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Star Trek – The Trouble With Tribbles (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

This is a classic.

The Trouble With Tribbles is an episode that can make a legitimate claim to being the best episode of Star Trek, if not the best episode of the entire franchise. It is a genuine classic in countless ways, perfectly embodying so much of what makes Star Trek classic and iconic and loved. David Gerrold’s script, polished by Gene Coon, is easily the best comedy episode that the franchise has ever produced, but never at the expense of the show’s credibility. The Trouble With Tribbles may be silly, but it is also very clever and insightful.

Nobody knows the Tribbles I've seen...

Nobody knows the Tribbles I’ve seen…

History has been kind to The Trouble With Tribbles. It is frequently ranked among the best episodes of Star Trek ever produced. It earned two sequels, including an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine produced to mark the franchise’s thirtieth anniversary. It is widely recognised and considered to be iconic. Many actors associated with the franchise cite the show among their favourites, and fandom has come to love The Trouble With Tribbles. Deservedly so.

However, it should be noted that this reputation was not solidified overnight. The Trouble With Tribbles was not accepted immediately as a classic by everybody involved with the production. Produced back-to-back in the middle of the second season, it and I, Mudd represent a departure from the Star Trek canon. Gene Roddenberry had worked to hard to get people to take Star Trek seriously, claiming that Irwin Allen, creator of Lost in Space, was a “storyteller” while Roddenberry was a “philosopher.”

The image of Kirk buried in tribbles is hilarious. Until you remember that they are all dead or dying.

The image of Kirk buried in tribbles is hilarious.
Until you remember that they are all dead or dying.

According to These Are the Voyages, many of the revisions to The Trouble With Tribbles took place while Roddenberry was away. When he had left, the script for The Trouble With Tribbles was a drama with some light elements. That changed with subsequent drafts. On his return, he was less than pleased:

Roddenberry was back in town and, reportedly, not happy with what he was seeing. Also less than thrilled about the shift that Star Trek was making into comedy with this episode, and I, Mudd, were Leonard Nimoy and Robert Justman.

Although Leonard Nimoy seems to have come around in the years since, he does concede in I Am Spock that he, “no doubt because of Spock’s influence, never really appreciated at the time because it seemed ‘frivolous’.”

Going against the grain...

Going against the grain…

Indeed, writer David Gerrold has explained that producer Fred Frieberger vetoed a sequel to The Trouble With Troubles planned for the third season:

“Freddy’s first words to me were, ‘I screened the Tribbles episode this morning. I didn’t like it. Star Trek is not a comedy,’” said Gerrold. “I went, ‘Oh, all right. Well, then I’ll do something else.’ So he killed the second Tribble episode for the third season.”

Frieberger went on to produce Spock’s Brain instead. At the same time, while it is hard to imagine Star Trek without The Trouble With Tribbles, one can understand how some of the more serious members of the production team would have struggled with it.

Drinking it all in...

Drinking it all in…

It is worth noting that it’s hard to imagine the goofy humour working on any of the spin-off shows. Even Deep Space Nine only broke out that cheesy comedy for the anniversary special. Director Joseph Pevney argued as much in his assessment of the show:

We were not a hit –the gun of cancellation was always being pointed at us. The series became a hit in syndication because of Gene Roddenberry’s writing, it has a resonance. But we did a lot of laughing on set. My best episode was The Trouble With Tribbles but we couldn’t do that one today–the whole Star Trek phenomenon has become so deadly serious. I’d alternate on the second year with Marc Daniels. He’d be shooting on the floor and I’d be in pre-production on the next episode. Such a hard schedule.

One could argue that this sense of humour – this willingness to take some of the air out of the show’s sails – was the hallmark of Gene L. Coon. He encouraged comedy on the show, and was also quite willing to have fun at the expense of the core aspects of the series.

"This one appears to be ticking..."

“This one appears to be ticking…”

Positioned half-way through the show’s sophomore season, The Trouble With Tribbles sits at various crossroads for the series and the franchise as a whole. It is the penultimate episode overseen by producer Gene L. Coon. The producer would part ways with the series shortly following The Trouble With Tribbles. His successor, John Meredyth Lucas, would sit in on the production of Bread and Circuses and take the reins with Gamesters of Triskelion. So The Trouble With Tribbles comes towards then end of a particular era of the show.

At the same time, it is also the point at which David Gerrold becomes a massive creative force. His script for The Trouble With Tribbles was so impressive that Coon asked him to polish I, Mudd. Gerrold would join the writing staff and work quite hard during the show’s troubled third and final season. Gerrold would be an important part of Star Trek: The Animated Series and even contribute to the Bantam Star Trek line with The Galactic Whirlpool.

"Okay, I promise I'll come back and do a guest spot in thirty years!"

“Okay, I promise I’ll come back and do a guest spot in thirty years!”

Indeed, Gerrold would become so effective a creative force that he would help to create Star Trek: The Next Generation. The relationship would end bitterly, with the Writers’ Guild brought an arbitration on his behalf, with his agent claiming for a “creator” credit on the show. Gerrold remains somewhat involved in the franchise, writing and directing a fan adaptation of his troubled Blood and Fire teleplay. Gerrold also maintains an on-line presence merchandising and selling Tribbles.

Although The Trouble With Tribbles was Gerrold’s first Star Trek teleplay produced, he first pitched for the show during the first season. His first pitch was Tomorrow Was Yesterday, the idea that would evolve into The Galactic Whirlpool. He received a rather complimentary rejection letter from Gene L. Coon in early October 1966, less than a month after The Man Trap had first been broadcast. Although not interested in buying that pitch, Coon encouraged Gerrold to try again.

A whole heap of tribbles...

A whole heap of tribbles…

The Trouble With Tribbles was the result of this process. It is very much a script written by David Gerrold, but it is also a show that seems very much in line with Gene L. Coon’s tastes as producer. There is a sense of witty irreverence to the script, the same sort of skepticism about Starfleet and the Federation as an institution that informs a lot of Coon’s tenure as producer on the show. It is an episode where the best laid plans and schemes of intergalactic governments are laid low by some purring fur balls.

The episode plays off some familiar Gene L. Coon themes. There’s a sense of frustration at life spent in the service of an arbitrary higher authority, a scepticism about power structures including the Federation. Kirk spends most of the episode barely concealing his contempt for Nilz Baris, “the Federation Undersecretary in Charge of Agricultural Affairs in this quadrant.” It is very clear that Kirk considers the Enterprise’s diversion to the space station as a waste of time.

Food for thought...

Food for thought…

In what is a bit of an exaggeration to anybody who has watched A Taste of Armageddon or Metamorphosis, Kirk contends, “I have never questioned the orders or the intelligence of any representative of the Federation. Until now.” When Baris accuses Cyrano Jones of being a Klingon agent, citing his disruption of life on the station, Kirk deadpans, “People have disrupted stations before without being Klingon agents. Sometimes, all they need is a title, Mister Baris.”

Of course, Kirk is pretty much entirely correct about Baris. The security measures that Baris insists upon are completely ineffective. The extra security guards manage to neither keep the grain safe from poison or the tribbles out of the cargo bays. On top of that, Baris just spends most the show as an obnoxious jerk. “Of course, I wouldn’t expect you or Mister Spock to know about such things,” he remarks after dropping some technical jargon into conversation. Naturally, Spock does know about such things.

Nilz points...

Nilz points…

It is worth noting that – according to Gerrold’s book on the production of The Trouble With Tribbles – Baris originally began life as a “fairly sympathetic” character. It was only later revisions to the plot that made him an obstructive bureaucrat of the kind viewers have come to expect on Star Trek. The Cold War subtext and the Klingons were also an addition to later drafts of the plot. Gerrold had originally conceived The Trouble With Tribbles as a story about corporate corruption.

At the same time, it is very hard not to feel a pang of sympathy for Lurry, the station administrator caught in the middle of all this. He is just a working stiff doing a job – it’s worth noting that he spends most of the episode clad in what appears to be workmen’s overalls. Lurry never really exercises any real power. It seems like the station doesn’t have its own security or protection independent of the Enterprise. Lurry is just caught between these vying interests.

"Good, now that Kirk's here, we can actually do something!"

“Good, now that Kirk’s here, we can actually do something!”

While is office is the hub of decision-making on the station, it seems like everybody else just talks over or around him. Koloth treats Lurry’s office as a waiting room for his meeting with Kirk. When Barris wants Cyrano Jones arrested, he goes to Kirk rather than Lurry. Despite this, Lurry seems to be the most level-headed character on the show. He seems almost apologetic when Baris summons Kirk and the Enterprise to the station.

Although frequently brushed over in the discussion of the episode’s many other attributes, The Trouble With Tribbles is very much a Cold War story. It forms the second part of an informal “Klingon trilogy” with Errand of Mercy in the first season and The Day of the Dove in the third. Fans tend to lump these three Klingon stories together, ahead of other Klingon-centric narratives like Friday’s Child, A Private Little War, Elaan of Troyius or The Savage Curtain.

"Still better than a whoopee cushion..."

“Still better than a whoopee cushion…”

There are lots of reasons to group Errand of Mercy, The Trouble With Tribbles and The Day of the Dove into a loose trinity. Most obviously, the three stories do have memorable and distinctive guest characters. Kor, Koloth and Kang are certainly more memorable than Kras or Krell. The use of the three characters in Blood Oath, a second season episode of Deep Space Nine, probably helped. The scripts to these three episodes are also noticeably stronger. Although A Private Little War is remembered, it is seldom for the quality of the script.

More than that, though, there is a clear thematic through-line running between Errand of Mercy, The Trouble With Tribbles and The Day of the Dove. These are episodes about the Cold War and its many facets, but they approach the issue in a remarkably consistent way. Friday’s Child and A Private Little War buy into the conflict – accepting, albeit with a heavy heart, that these battles must be fought. In contrast, Errand of Mercy, The Trouble With Tribble and The Day of the Dove all reject the Cold War as a concept – dismissing it as absurd and destructive.

The Klingons said there'd be no Tribble...

The Klingons said there’d be no Tribble…

What is interesting about The Trouble With Tribbles is that it’s probably the Klingon episode with the least threat of open warfare developing between the two major powers. The threat of warfare still looms, of course: had Arne Darvin’s plan worked as expected, it would likely have prompted a war between the two galactic powers; there is a massive fist fight at the centre of the episode. However, that plan fails and the fist fight is played as a comedy set piece.

Instead, The Trouble With Tribbles is about the jockeying of the Federation and Klingon outside of proxy wars and military aggression. There is no sense that the Federation and Klingons are supplying arms to a minor power as part of their ideological conflict. Instead, they are competing for political power through other means. The tools being used in the courtship of Sherman’s Planet are economic rather than military.

My good captain Koloth...

My good captain Koloth…

Just in case the viewer doesn’t get the Cold War parallels, we’re told that the area is in dispute between the two major powers following a conflict that took place “twenty three solar years ago” – roughly the length of time between the production of The Trouble With Tribbles and the end of World War II in Europe. These attempts to exert economic control over the planet recall criticisms of the Marshall Plan that provided American aid to Western Europe and the Soviet development of the Comecon or the Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe.

These were methods of expanding a sphere of influence without resorting to direct threats of violence and brutality. It is interesting to note that grain itself became an important tool in helping to thaw out the Cold War. Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev famously made a trip to the Iowa corn fields in 1959, an event that is celebrated and commemorated. In 1971, a few years after the airing of The Trouble With Tribbles, the United States exported more grain to Russia than they had exported in total the year before.

One heck of a comedy line-up...

One heck of a comedy line-up…

However, food also served as a weapon in the ideological conflict, demonstrating each superpower’s ability to provide:

Food, like the atom bomb, was an important weapon throughout the Cold War. Food represented the United States’ productivity, efficiency, and prosperity. Food gave America leverage over other countries by reminding the world of America’s economic clout, much as the bomb was a symbol of American military prowess. The food weapon is a perfect lens through which the tenor and attitudes of the Cold War can be better viewed. The Cold War was, ultimately, one of conflicting ideologies and competing nations, who, after the devastation of World War II were more comfortable competing economically than militarily. A booming economy spoke of a nation’s ability to fund not only the military, but to invest in science, research, education, and the community. A strong economy meant a high standard of living, and food was one of the most intimate symbols of how well a nation’s people were doing. It was the backbone of all of a country’s citizens, activities, interests, and goals.

So The Trouble With Tribbles touches on an aspect of the Cold War that Star Trek traditionally glossed over.

More tribble than they're worth?

More tribble than they’re worth?

That said, it has been argued that the importance of food and agriculture on the early Cold War has been glossed over by academic scholarship and historical investigations:

Surprisingly, the role of agricultural commodity flows in the early economic history of the Cold Wars still remains largely unexplored. In investigating economic competition between the two blocs, Cold War historians have focused overwhelmingly on high-tech issues and on strategic commodities and have generally overlooked the important role of basic foodstuffs. Although the notion that Western Europe needed basic agricultural supplies from the east is generally acknowledged, little work has been done in examining the specific economic and financial decisions and actions that followed from these circumstances. On the other hand, agricultural historians have generally not explored questions surrounding the political competition of the Cold War and its varied implications for agricultural practices.

While the “quadrotriticale” is very much a plot point in The Trouble With Tribbles, it is a rather shrewd one. It demonstrates a side to the Federation and Klingon conflict that we seldom see.

"Yes, this is a mighty fine goatee, thanks for noticing."

“Yes, this is a mighty fine goatee, thanks for noticing.”

The Trouble With Tribbles forms an interesting companion piece to Errand of Mercy, with the best laid plans of the Federation and the Klingon Empire thrown into chaos by forces outside their control. In Errand of Mercy, the god-like Organians prevent the Federation and Klingons from escalating their conflict. Though far from god-like, the tribbles foil the imperialism directed towards Sherman’s Planet.

As well as serving as a way to de-rail and undermine the conflict between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, the tribbles also serve as a wonderful metaphor for the way that small and seemingly insignificant problems seem to mount up and reach critical mass. The tribbles begin as an amusing diversion and become something a lot more serious very quickly, in much the same way that Kirk’s involvement with the grain shipment begins as an irritating waste of time and then becomes vital.

"Imagine how much we'd get on Ebay for these..."

“Imagine how much we’d get on Ebay for these…”

One of the more endearing stories around the production of The Trouble With Tribbles is that the tribble props became almost as invasive as the tribbles themselves. In The World of Star Trek, DeForest Kelley recalls how the staff would find the props for weeks after the shoot:

“We’d had these tribbles everywhere. They had them in the prop room and they kept showing up here and there for weeks after we filmed the episode. A tribble might show up as an extra breast on Nichelle or something like that. I guess everybody was still kind of tribble happy and every time we got to work a tribble in somewhere, we were working them in. Instead of pulling out a communicator, somebody would pull out a tribble. They’d continually pop up somewhere. Pull out a drawer and somebody would reach for something and there’d be a tribble there. So I delivered one. I don’t remember what show it was, but I was performing surgery on someone — probably Mark Lenard in Journey to Babel — and after a supposed incision, I took a tribble out of him. I remember doing it and having the whole crew crack up completely. It took weeks to get all the tribbles off the set.”

It is an endearing case of life imitating art. (In a way, Nilz Baris’ complaints about the situation also seem to foreshadow behind-the-scenes tensions. “In my opinion,” he tells Kirk, “you have taken this important project far too lightly.” This feels similar to the sentiments expressed by Nimoy, Roddenberry and Frieberger on what Coon and Gerrold were doing with Star Trek.)

The tribbles just keep piling up...

The tribbles just keep piling up…

The tribbles are a wonderfully flexible metaphor. On top of all this, they are also an effective warning against imperialism and colonialism. Taken out of their natural environment to serve as an endearing novelty, they quickly become an ecological hazard. After all, the tribbles’ biology was tailored for a specific environment, their rapid reproduction a survival mechanism to maintain population equilibrium. Taking the tribble from that environment upsets the equilibrium.

“Surely you must have realised what would happen if you removed the tribbles from their predator-filled environment into an environment where their natural multiplicative proclivities would have no restraining factors?” Spock asks Cyrano Jones. “By removing the tribbles from their natural habitat, you have, so to speak, removed the cork from the bottle and allowed the genie to escape.”

Talk about a hard sell...

Talk about a hard sell…

David Gerrold has confessed that the tribbles were directly inspired by real-world environmental cautionary tales:

I had always been fascinated by the whole idea that Australia was this different ecology and that when rabbits and prickly pears and other things from Europe were introduced into Australia they ran amok. I always thought this was a remarkable story about the law of unintended consequences, so I thought, “What if you could have rabbits or mice [in a story].”

Australia’s wild rabbit population is directly as a result of actions by European settlers trying to transform Australia’s landscape.

"I found it on my keychain!"

“I found it on my keychain!”

The rabbits were “introduced as part of a broad attempt by early colonists to make Australia as much like Europe as they possibly could.” Thomas Austin’s release of twenty-four rabbits into the Australian wild in 1859 is credited sparking the epidemic, and estimates on the damaged caused by rabbits range from $113.11m through to $600m. Although successfully combated through the introduction of the Cactoblastis moth in 1920s, the prickly pear managed to infest over ten million acres of New South Wales and Queensland by the early years of the twentieth century.

As such, the tribbles seem to stand in for the unintended side-effects of colonialism. There is an incredible arrogance of taking objects out of their original environment for the purpose of exploiting them, with little appreciation for what will happen when they are introduced into a new context. As such, they play quite well into the Cold War subtext of The Trouble With Tribbles, a story about two larger powers vying for control over a small political entity. Sherman’s Planet never seems to exist as anything but a trophy to the Federation and the Klingons.

Talk about a pet cause...

Talk about a pet cause…

The portrayal of the Klingons in The Trouble With Tribbles is interesting, because they seem quite different from the Klingons portrayed in Errand of Mercy or even Friday’s Child. Even acknowledging the differences in the presentation of Klingon culture between the original Star Trek and the various spin-offs, William Campbell’s Koloth seems a lot more polite and smarmy than many of his contemporaries. When the three Klingons from the classic Star Trek returned for Blood Oath, it was Koloth who was most heavily re-worked as a character.

To be fair, this makes a great deal of sense. The Trouble With Tribbles is, after all, an episode that leads us to believe that Klingons and Starfleet officers could be expected to enjoy shore leave in the same location without too much trouble. While a fist-fight does break out, the episode requires that Kirk consent to Koloth’s request for shore leave. He must accept twelve Klingons on a station at the same time as his crew, and in the presence of vital Federation grain. It is very hard to imagine the Kirk allowing somebody like Kor or Kang to claim shore leave on the station.

Korax is really a mid-level Klingon accountant looking to let off some steam.

Korax is really a mid-level Klingon accountant looking to let off some steam.

Comic book writer and historian Scott Tipton has described the Klingons featured in The Trouble With Tribbles as “bureaucrat Klingons.” In the Starfleet Access feature on the blu ray, he explains:

It’s enough of a keystone back to what we’ve seen before that it still feels familiar but it works well because you couldn’t put the Errand of Mercy Klingons in this episode, because you wouldn’t let those guys onto your space station so they can come have a drink at the bar! So, by the nature of the story, you have to kind of make them a little more refined.

The Klingons featured in The Trouble With Tribbles feel much more like real people than archetypes and cyphers. Although John Colicos and Michael Ansara imbued Kor and Kang with gravitas and personality, the Klingons of classic Star Trek tended to feel more like generic bad guys than fully-formed characters.

The Tribbles refuse to be boxed in...

The Tribbles refuse to be boxed in…

The make-up decisions in the second season helped. In Friday’s Child and The Trouble With Tribbles, the Klingons look a lot less like oriental stereotypes than they did in Errand of Mercy. Although Tige Andrews did seem miscast as Kras – it is very hard to take a short and balding middle-aged man seriously as a “heavy”, particularly when underwritten – William Campbell’s Koloth feels a lot less like a yellow peril bad guy than Kor or Kang.

Although the featured Klingons – Koloth and Korax – still have the distinctive Klingon goatee, they feel a lot less like the borderline racist caricatures of Errand of Mercy. While there are still traces of that uncomfortable subtext, it is a lot harder to believe that Koloth and Korax fit Gene L. Coon’s infamous description of the Klingons as “hard-faced” and “Oriental”, or novelist James Blish’s suggestion that they were “originally of Oriental stock.”

A pregnant pause...

A pregnant pause…

It is a portrayal which makes the Klingons less like two-dimensional yellow peril Cold War stand-ins. Sadly, this shift in portrayal was too good to last. Producer Robert Justman was less than thrilled with the appearance of the Klingons here. In an interview with The Star Trek Communicator, he suggested this change was a production mistake:

I didn’t see them in their makeup before they were photographed, as I usually did. The first time I saw the Klingons revisited, I was horrified. They were much paler and didn’t match what we’d done before. I blew a gasket, but in television, unless it’s a total disaster, you can’t afford to reshoot. The third outing, we went back to them being darker.

When Krell appeared in A Private Little War, he would look a lot more like Kor than any of the Klingons featured in Friday’s Child or The Trouble With Tribbles, complete with exaggerated eyebrows and bronzed skin.

Kor-ax Klingon values...

Kor-ax Klingon values…

Koloth is himself an interesting character. William Campbell had made quite an impression playing Trelane in The Squire of Gothos. In comparison, his role as Koloth in The Trouble With Tribbles is rather small. However, it has been suggested that the production team were looking for a recurring antagonist. In an interview with Starlog, Campbell explained:

“The reason for doing that show was not for doing The Trouble With Tribbles – it was just a job,” Campbell explains. “Gene said, ‘Bill, it’s not Trelane, but we’re starting to run out of stories. We may have to do what they did with Buck Rogers and take this Captain Koloth and make him the  prime adversary.'”

This would have been a nice development – giving Kirk a foil on the other side of the Klingon Neutral Zone. Campbell and Shatner played well off one another, as demonstrated in The Squire of Gothos and evident in their few shared scenes here.

Laugh it, fuzzball...

Laugh it, fuzzball…

Indeed, the episode even hints that the two are well aware of one another. “Ah, my dear Captain Kirk!” Koloth greets Kirk. “My dear Captain Koloth!” Kirk greets Koloth. Sadly, this was not to be. Campbell went into a bit more detail in another interview with Starlog:

“I had signed a deal with Gene Coon for  13 shows,” says Campbell, the same actor  who portrayed the flamboyant “Squire of  Gothos” in that first season episode. The late  Gene L. Coon, producer for Star Trek’s first  two seasons, had conceived the idea of a running foil for Captain Kirk early on, with  Campbell in mind. Because Trelane was so  memorable, it was decided to wait until the  second season to finally introduce Koloth,  but he was immediately popular with fans  and the creative team alike.

“I recall Gene asking what I would do with  the part,” Campbell says. “I said I wanted to  play something like Flagg and Queeg from the old movie serials — always at each other’s  throats, but if someone beat up one of us, the  other would rush to his aid, saying, ‘No one’s  gonna beat him up but me!’ “

He remembers Coon being delighted with  the idea they discussed. At the time, the producers were “starting to fret” over storylines  getting stale and repetitive, and wanted to  throw in some fresh, human (and Klingon)  elements. When Star Trek was cancelled after  its second season, however, Coon declined to  continue producing even when a third season  was later contracted. New producer Fred  Freiberger had ideas of his own, and Captain  Koloth was lost in the executive shuffle.

This suggestion that William Campell’s once-off appearance of Koloth in The Trouble With Tribbles was a result of Gene L. Coon’s departure serves as an example of how Star Trek is at a creative crossroads.

Koloth to be desired...

Leaving Koloth to be desired…

Serving as producer, Gene L. Coon had revolutionised the show. Star Trek had been a very different show before he took over, and it would become a very different show after he left. The fact that Koloth remains a one-episode wonder instead of an iconic and recurring antagonist serves as an interesting “what-if”, an example of a road not taken by the series because of changes behind the scenes.

After all, based on what little we see of Koloth here, turning Koloth into the franchise’s first recurring Klingon would arguably have dramatically altered the portrayal of the Klingons in Star Trek. It is difficult to imagine the show maintaining even the illusion of amicability between Kirk and Koloth in the wake of the events in A Private Little War, and The Day of the Dove would have to be radically re-worked to include the character.

That said, David Gerrold has argued that Coon’s departure was not the reason that Koloth remained a “one-and-done” baddie. According to his account of the production of The Troubles With Tribbles, the reason was a lot more mundane:

Unfortunately, Campbell was not available the next time a Klingon episode was to be filmed, so another actor was hired. Later on, the idea of a continuing set of nasties was dropped or forgotten.

Whatever the reason, the end result is disappointing. Although Koloth makes quite an impression here, William Campbell feels under-utilised. Koloth is such a secondary a character that Trials and Tribble-ations is unable to work him into the episode, despite featuring Koloth in Blood Oath and having a long-standing relationship between Koloth and one of the cast members.

It is worth pausing to note that The Trouble With Tribbles works beautifully as a comedy. All the plot points are expertly set up, from Scotty’s desire to stay on the ship and read technical manuals through to the eventual reveal of the Klingon plot. The episode is deftly constructed and well put-together, its whimsy concealing a remarkably efficient script. The fact that this was Gerrold’s first sale, and that he was responsible for both the pitch and the script, demonstrates that the franchise has found somebody special.

The cast do a great job with the material, enjoying the opportunity to play it a bit looser. Despite his aforementioned misgivings, even Leonard Nimoy gets into the spirit of proceedings. Shatner’s performance deserves particular note. His attempts to resist the tribbles duringt he second half of the episode are played wonderfully, from the point where he stops himself stroking one to the fact he carries one around as an accessory.

The Trouble With Tribbles is easily one of the highlights of the original Star Trek run, and one of the most enduring episodes that the franchise ever produced. An example of just how flexible Star Trek could be, while remaining interesting and compelling, The Trouble With Tribbles is a triumph. It makes for a suitably bombastic end to Gene L. Coon’s tenure as producer, even if he would remain to oversee Bread and Circuses, and remain a writer for the show into the third season. This is a gem.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the second season of the classic Star Trek:

15 Responses

  1. Great review. I love this episode.

    I have a certain fondness for the likes of Cyrano Jones and Harcourt Mudd. It seems so refreshing to see independent operators from Earth when we are so often limited to Starfleet or at most civilian scientists or administrators who often feel functionally indistinguishable from Starfleet. They are, at best, morally grey but they are shamelessly adventurers out there in the big old cosmos.

    • I think the future as presented in the original Star Trek series is a little rougher around the edges than the version presented in The Next Generation or Voyager. In fact, I’d argue that Deep Space Nine is the spin-off most closely related to the original Star Trek, because it does capture that same sense of lawlessness that is lacking from the relative sterile settings of Voyager or The Next Generation.

    • I always wondered if Cyrano Jones was meant to be Harry Mudd but Roger C Carmell was unavailable. The Tribbles do seem like something Mudd would be peddling without a clue of the true implications.

  2. “Gene Roddenberry had worked to hard to get people to take Star Trek seriously, claiming that Irwin Allen, creator of Lost in Space, was a “storyteller” while Roddenberry was a “philosopher.” ”

    Ah, there you go! That is probably your number one reason why the first two seasons of Stat Trek: The Next Generation were so mediocre. During the production of the original series in the late 1960s, Roddenberry was forced to make many compromises, and to work with collaborators who had differing, often contradictory, approaches & viewpoints (Gene L. Coon immediately comes to mind). Ironically, instead of resulting in an inferior product, those compromises and collaborations actually led to some of the best episodes of the series. As has often been observed, sometimes truly great, classic stories come out of the creative tension and conflict between two or more collaborators.

    However, as you’ve when The Next Generation rolled around, now Roddenberry was THE undisputed guiding creative force of the series, and everyone else was working under him, being forced to commit to his vision. And in retrospect it really does appear that during those first two seasons of TNG, when he had the most control, Roddenberry was not interested in telling stories, but in selling the philosophy of his vision of human utopia.

    In any case, I am certainly agreed that “The Trouble With Tribbles” is a great, fun, classic episode.

    • Oh, yes… as always, this was an extremely insightful analysis. Great work!

    • Yep. I agree wholeheartedly. I actually think that Rick Berman doesn’t get enough credit for his work tempering Roddenberry from the third season of TNG onwards. Both Michael Piller and Ronald D. Moore have talked about how Berman would manage upwards so that Roddenberry’s objections to episodes like Family or Redemption didn’t stop the show from producing those (for the time) pretty daring and off-format Star Trek shows. While Berman takes a lot of the blame for Voyager and Enterprise (some of which is deserved, some of which is down to outside factors), his accomplishments tend to get somewhat glossed over. (Much like Gene L. Coon, to bring it back to the point.)

      • Here is the etymology of the word “yep”:

        1830 – 40; see yup

        In relation to the etymology of the word “yup”:

        form of yeah as an isolated or emphatic utterance,
        with p representing closing of the lips, creating, in effect,
        an unreleased labial stop (and perhaps also lowering the vowel)

        I love the English language.

        I never utter the words “yep” or “yup”.

        I only text the words “yep” or “yup” when commenting on Darren’s posted text.

        I only use the word “Yes”.

        The words “yep” or “yup” denote a lack of education.

      • I have read that Gene Roddenberry’s contributions to Star Trek have been wildly exaggerated and that he would often get the credit for other people’s good ideas. It wasn’t really until TNG that Roddenberry’s shortcomings were exposed in those first two seasons (although, I would say the first more than the second).

      • That’s fair. Although TMP also seems to have been a similar watershed moment, at least for the studio. That was the point at which they decided they didn’t want him on the film franchise.

  3. Watching The Trouble With Tribbles before reading your review of it Darren, I noticed how leisurely it is with the introduction of the Tribbles. The trouble begins with one Tribble that Uhura buys off Cyrano Jones and for much of the first half, they only seem a peripheral issue to what’s going on with the Klingons and they’re dispute with the Federation over Sherman’s Planet (which is such a McGuffin I don’t think we even learn who Sherman is). But gradually as they multiply they not only overtake the Enterprise and then K-7 but the story as well. I always enjoy plots that spiral out of hand through seemingly innocent beginnings.

    Life did imitate art – they apparently built about 500 Tribbles for this episode and because there were so many they couldn’t keep track of them all. They were literally turning up in the woodwork for weeks afterward!

    My favourite bit of the episode (in fact, more than any of the scenes with the Tribbles) is when Kirk is described as “a tin-plated, overbearing, swaggering dictator with delusions of godhood” by the Klingons that Scotty then relays to Kirk. I always thought of that as an insult directed at William Shatner rather than Kirk and James Doohan does seem particularly gleeful in the lineup scene when he tells Kirk about it. It’s not a little-known fact that the cast couldn’t stand Shatner for all of those reasons listed above.

    • I heard that about the Tribbles. The cast talk about finding them in drawers and in the corners of sets for a significant stretch of the second season. Which I’m sure was really annoying in practice, but which does seem a magical story in hindsight.

      • When DVD’s replaced VHS in my house, it took a long time to clear all the tapes away. And every time I thought I had, more would pop up somewhere. I still keep expecting one to appear, just waiting for me to stumble on it in some dark corner.

      • Ha! I never had too many VHS casettes, but I imagine my DVDs and blu rays may be similar.

  4. Gerrold was never on the staff at any Star Trek show other than TNG, and certainly not TOS. Where did you get that idea?

    Campbell claimed he signed a 13 episode deal with Coon, but that doesn’t make it so. The idea crumbles under the teensiest scrutiny.

    1. Justman balked at the idea of Kor reappearing as originally proposed in “A Private Little War” (“Here we are in the outer reaches of our galaxy and who should Captain Kirk run into, but good old Kor […] billions of stars and millions of Class M-type planets and who should he run into […] No wonder Kor doesn’t recognize him at first. The coincidence is so astounding, that he must feel certain that it couldn’t possibly have happened.” —May 26, 1967). He would have burst a blood vessel at the idea of Kirk bumping into Koloth all the time.

    2. Coon was gone almost immediately after “Tribbles” *and* almost certainly didn’t have the authority to make such a deal at all, assuming the studio or even Roddenberry would even go for it.

    3.Since “Tribbles” was at the season midpoint, to guarantee Campbell 13 would have meant he’d be in basically EVERY episode for the rest of the season. Hell, even Nichelle Nichols was mostly a “day player” without a guaranteed number of episodes, so why would they contract a Klingon to appear every week? And this would require the writers to feature him all the time, which would limit story options.

    4. Since Gerrold created Koloth and was not on staff, they’d have had to pay him every time the character appeared, something the cost-conscious show wouldn’t have done.

    5. That Campbell never again appeared proves there was no such agreement. They had to use Grace Lee Whitney in 13 episodes because that’s what her contract said. So had there been such a deal, we’d have seen 13 episodes with Campbell or he’d have had to been compensated.

    That’s how Hollywood works, these questionable anecdotes aside. I suggest you turn up your skept-o-meter about 3 notches. 🙂

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