By Thomas Anderson
In this article I want to discuss a trope that reoccurs as a defining problem for writing many prequels (or indeed other spinoff media). Broadly speaking, the ‘Romulan Straitjacket’ can be defined as ‘an antagonist/character/setting/etc. is introduced in a work, and becomes popular and iconic, but it was introduced a way that explicitly and definitively says it was the first time it was encountered in-universe as well’. This effectively excludes that item from ever appearing in a prequel, causing endless headaches when that item has also become ineluctably associated with the media that the prequel is spinning off of.
Like all the best nominal exemplars, the example I’ve named the ‘Romulan Straitjacket’ for is not strictly an example by the definition I’ve just given, in that the first TV appearance of the Romulans in Star Trek is not their first in-universe encounter—however, it should be obvious when I give more details why I have chosen this one.
“Balance of Terror” first aired on December 15th, 1966, as the fourteenth episode of the first season of Star Trek. Written by Paul Schneider (who wrote episodes of many American TV series over his career) and directed by Vincent McEveety, it is essentially conceived as a submarine war drama IN SPACE; McEveety eventually admitted that it bears a particularly specific resemblance to the 1957 WW2-set film The Enemy Below. However, it also draws upon influence from the contemporary Cold War events when it was written, with references to neutral zones, treaty violations and tests of resolve more resembling the quiet conflict between Soviet submarines and NATO surface ships in the north Atlantic.
A brief synopsis of the plot with key points highlighted: Captain Kirk is about to marry two of his officers when the ceremony is interrupted by news of an unthinkable Romulan attack on an outpost. Background exposition is deftly handled by Vulcan first officer Spock briefing the crew: a century ago a war was fought between ‘Earth’ and the Romulans (this is before the concept of ‘the Federation’ had completely coalesced in the writing of Star Trek). Spock adds the following:
“As you may recall from your histories, this conflict was fought, by our standards today, with primitive atomic weapons and in primitive space vessels which allowed no quarter, no captives. Nor was there even ship-to-ship visual communication. Therefore, no human, Romulan, or ally has ever seen the other. Earth believes the Romulans to be warlike, cruel, treacherous, and only the Romulans know what they think of Earth. The treaty, set by sub-space radio, established this Neutral Zone, entry into which by either side, would constitute an act of war.”
As an aside, this is a very good way of handling exposition—when one officer, Lieutenant Stiles, shows knowledge of the Romulans (“[their ship is] painted like a giant bird of prey”), this is treated as a surprise and he adds it is because he knows his family history and many of his family members died in the war. Kirk cautions: “Their war, not yours”, beginning a character arc.
After a hundred years of silence, the Romulans are attacking the outposts along the Neutral Zone to test Earth’s resolve. We also see the Romulan POV on their submarine-like craft, which has two new technologies: a powerful plasma weapon (treated like a submarine’s torpedo) and a cloaking system which largely hides it from sensors (analogous to a submarine diving). (The iconic term ‘cloaking device’ comes from a later episode). The episode sees a battle of wits between Kirk and the unnamed Romulan commander, played by Mark Lenard (who would go on to play Spock’s father Sarek). The Enterprise is able to intercept a Romulan transmission and get a look at the enemy ship’s bridge—in a shocking realisation, the Romulans look like Vulcans! In the typical military-style discipline portrayed in the original series (as opposed to later Star Trek iterations) the officers do not react with unprofessional shock, but Stiles becomes convinced Spock is a Romulan spy—Kirk warns him against bigotry.
The episode plays out with both Kirk and the Romulan commander coming up with strategies to trap the other. Scotty notes that “their power is simple impulse” so the Enterprise can outrun them, as she does to avoid a Romulan shot at one point. Kirk intuitively works out that the cloak must be two-way, so is able to stalk the Romulans by pretending to be their own sensor echo. The Romulan commander releases debris but hides an old nuclear weapon in it to damage the Enterprise. The Enterprise uses what are described as phasers (but look more like depth charges IN SPACE) to attack, and the Romulan ship nearly escapes back across the border with the Neutral Zone, but is disabled when Spock saves Stiles’ life in the phaser control room to get the weapons back on line. The Romulan commander appears on screen to salute Kirk as a worthy opponent and say that in another life, he could have called him ‘friend’. He then carries out his last ‘duty’ by self-destructing his ship. Meanwhile, we poignantly learn that the only casualty of the fight was one of the officers who was due to be married that morning.
“Balance of Terror”, though derivative of existing submarine-war tropes, is a very popular episode for a reason. It is a tense battle of wits in which the Romulan commander gives as good as he gets and has memorable interactions with his own officers, in which technological limitations are treated consistently and plot twists do not feel like cop-outs. It is also a story about the futility of war and a heavy-handed but necessary message about prejudice and racism, with Stiles having an epiphany at the end that he would have died without Spock’s help, after he had spent much of the episode insulting him. It is unsurprising that when a remastered version of the original Star Trek was made with new special effects, “Balance of Terror” was the very first episode to be adapted. In the shorter term, a new and iconic antagonist, the Romulans, had been added to the Trek canon. And this is where the problems begin.
The Romulans made only one other ‘full’ appearance in the original Star Trek, in the third-season episode “The Enterprise Incident” (also heavily Cold War-influenced), though stock footage of their ship is used in “The Deadly Years” when the Enterprise risks violating the Neutral Zone due to time pressure. Despite this modest screentime, they became regarded in fandom as an iconic antagonist on the same level as the more frequently-seen Klingons, and were brought back repeatedly in Star Trek media. Now, let’s look back on those four points I highlighted in “Balance of Terror”, points that were perfectly valid decisions when the priority was to write a single self-contained story in an episodic drama, and all the problems they created for later writers.
Firstly, the Earth-Romulan War happened a century ago. This is an appearance of a very annoying trope which recurs in later Star Trek media as well as many others. In all fairness, the idea of a century of silence is employed to the full here, with McCoy noting they are blundering in the dark and basing their actions on ‘Memories of a war over a century ago’. The Romulans’ discussions betray similar points. However, generally speaking, the reflexive urge to go for ‘This is the first time X has been seen in a hundred years!’ from writers is severely limiting a story for the arbitrary reason of ‘that sounds like a big round number’. Star Trek does this again with the Romulans in the Next Generation episode “The Neutral Zone” – which means that a series set only about 350 years into our future has two century-long periods of isolation from a major antagonist in which writers can’t use them! Needless to say, this often quietly got ignored even within the same series, with the backstory in the TNG episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise” featuring contact with the Romulans in the middle of this supposed period isolation. The film Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, though considered one of the weakest of the original films, does feature the interesting setting of a joint Federation-Klingon-Romulan peace colony which has decayed as funding dried up—yet this backstory requires the Romulans to have signed up years before their ‘first appearance for over a century’ in “Balance of Terror”.
Aggravatingly, Trek writers have not learned their lesson on this. The prequel series Enterprise drew (entirely unjustified) criticism for featuring first contact with the Klingons in 2151, not 2218 as fanon chronologies had had it—albeit this was based on the nonsensical idea that Picard says in the episode (not film) “First Contact” that first contact with the Klingon Empire led to ‘decades’ of war and it arbitrarily being decided that this meant 50 years before the treaty in “Errand of Mercy”, even though the Federation and Klingons are at peace at the start of that episode—but moving on. (The director of “First Contact” at one point made a throwaway reference to wanting the line to be ‘led to 100 years of war’ which is another aggravating example of ‘ooh, big round number that won’t limit future writers at all!’) Most absurdly, the recent series Star Trek Discovery features ‘we haven’t heard from the Klingons in 100 years’ in its first episode, because apparently two century-long periods in which you’re not allowed to feature one of the two iconic antagonist races wasn’t enough! Would it really hurt you to say 20 years?
Moving on! No human, Romulan, or ally has ever seen the other. In other words, we can’t feature Romulans on-screen in any prequel media. This is an example of something that was a great idea in the context of the original story, but massively limiting elsewhere. Spock’s description of primitive ships fighting with atomic weapons makes excellent backstory, but is not the kind of setting anyone wants to write about. Thus, when the Romulans inevitably appeared in the aforementioned prequel series Enterprise, they are the only race to communicate by radio only, not visuals for no reason. Their first appearance (in “Minefield”) features two more absolute cardinal sins: a cloaking system features (for absolutely no required plot reason!) when it was explicitly first introduced as a new technology in “Balance of Terror” set 100 years(!) later. Even more strangely, the Romulan ship shown loosely resembles the one from “Balance of Terror” but without the bird-of-prey painting, the one feature Stiles knew from the conflict! This is mostly just lazy writing and lack of research, but the completely unnecessary use of the cloaking device may be indicative of a wider problem: when something is considered an inextricably linked characteristic of an item in story, one cannot avoid featuring it even if the chronology makes no sense. Even non-Star Trek fans know Romulans are associated with cloaking devices, and so it feels unnatural to feature Romulans without cloaking devices? Maybe?
Finally, the single most infamous example of ‘one throwaway line fuelling decades of futile speculation’: the ship in “Balance of Terror” is slower than the Enterprise because “their power is simple impulse”. Of course, this was early in the run of Star Trek and it wasn’t clear what that meant. Impulse drive usually means sublight, but could it also refer to the fusion reactors that power the drive? Is the Romulan ship limited to sublight or does it just mean its faster-than-light warp drive is fuelled by an inferior fusion reactor? If the former, does that mean it is operating from a mothership, considering it would be far too slow to travel between stars otherwise? One might think this doesn’t matter that much, except many fans decided to put an absurdly conservative spin on this line by deciding that the Romulans lacked any faster-than-light drive at all (rather than, say, this one experimental ship’s technology not being compatible with it?) This is particularly nonsensical considering the backstory (loosely established in this episode) that the Romulans are an offshoot of the Vulcans who left Vulcan for the planet Romulus. How did they get there without FTL? One author even suggested that the reason the Romulans seem to lack telepaths (whereas Vulcans are telepathic) is that they burned them all out psychokinetically accelerating their slower-than-light colony ships!
Unlike (historically) Star Wars, Star Trek has the advantage that its spinoff novels were never meant to be canon with each other or future TV series, so writers can largely do what they want. This meant that we got a zillion different interpretations of whether Romulans have warp drive or not. Masao Okazaki, who runs the ‘Starfleet Museum’ site and worked on the remastered version of the original series, decided that they did always have warp drive, but it was slow and inefficient due to relying on fusion power. Diane Carey portrays them as having warp-capable motherships which sublight attack ships are launched from. And so on. There is no better exemplar for the dangers of excessive fan over-interpretation of one throwaway line, and to be clear, I blame the fans, not the writer of the original episode.
Now let’s conclude by looking at how the Romulan Straitjacket severely limits attempts to write prequels. A Star Trek novel I enjoyed as a kid was Diane Carey’s “Final Frontier” (not to be confused with the film of that name) which features Captain Kirk’s father George Kirk as a young man on the Enterprise’s first shakedown cruise under Captain April. (It would be years more before George got to appear on screen in the 2009 Star Trek reboot film, ironically enough, fighting the Romulans!) In “Final Frontier” the Enterprise blunders into a Romulan ship whose commander is in the process of being coup’d. Kirk runs into him on the ground and, because Romulan troopers wear helmets (originally to avoid more pointy ear makeup budget!) he decides that the commander is a Vulcan who’s been taken hostage and ‘rescues’ him. The story also features the Enterprise managing to beat a Romulan warp mothership with then-new technologies, and the commander even states that he thinks Romulan society has become corrupt and he wishes the Federation would conquer Romulus. Captain April, naturally, refuses. In the midst of all this, a slightly peculiar human officer on board turns out to be a Romulan infiltrator, the result of the Romulans capturing humans years ago and raising them as infiltrators. This is a strange writing decision by Carey, as it seems to be derived from Stiles’ (paranoid and baseless) suggestion in “Balance of Terror” that there might be Romulan infiltrators on ship, and the episode also strongly implies no Romulan knows what a human looks like, contradicting this.
The story is certainly better than George Kirk’s appearance in the 2009 reboot, which ignores the fact that a Starfleet crew at the time should mistake Romulans for Vulcans, but it betrays the severe limits placed on a prequel writer by the Romulan Straitjacket. The whole matter has to be hushed up afterwards, and the Romulan commander gets surgically altered to pose as a human (as he hates the idea of pretending to be an emotionless Vulcan). Ultimately, it feels unsatisfying.
Let’s contrast this with how the writers of another original Star Trek episode left things carefully open for future writers. In “The Conscience of the King”, the writer Barry Trivers wanted the backstory to feature the murder of Kirk’s unnamed father. This was removed by the writing staff, as Memory Alpha notes: ‘The change was made because the … writing staff believed that having the victim be James Kirk's father would tie them "to an aspect of Kirk's close family past, creating something which may hem us in later.”’ They were absolutely right, and this decision to go for vagueness allowed later writers to portray George Kirk however they wanted. Though probably those 1960s writers did not imagine that the 2009 answer to that would be ‘killed off by a time-travelling Romulan for no real reason other than to mess with James Kirk’s backstory’.
More examples of Prequel Problems to come!
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.