The last-minute Roddenberry rewrite that elevated Balance of Terror

Captain Kirk is fond of a good speech. All the adventure in Return to Tomorrow hinges on his inspirational words in the briefing room: “Risk…risk is our business. That’s what this starship is all about. That’s why we’re aboard her.” 

A similarly critical moment is brought to life in Balance of Terror when Kirk confides in McCoy during the standoff with the Romulan Commander. It’s a smaller and more private moment than the other speeches, and a rare glimpse into the inner life of the usually self-confident captain.

I wish I were on a long sea voyage somewhere. Not too much deck tennis, no frantic dancing. And no responsibilities. 

Why me? I look around that bridge, and I see the men waiting for me to make the next move — and Bones, what if I’m wrong? 

It is one of the best scenes in all of Star Trek. The captain, at a critical moment when a poor decision could lead to the loss of his ship and a catastrophic rise in tensions with an old enemy, confides his fear and insecurity to one of his closest friends. McCoy’s reassurance hits just the right note, and Kirk returns to a hushed and darkened bridge to once again make the next move. 

That scene was filmed on Tuesday, July 26, 1966, according to both Memory Alpha and These are the Voyages, and it was penned by Gene Roddenberry only the day before. The handwritten change was dated July 25. Writer Paul Schneider’s last script, dated July 22, 1966, had Kirk say: 

Why, Bones?… I’m a Starship captain… This is a decision for diplomats, not one man! How can I decide if we risk starting a war… risk millions of lives.   

A page from the script for Balance of Terror dated July 25, 1966  and showing Gene Roddenberry's handwritten changes to Kirk's speech to McCoy.

Here’s the thing: had that speech been left unchanged, the story would have played out the same and the episode would still be considered a classic. But Roddenberry’s version showed a much greater understanding of the character and of the burden laid on him. The commitment to detail showcased by this small, non-plot scene is one reason Star Trek holds its audience when just about every other ’60s show has faded into the ether. 

Reuse the best material

This scene is a direct call back to Captain Pike in The Cage. Following the death of three crew members on Rigel VII, he too is doubting himself and he, like Kirk, confides in the ship’s doctor in the privacy of his cabin. The scene Roddenberry wrote in 1964 worked beautifully then and worked just as well when he borrowed the idea two years later.  

JJ Abrams’ Star Trek Beyond made the same play. Kirk is again with McCoy, questioning the choices he has made, but he has much less cause to feel insecure and the scene is a pale imitation.

It was not unusual for Roddenberry to rewrite scripts, as in Balance of Terror. He did it so often and to such an extent that writers routinely complained and many had pseudonyms ready to go. The story credit on A Private Little War is “Jud Crucis,” for example, a take on “Jesus Crucified” that Don Ingalls adopted to protest Roddenberry’s changes. 

A screen cap of the end credit for A Private Little War, showing the story was written by Jud Crucis.

But those rewrites were often magic. That scene filmed in 1966 lasts less than 90 seconds and yet it gives a world of insight into the captain. The episode would still be great without it, but less so. 

Postscript

The back of the Journey to Babel VHS package, showing Mark Lenard's autograph.

Mark Lenard was a guest at the 1989 Toronto Trek convention, and I guess he didn’t charge much for autographs because I could afford to get three items signed: a Star Trek III 8×10, the convention program book and, my favourite, a VHS copy of Journey to Babel.

At his talk, the only question I could think to ask was: “Did the Romulan Commander ever have a name in the script?” He looked at me blankly for a second and then replied: “No, he was just called ‘Commander.’”

Different versions of the script and the memos on the episode confirm Lenard’s answer. It is strange the Romulan was denied a name, but perhaps it was done to emphasize that being a commander was what he was, and not just what he did.

Postscript the second

An interesting side note: Roddenberry borrowed the deck-tennis idea. Paul Schneider had McCoy speaking some of those lines in a script dated July 20. Roddenberry deleted the sentence and then a few days later gave those words to the captain, and added his moment of self doubt.

4 Comments

  1. I LOVE this insight into how one of Trek’s quintessential episodes came to be. When Roddenberry had it, he had it!

    I never knew that about “Jud Crucis,” either. Kind of like a more intense “Alan Smithee,” huh?

    I got Mark Lenard’s autograph in my 1986 Star Trek wall calendar at Genesis Khan II (see what they did there) in Raleigh, NC, circa 1987. (I also have Takei and Koenig’s John Hancocks in the same calendar.) He was very gracious, but during the on-stage presentations, he mostly wanted to talk about his role in the “Planet of the Apes” TV series!

    Fun post – thank you for it!

    Like

    1. Hi there. Thank you for the comment. I am glad you liked the piece. I only wish I had more time to write, because I too find this stuff fascinating.

      I don’t believe I have ever heard a negative comment about Mark Lenard, and I am glad that I got to see him that one time.

      And yes, as you say, Roddenberry was a very good writer.

      Thanks for reading.

      Like

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