“It moves as we move…”
Back in 1980 or so, I bought a first edition copy (the dark blue cover) of Allan Asherman’s must-have “Star Trek Compendium,” wherein I read that “Balance of Terror,” one of my favorite episodes of the Original Series (TOS), was actually based on a 1957 World War 2 movie called “The Enemy Below.” Asherman’s book didn’t go into too many details about the episode’s similarities with the Dick Powell-directed film, but years later, in the mid-1990s (a great time to be a Star Trek fan), I finally caught “The Enemy Below” on cable, and I was absolutely gobsmacked at just how closely Paul Schneider’s TV script mirrored the film. “Balance of Terror,” one of the most celebrated episodes of TOS Star Trek is, in fact, an almost beat-for-beat remake.
This isn’t to detract from “Balance of Terror,” which is still a fine piece of both Star Trek and 1960s television (the episode also served as an unofficial inspiration for much of Nicholas Meyer’s “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” as well). “Balance of Terror” introduced the Romulans and actor Mark Lenard to Star Trek–both of which became very important to the franchise in the decades ahead. The Romulans, an emotional offshoot of their logical Vulcan cousins, would play vital roles throughout the various Star Trek series & movies, particularly in the latest spinoff series, “Star Trek: Picard,” where we see the seeds of their eventual reunification with the Vulcans, a goal long achieved by Star Trek’s 32nd century (Star Trek: Discovery, “Unification III”).
Actor Mark Lenard (1924-1996), the nameless “Romulan Commander,” would later play Spock’s father “Sarek” in TOS’ “Journey to Babel,” as well as “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984)”, “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (1986), “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (1991), Star Trek: TNG’s “Sarek” and “Unification” Part 1. Lenard also played the ill-fated Klingon captain seen at the beginning of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979). The character was then played by the late Ben Cross in “Star Trek” (2009) and by actor James Frain in “Star Trek Discovery.” Lenard had said in early interviews from the 1970s and early 1980s (Starlog magazine) that he actually preferred the role of the Romulan Commander over Sarek, because it offered him a greater acting challenge.
“The Enemy Below” was based on a 1956 British novel by Denys Rayner, but for the purposes of this column, I’m sticking with the more popular American-made movie, which naturally changed the book’s hero vessel from British to … well, you guessed it, American. The synopses of both “The Enemy Below” and “Balance of Terror” can be roughly summed up as follows:
A young ship’s captain proves himself in combat when he pursues a powerful, stealthy enemy vessel, playing a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with her commander. The two men are nearly a tactical match, often anticipating each others’ moves. After hours spent in hot pursuit, exchanging deadly weapons’ fire and nursing their wounds, the enemy vessel is ultimately defeated, but at great cost to both sides. The commanders acknowledge their kindred natures when they finally meet.
The differences, however, lie in the details…
Beginning with the ships, we have Star Trek’s USS Enterprise, the flagship of the Federation Starfleet (or United Earth Space Probe Agency). The Enterprise is a large exploratory vessel designed for long-range interstellar first contact missions, fitted with warp drive, deflectors, shields, and a full suite of scientific equipment, as well as phasers and photon torpedoes for defense. She is not technically a warship, per se, but she is classed as a Constitution-class ‘heavy cruiser.’ Her crew of 430 consider themselves explorers, but defense of Federation planets and interests is part of their mission as well. In “Balance of Terror”, the Enterprise responds to distress calls from obliterated Earth outposts along the “Neutral Zone” between the United Federation of Planets and the Romulan Star Empire–a mysterious, unseen enemy kept at bay by a radioed treaty for the past century. The distress call interrupts a wedding aboard ship between weapons specialists Lt. Robert Tomlinson (Stephen Mines) and Lt. Angela Martine (Barbara Baldavin); a ceremony officiated by Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner).
“The Enemy Below” hero ship is the Buckley-class destroyer escort ship, USS Haynes, a ship patrolling the South Atlantic Ocean during the height of World War 2. The crew of the Haynes are tired, bored by long stretches of inactivity and a bit weary of their young new captain, Murrell (Robert Mitchum) who recently transferred in from the Merchant Marines; a self-acknowledged “feather merchant” who has to prove himself to this war-weary crew of new and seasoned personnel. They soon get their chance when the sonar control officer detects a blip from a German U-boat (submarine), on course for an important rendezvous. Capt. Murrell asks the crew to go on temporary radio silence and orders a parallel course with the enemy target, carefully pacing its every move.
Captain Murrell gets along well-enough with his “XO” (Executive Officer), Lt. Ware (David Hedison), who initially questions the captain’s decision to parallel the enemy U-boat’s course instead of immediate engagement. Kirk encounters no such resistance from his own First Officer, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy, 1931-2015), though his parallel course command is questioned by his navigator, Lt. Stiles (Paul Comi). Both Kirk and Murrell intend to learn as much as they can about their respective targets before engagement–a mark of command wisdom; intelligence-gathering before any use of force.
Note: Just as actor Leonard Nimoy’s “Mr. Spock” is famously half-human and half-Vulcan, actor David Hedison (1927-2019) would gain fame a year later as the star of “The Fly” (1958), playing Canadian scientist “Dr. Andre Delambre,” who develops a crude prototype of Star Trek’s ‘transporter’ and accidentally becomes half-human/half-insect himself, after a common housefly is trapped in his machine during a trial teleportation. Hedison would also play Executive Officer “Captain Lee Crane” in Irwin Allen’s 1964-1968 TV adaptation of his 1961 feature film, “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”–a series sometimes compared to Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek.”
In both stories, the captains receive comfort and moral support from their ships’ doctors. In Kirk’s case, he has longtime friend, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley) in his corner, while Murrell has the support of his ship’s older unnamed doctor (Russell Collins), who is at his captain’s side when he’s not busy in surgery himself, amputating the fingers of a young weapons officer who accidentally gets his hand caught during rapid deployment of depth charges.
Just as Kirk acutely feels losses under his command (Lt. Tomlinson), the compassionate Murrell quickly goes to see the weapons officer after his traumatic surgery, giving the young sailor words of encouragement. Murrell’s scenes with his ship’s doctor are very similar to the classic scene roughly midway through “Balance of Terror,” where a doubting Kirk is visited in his quarters by McCoy. As Kirk gets ready to resume his duties, McCoy reminds him that “…in all of (the universe), and perhaps more, (there’s) only one of each of us… don’t destroy the one named Kirk.”
Both Kirk and Murrell receive pushback from a pair of malcontents under their respective commands. Kirk’s comes in the form of his racist navigator, Lt. Stiles. Stiles questions Kirk’s orders at several points in the story, particularly his decision to trust Mr. Spock, after it’s revealed the Romulans look exactly like Vulcans–a revelation made possible by Spock’s own ingenuity, after he traces a comm signal from the Romulan vessel’s interior. Kirk gets somewhat rattled by Mr. Stiles, nearly losing his cool with the navigator on the bridge. When a sotto voce Stiles accuses Spock of being a Romulan spy, Kirk angrily spins the navigator’s chair around–dressing him down in front of the entire bridge crew. Ouch! Murrell is a lot cooler with how he chooses to deal with his bigmouthed, blowhard Quartermaster (Biff Elliott), whom he shuts down much earlier on in the movie. The ship’s Quartermaster still gossips behind Murrell’s back, of course, but he never again makes the mistake of doing so in front of his captain. Point Murrell…
Note: Actor Biff Elliott, who plays the USS Haynes’ obnoxious Quartermaster, would later find himself in the Star Trek universe as Schmitter, an ill-fated pergium miner on planet Janus VI. Schmitter becomes the latest victim of “The Devil in the Dark” (1967) in that classic episode’s opening teaser. The hapless Schmitter winds up “like the rest of ’em. Burned to a crisp.” Payback’s a bitch.
In both the episode and the movie, we see the crew listening intently to public addresses by their commanding officers over their ship’s intercoms. This is a nice way of communicating tension in a scene by showing the crew visibly react to their commanding officers’ words–seeing the tension in the young mens’ faces as they nervously hear their orders. Star Trek’s more evolved crew show less visible reaction at Kirk and Spock’s words, but the crew of the Haynes wear their weary emotions a bit more on their dirty sleeves.
Note: Star Trek has long used shots of the crew listening to their various captains over intercoms. It was more commonly seen in the first season of TOS (also see: “The Corbomite Maneuver”), but only sporadically used in later seasons and spinoff Star Trek series. Most effectively, we heard Spock counting down to the Enterprise’s hostile reception at Khitomer in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (1991), with a panning shot of sweat-soaked, nervous young engineering crew members anticipating their ship’s thrashing at the hands of a cloaked Klingon vessel. Sometimes the old tricks work best…
In one way, “Balance of Terror” goes a step too far in paralleling “The Enemy Below” with the appearance of its never-again seen Phaser Control Room, a 23rd century analog to the Haynes‘ more primitive torpedo room. We’d later see a torpedo room on the Enterprise as well, in “Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan.” The addition of the Phaser Control Room gives the Enterprise more of a World War 2-era feel, as officers manually ‘load’ phaser banks (?!) before firing. This time-wasting step slows down the ship’s defenses considerably, as the episode itself demonstrates when the Phaser Control Room’s coolant leak near the end of the story kills Lt. Robert Tomlinson, and briefly leaves the Enterprise vulnerable to the Romulan vessel’s counterattack.
A quick-thinking Spock saves the day, when he hears Kirk repeatedly calling down to Stiles, who’s assisting the ill-fated Tomlinson in the Phaser Room. Spock quickly surmises the staff are incapacitated and ‘rushes in where angels fear to tread.’ Spock holds his breath against the leaking coolant, and manually fires the phasers himself. Oh, and he also saves the life of the bigoted Lt. Stiles, who earlier accused Spock of being a Romulan spy. You’re welcome.
Note: Spock is, once again, the center of the Star Trek universe.
As automation of current spaceflight becomes increasingly more advanced, it seems highly unlikely that a 23rd century starship would need a group of people in a room just to assist the navigator with the firing of phasers. I had a similar issue with the manual loading of torpedoes in “Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan.” Yes, admittedly it’s a nice piece of nautical-style cinematic business, but it also looks a bit ridiculous on a ‘futuristic’ spaceship. It’s like seeing the crew of a modern atomic aircraft carrier shoveling coal into a furnace for greater speed. Needless to say, the terribly archaic notion of a ‘Phaser Control Room’ was never seen again in Star Trek (thank goodness), though torpedo rooms would be here to stay–in fact, we see them aboard Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s 24th century USS Enterprise-D, many decades later.
“Prepare to submerge!”/”Activate our cloak!”
The ‘enemies below’ in the movie and TV episode are the Germans and the Romulans, respectively. The Germans are aboard an unnamed U-boat, while the fictional Romulans crew their equally unnamed “praetor’s finest and proudest flagship”; a smaller space vessel than the Enterprise, but boldly-painted with a giant winged raptor on her underbelly. The Romulans are returning home after testing their new plasma-based weapon, which has just pulverized several Earth outposts in the Neutral Zone. The U-boat’s Germans are en route to an important undisclosed rendezvous, somewhere in the south Atlantic Ocean.
The U-boat is a submarine, giving it the ability to dive deep and hide from its surface-based pursuer, the Haynes. The vessel can even rest on the ocean floor, making it undetectable by movement or engine reactor noise. The Romulan vessel can cloak–rendering her invisible to both the naked eye and sensors; however, she is still trackable by her motion. Romulan invisibility comes at a cost, too, as the vessel can’t fire her main plasma weapon when cloaked, just as the U-boat can’t fire her main defensive batteries underwater–leaving it vulnerable to depth charges dropped by the Haynes. Both the U-boat and the Romulan vessel have options for self-destruction, if in danger of imminent capture.
The interior of the Romulan vessel, with its dim lighting, central periscope (no large main viewer), lack of comfortable seating and curved, low ceiling, are meant to evoke the similarly tight, unpleasant interior of the German U-boat in “The Enemy Below.” Even within these tight spaces, most of the German crew are wearing their incongruously formal hats, despite other more relaxed dress codes. The Romulans wear thick uniforms that vaguely suggest chainmail–the kind often worn in medieval duels or other combat–along with constricting helmets, save for the Romulan commander and his immediate subordinate. Both vessels are crewed with a mix of bitterly seasoned and fresh faces–some eager to fight, others simply longing to return home.
Note: The Romulan’s helmets were a cost-cutting measure to avoid having to make expensive, time-consuming pointed ear prosthetics for the entire Romulan crew. Makeup budgets for Star Trek were much tighter in those days, as opposed to the far more generous production budgets of today.
The tension within both cramped ships becomes palpable when they play their silent “waiting games” with the ‘surface vessels,’ the Haynes and the Enterprise. In both stories, the Germans and Romulans run quiet and motionless in an effort to dodge their pursuers, with the German U-boat literally resting on the bottom of the ocean, before active pinging by American sonar–and the German crew’s singing (a deliberate order by the captain)–gives them away. “Balance of Terror” changes this a bit, as Spock, working to restore weapons, accidentally presses a button on his console; the electronic signal of which reveals the motionless Enterprise’s position to the waiting Romulan ship. This accident, of course, only serves to bolster Stiles’ opinion that Spock is a Romulan spy.
Note: Remaining silent under the sea, where sound transmission is increased in the surrounding density of ocean, makes sense as a submarine warfare tactic. However, it is scientifically odd to see both Romulan & Starfleet crews ‘working quietly’ to avoid being ‘heard’ by the other, since there is no sound transmission within the hard vacuum of outer space. Spock’s accidental pressing of his console button only works if one assumes he pressed a transmitter of some kind. This is one more instance where the TV episode followed the movie perhaps a bit too closely…
Both the German and Romulan skippers are beautifully played by their respective actors, Curd Jürgens (“The Spy Who Loved Me”) as “Kapitan Von Stolberg,” and Mark Lenard as the nameless Romulan “Commander.” Both are men who are secretly (and not-so-secretly) sick of war, along with the needless casualties accrued in its wake. Each man has a confidante: Von Stolberg has his longtime Oberleutnant (First Officer), “Heinie” Schwaffer (Theodore Bikel), while the Romulan Commander’s aide is generically referred to as “Centurion” (John Warburton). Both Schwaffer and Centurion are older, trusted men who’ve served with their respective commanding officers for many years. Like their captains, each are also quietly tiring of conflict, though Centurion seems less likely to express such thoughts in front of others–particularly the more gung-ho officers among the younger crew. The less-outspoken Schwaffer quietly tells his kapitan that the war they’re in comes from a dark and twisted place, echoing Von Stolberg’s own sentiments. Both commanders and their aides also know better than to speak such ‘treason’ in front of their crew, for fear of mutiny.
A sign hung just below the ceiling of the U-boat’s command deck reads “Führer befiehl, wir folgen,” which translates as “Leader command, we follow.” At one point, Von Stolberg deliberately hangs a towel over the word Führer in disgust. Similarly, the Romulans follow a strict martial code of conduct, with Centurion reminding his waffling Commander that “Our portion … is obedience.” Commander bristles at that last word, quietly telling Centurion that he finds himself wishing for destruction before they can return to base–but assuring his old friend that he’s too well-trained to permit it. The Romulans were clearly old friends in Star Trek, while the more mild-mannered Schwaffer is less certain of his own status with Vol Stolberg, who assures his soft-spoken aide that they are, indeed, friends.
Note: Actor Theodore Bikel (1924-2015), who played the U-boat’s oberleutnant, Schwaffer, later joined the Star Trek universe on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” in the 4th season episode “Family,” where he played Russian-born Starfleet officer Sergei Rozhenko; the adoptive human father of the orphaned Klingon, Worf (Michael Dorn).
Two other characters from the film and the episode draw parallels. “Enemy Below” has an unnamed German officer (Sasha Harden) who stands ramrod-straight, always salutes, and even reads Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” to relax–jeezus. Von Stolberg looks at the young man with a combination of incredulity, disgust and even pity. The officer is a fanatic; the kind of sailor/soldier that General Patton would’ve called a “razor.” He’s all about duty, and nothing else. The Star Trek parallel to that character is a well-connected young Romulan officer named “Decius” (Lawrence Montaigne). Decius is also given traits of the USS Enterprise’s Lt. Stiles, openly challenging his Commander in front of the others at nearly every turn. Perversely, the irritating Decius is also the only Romulan character in the episode given an actual name, albeit a Roman one. Centurion recognizes the danger of Decius to his Commander’s authority, and warns his old friend to take care in his presence, especially after the Commander demotes Decius for sending a coded message to base against his strict radio silence order. While the German fanatic is certainly annoying, he’s a lot less challenging to Von Stolberg than the Romulan Decius is to his own Commander.
Note: Actor Lawrence Montaigne (1931-2017), who played Decius, would return to Star Trek in season 2’s “Amok Time” (1967), playing a Vulcan named “Stonn”–the “other man” in Spock’s fiancée T’Pring’s life. Montaigne was finally fitted for prosthetic pointed ears this time, instead of a concealing Romulan helmet.
The tactics used in both the film and the TV episode are almost exactingly similar, with the ocean-warfare tricks juxtaposed into space warfare by writer Paul Schneider; the U-boat’s deliberate obscurement into a countermeasures cloud echoes the Romulan vessel slipping into a comet’s coma to confuse the Enterprise’s sensors. The silent ‘waiting game’ sequence, and the extended scenes of each vessel being battered by their pursuer’s bombardments are also present in both versions. As their ships are repeatedly rocked by depth charges and phaser beams, we see the Von Stolberg and his Romulan counterpart wondering aloud in frustration if Captains Murrell & Kirk can actually read their minds. The Romulan Commander openly laments, “He’s a sorcerer, that one, he reads the thoughts in my brain.”
Both versions see the enemy skippers losing their best friends, too, but at different points in the story. The Romulan Commander also shrewdly places the dead body of his friend Centurion into a disposal tube along with random debris, in a desperate attempt to trick Kirk into believing his vessel’s been destroyed.
As the fateful games of cat-and-mouse between Murrell/Kirk & Von Stolberg/Commander reach a climax, both enemy commanders rig their defeated ships for self-destruction–with a large mine and an “old-style” nuclear warhead, respectively. It’s at this point that both stories diverge significantly…
The ending of “The Enemy Below” sees the surfaced U-boat rammed and destroyed by the Haynes, in a near-suicidal maneuver. Escaping from the conning tower of his destroyed U-boat, Von Stolberg spots and then salutes his opponent, Captain Murrell, who then helps him rescue his dying friend, Schwaffer. As the Germans flee their doomed U-boat, they are taken aboard an American rescue ship, given fresh clothing, and even allowed a proper a proper burial at sea for their fallen comrade, Schwaffer. The movie ends with Von Stolberg paying his respects to Murrell, after the service. Von Stolberg admits that he might not have been so charitable in Murrell’s place.
“Balance of Terror” ends quite differently. After Kirk soundly defeats the Romulan ship, the Romulan commander is its sole survivor. Kirk hails his counterpart, and they’re finally given the chance to ‘meet’ through their viewscreens. The Romulan commander softly refuses Kirk’s offer of rescue, remorsefully saying “I regret that we meet in this way. You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could’ve called you ‘friend’.” After that, the self-destruct is activated, and the Romulan ship goes out in an atomic blaze of defeat…
Note: Ironic that the typically optimistic and aspirational Star Trek has the more dour ending of the two. A later Star Trek might’ve seen Kirk successfully rescuing his Romulan counterpart, but that wasn’t the case in Paul Schneider’s script. “Balance of Terror” had to make its Romulan enemy ‘pay’ for their deadly sneak attacks along the Neutral Zone outposts–an act without a parallel in its cinematic predecessor.
“He must’ve guessed our move! Helm hard to starboard!”
Apart from its divergent ending, there are other significant changes made to “Balance of Terror” that keep this classic Star Trek episode from being an uninspired piece of plagiarism. Once again, it’s in those little details where the episode finds its own identity.
The character of Mr. Stiles has family history with the Romulans, who killed several of his Starfleet ancestors during the 22nd century Earth-Romulan war. This backstory provides the impetus of his racism towards Mr. Spock, after seeing how closely the Romulans resemble Vulcans. Eventually, Spock rescues an unconscious Stiles from the damaged Phaser Control Room, following the toxic coolant leak. It took Spock’s rescue of Stiles to make him realize his prejudices were unfounded. Stiles’ arc of overcoming racism isn’t paralleled in “The Enemy Below,” primarily because the mostly caucasian crew of the Haynes look very similar to their U-boat counterparts.
Note: Spock would later expose himself to lethal levels of radioactivity in order to save the Enterprise in “The Wrath of Khan,” 16 years later.
Women also play a greater role in “Balance of Terror”, whereas they play no role at all in “The Enemy Below,” unless you count cheesecake posters tacked up on the walls of the crew quarters. The episode opens with the wedding between weapons control shipmates Angela Martine and Robert Tomlinson, before he is killed in the line of duty. Martine is later seen mourning her fiancé’s loss at the end of the episode, where she bravely assures her captain that she’ll be alright.
On the bridge of the Enterprise, we see Lt. Uhura (series’ regular Nichelle Nichols), who aids Spock in deciphering Romulan radio traffic. She later takes over the navigational console, after Lt. Stiles volunteers to help out in the undermanned Phaser Control Room. That’s more like it.
The episode is also one of the few that featured the early recurring character, Yeoman Janice Rand (Grace Lee Whitney, 1930-2015), who sadly plays a less progressive role in the story. Rand comes to the bridge, breathlessly asking if she should continue log entries, only to be shushed by Kirk, and later held close by him as a Romulan plasma-weapon approaches the ship. Yikes. Two steps ahead, one big step backward…
Of course, all ‘new’ ideas in storytelling have their roots in earlier works. “The Enemy Below” was hardly the first movie that Star Trek drew inspiration from (“The Galileo Seven” is also a remake of 1965’s “Flight of the Phoenix,” for example). But what makes “Balance of Terror” still work, despite the obvious ‘homages’, are those uniquely Star Trek elements; a diverse crew of humans and aliens, operating from a United Federation of Planets for the betterment of the galaxy. In a time when racial/political conflicts are at rising levels of toxicity, that hopeful message of Star Trek’s couldn’t be more timely.
Star Trek evolved the basic naval warfare story of “The Enemy Below” to give it 1960s social relevance. The series’ knack for social/political commentary, a unique trait of the series since its debut in 1966, is an element that puts it above “The Enemy Below,” at least in terms of moral content. Yes, “The Enemy Below” had some of its German characters expressing anti-war/anti-Hitler sentiments, but that’s not exactly groundbreaking, coming 20 years after World War 2. Star Trek had many such stories, some of them clumsily executed, openly expressing opposition to war and racism–during the height of both the Vietnam War and the US Civil Rights movement (an ongoing struggle that’s far from over). Such commentary wasn’t exactly de rigueur in 1960s network television, and Star Trek deserves kudos for successfully delivering social commentary medicine within a sci-fi/action adventure sugar coating.
Where To Watch
“Star Trek TOS” can be streamed on Paramount+, and from Prime Video. “The Enemy Below” (1957) is available for purchase on DVD or BluRay from Amazon.com (prices vary by seller) and can be streamed on Prime Video or AppleTV.
Stay Safe and Stay Strong
With the recent invasion of Ukraine, here’s hoping the courageous Ukrainian people will see daylight from this nightmare. Wishing the people of Ukraine perseverence, and that this hideous aggression ends sooner than later. Meanwhile, the current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is over 1 million (and over six million worldwide) as of this writing, and while cases have significantly dropped in the last two months, please use caution and good judgment when it comes to masking and safe distancing, as many states are now easing prior COVID restrictions due to decreasing numbers of infections. In these challenging times, be safe and stay strong!
Live long and prosper!