Fontana is the real star of this, one of the very best episodes ever. As writer she plucks a story out of the headlines, sets it in the Trek world, creates a memorable guest character, and then bobs and weaves through the tightest of plots. Her writing is masterful here. Some fault this episode for not being what she originally intended. Indeed, there are portions that were rewritten without her knowledge or input, and which she clearly despises. The (unfortunate) truth is that it came out quite well, if not what was originally intended.
All the actors shine, including especially Linville, who reaffirms that the better the guest star, the better the episode. Her feline Romulan commander is tough but vulnerable, wily but with blind spots. Some might argue that her weakness for Spock undermines the fact that it is a woman commanding not just one ship, but a posse of them. Fontana's instincts to get the story right won out, and the commander's actions are necessary for the dramatic impact she is seeking. Storytelling trumped message -- which it always should, unless you can do both -- but the mere presence of the character is a triumph in an era when strong women characters were still not easily accepted. (Some might also argue that Linville's character here was the model for Kathryn Janeway. If this is so, something major was lost in the translation...)
Also bold in the writing is taking our characters to places they have not been before (i.e. blatantly deceiving one another) and into scenarios that show us their depth (Vulcan seduction of a Romulan in service to his mission). In each case, what we see is a natural extension of the characters, broadening who we know them to be in ways that make sense and would serve them well in the long run.
The scenes are long and exceptionally well-crafted. Standouts include Spock's seduction scene (firmly disavowed by Fontana as a bastardization of what she intended), and the early briefing room scene, which is a model of efficiency for advancing the story, foreshadowing without giving away too much. Great lines are everywhere, culminating in one of my all-time favorites: "What is your present form of execution?" The greatest triumph may be that Fontana manages to keep the audience in the dark just like the crew of the Enterprise for fully one half of the episode. Keeping the audience off-balance is essential for making a plot like this work. If we know the whole story, it is nearly impossible to stay engaged.
The effects are welcome, despite the fact that the Klingon model is substituted for the Romulan Bird of Prey. This is no doubt due to the extreme budget limitations imposed by the studio for the third season. It's explained away in a line of dialogue, but never quite feels right. Imagine if there had been three Bird-of-Prey ships and how powerful that image would have been. I suspect that the interiors of the Romulan ship are redresses of the Enterprise sets, showing great efficiency. And, as always, the beautiful lighting is essential to setting the proper mood.
Despite what we know is to come in terms of quality, the third season is off to a very fine start. It suggests that the original creative team was about to hit their stride when they were jettisoned. This will always be the tragedy of the third season. How many more episodes of this quality would we have been given if the network hadn't intervened and screwed it up?
Rating: Very Top (1)