Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Trouble with Tribbles" (December 29, 1967)

Stardate: 4523.3

The Enterprise is summoned to space station K-7 by Federation Under-Secretary Nilz Baris (William Schallert).

Baris wants the stations storage compartments -- filled with the grain Quadrotriticale – guarded by security staff.  The grain is needed for the development of nearby Sherman’s Planet, which the Klingons are also competing for, under the rules of the Organian Peace Treaty.

Captain Kirk (William Shatner) is reluctant to divert resources to guard the grain, but acquiesces, and offers shore leave to his crew at K-7.

Also aboard the station is rogue trader Cyrano Jones (Stanley Adams), now peddling small furry creatures called Tribbles. Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) brings one of the tribbles aboard the Enterprise, but soon finds herself caring for a litter of the little beasties.  It turns out they seem to multiply at will.

Before long, a Klingon cruiser captained by Commander Koloth (William Campbell) arrives, requesting shore leave for his men, including the hostile Korax (Michael Pataki).  Koloth’s request is granted, but Scotty (James Doohan) and Chekov (Walter Koenig) end up getting into a bar fight with the Klingons. Afterwards, Kirk must reprimand them for disturbing the peace.

When several tribbles are found dead, after eating the grain, Kirk realizes the grain has been poisoned.  Surprisingly, the tribbles help him discover the identity of the poisoner…

David Gerrold’s Hugo Award nominated “The Trouble with Tribbles” is frequently counted as one of the top ten best episodes of Star Trek (1966-1969).

Certainly, it is one of the ten most memorable and delightful tales, though that honor may land it on a different list. In other words, I might term this a “favorite” episode, while not counting it as one of the ten best.

Maybe one of the 25 best is more like it.

Today, some of the performances transmit as overly theatrical, and the musical score is actually grating at times. 

Also, the stunt choreography in the bar fight is terrible (with Walter Koenig very noticeably pulling his punches in at least one shot), and some running gags falling really flat, like Kirk repeating words in clipped tones. “Storage compartments? Storage compartments?”

Finally, the great William Campbell -- who performed so brilliantly as Trelane in “The Squire of Gothos” -- is totally miscast as a Klingon captain, coming across as an effete dandy, and not a cunning military opponent (like John Colicos’ Kor, or even Pataki’s Korax.)

I know it is not popular or correct to make such observations about such a beloved show, but over five decades, some of “The Trouble with Tribbles” flaws seem to have become more apparent. It hasn’t aged as well, perhaps, as some other segments. 

Still, such issues can be overlooked because of the episode’s other -- and myriad -- virtues.

For one, Leonard Nimoy is always wonderfully understated in shows such as this one, and I also appreciate the episode’s depiction of Kirk as being constantly irritated and out of sorts, contending with one headache after the other. When the good captain gets a cup of coffee with a tribble in it, for instance, the expression on his face is priceless.

The bit with Scotty defending the Enterprise’s honor, but not Kirk’s, is also delightful, even if his final solution to the tribble crisis -- essentially delivering the tribbles to murder at the hands of the Klingons -- doesn’t sit well with me. 

I mean, what do Scotty, Kirk and the others believe the Klingons will do once they discover the tribbles?

Phasers (or disruptors, as the case may be), definitely won’t be set to stun.

One reason for the perennial popularity of this episode may rest with the adorable tribbles themselves. As McCoy notes in the episode: “It’s a human characteristic to love little animals, especially if they’re attractive in some way.” 

Well, the tribbles are absolutely cuddly, and the episode gains a lot of steam from the idea of something innocent, furry, and small metastasizing into a real threat, one that could cause, quite accidentally, a galactic war.  It is entertaining and fun to watch the tribble threat snowball, growing in size and complexity through the episode’s climax.

A subtext of “The Trouble with Tribbles” seems to involve how to care for animals such as this species, so that they don’t breed out of control, and endanger resources for everyone in the same ecosystem.  Responsible pet ownership -- or responsible stewardship of the environment -- is at the heart of this well-written show. It is a worthy and unique topic to be explored by Star Trek.

The Tribbles, of course, are now an indispensable piece of Star Trek mythology, having appeared here, in The Animated Series (“More Tribbles, More Troubles,”) Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Deep Space Nine (“Trials and Tribble-ations) and even Star Trek: Intro Darkness (2013).

David Gerrold’s furry creations have more than earned their pop culture immortality, even if some aspects of “The Trouble with Tribbles” have aged a bit.  The humor here (and in shows such as “I, Mudd” and “A Piece of the Action”) seems overly broad.  

Still, it was an inventive and original choice to build a Star Trek story around an alien menace with humorous qualities.  I think the story still works as well as it does because of the clever structuring, and narrative twists and turns. Poisoned tribbles, Klingon spies, and the like all contribute to a story that still feels fresh, even if some of the jokes transmit as hoary.

Next week: “The Gamesters of Triskelion.”


  1. Sheri4:25 PM

    John, I mostly agree with your review. I always have thought the message of "Tribbles" is about the dangers transplanting animals or plants from their native environment: maybe tribbles don't reproduce overwhelmingly in their home environment, but anywhere else they go out of control and do damage, like rats or Kudzu or Asian carp!

    I think anything except Dragnet from that era strikes audiences as much more stylistically theatrical today, but "Tribbles" isn't as annoying as "I, Mudd" in that regard because it's better balanced and better paced. Funny, I always did think William Campbell was miscast as Koloth, too. But maybe it was thought his un-Klingonness was appropriate, since Fleeters and Klingons are all on station together.

    I long ago gave up thinking too hard about this episode and just enjoy the performances. And I do enjoy this Kirk who has just had it up to here throughout. I really appreciate the lineup scene where Kirk presses for who started the brawl. I also want to know what Scotty is viewing on his computer terminal when Kirk finds him: Orion porn? Tech manual? Letter from home?

    I'm not sure your assumption the tribbles were sent to their deaths is supported by the script, John. The roots of your assumption are there in the tribbles' antipathy to Klingons, but their fate isn't actually given. Who knows--perhaps the Klingons figured out how to get them to stop shrieking long enough to offload them somewhere. And maybe the stress of being around Klingons caused the tribbles to stop reproducing. Who knows?

  2. John (and Sheri),

    I believe the question of how the Klingons dealt with the Tribbles was answered in the animated Star Trek episode, "More Tribbles, More Troubles," in which it was revealed that the Klingons created a predator named a Glommer, which feeds on Tribbles. McCoy also develops a serum which limits the Tribbles' reproductive tendencies in the same episode.

    The original story was based on rabbits in Australia that bred out of control in 1859, and could definitely be seen as what happens when you introduce animals into a foreign habitat without predators to limit their numbers.

    In 2007, a comic book series called Star Trek: Klingons (later collected into a graphic novel called "Blood Will Tell") had an interesting side story to "The Trouble with Tribbles." It involves Arne Darvin, the Klingon spy from the show, and what he went through to become a human spy, and his subsequent fall from grace after the events of the episode. I found it to be really well done, and might be worth looking into if you would like to see the events of this episode as reflected through the eyes of the Klingons. Good stuff.


  3. Due to the vagaries of 70s syndicated television, The Trouble with Tribbles was one of the episodes that eluded me for some time. I read David Gerrold's "Making of" book months before I got to see the episode. I was so psyched to finally see it, but was then disappointed for many of the reasons you pointed out. Even in 1976, the episode was showing age thanks to more sophisticated comedy/drama programs like M*A*S*H. Interestingly, Gerrold recalled in his book that his friends were even lukewarm to the show after it aired, feeling that it was too lightweight and lacked the action and pathos of other Star Trek episodes.

    1. I saw this episode about five years ago. My reaction was the same as it was decades ago...

      "The Trouble with Tribbles" is a wonderfully enjoyable episode, one in synch with the series as a whole even if the narrative drive is less than that of a story such as "The Doomsday Machine".

      The big brawl is cartoony, and funny, keeping in spirit with the overall tone of the story being told. I agree with the comments about William Campbell being an almost out-of-character Klingon, but I think this decision was made to keep the proceedings fun. "Kor" would not have worked!

      Composer Jerry Fielding wrote a sweet theme for the Tribbles and his music for the big brawl is textbook scoring. (If you listen the the cue on its own you realize how superb the musicianship is.)

      A friend of mine showed "Tribbles" to his kids recently. Their verdict?... "They loved it!"

      A great cinematic moment: Cyrano Jones mopes around the bar room after being told by Kirk that he is to clean up all the Tribbles; under this plays Fielding's Tribble music. Dissolve to the Enterprise pulling away from Space Station K-7 as the "Enterprise" theme sparkles. (George Duning arranged this version for his "Metamorphosis" score.)

    2. Sheri9:35 PM

      Just saw your comment, Barry. I agree, the score is great most of the way, although it gets a little cutesy here and there. I do love the Enterprise theme at the end, and as a kid I recognized that right away and associated it with "Metamorphosis" immediately.


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