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Star Trek: Alien Spotlight – 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.

There is something delightfully gonzo about trying to write a comic book from the perspective of a bunch of Tribbles.

IDW’s Alien Spotlight series did not always work as well as it might, but the delightful done-in-one format of stand-alone stories told from the perspective of iconic Star Trek aliens allowed for a bit more versatility and flexibility than the line was normally afforded. Alien Spotlight: Cardassians was set after the end of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Alien Spotlight: Borg featured a delightfully clever logical paradox and a Borg invasion. Alien Spotlight: Klingons allowed Keith R.A. DeCandido to work his magic with the Klingons. Alien Spotlight: Romulans served as a springboard for John Byrne towards his Romulans saga.

You think you've got tribbles?

You think you’ve got tribbles?

There were more than a few disappointments along the way, but the Alien Spotlight series stands as one of the highlights of IDW’s Star Trek licensing. Alien Spotlight: Tribbles is a very odd piece of work. It is the kind of high-concept story that might feel like a gimmick and feels stretched over a single issue, let alone an arc. However, it is just silly enough that it works. Telling the story of a conflict between a bunch of Klingons and a human freighter crew through the eyes of the Tribbles is a fascinating idea.

While there is a sense that writer Stuart Moore occasionally has to stretch to get the story to where it needs to go, but Alien Spotlight: Tribbles is a delightfully charming (if perhaps a little too light) Star Trek diversion.

Laugh it up, fur ball...

Laugh it up, fur ball…

Getting into the mind of a Tribble is fascinating – if only because they are such wonderfully odd creatures. Tribbles seem like gigantic balls of cotton wool, even if they occasionally vibrate and purr soothingly. There is an intriguing simplicity to their design – there are no legs, no mouth, no eyes visible on the creature. Tribbles don’t move particularly fast, they don’t converse, they don’t leap. They seem to just sit there, content to be. And to breed. And to feed. One imagines the mind of a Tribble is a very tranquil place.

Of course, there were undoubtedly practical considerations that went into designing the Tribbles. As David Gerrold himself conceded in his account of the production of The Trouble With Tribbles, “The ease with which a fluff ball could be manufactured made it a natural candidate.” The episode demanded hundreds of these creatures descend upon K7, so a complex design would have been caused considerable production problems. A ball of fur was something that could be produced easily and efficiently, while still serving all the plot functions expected from the Tribbles.

Klingon for dear life...

Klingon for dear life…

Stuart Moore’s script embraces the odd design of the Tribbles. Indeed, without clearly discernible eyes, the Tribbles identify humans and Klingons by their touch – humans are affectionately identified as “warmhands”, while Klingons are known as “rufflefurs.” Indeed, the Tribbles have a clear instinctive response to the Klingons. “Rufflefurs bad!” The Tribbles think in simple words, strung together to form short sentiments. “Hungry,” the creatures reflect. “Warmhands goneaway.” Later, they acknowledge another biological imperatives, “Breed. Breed. Breed!”

Alien Spotlight: Tribbles has a pretty dark sense of humour. It is quite heavily implied that the issue unfolds on a planet where the Tribbles have wiped out the humanoid population. Crashing on the planet surface, the human freighter crew are alarmed to discover that the formerly thriving indigenous population is nowhere to be found. “So the planet went through a climate change?” one of the crew asks. Another speculates, “And the people all emigrated…” The third replies, “Guess so.”

Sea of Tribbles...

Sea of Tribbles…

Given what we know about Tribbles, it seems far more likely that the population has died out as a direct result of Tribble infestation, with the creatures and eating and multiplying – destroying the local eco-system. The idea never occurs to the freighter crew, because the Tribbles are adorable – those cute little critters could hardly be responsible for destroying a humanoid civilisation, could they? It a delightfully bleak joke for a comic book featuring adorable fuzzy creatures, one that underscores just how dangerous these creatures can be.

However, it also hints at the biggest problem with Alien Spotlight: Tribbles. Quite simply, the Tribbles featured in The Trouble with Tribbles are a delightfully agnostic scourge. They are not good, they are not bad. They are just animals doing what animals do; eating and breeding. In doing so, these adorable little creatures manage to humiliate both the Federation and the Klingons. After all, the Tribbles are able to scuttle the best-laid plans of two major galactic powers. They sabotage the Federation by eating the grain, and then undermine the Klingons by revealing the grain to be poisoned.

Move along home...

Move along home…

Alien Spotlight: Tribbles seems reluctant to allow the Tribbles to remain a force of nature, an infestation capable of humbling races that consider themselves to be major players. Instead, the comic suggests that the Tribbles are self-aware enough to pick sides. More than that, that the Tribbles are smart enough to decide to help the humans and to defeat the Klingons. The crisis in Alien Spotlight: Tribbles is not defeated by dumb luck or coincidence, but by a carefully considered plan concocted by those little fuzzballs.

“Help warmhands,” the Tribbles reflect as they make their way into the engines of the freighter and start breeding, assisting the human freighter crew in their battle against the Klingon pirates. It is a plot point that seems a little awkward and incongruous, a little convenient and trite. The climax of the story might make more sense if the Tribbles had simply been drawn to the heat of the engines while the Klingons ignored the gradually-mounting threat. Alien Spotlight: Tribbles ultimately diminishes the central creatures by making them seem more relatable, more intelligent, more moral.

Big tribble, right here...

Big tribble, right here…

Still, outside of that fairly significant issue with the ending, Alien Spotlight: Tribbles is an interesting off-kilter glimpse at the Star Trek universe, reinforcing the sense that the Alien Spotlight books were a highlight of IDW’s Star Trek tie-in line.

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

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