“Balance of Terror” inspired a major Star Wars villain

One Star Wars villain owes a debt to Star Trek’s Balance of Terror.

Balance of Terror is one of the earliest and most enduring episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series. It introduced the Romulans, for staters, and while the Vulcans’ warlike distant relations would only return once more in TOS, it’s now impossible to imagine the Star Trek universe without them. The episode’s also a tense and dramatic story of high-stakes, submarine-style warfare. And guest star Mark Lenard, in the first of his eventual three Trek alien roles, delivers a subtle and memorable performance as the Romulan Commander who almost proves Captain Kirk’s strategic equal.

Considering all its strengths, it’s no wonder Balance of Terror has exerted a mighty influence on later Star Trek. In the Star Trek: Enterprise episode “The Aenar,” for instance, the Romulans deploy a stealthy ship against Starfleet, the bridge of which resembles the Bird-of-Prey’s in “Balance of Terror.” More recently, two episodes of Star Trek: Prodigy have included dialogue for Dal and Gwyn that echoes Balance of Terror. In “Lost and Found,” Prodigy’s pilot episode, Dal tells Gwyn, “Under different circumstances, we could’ve been friends”—a sentiment she reminds him of in “Dreamcatcher.” Their exchanges echo the Romulan Commander’s mournful words to Capain Kirk: “In a different reality, I could have called you friend.”

More surprising, however, is the influence Balance of Terror had on that other big “star” franchise—you know, the one that happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. In their new oral history of the Star Wars franchise, Secrets of the Force (St. Martin’s Press, 2021), Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman (whose The Fifty-Year Mission is required reading for any Star Trek fan) reveal how the first Romulan Commander Trek viewers ever saw helped shape Star Wars lore in a big way.

Balance of Terror helped inspire Grand Admiral Thrawn

Novelist Timothy Zahn kicked off what became the Star Wars Expanded Universe (now rebranded non-canonical Legends) with his trilogy Heir to the Empire (1991), Dark Force Rising (1992), and The Last Command (1993). The first new, officially sanctioned Star Wars novels since author L. Neil Smith’s Lando Calrissian adventures in 1983, Zahn’s books continued the Star Wars story after Return of the Jedi.

But new stories about wars among the stars required a new villain, now that Darth Vader and (so everyone thought) Emperor Palpatine were both dead. Zahn created a new threat so compelling the books are now known as “the Thrawn trilogy.”

A clever and cunning strategist, Grand Admiral Thrawn proved such a popular bad guy he has starred in several novels and comics. He’s even one of the characters who’s made the jump from the printed page to the screen, as he hunted the heroes of the animated Star Wars Rebels series.

And this now-iconic Star Wars villain owes a debt to the Romulan Commander Mark Lenard played in Balance of Terror.

Altman and Gross quote Zahn:

In the back of my mind was the original Star Trek episode “Balance of Terror,” the first one with the Romulans, and the Romulan commander’s last line to Kirk was, “In another reality, we might have been friends.” I wanted to put some of that into Thrawn—that in another reality this guy could have really kicked butt for the Rebellion (page 282).

Ashoka Tano mentioned Thrawn in the second season of The Mandalorian, and rumors persist in Star Wars fandom that a live-action version of the Grand Admiral will arrive sooner or later.

If and when he does, Star Trek fans can take pride knowing Thrawn exists, in large part, because Mark Lenard’s Romulan Commander, a performance from 55 years ago, served as inspiration!