy Below, which concerns a destroyer battling a German U-Boat in World War II. Paul Schnieder says that it was his intention to make this episode of Star Trek feel like a sailing epic: “like two Master and Commanders duking it out in full blindness.”

Balance of Terror is a very simple premise compared to some of the other episodes. A Romulan Commander leads his Bird of Prey across the borders of the Neutral Zone, a boundary between Federation Space and the Romulan Star Empire, to destroy a series of star bases. Why he does this is never discussed. The Enterprise is tasked with maintaining peace along the border by any means necessary. Because the Romulans have no warp capabilities they have created something called ‘a cloaking device,’ which hides the ship from any screens. Kirk must use his ingenuity to catch the ship without being able to see it. Over the episode Kirk and the Romulan Captain — played by Mark Lenard, who later went on to play Spock’s father Sarek — gain a mutual respect for one another as they tilt lances in a mortal struggle.

Imagine the Federation was the Ukraine and the ‘Neutral Zone’ was Crimea. Putin, being the Romulan Commander, has crossed the border under the pretence of protection and the Enterprise, being the West, must protect the boundary between the two sides. What is different about our situation than the one posed in the show? One major aspect. Respect.

Respect!

I can hear you saying that Putin does not have respect for the West. I’d submit the exact opposite: the West does not have respect for Russia.

citi-massively-cuts-its-growth-forecast-for-russia-thanks-to-the-ukraine-crisisI think Putin has great respect for the West. This is why he works his life, and many other Russian politicians as well, to always get the upper hand. This is why he and his administration are so terrified of the Ukraine, and Georgia before it, forging closer ties with the West. When Russia makes a complaint, whether it be a noninterventionist plea or a political ask, the West shrugs it off as a byproduct of a ‘little people trying to restore the former glories of a superpower past.’We don’t look at these actions and wonder why Russia is calling for them. We have never been able to look at diplomacy from Russia’s point of view and understand why they act the way they do.

This is what Balance of Terror suggests we should do in a period of heightened tension. Kirk spends the episode trying to think like his opponent. He assumes the Romulans are acting under orders and all they want to do is return home unscathed. Knowing that the Romulan Commander would go to drastic lengths to escape, Kirk never once believes the surface clues. Kirk is holding onto his weapons, wondering why the aggressor aggresses, and uses these conclusions to determine his next action. Imagine if the West did that with Russia instead of chanting “destroy an ‘evil aggressor.’”

War is never the answer.

War is never going to end without mass death and devastation.

Our military and political leaders need to think more and posture less.

Thinking is not weakness, it is strength. Star Trek teaches us this.

What a heck of a show Star Trek is.

Until next time, Extremites,

The Episode We Are Watching: Balance of Terror (Episode 8 of Season 1 of The Original Series: December 15, 1966)

My Rating Out of 5 Tribbles: 5 Tribbles Crossing the Neutral Zone, incognito.

My After Episode Thoughts: “What a powerful episode… How do they rectify the Mark Lenard thing?”

Pros: The concept is simple, yet, powerful. All performances are top notch esp. Mark Lenard. It all feels very believable. The score is some of the best music in the The Original Series.

Cons: I don’t have any.

<— Part VIII

—> Part X

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About Julian Munds

I possess a degree in Theatre and Drama from the University of Toronto. I own my own theatre company called Snobbish Theatre. We focus our work on new versions of classics.

Posted on April 10, 2014, in Star Trek, The Original Series and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I love this episode, too.

    Have you written anything on The Cold War and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country? The historical parallels are fascinating there as well.

    • I have not written anything as yet. What is neat about Star Trek VI is the way they not only use the explosion on the moon as an allegory for Chernobyl but also the minority within the Federation who need the war to continue. From what I understand, upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, (and to this day) there are members of the US government that miss the days of the Cold War.
      Star Trek VI happens to be my favourite Star Trek film.

  2. I don’t know if Putin respects the West, but he definitely has no respect for Obama. Obama is weakness, and the Russian Bear has no fear of him. I wrote a short essay on “Balance of Terror.” If you would like to read it, here is the link: http://christopherjohnlindsay.wordpress.com/2014/06/12/star-trek-balance-of-terror/

    • I will read it. And get back to you in a couple days. Thanks very much for stopping by. I am not so sure that Barack Obama is the only person who Vladimir Putin should care about. That opinion assumes that there are only two countries in the world, the USA and Russia. In a place like the Ukraine, Russia is present in everything, the US is only (culturally) present in the occasional movie that pops by and the the Coca Cola they drink. I don’t think Putin does everything he does to get a (only) rise out of American President Obama. But I do agree that Putins Russia sees no opposition from traditional stop guards, of which the USA is one. But you are not only saying this. I look forward to sitting down with your essay when I have a little bit more time. My best, Julian Munds – Editor: Extremis Review.

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