Trek-a-Week # 7: The Trouble With Tribbles

Ben:

This is yet another episode in our list that mostly eschews Star Trek’s usual fare of moral and philosophical conundrums. Last week’s Amok Time did so in favor of a solid SF adventure story; this week, The Trouble With Tribbles does so for humor.

William Shatner is often lampooned for his scene-chewing over-acting, but the fodder for that only really comes in the third season of TOS. Up to this point in the series he’s been doing a solid acting job in his role as a headstrong and sometimes-swashbuckling starship captain. Now, in The Trouble With Tribbles, Shatner — and the rest of the cast — really get to show off their talents as comedic actors, and they do so with surprisingly good results.

The Trouble With Tribbles is genuinely funny. Humor isn’t something that’s usually associated with Star Trek, but TOS did it well when it wanted to — and arguably was the only Trek series to really do so other than Deep Space Nine. The crew’s reactions to the ever-reproducing tribbles are of course funny, but the best humor here is character-based — case in point: Kirk’s continual back and forth barbs with the Federation bureaucrat Baris.

BARIS: Captain Kirk, I consider your security measures a disgrace. In my opinion, you have taken this important project far too lightly. 
KIRK: On the contrary, sir. I think of this project as very important. It is you I take lightly.

Behind this banter, though, is a theme that will become Star Trek canon: Starfleet higher-ups — whether administrators like Baris, or the admiralty — are inevitably clueless deluded jerks. Starship captains and their crews are the ones that are actually “in country” and know what’s really going on. It’s a classic war movie motif that’s not wholly out of place in the more-militaristic Starfleet of TOS, but it continues throughout Trek a bit incongruously even in the later series that are far more pacifist in nature.

With this viewing of The Trouble With Tribbles, I found myself contemplating the tribbles themselves. They’re interesting from a design perspective. Obviously the simple “ball of fur” design was partially fueled by the pragmatic concern of having to manufacture tons of them for the episode. They’re oddly un-cute, though. Their design zeroes in on fuzziness/fur as a determinant of cuteness, rather than what we now recognize as evolutionary-determined hallmarks of true cuteness: big eyes, large heads (relative to body), small noses, etc. A more effective modern tribble would probably resemble a Beanie Boo or a Furby.

I was, though, struck by how well-designed the Tribbles’ evolutionary strategy is. Basically: they’re like kudzu, but cute. If that doesn’t seem like a particularly impressive strategy, consider the case of dogs, who are essentially emotionally manipulative parasites we feed and house for no particular reason. In The Trouble With Tribbles, though, the tribbles are also using overpopulation as a weapon — an idea that was certainly of its time for 1967, when this episode aired. Fears of a “population explosion” had been in the air since the ’50s and continued to gain popular traction with books like The Population Bomb — published just a year after The Trouble With Tribbles.

I also found the portrayal of the Klingons in The Trouble With Tribbles interesting. We’ve seen them before, of course, but here’s where they seem to get firmly established as an analog for the Soviet navy (to Starfleet’s U.S. Navy). Koloth’s line, “ Captain, we Klingons are not as luxury-minded as you Earthers,” is almost verbatim something my dad (a career Navy officer) claimed was a difference between the U.S. and Soviet navies. The bar brawl between the two crews is a highlight of the episode. If Balance of Terror was Trek-as-submarine movie, this is Trek-as-western, complete with Cyrano Jones knocking back drinks during the fight — a shtick so iconic it makes an appearance in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The Trouble With Tribbles doesn’t present any big philosophical quandaries to contemplate, but it’s considered a classic episode for good reasons: it’s funny, there’s great character interaction, and there’s plenty of action.

A few items:

  1. Spock drops a Bible reference? Re. tribbles: “They remind me of the lilies of the field. They toil not, neither do they spin. But they seem to eat a great deal. I see no practical use for them.” (Matthew 6:28)
  2. Kirk, systematically shoving a tribble in everyone’s faces: “ Obviously. Mister Baris, they like you. Well, there’s no accounting for taste.” Sick burn, bro.
  3. Yeah, I own a stuffed tribble. What of it?
  4. Of course it’s a woman — Uhura — who’s “patient zero” for the tribble infestation. <Sexist ‘60s voice>Broads, right?</Sexist ‘60s voice>

Katherine:

This episode is, well, adorable. We not only get furry pet-like creatures cooing and begging to be held, we also see the crew having fun in some off-duty time while danger to the Enterprise and the Federation is minimized so that you never really feel worried for them. It’s a chance to get to know some of the characters better and see how they react in less formal situations.

The setup in The Trouble with Tribbles is that the crew approach a space station in a disputed quadrant where an undeveloped planet is claimed by both the Federation and the Klingons, who have a nearby outpost. The Federation wants to develop “Sherman’s planet” and this apparently involves getting domesticated crops to grow on it. The station issues a major distress call causing the crew to spring into action, only to find out that a Federation undersecretary of agriculture, Nilz Baris, has misused the priority one channel to summon security from the Enterprise to protect a shipment of wheat grains — actually a high yield Frankenstein food called “quadrotriticale” — intended for Sherman’s planet.

Kirk chafes at the request from Baris, not really because it’s unreasonable — it is important that the Federation beat the Klingons to the punch in developing the planet — but because Baris is kind of a whiny putz. We’re also instantly made to dislike his assistant Darvin who comes across as a sniveling yes-man to Baris. Kirk begrudgingly sends two security guards and then authorizes shore leave for his crew on the space station.

In some Mad Men era dialogue, we hear that Uhura wants to use her time off to go shopping, and the captain of a Klingon warship, testing out his right to allow off-duty crew time on the space station and looking like a beatnik with a goatee and gold tunic, lewdly expresses their need for “non-essentials” by making the universally understood motion of tracing a woman’s curves with his hands. Everyone ends up in the space station bar where the goofy, theatrical salesman Cyrano Jones shows up and sells Uhura on a fuzzy little tribble which, like modern-day internet kitten videos, makes everyone go “Awww!” and want to snuggle it.

All this drinking off the job with Federation crew and Klingons leads to a fantastically drawn-out brawl, started by none other than Mr. Scott. As a person of Scottish descent myself, I’m absolutely entertained by the stereotype of Scotty as a dour engineer, absorbed in his technical journals, level-headed in an argument, until a Klingon insult against the Enterprise sends him over the edge, “Laddie, don’t you think you should rephrase that?” and he starts throwing punches. This is followed by a scene that seems more Father Knows Best than Star Trek where Kirk reprimands the crew, pretending to sternly punish them by sending them to their quarters when we know he really can’t be mad at them for defending their honor against Klingons.

Meanwhile, tribbles have been multiplying at an alarming rate and we see shots of various parts of the space station covered with fur balls as people try to eat or play games around them. McCoy examines one, only after Uhura is assured he won’t hurt it, and he and Spock have an exchange about whether or not a creature that consumes resources but doesn’t provide anything has any value, skirting around the question of whether love and companionship alone are worthy of fostering an animal. But the number of tribbles is clearly going to be an issue.

They do eventually prove their worth in two ways. Kirk discovers to his horror that, while the security guards were protecting the grain, the tribbles managed to get in through the duct-work and eat it all. However, several of the tribbles die, like coalmine canaries, because the grain was poisoned. This revelation could have been left with a simple explanation. But in true Star Trek form we get a scientific analysis from McCoy about how a virus was put in the grain that turns into inert material in the bloodstream and causes the victim to eventually starve. Secondly, an undercover agent — assistant Darvin (gasp!) — is revealed by a reaction from a tribble seen only when it encounters a Klingon.

Just a couple of other things I noticed in this fun episode… Star Trek, like other sci-fi shows of its time, has sets that look shiny, sparse and clean with space-age materials and a modern aesthetic, think of the interior shots in 2001: A Space Odyessy. But there are organic elements that sneak in. Kirk’s green shirt, for instance, when you get a close look has a nubby, pilled texture as though it’s made of finely woven wool. And a white door, sliding aside so futuristically, is bordered by a potted house plant. Even the tribbles are round and fuzzy and decidedly non-spacey. For me, that’s the charm of The Trouble with Tribbles, the diversion into something a little more down-to-earth and less logical, something more mundane and relatable — like being annoyed by a person you have to work for, or wanting to hold a furry pet — and less strategic and goal-directed. The final kicker is when we find that Scotty, in order to get rid of the tribbles, has beamed them all onto the Klingon ship. Kirk first thinks he might have beamed them out into space and even our engineer decries this option as “inhuman.” All these earthy feelings make you want to curl up with a glass of whisky and a warm tribble. Slàinte!

Next week: The Doomsday Machine