Restoring The Balance:

       Correcting Misinterpretations of "Balance of Terror"[TOS1]

Quick Reference:

I.   Introduction
II.  The Warp Drive Question
III. The Plasma Weapon's Maneuverability
IV. ST:TOR Update
V.  Conclusions

This page will include a firepower analysis in a future revision, but for now only has basic data and corrections to misconceptions about the Romulan ship and its plasma weapon.   The original screen captures used on this page came from, a site which no longer exists.

I. Introduction

The episode "Balance of Terror"[TOS] gives us our first glimpse of a devastating Romulan weapon. Composed of plasma and capable of being accelerated to and maneuvered at warp speeds, this weapon destroyed two-mile diameter asteroids and the Earth Outposts within with only two shots.

The weapon was used aboard Romulan Bird-of-Prey type ships, not to be confused with their Klingon counterparts. These vessels were warp-capable and outfitted with cloaking devices, apparently serving as the Romulan ship-of-the-line until their acquisition of Klingon D-7  hulls circa 2268. The Romulan ship had a severe weakness, however . . . with the power-intensive systems of cloaking and the plasma weapon, the ship's "simple impulse" (i.e. fusion) powerplant simply couldn't keep up.

Some of the above statements have been disputed by some.

II. The Warp Drive Question

For example, it has been stated that the Romulan ship was a sublight-only vessel, incapable of faster-than-light (FTL) travel.  This simply does not follow, for several reasons.

Spock:   "Still no answer from Outpost 2, Captain, and now number 3 has gone silent."
Kirk:       "Maintain course for Outpost 4..."

Within about two minutes of this conversation, Outpost 4 comes under attack.  As we see during the communications with the Outpost 4 commander, there was no signficant communications delay.  As such, we may accept that Outpost 3's silence was not something which happened hours beforehand, but instead must have occurred shortly before Spock was able to communicate the fact to the Captain.

Now, take a look at Trek5's excellent screen capture of the map of the area as seen in the episode, replicated below:

An updated version of this appears in Star Trek: Nemesis
The Neutral Zone

It was to take the Enterprise about seven minutes to traverse the distance to Outpost 4 at maximum warp speed, from the Enterprise position seen in the screenshot. From the front of the E's blip to the bottom left corner of Outpost 4's icon is 201 pixels. From the lower right corner of Outpost 4's icon to the closest point of the Romulan side of the Neutral Zone is 40.5 pixels, and 14 pixels to the Federation side of the zone. From the uppermost point of the Outpost 3 icon to the lower left corner of the Outpost 4 icon is 14 pixels. These are conservative figures, due to the way I counted between the closest points on each icon, but will do to prove the point:

The Enterprise, travelling at maximum warp (presumably warp factor 8, since although we've seen them at 9 for short periods in "Enterprise Incident" et al., those incidents occurred later in the series), would have been moving at ~28 pixels per minute. The exact time between Spock reporting that Outpost 3 had gone silent and his report that Outpost 4 had reported being under attack was 1 minute, 12 seconds. So, a minimum of 1.2 minutes elapsed, during which time the Romulan ship would have traveled a minimum distance of 14 pixels, for a speed of 11.67 pixels per minute, or 41% of the Enterprise's maximum warp speed.  This is the maximum value.  Even if we assume that Spock didn't reach Kirk for an hour, though, to report that Outpost 3 had gone silent, the Romulan ship's velocity must still have been 0.233px/min, or 0.83% of the Enterprise's maximum warp speed.

After the destruction of Outpost 4, the Romulan ship, low on fuel (as stated repeatedly by the Romulan crew and commander), then tried to make its way home. It turned to 111 mark 14, and 7.5 minutes later in the episode the Enterprise was "less than an hour" from entering the Neutral Zone. Assuming one hour exactly for the Romulan ship to go from Outpost 4 to the Neutral Zone, this works out to .23 pixels per minute, or 0.8% of the maximum warp speed of the Enterprise. This is obviously the conservative choice of speed for a Romulan vessel low on fuel.

Now, all we need is the maximum warp speed of the Enterprise. I am choosing to disregard Spock's figure of 11 hours to travel 990.7 light years in "That Which Survives"[TOS], suggesting 90 ly/hr, or 788,400 times lightspeed, and I'll also discount "Bread and Circuses"[TOS], which has the Enterprise cross .2 light years in about a minute, suggesting a speed of 107,000c. These speeds are simply too far above the maximums suggested elsewhere, and I am choosing to aim for more of a median value.

The Kelvan-enhanced Enterprise was travelling at warp 11 to the Andromeda galaxy in "By Any Other Name", and would take 300 years to reach it. The Andromeda galaxy is at least 2,500,000 light years away, giving Warp 11 a rough speed of 8333c.  If warp eight is even 25% of that figure, it still works out to over 2000c. Warp eight must surely be more than this, however, given the clear indications from ST:ENT of warp five being in the 1500c range.  However, assuming warp eight is 2000c, then if the Romulan ship was moving at 0.8% of the Enterprise maximum, it would still be travelling at a speed of 16c to the Neutral Zone, after having made its trip to attack Outpost 4 at a speed of up to 850c.

Sixteen times lightspeed would be a rather peculiar velocity for an slower-than-light spacecraft.

There's also the matter of "The Deadly Years"[TOS2], which clearly shows multiple Bird-of-Prey type vessels intercepting the Enterprise,which had been ordered to travel at warp five through the Neutral Zone by Commodore Stocker.   Those who claim the Romulans had no warp drive must rather absurdly believe it to be the wildest stroke of luck that this Romulan fleet was in position to slowly putt-putt along at less than lightspeed and intercept a ship doing somewhere in the neighborhood of 1500c.   And, since we do not have any indication of the Enterprise dropping out of warp during the ensuing battle, then it seems clear that these supposedly-STL ships were then in pursuit of the Enterprise at warp speeds.   Again, multiples of lightspeed is a peculiar velocity for a slower-than-light spacecraft.

And finally, both episodes show the Romulan weapons travelling at warp velocity . . . in "Balance of Terror" this velocity is sufficient to overtake the Enterprise at emergency reverse warp speed.  It seems implausible that the Romulans would lack warp drive for their ships if they could make their weapons reach it.

It's also worth noting here that the Enterprise blip and the dialog don't match perfectly . . . the blip is 2/3rd's of the way to Outpost 4 about three minutes after the screenshot above, and it is another couple of minutes before Stiles reports that Outpost 4 is still five minutes away.  However, that only makes the situation worse, since taking the blip at its closest point and using the five minute time would slow the Enterprise down, requiring the Romulan ship to be at an even greater percentage of the ship's maximum warp velocity.

For additional information, I shall direct you toward DITL's excellent page on the subject.

III. The Plasma Weapon's Maneuverability

It has also been argued that the Romulan plasma weapon was not maneuverable at warp speeds. However, this is an unsupportable denial. When the ship fires at the Enterprise, which has reversed her warp engines, the vessel is obviously above the plane of the ship. This fact, mixed with the Enterprise's rearward acceleration and travel, absolutely requires the maneuvering plasma weapon, by geometric necessity.

Dead center?  I think not!First, the Enterprise was travelling at warp in a forward direction, then in reverse. We can see the stars merging toward the center of the viewscreen image after reverse warp begins. The Romulan ship then appears above the center of the screen, and fires the plasma weapon. It is only after this fact that maximum reverse warp is achieved. 

Because ST-v-SW.Net opponents strangely denied that the Romulans were above the plane of the Enterprise, even though this is rather obvious, I took the liberty of drawing it out for them.   To the right you can see my effort to find the center of the viewscreen for them, making lines on the viewscreen to demonstrate the point. The "X" also marks the spot the stars are receding toward, and you can see quite clearly the position of the Romulan ship as it fires in the Trek5 cap.

It was then argued that the Romulans ship simply fired to lead the target. However, this is unsupported by the canon visuals. The plasma weapon heads toward the Enterprise when fired (meaning at a downward angle, toward the ship directly), and moments later, as the Enterprise is running from it at full reverse warp, the plasma weapon is in the dead center of the viewscreen.  We end up, in short, with the following positions of the ships (not to scale, but simply showing the concept):

The line represents the course of the plasma weapon, had the Enterprise been stationary in the image when the Romulans fired. This line will be curved due to the reversing Enterprise, and the plasma weapon's down-toward-the-E vs. chasing-from-in-front-of-the-E course, as per the visuals.

The course of the weapon changes as the scenes progress.
Enterprise direction indicated by blue arrow.

A curved line is a changing course. A curved line for a weapon indicates that the weapon changed its course. Therefore, the Romulan plasma weapon was capable of tracking its target, and maneuvering to hit it.

IV.  ST:TOR Update

In September 2006, a CGI-enhanced HD-quality version of Star Trek: The Original Series premiered in syndication with "Balance of Terror" as the first episode of "The Original. Remastered."   The remastered and enhanced versions were meant to largely duplicate the original visual effects with only minor updates so as to allow Trek to look fresher even on new HDTV-quality televisions and media.

Changes to the episode for our purposes here were minimal.  The map of the outposts was left unchanged.   However, the space visuals were all redone, though very similar to the old effects in most respects.  Even the streaking warp stars common to Trek since the 80's are absent, left out in favor of more-or-less faithful reproduction of the original effects.

Most interesting was the redone scene of the Romulan plasma weapon firing on the Enterprise.   The stars were re-rendered somewhat differently than in the original scene.  Below are three cropped screen captures from a 720p version of the remastered episode, taken from the firing scene.  The first shows the first moment of the plasma weapon's formation/launch, and the third shows the last view before a cut to a scene inside the bridge.  The middle shot is approximately the midpoint of the two.

In the original version of the scene, the animated stars showed apparent motion toward the center of the screen (though given the effects of the time some of the stars just meandered in that general direction).  Now, let's take the above three screencaps and overlay them all on top of one another:

With this view, we can get a sense of the apparent motion of the CGI stars.  And as you can see, they aren't headed toward the center of the screen at all.  One bright star near the vertical center and about a third of the way from the left side of the viewscreen barely moves at all.  For further illustration, let's draw some lines on the stars with great apparent motion and see where they're pointing:

The yellow circle surrounds the area where the starlines all seem to point, and hence this must be the direction the Enterprise is moving away from.  So, as before the Romulans fired from above the plane of the Enterprise, but now we can see that they were also to the starboard of the ship's centerline.

After a brief bridge scene during which Kirk confirms emergency warp and Sulu reports that it's still overtaking them, we get another viewscreen shot with the plasma weapon on screen for some 95 frames.  Picking the first and fifth, then each tenth frame until the last, followed by a repeat of our earlier overlay maneuver, we end up with the following:

I got my streaking stars anyway, Okuda!!! HAHAHA!!!  (kidding)

Obviously the plasma weapon is no longer above and to the starboard.  And in fact, if we trace the starlines again we find that the weapon is actually a little below and to the port side, as seen below:

It seems likely that the plasma weapon took a somewhat graceful arc in pursuit of the Enterprise.   Of course this begs the question of whether the Enterprise could've, should've, or might've attempted evasive maneuvers.  However, given that this was clearly a guided weapon it might've been more prudent to not attempt maneuvers, which likely would've brought the weapon closer faster if, like a torpedo, it was capable of better maneuverability than the Enterprise.

But in any case, the remastered "Balance of Terror" confirms the original points.

V. Conclusions

The Romulan Bird-of-Prey was a warp-driven starship of the mid-23rd Century.  In the 2260's a weapon system was installed aboard one such vessel, capable of firing devastating and maneuverable plasma weapons at sublight and FTL speeds.   Suggestions to the contrary are simply false.

Thanks to Ex Astris Scientia for the side views of the two ships. Many borrow from Bernd . . . far too few acknowledge him.