“Balance of Terror” is rightfully considered one of the best episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS), with anti-war and anti-bigotry messages couched in an intense battle of wits and starships. It’s also an important episode for the franchise as whole because it introduces major antagonists for the United Federation of Planets in the unsettling form of the Romulans. In the opening of “Balance of Terror,” we learn that the Federation, despite having warred with them a century earlier, never actually saw what a Romulan looked like. Without knowing the face of the enemy, Kirk and his crew have to entertain the possibility of a spy in the crew. But before they can start accusing one another, a chance visual transmission is intercepted by Uhura, and the crew and audience share in the stunning revelation that the Romulans have pointy ears.
Although Romulans, with this episode, have pretty much been with Star Trek since the beginning, they have also remained — 47 years later — remarkably undefined. As we learn more about Klingons, we learn about their bushido-like code and oligarchical feudal system of government. The Ferengi are commerce-minded chauvinists that don’t like war (though war is good for business). The Cardassians have a Prussian efficiency and ruthlessness that they share with the Romulans, but they go on to demonstrate other aptitudes and capacities through seven seasons of development on Deep Space Nine (DS9). Moreover, those three races change quite a bit in the course of the audience’s time with them. We meet characters that are quite often wrestling with their cultures and governments in rapid flux. Cardassia flirts with a Weimar Republic before the Dominion War. Ferenginar becomes more progressive as Quark’s mom challenges gender norms. Chancellors Gorkon, K’mpec, Gowron, and Martok all evince different personalities and approaches to changing and saving their government and their people without losing identifiable Klingon cultural tics.
But the Romulans? They’re inscrutable, yo.
Intelligence and insight into Romulan culture is so bad that the 2002 movie Nemesis can introduce an entire backstory about an oppressed slave race, the Remans, that were apparently integral to the Romulan Star Empire for the entire 30 years, for the audience, and 200+ years that the Federation has known them. I bring up this point not to bash Nemesis1 but to point out that the audience doesn’t know anything about the Romulans except that they’re the unscrupulous and inscrutable enemy. They’re just vaguely ruthless bad guys. Slavery? Check. Rape? Check. They’re just evil.
Except being evil is in itself not the most important thing about the Romulans. The thing that matters is that they have pointy ears. That’s the key to the terror they bring. Romulans look like Vulcans. And Vulcans look like Romulans.
In “Balance of Terror” we get our first ever Federation racist, Lieutenant Stiles. His ancestors were combatants in the Federation/Romulan War a century earlier. He’s held a grudge against the until-then unknown enemy ever since. And when he sees the resemblance between the Romulans and Vulcans, Stiles proceeds to give Spock the stinkeye for the rest of the episode. Spock is an expert on Romulans, Stiles insists. So when Spock accidentally reveals the Enterprise’s location, Stiles suspects foul play. Later when Stiles is in the Phaser Control room, he refuses Spock’s help, “We’ll handle things without your help, Vulcan.” Kirk admonishes Stiles multiple times and thankfully, the rest of the bridge crew doesn’t share his bias.
The dynamic between Romulans and Vulcans as introduced in “Balance of Terror” is unique among all of the alien races in Star Trek. While perhaps the Klingons and the Kazon bear some similarities, all of the alien races bear distinctive physical features to distinguish them from one another. No one confuses a Bajoran for a Tellarite. Or a Pakled for a Nausicaan. Only the Romulans and Vulcans are physically indistinguishable 2.
This situation brings to mind two specific situations during World War II. Stiles’ suspicions of spies — and his instant ability to cast those suspicions on the similarly featured Spock — recall the all too quick and all too easy suspicions placed on Japanese Americans as a fifth column after Pearl Harbor. But of course in the early 1940s, the “bad guys” and the victims of American suspicions were at least the same race. They were Japanese. But the analogy holds in that despite Spock’s willingness to confront them and his supposition that Romulan culture was vastly different than Vulcan, Stiles doesn’t care. The differences between them melt away and only the sameness matters. Pointy ears alone deem one worthy of suspicion.
Or coming another way, Vulcans are Chinese analogs 3 and the Romulans are Japanese analogs. Since the Chinese were allies during WWII, the US Army saw fit to produce a useful pamphlet on “How to Spot a Jap” that aimed to show differences between the good and bad Asiatics. Of course, the pamphlet also noted that Japanese spies “fooled even the Chinese.”
The indistinguishability between Romulans and Vulcans pop up again in The Next Generation in a pair of episodes, “Data’s Day” and “The Drumhead.” In “Data’s Day,” an acclaimed Vulcan diplomat is revealed to be a Romulan spy4. Later, in “The Drumhead” we learn the plight of poor Simon Tarses, who comes under suspicion when it is revealed that his partial ancestry is in fact Romulan and not Vulcan as he claimed. Again, the only characteristic of narrative value outside of being cunning and inscrutable is that they look like Vulcans and that with this feature they can sow seeds of distrust.
Perhaps looking for an historical analog is going the wrong way. Though Vulcans vis-a-vis Chinese and Romulans vis-a-vis Japanese holds as an analogy, there’s yet another way to parse this dynamic.
There are two types of aliens in Star Trek, humanoid and non-humanoid. Typically an omnipotent might show up masquerading as human but their powers make them conceptually something different. Or maybe they’re sentient rocks5. The non-humanoids work as vehicles to chart “the unknowable possibilities of existence.” But where the non-humanoid aliens create stories that take us to new possibilities, the humanoid aliens, the ones with two arms and two legs and cultures, they bring us back to Earth and to interacting with one another.
In this way I suggest a different read on the Vulcan/Romulan dichotomy. Vulcans are the good Orientals and Romulans are the bad Orientals. Setting aside the vaguely “Asiatic” makeup, what matters is that Vulcans support Humans and are charter members of the Federation. Romulans aren’t. Vulcans are certainly all sorts of “other,” but at least it’s our kind of otherness. Romulans aren’t.
In “Balance of Terror,” the Romulan Commander and his advisor the Centurion are never given names. Coincidentally, the Commander is played by Mark Lenard, who would later portray Sarek — Spock’s father — in the exact same makeup. Decius, the only named Romulan in “Terror,” would later play Stonn, also a Vulcan. Seriously, Vulcans and Romulans all look same.
Moreover, they speak in a clipped English, dropping off pronouns and verbs with a jarring economy. The “otherness” amplifies our ability to distinguish them from the familiar Spock who carries a name and has regular syntax. I am not suggesting that Spock and Vulcans are subservient to Humans and the Federation. What is important is that they are known quantities. Different and weird. But known quantities. That’s what makes the foreignness and aggression in behavior so powerful in the Romulans. They aren’t known quantities; moreover, they destabilize how we can perceive our Vulcans.
The Romulan Commander is ultimately outmaneuvered. In his final moment, he contacts Kirk and admits he has been defeated but that he has found a respect and admiration for his opponent. During that battle, Stiles is injured and in danger when coolant leaks in the Phaser Control room. Spock saves him, and Stiles learns his lesson to not be racist anymore. But the seed is sown. There’s an Other out there that looks friendly, but you better believe isn’t. And while Spock ultimately saves Stiles’ life, it’s hard to imagine Stiles’ bigotry to have dissipated otherwise.
And Spock can’t save every racist.
- Though that movie is terrible. ↩
- It’s also worth noting that Romulans are inconsistently portrayed between the original series and The Next Generation as having an extra forehead bump. ↩
- Obviously. ↩
- The spy story is problematic considering if she had the time to become a famous diplomat, then she had to be in deep cover for over 54 years. And Romulus had closed itself from interactions with the Federation for that amount of time just prior to the first season of TNG. But I digress. ↩
- “Devil in the Dark” is another amazing episode, by the way. Sentient rocks. Spoiler. Whoops. Sorry. ↩