Playing the Hand You’re Dealt: James Blish’s Adaptation of “Balance of Terror”
“Gene rewrote everything, but the original writers got the credit.“
So said Star Trek: The Original Series producer Robert Justman, according to Marc Cushman in his first volume of These Are the Voyages, in reference to Gene Roddenberry and the editing of episode scripts in the first season of TOS. It wasn’t just Roddenberry who had a hand in the development of a given script. The writers themselves did multiple drafts, and other editors, such as Justman himself, or John D.F. Black, continued to polish the teleplays before the story that showed up on screen finally emerged.
At some point during the evolution of a given story, science fiction author and Hugo Award winner James Blish would have access to draft scripts, on which he would base his adaptations, collected in a twelve-volume series from Bantam Books. (A thirteenth volume, Mudd’s Angels, was edited, after Blish’s death, by his widow, J.A. Lawrence.) The stories could undergo significant changes along the way as they were being readied to shoot, and so Blish’s adaptations often diverge from what we are used to seeing when we sit down to watch an episode.
Paul Schneider wrote the story that became the season one episode “Balance of Terror”. He went on to write “The Squire of Gothos”, and the Star Trek: The Animated Series season one episode “The Terratin Incident”. He said at one point, “It’s painful to watch my stuff on TV. About the only thing I recognize is my name.” It’s difficult to evaluate how justified that reaction is without Schneider’s original work to look at, but we can at least compare the stories that Blish wrote based on scripts that were not final.
Let’s take a brief look at “Balance of Terror”, the Blish version of which was published in the first of his twelve volumes. Overall, it’s certainly not the case that the adaptation is unrecognizable compared to the screen version of the episode. There are variations between the two, of course. Lieutenant Stiles, the navigator who gets called out by Kirk for his bigotry based on his family history and similarities in appearance between Romulans and Vulcans, ends up dying as a result of the coolant leak in the phaser control room. (Lieutenant Tomlinson and one of his colleagues are the other casualties in Blish’s version, though Tomlinson and Angela Martine, in the adaptation, were married in the midst of the action.)
While Gene Roddenberry wanted Star Trek to be scientifically accurate, he did mention in a memo to his staff to “cut down on the sci-fi technical and battle terms….” Blish, having apparently picked up on some of these, has Spock mention that the orbit of the cloaked Romulan vessel “feeds in along Hohmann D” (perhaps related to a Hohmann transfer orbit?) and Uhura also makes reference, while attempting to track the Romulans, to De Broglie effects.
Blish also says that no-one had ever seen a live Romulan, and that some bodies had been recovered during the war seventy-five years prior, so it was known that Romulans were “humanoid, but of the hawklike Vulcanite type rather than the Earthly anthropoid.” We do get a glimpse of the Romulans from Blish, as in the episode, but then we get a significant departure from the story on screen, in the form of material that does not appear in the adaptation.
“Balance of Terror” is even more interesting because the story was based on The Enemy Below, a 1957 submarine movie starring Robert Mitchum and Curt Jürgens. In the screen version of “Balance of Terror” and in The Enemy Below, we get scenes aboard the Romulan vessel and the German submarine, respectively, in which the commanders reveal their doubts and insecurities to a trusted colleague. Blish gives us no such scenes. We are also deprived of Decius, the crewmember who wants nothing but glory for the Empire and his Praetor. (Decius has a counterpart in The Enemy Below, who is gung-ho and reads Mein Kampf while on duty, garnering eye rolls from the captain and his first officer.)
Blish’s version also contains no final conversation between Kirk and the Romulan commander, the mutual show of respect and even admiration between combatants before the Romulan destroys his own ship. (At the end of the adaptation, Spock executes the final phaser volley from the coolant-poisoned control room, and the Romulan ship blows up, apparently as a result.)
In the same memo in which Gene Roddenberry told his staff to keep it straight and simple (thus eliminating some of the jargon), he also said that Paul Schneider had a fine action story and that he wanted the story to be primarily a battle between two honorable, dutiful commanders. We certainly see that in the episode, especially in these Romulan scenes that Blish left out or didn’t have access to.
It’s hard to say what Paul Schneider had written in his initial drafts or which of the rewrites James Blish had to work with. We certainly get a “fine action story” from Blish, but we get more character development, on the Romulan side in particular, in the episode. We also get, therefore, more of a sense of who the Romulans are and who these Romulans specifically are. We get what Star Trek does when it’s at its best: complex characters whose stories reflect on the human condition.
David Powell had been on the periphery of Star Trek fandom since he was a kid watching The Original Series in syndication, until his first pop culture convention in 2011. Something snapped, and his fandom blossomed. He is still a TOS fan first but embraces all of Trek. He believes there is always room for one more book.