Star Trek: Discovery hasn't started airing yet, but it has already drawn the interest of many would-be fans. While we don't have much information about the new show, what little we do know is very intriguing — Discovery is set ten years before The Original Series, it will explore an important but undeveloped event from Federation history, and it is lead by a female protagonist who is not a captain but a lieutenant commander.
The rest — casting, plot, villains — is a guessing game, but Bryan Fuller occasionally drops little hints to feed our theories. And the latest clue, dropped via his Twitter, is a doozy.
"Balance of Terror" is a favorite episode indeed, one of the best of The Original Series. This episode gave us our first glimpse at the Romulans, as Kirk met his match in the commander of a rogue Romulan bird of prey. So what does this episode mean for Discovery? Let's examine the possibilities.
The Romulans Could Be The Main Villains
Distantly related to the Vulcans, the Romulans are a fascinating species that have caused the Federation a lot of trouble over the years. Going from antagonists in The Original Series and The Next Generation to eventual allies against the Dominion in Deep Space Nine, the Romulans have nevertheless been somewhat underdeveloped in previous Star Trek shows.
Using them as the main antagonists for Discovery would certainly be an interesting choice, and could explain why Fuller considers "Balance of Terror" a touchstone. But this would not be without its share of problems.
"Balance of Terror" sets the stage for future clashes with the Romulans, establishing the history of the Earth-Romulan war, and the uneasy truce that had sprung up from this, resulting in a neutral zone between Romulan and Federation space. This conflict was later explored in the show Enterprise, but one thing remained the same: The Romulans and humans never came face to face. Until "Balance of Terror", humanity had no idea what Romulans looked like, or that they were an offshoot of the Vulcan race.
"The conflict was fought with, by our standards today, with primitive atomic weapons and primitive space vessels, which allowed no quarter, no captives. Nor was there even ship-to-ship visual communication. Therefore, no human, Romulan, or ally, has ever seen the other. Earth believes the Romulans to be warlike, cruel, treacherous. And only the Romulans know what they think of Earth." - Spock.
This is a complex idea to explore, especially considering the time setting of Discovery. Because Discovery is set before The Original Series, the Romulans should never be seen by characters in the Federation, which could become very static.
In the century or so between the Earth-Romulan war and "Balance of Terror", the Romulans had no contact with the Federation and vice versa. Tip-toeing around this fact would also prove difficult, as much as we would like the Romulans to have a prominent and crucial role in Discovery.
There are ways around this — Enterprise revealed that the Romulans had spies very far up in the ranks of the Vulcan High Council, and there could be similar Romulan spies in the Federation, masquerading as Vulcans. But it could be that Fuller is using "Balance of Terror" as a touchstone in a more thematic way.
Preventing Interstellar War
There's a reason "Balance of Terror" has endured the ages to still be on the top of most fans' faves list, and that's because it's a fantastic piece of television. The episode plays out as a thrilling game of cat and mouse, as Kirk flouts the terms of the treaty to pursue the Romulan bird-of-prey into the neutral zone, in an attempt to prevent another war.
Along the way, Kirk and the Romulan commander discover a strange affinity with one another — they predict each other's moves with frightening accuracy, proving an even match in battle. Although the Romulans inevitably lose, the commander resists capture and instead destroys his ship along with himself. Another war with the Romulans was successfully averted, and the Romulans stayed in political isolation from the Federation until an attack near the neutral zone in The Next Generation.
It could be that Discovery will mirror the situation in "Balance of Terror", as one ship plays a cat-and-mouse game in an attempt to avoid war with a different enemy. Or perhaps Discovery will emulate the themes of this episode instead, with our leading character — known only as Number One — pursuing an enemy that she grows to respect, and vice versa. That would align with Fuller's hints about Number One's personal journey of discovery:
"We're going deep into something that was for me always very tantalizing, and [we're telling] that story through a character who is on a journey that is going to teach her how to get along with others in the galaxy. For her to truly understand something that is alien, she has to first understand herself."
That would certainly make for a fascinating narrative thread in Discovery's first season. But there's another prominent theme in "Balance of Terror" that could be explored — the suspicion and racism Spock faces when the connection between the Vulcans and Romulans is revealed.
With Discovery set in the fairly early days of the Federation, there's a lot of interspecies and intercultural tensions to explore. The idea of diversity and acceptance has always been central to Star Trek, and "Balance of Terror" is interesting because it reveals that despite the optimism of Trek, there are still inherent prejudices within the Federation.
In this case, it's Lt Stiles who is biased against Spock, because his own family fought in the Earth-Romulan war. Humanity had a long and rocky road to the golden era of the Federation, surviving its own Third World War to get to first contact with the Vulcans, only to clash with the Xindi and the Romulans as humans voyaged into space.
As we can see in "Balance of Terror" — and even in the new film Star Trek: Beyond — these conflicts are still fresh in many people's minds, and can lead to dangerous prejudices and grudges against alien races. That's a topic ripe for exploration, and it's worth noting that The Undiscovered Country — which developed post-war tensions with the Klingons — has also been pin-pointed as a "touchstone" for Discovery.
Clearly there are many ways that Discovery can draw from "Balance of Terror", and it will be fascinating to find out exactly how this episode inspired Bryan Fuller in writing the new show.
Tell us in the comments: Would you like to see the Romulans as the villains for Discovery?