Kirk and Spock’s Response to Racism in Star Trek’s “Balance of Terror”

Photograph Source: NBC Television – Public Domain

One of my all-time favorite episodes of Star Trek is “Balance of Terror” from season 1, and I have used it from time to time in my Star Trek class at Kyung Hee University over the years. It is very much a product of its time, and it is similar to World War II films like “The Enemy Below”. In this episode we first meet the Romulans, who fought a war with Earth a century before, and they have returned to their old ways, attacking Federation outposts along the neutral zone that separates the Federation and the Romulan Empire. The combat scenes between the Enterprise and the Romulan Bird of Prey are exciting and well done, but there is more to this episode that just tactics, weapons, and destruction.

When they intercept a Romulan message, the bridge crew of the Enterprise sees that the Romulan commander looks very much like Mr. Spock, a Vulcan, who later theorizes that the Romulans may be related to Vulcans. According to Professor Jose-Antonio Orosco, “On the bridge of the Enterprise is Lt. Stiles, a navigator who had family members die in the war long ago. He still bears a grudge against the Romulans. It turns out the Romulans bear a striking resemblance to the Vulcans, and Stiles immediately raises suspicions that Mr. Spock may be a Romulan spy. During one tense moment, Stiles mutters a remark about Spock’s loyalty and Kirk quickly reprimands him: ‘Leave any bigotry in your quarters. There’s no room for it on the bridge.’” (p. 112)

Here we see a good example of Star Trek’s approach to dealing with racism, with Kirk chewing out Stiles for his idiotic belief that since Romulans and Vulcans look alike they must be the same, but the Vulcans are peaceful and highly evolved citizens of the Federation, and the Romulans are warlike, like the Vulcans were in the distant past before the philosopher Surak led his people to a way of life based on logic, stoicism and utilitarianism. Again, in the words of Professor Orosco, “When Kirk gets after Stiles for his xenophobia toward Spock in ‘Balance of Terror,’ he is clearly demonstrating the Colorblind Ideal as a standard for the organizational operation of a starship. Kirk recognizes that Stiles is a bigot and that he, as Captain, has no control over what goes on in his officer’s heart and mind. But he can make it clear that those beliefs, and any actions that might result from those beliefs, are subject to official sanction if they are found to affect the cooperative efforts of the institution. Kirk is sending the message to his bridge officers that when they are on duty what matters is not their racial or humanoid differences but their ‘unifying organization identity’ as Starfleet personnel and their ability to conduct their work with one another.” (p. 114)

Later on in the episode, Stiles makes an offensive comment to Spock in the forward phaser room when Spock asks if they need any help. Spock is not fazed and simply leaves, but seconds later Stiles notices a phaser coolant leak that is filling the compartment with poisonous gas. When Stiles does not respond to Kirk’s commands to fire on the intercom, Spock rushes back into the phaser room, risks his own life, fires the phasers, and manages to save Stiles while one other officer lies dead on the deck. Later in sickbay Stiles expresses surprise that Spock would save him after what he said, and Spock replies that it was his duty to save a fellow crewmember and that he is not capable of an emotional response. Once again the Vulcan’s stoicism leads to ethical action which will hopefully help Stiles overcome his prejudice. I wonder how many of us would risk our lives to save the life of a bigot who hates us? I am afraid the answer is “not too many”. Like many episodes of Gene Roddenberry’s classic, it gives us something to think about. This episode truly impresses me and my students.

Star Trek author Marc Cushman speaks highly of this story as well. As he put it: “‘Balance of Terror’ offers thought-provoking entertainment, and two milestones for the series. This is our introduction to the Romulans, one of two recurring opponents of the Earth-led Federation (conceived to correspond to the enemies of 1966 America). This is also the first episode to deal directly with the issue of racial bigotry. In doing so, we learn more about Spock’s background. Spock himself shares this information, saying, ‘If Romulans are an offshoot of my Vulcan blood, and I think this likely, then attack is even more imperative. Vulcan, like Earth, had its aggressive, colonizing period. Savage, even by Earth standards. If the Romulans retain this martial philosophy, then weakness is something we dare not show.’ This episode provides a strong reminder of Roddenberry’s inspiration for Kirk’s character. [Associate Producer] Robert Justman said, ‘Captain Kirk was Hamlet, the flawed hero. Gene told me that, early on, he modeled him on Captain Horatio Hornblower and he had characteristics of Hamlet, who knows what he has to do but agonizes over it, feels — as Hornblower did — that he had to put on a brave front for the sake of his crew…. He wasn’t strong enough, and yet he had to be strong because otherwise, they would have no one to protect them.’”(p. 234)

I loved this episode as a child for all the action and suspense, but now, in my final days teaching Star Trek, I love it for a much deeper reason, namely, the way it deals with bigotry.


José-Antonio Orosco. Star Trek’s Philosophy of Peace and Justice: A Global, Anti-Racist Approach. Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Marc Cushman; Susan Osborn. These Are The Voyages, TOS, Season One (These Are The Voyages series Book 1). Kindle Edition.

Roger Thompson is a research fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for the Study of Security and Development, the author of Lessons Not Learned: The US Navy’s Status Quo Culture, a former researcher at Canada’s National Defence Headquarters and Korea’s first Star Trek professor.