Trials and Tribble-ations is a love letter to the franchise.
The thirtieth anniversary of Star Trek was a big deal. In many ways, the thirtieth anniversary celebration marks the end of the franchise’s cultural peak. Star Trek: The Next Generation is still fresh enough in the cultural consciousness that the anniversary is a big deal, even if the ratings on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager are not necessarily what everybody would want them to be. The decline that would last through to the end of Star Trek: Enterprise only really comes into play in the wake of the big anniversary.
The thirtieth anniversary of the franchise was an embarrassment of riches, particularly from the perspective of a rather limp fiftieth celebration. Even the disappointment of Flashback was dwarfed by the abundance of affectionate homages and triumphant celebrations of a television series that had gone from a cult failure repeating endlessly in syndication to a pop cultural juggernaut with two television series and a successful film franchise running simultaneously. Trials and Tribble-ations was very much the cornerstone of all this.
Sure, there were other celebrations to mark the franchise’s big three-oh. While Flashback might of been a bit of a disappointment as a big anniversary special, Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II were a loving ode to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Indeed, Star Trek: First Contact went even further and threw Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan into the mix, blending the franchise’s most acclaimed and most financially successful films together for the occasion. Captain Janeway even crossed paths with the cast of Frasier to mark the occasion.
In spite of all of that, Trials and Tribble-ations stands quite apart from all the noise around it. There is a legitimate debate to be had about whether it is unequivocally the best of these productions, although it stands a very strong chance of winning that particular argument. However, there is no denying that it is the best celebration of the thirtieth anniversary. It is an adoring and affectionate love letter to the Star Trek franchise, one that seems to have been produced with giddy grin on its face and a skip in its step.
However, Trials and Tribble-ations works even beyond that. It is not simply a loving tribute to a monument of American popular culture, although that would be entirely justified. It is an acknowledgement to the decades of fandom that kept Star Trek alive during its occasional adventures in the wilderness. Trials and Tribble-ations does not just praise Star Trek for surviving thirty years despite being cancelled after three seasons, but which captures the enthusiasm that sustained the series across those thirty years.
It would be easy for a thirtieth anniversary special to treat the occasion as an act of cultural archeology, the careful and ritual unearthing of a popular artifact with all due reverence paid. Indeed, this was arguably the central problem with Flashback, an episode more interested in Star Trek as a memory and as a subject of nostalgia than a living breathing organism. Trials and Tribble-ations instead opts to treat Star Trek as a living and breathing organism, something tangible and material rather than abstract and ethereal.
Indeed, the episode ends with the revelation that the past is not another country. Sometimes you can bring something back. Even if that thing is a tribble.