Welcome back to ‘Final Frontier Friday’! Last time, we covered one of the legendary clunkers of classic ‘Trek’, and since I’m sure we could all use a bit of a palate cleanser after that, this week we’ll be looking at an episode that is just plain legendary: ‘The Trouble With Tribbles‘.
‘Star Trek’ has seen a lot of fans turn pro in the course of its fifty-year history, but the first of these was almost certainly David Gerrold. As the story goes, Gerrold (then a college student) began watching ‘Star Trek’ during its first season and soon put together a sixty page outline to submit to the series. The outline, titled ‘Tomorrow Was Yesterday’ was rejected due largely to how expensive the proposed episode would have been. Producer Gene Coon was nonetheless impressed, and after meeting with Gerrold invited him to pitch for the second season. Gerrold returned with a number of episode pitches, including one he dubbed ‘The Fuzzies’. After Coon expressed interest in the premise, Gerrold wrote an outline under the title ‘A Fuzzy Thing Happened To Me’ and was subsequently commissioned for the teleplay, now known by its final title. If you’re interested in a more in depth look at the writing process of ‘The Trouble With Tribbles’, Gerrold has written a book on exactly that subject. It’s been out of print for some time, but can usually be found fairly cheap on the secondhand market.
As one of the franchise’s earliest ventures into full-blown comedy, ‘Tribbles’ proved a bit divisive behind the scenes. While it was embraced by fans, Gene Roddenberry was among those who felt the episode’s comedic approach was not representative of what the show was or indeed should be. These sorts of disagreements would ultimately contribute to Gene Coon’s departure at the end of the season. It may be a coincidence, but given this it’s hard not to take note of the fact that Coon’s successor, Fred Freiberg, shot down Gerrold’s pitch for a sequel episode, bluntly stating that “‘Star Trek’ is not a comedy’.
Also of note is that this episode was produced during the same stretch of the second season in which George Takei was busy filming ‘The Green Berets’, which ran considerably over schedule. As a result, the episode was rewritten to transfer much of the material intended for Sulu to Chekov. Because of Takei’s lingering commitments to the film, this was a frequent occurrence during this portion of the season. Though Takei and Walter Koenig have since become good friends, this set of circumstances contributed to an initially tense relationship, as they were additionally forced to share a dressing room and even, on occasion, scripts.
The Enterprise arrives at K7, a space station near the Klingon border. Though they’re responding to a distress signal, everything seems fine. A meeting with Station Manager Lurry reveals that the signal was sent at the insistence of Nilz Baris, a Federation bureaucrat who now demands that Kirk safeguard a shipment of quadrotriticale – grain – bound for Sherman’s Planet. Sherman’s Planet is the subject of territorial disputes between the Federation and the Klingons, with a treaty stipulating that the planet goes to whichever side can best develop it. As such, Baris expects Klingon agents to attempt to sabotage the shipment. Kirk grudgingly agrees to station guards around the storage compartments, though Baris remains unsatisfied.
Meanwhile, Kirk authorizes shore leave for all off duty personnel. On the station, Chekov and Uhura stop for a drink and find the exasperated bartender fending off a sales pitch from trader Cyrano Jones. Among Jones’s wears is a creature that needs no introduction: a tribble. Uhura is naturally quite taken with the tribble, which convinces the bartender to buy in. Jones gives Uhura the tribble as something of a free sample. Much to Kirk’s chagrin, he receives orders from Starfleet officially charging him with protecting the grain (though as Spock noted, this is hardly surprising). No sooner do they receive these orders than a Klingon battlecruiser arrives at the station.
Another meeting follows in Lurry’s office, this time between Lurry, Kirk, and the Klingon Captain Koloth. Koloth insists that he is only there to arrange shore leave for his crew, which they are obligated under treaty to allow. Kirk stipulates that only a dozen of Koloth’s men board the station at any time and assigns one Starfleet security officer for every Klingon visitor. Back on the Enterprise, Scotty buries himself in technical journals and Uhura’s tribble has given birth. She gives the litter away to her crewmates. Later, Baris contacts Kirk, distraught that the station is “swarming” with Klingons and demanding more security. Kirk barely bothers to hide his contempt, informing Baris that those guards are only there because Starfleet wants them there before heading to Sickbay to deal with a headache. In Sickbay, he finds the tribble McCoy got from Uhura has also given birth. McCoy has been studying the creatures, and has learned that they have evolved essentially to eat and reproduce. Over on K7, Jones is roaming the bar trying to sell more tribbles. One reacts violently (or as violently as a literally pocket sized ball of fur can) to a Klingon, and a stunned Jones turns to the bartender. He’s not interested in more tribbles, though, as his stock has replenished of its own accord. One of the Klingons in the bar then takes it upon himself to pick a fight with a group of Starfleet officers, including Scotty and Chekov, and before long a brawl has engulfed the bar.
Kirk cancels shore privileges for both his crew and the Klingons. Addressing a lineup of crewmen involved with the fight, he demands to know who threw the first punch. When no answer is forthcoming, he confines them all to quarters, keeping Scotty behind as he was supposed to prevent trouble. Scotty confesses that he threw the first punch after holding Chekov back. You see, they insulted the Enterprise! It was a matter of pride! Dismissed at last, Scotty thanks Kirk for restricting him to his quarters, gleeful to finally have a chance to catch up on his technical journals. More and more tribbles begin to overtake the Enterprise. Spock notes that they reproduce exponentially, draining resources as they do so. Kirk has Lurry arrest Jones and heads to the station to confront him. Jones is quick to remind the frustrated Captain that he hasn’t committed a crime. As he leaves the office, Baris enters, with his assistant, Arne Darvin, in tow. Shockingly, Baris has come to berate Kirk about his security measures. Baris and Darvin accuse Jones of being a Klingon agent, though Spock quickly undercuts that by referring to his own research into Jones’ background.
Kirk visits the mess hall for lunch, only for the food processor to produce a a plate full of tribbles. Scotty arrives with an armful of tribbles, confirming that they’ve made their way into the machinery, his best guess being that they did so through an air vent. Spock points out that there are similar vents on the station, and they rush over to check on the grain storage compartments. Upon arrival, they are unable to open the main hatch to the storage compartment, so Kirk instead tries an overhead hatch… and is immediately deluged with tribbles. They’ve not only gotten into the storage compartments, but gorged themselves on the grain while they were at it. Spock soon notices that several of the tribbles are dead. Kirk has Jones brought to Lurry’s office, but before he can begin dressing the trader down, Koloth barges in, demanding a formal apology for his treatment. As a handful of tribbles are being removed from the room the react violently to Darvin, who happens to be entering at the same time. Kirk notices their reaction, and Jones says that the only time he’s seen one act like that was around a Klingon. Kirk tests the tribbles reactions to everyone present, culminating in another violent reaction to Darvin. A quick scan from McCoy reveals Darvin as a Klingon agent. The doctor further explains that the grain had been poisoned – to which Darvin confesses – as a means of sabotaging the Sherman colony. Kirk then reaches a “mutual understanding” with Jones, namely that if Jones clears the station of tribbles (a job Spock estimates will take 17.9 years) he’ll have Lurry release Jones’ ship. On returning to the Enterprise, Kirk notices a conspicuous lack of tribbles. After some arm twisting, Scotty explains that he beamed them over to the Klingon ship, “where they’ll be no tribble at all.”
So this is easily one the most beloved episodes of the original series, if not of the franchise as a whole, and it’s certainly a favorite of mine. ‘The Trouble With Tribbles’ is a romp, pure and simple, which makes it a bit of a tricky one to critique, as comedy is such a subjective thing. At the end of the day, with an episode like this, you’ll either enjoy it or you won’t, though thinking of it now I can’t recall ever meeting someone who didn’t. But I’m sure they’re out there. “Infinite diversity…” and all that. And in fact, this is an excellent example of how you do comedy in ‘Star Trek’. The key to it is taking the characters and setting seriously, which you can do while plunging them into absurd situations.
And speaking of character, a lot of what makes the episode work as well as it does rests squarely with William Shatner, as much of its humor builds on the fact that Kirk spends the episode essentially being confronted with one petty annoyance after another. And that’s the thing of it, despite the importance of Sherman’s Planet to the Federation, the stakes, at least in an immediate sense, are fairly small. You have Baris, Koloth, and of course the tribbles themselves, each with their own highlights. Kirks interactions with Baris, a pompous, tightly wound bureaucrat, are especially fun. We’ve seen Kirk deal with demanding Federation officials before, but never has the relationship been so mutually antagonistic. Indeed, Kirk is openly contemptuous of Baris, and Baris responds in kind. His interactions with Koloth, particularly early in the episode, are similarly delightful, as the two are so self-consciously polite to one another (in fact, Kirk displays more courtesy to Koloth than he ever does to Baris), even as every word is dripping with insincerity.
I also can’t let this one pass without saying something about the barfight. It’s a massive set piece, at least by the standards of the show. The fight itself is replete with sight gags as it cuts between the brawl and Jones, who helps himself to a few drinks when the bartender runs to get security. My personal favorite has always been the Klingon who doesn’t even blink as Chekov showers him with gut punches, only to swat the hapless ensign away with hardly a thought. But the real highlight of the whole sequence is actually the lead up to it, as Scotty holds Chekov back in the face of the Klingon’s escalating insults, changing his tune as the target of those insults shifts from the Captain to the Enterprise herself.
Before we wrap up for the week, I have an announcement to make. The next couple months are going to be keeping us busy us as we gear up for the premiere of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ on September 24th. During that time, ‘Final Frontier Friday’ will begin running weekly. That’s right, for the next two months we’ll be here every Friday. During that time, we plan to celebrate the future of ‘Star Trek’ by taking a look back at its past. So beginning on August 11th, we’ll be covering the pilot episodes of every ‘Star Trek’ series, starting with ‘The Cage’. This little event will of ours will continue through the remainder of August and wrap up in late September with our coverage of the pilot episode of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’.
And so I suppose I say all of that to say this: See you next week!