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.
One of the most interesting aspects of Trials and Tribble-ations is that the episode almost didn’t happen. In the documentary Uniting Two Legends, executive producer Ira Steven Behr confesses that he was not originally keen on taking part in the big anniversary celebrations:
Rick Berman called up and said, “Do you guys want to be involved? Voyager’s gonna do an episode saluting thirty years of… do you wanna do one?” I said, “Rick, I don’t know. I don’t know. Let me talk to the guys, see what we can come up with.” And it was really funny, because at the time we didn’t know whether… “Voyager’s doing it, why do we have to do it?”
It is an interesting beginning to the story, given how completely and utterly the production team would subsequently throw themselves into the anniversary special. It is strange to think that it almost didn’t happen, because the writing staff themselves were reluctant to commit.
Then again, this feels reasonably in character for the production team working on Deep Space Nine. In many respects, Deep Space Nine defined itself against the other Star Trek shows. Debuting during the sixth season of The Next Generation, the series cast itself as a rebellious stepchild to the Star Trek legacy. Cheekily, the production team decided to tie into the release of Star Trek: Generations by producing Defiant, an episode starring Jonathan Frakes as William T. Riker’s goateed transporter duplicate rather than the beloved character, to pick one example.
Deep Space Nine seemed to exert a considerable amount of energy pushing away from its siblings, adopting the iconoclastic tone of the youngest child even after Voyager went on the air. This became particularly obvious during the fourth and fifth seasons, when the production team railed against the restrictions that had traditionally been imposed upon Star Trek storytelling. The Way of the Warrior pushed the Federation and the Klingon Empire to the brink of war. Call to Arms would push the Federation and the Dominion into open warfare.
As Behr confessed to The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, a large part of his approach to producing the show was pushing back against the constraints imposed upon Deep Space Nine as a Star Trek show:
The Next Generation was very serious at times, and I understand that it did a lot of wonderful things, but it had a very self-important air to it. Finding things that work against that is very important to me, and has become more and more important as I’ve taken over the day-to-day aspects of running the show.
In a way, declining to be a part of the massive thirtieth anniversary celebrations would be a massive part of than, an opportunity for Deep Space Nine to firmly assert its willingness to break away from what came before.
To be entirely fair to Behr, he has a decent point here. A lot of what makes Deep Space Nine so effective is the show’s willingness to push itself in strange (and even contrarian) directions. It could legitimately be argued that the final five seasons of Voyager and the first two seasons of Enterprise suffered from their refusal to take similar risks, something which undoubtedly contributed to the decline and collapse of the Star Trek franchise at the turn of the millennium. This willingness to be iconoclastic and rebellious was part of the appeal of Deep Space Nine.
When the Deep Space Nine writers did eventually commit to producing an episode to mark the anniversary, there were other problems to be navigated. There was a clear sense that Deep Space Nine would be staging a tribute on its own terms, rather than simply doing what was expected. This was quite clear in the scheduling of the episode. While Flashback had been filmed at the end of Voyager‘s second season production block so it could be broadcast around the actual anniversary, scheduling Trials and Tribble-ations would be a somewhat delicate matter.
Again, there were questions about how best to approach Trials and Tribble-ations. Would it be a “special” episode? Would it be discontinuity? Would it sit outside the flow of the season? Would it be allowed to disrupt the arc that the production team had mapped out? As Behr confesses in The Magic of Tribbles:
“We originally wanted to open the season a week early with this special episode, which would have tied us closer to the 30th anniversary. Then after that, we would catch up [with the established continuity] and show Apocalypse Rising.” Instead, the decision was made to hold the episode for the fall sweeps period, which would give the word on the show more time to build.
Again, there is a sense that there was some unease, as if Trials and Tribble-ations might somehow sit “outside” the show like Isaac and Ishmael did at the start of the third season of The West Wing, a hastily written and out-of-continuity episode that had been written in direct response to the events of 9/11.
Again, there is a sense that the writers were reluctant to let the big thirtieth anniversary celebrations for Star Trek sabotage their own plans for Deep Space Nine. It was a pragmatic and reasonable decision, given that there would be some tonal dissonance seguing from Broken Link into Trials and Tribble-ations and back out into Apocalypse Rising. There is a sense that the production schedule (and commitment to episodic storytelling) on Voyager made planning their own thirtieth anniversary story a lot easier.
The decision to push Trials and Tribble-ations later into the season worked well. It afforded the production team extra time to work on the show, with pre-production on the anniversary special benefiting from the fact that production on … Nor the Battle to the Strong went over by a day. More than that, airing the episode during sweeps allowed for a very crowd-pleasing episode of Deep Space Nine. After all, the episode aired at a point where everybody was celebrating Star Trek, but also at a point when Deep Space Nine was struggling with mainstream audiences.
At the same time time, there is still some minor tension between Trials and Tribble-ations and the rest of Deep Space Nine. Behr has acknowledged that working on the episode was the right decision, and something of which he is very proud, but there is also a sense on anxiety over the episode’s elevated place in the Star Trek canon. As Behr confesses in The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion:
The only thing that bugs me about it is that it feeds off the myth of the franchise, and the fact that it’s so popular saddens me in a way, in the sense that I wish a show that is Deep Space Nine intensive didn’t have to lean on the history.
It is a fair point. The fifth season of Deep Space Nine is very much a crown jewel in the franchise judged by any measure; it is the most innovative, creative and consistent that the franchise has been since the third season of The Next Generation. There is something slightly frustrating in seeing the season’s bold and provocative storytelling overshadowed by an anniversary special.
Of course, Behr seems to have been the only member of the production team with serious conceptual misgivings about producing an extended tribute to mark the thirtieth anniversary of Star Trek. The rest of the writing staff seized on the opportunity with relish. After all, Deep Space Nine was a show that seemed to harbour a great deal more affection for the original Star Trek than it did for The Next Generation. The production team had gleefully resurrected the mirror universe for Crossover and the three iconic original Klingons for Blood Oath.
If Deep Space Nine was to do a celebration of the thirtieth anniversary, it was decided that the show would do the crossover on its own terms. It would not follow the example set by The Next Generation or Voyager in marking anniversaries. The writing staff immediately rejected the idea of having a member of the original crew guest star, a tactic employed in earlier crossovers like Encounter at Farpoint, Unification, Part I, Unification, Part II, Relics and Flashback. Early on, it was decided that the production team would take a novel approach.
Although virtually the entire writing staff would be involved in the development of Trials and Tribble-ations, the writing of the teleplay fell to Ronald D. Moore and René Echevarria. This made sense; the two were long-time fans who had broken into the industry off the back of spec scripts they wrote for The Next Generation. The relative enthusiasm of Moore and Behr for the project could be measured in the assessment of the episode they offered Cinefantastique:
Supervising producer Ronald D. Moore, who became co-executive producer midway through the season said, “The thing that drove the season from the beginning was Trials and Tribble-ations, because that was something that we started working on at the end of last season. Going into the fifth year, that was really in the forefront of our thinking. That really dominated everything that was going on here for quite some time. I think it was easily the high point of the season.”
Executive producer Ira Behr echoed the sentiment saying, “Any season that had that episode in it is a season that certainly had some quality to it. We were worried at the time that we spent so much time on it, put so much effort and so much thinking into it, that would the rest of the season be a bit of an emotional let down? It didn’t happen that way, just because there’s so many things to deal with, and so many ideas we wanted to play out, that by the end of the season we were saying, ‘Trials and Tribble-ations, that was this year wasn’t it?’“
For Moore, Trials and Tribble-ations was very much the highlight of the fifth season, the crux around which the rest of the year might pivot. For Behr, Trials and Tribble-ations was still very much a high point, but one that existed alongside a wealth of other major developments and significant accomplishments. It is an interesting point of contrast.
Once the production team committed to the idea of doing a tribute episode, there was a lot of debate about the best approach to take. Having ruled out the idea of a guest appearance from an established Star Trek veteran, it seemed like the best idea would be to tie back into a specific episode. That way, the tribute episode would be a celebration of the original Star Trek in a very tangible and precise manner, as opposed to plucking an iconic character out of the ether and depositing them within the context of Deep Space Nine.
So, what episode? And in what manner? After all, there are any number of iconic Star Trek episodes. Whatever the sizable impact of the spin-offs and feature films, a lot of the original show is iconic. Viewers who have never watched a full episode of Star Trek can hum the battle music from Amok Time. The battle between Kirk and the Gorn in Arena has become a cultural touchstone. The half-black-and-half-white aliens from Let That Be Your Last Battlefield are the perfect distillation of the franchise’s moral storytelling.
Behr briefly considered tying back to Charlie X, his own favourite Star Trek episode. At the end of the fifth season, he admitted that the production team had reached out to the actor in question, “We tried to get Robert Walker Jr. this year but he’s not interested in renewing his acting career.” In Uniting Two Legends, Ronald D. Moore acknowledges that the classic comedy episode A Piece of the Action was also briefly considered as a candidate:
The original direction that I was proposing was a visit back to a planet that was established in the Original Series. It was a planet called Iota. Which was in an episode called A Piece of the Action, where the crew of the Enterprise went to this planet and – basically – they were a planet of imitators. They had a book about the gangsters of Chicago and they had built their entire society around the gangsters of Chicago. And the idea was that we would go back to that planet now and discover that – based on that previous episode – everyone on that planet was running around looking like Kirk and Spock. It was sort of a planet of Star Trek fans. That would be an interesting, fun episode and sort of comment on the popularity of the show and the phenomenon. It seemed promising, but then it was René Echevarria – the writer – who didn’t really want to go that direction and he’s the one who came up with this notion of revisiting a classic episode of The Original Series.
It is worth noting that the core of Moore’s original idea remains in Trials and Tribble-ations. The finished episode is as much a tribute to fandom as it is to the original Star Trek. It should also be noted that, like a lot of the interesting concepts mooted by Moore but never developed, the franchise would return to the idea of doing a sequel to A Piece of the Action. On Enterprise, The Communicator offers a surprisingly grim twist on that episode’s iconic closing scene.
It made sense for the production team to pick a comedy episode as the focal point of their anniversary celebrations. On the most superficial level, the anniversary episode really needed to be something lighthearted. While fans might watch Star Trek for daring science-fiction and gripping drama, the whole point of an anniversary special like this is to have fun. It should not be heavy or oppressive. It could reasonably be argued that one of the many issues with Flashback was that meeting Captain Hikaru Sulu never felt like fun.
More than that, tying back to a comedy episode also afforded the creative team a bit more leeway. Given that Star Trek‘s strongest comedy episodes tended to derive a lot of humour from undercutting Kirk, there would never be a sense that the Deep Space Nine team were stepping on anybody’s toes. Producing a sequel to a sombre episode like The City on the Edge of Forever would be a risky creative choice, imposing very strict limits on what the production team could or could not do for fear of being considered irreverent or disrespectful. A comedy episode made sense.
In particular, The Trouble with Tribbles was a great choice because it is both a lighthearted comedy episode and such an iconic piece of franchise history. But how exactly would the production team tie back into that episode? According to Ronald D. Moore, it was René Echevarria who hit on the idea of blending the Deep Space Nine characters into the classic footage:
And then René (Echevarria) actually came up with this – he thought why not really go to the original series, and do the digital technology and do the Forrest Gump gag? And at first, my immediate reaction was, well, I don’t think we can afford to do that, because it’s real expensive and all that. But the more we talked about it, at one point René said, ‘No, can you imagine the fun’ – and the first image I had that made the show work for me was being in the storage compartment, throwing the tribbles out and hitting Kirk in the head. Then suddenly, we all kinda thought, ‘Ohhh-hhh, I can see what we can do here!’
It was a phenomenally daring concept for a weekly television show broadcasting in the mid-nineties. After all, Deep Space Nine was still a show pushing the technical limitations of special effects in terms of deep space battles in episodes like The Die is Cast and The Way of the Warrior. Given the awkwardness that Flashback had integrating the special effects shots from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country into a television episode, it was a legitimate concern.
Once the decision had been made to build the anniversary special around The Trouble with Tribbles, the production team could begin working through the myriad challenges that would face such a production. The writing staff decided that they wanted a firm connection back to The Trouble with Tribbles, a tether that could tie the two episodes together. An actor who had appeared in the earlier episode would be ideal. However, there were very few potential candidates to provide such a bridge between generations.
It could not be a member of the regular cast, since their presence would overshadow the actual story and would feel too much like Relics or Flashback. The character of Koloth had been killed off in Blood Oath. Stanley Adams had passed away in 1977. Michael Pataki was primarily doing voice work at the time. William Schallert was a potential candidate, who was holding down a recurring role on Dream On. Charlie Brill seemed to be the obvious candidate, given that the character of Arne Darvin would have a reason to want to revisit the classic episode.
Ultimately, chance smiled upon the Deep Space Nine writers. As Charlie Brill recalls, good fortune would lead him to cross paths with Ira Steven Behr at just the right moment:
My wife and I were doing a play in Beverly Hills. Next door was a great pizza place called Mulberry Street. I went in when we had a 10-minute break for a slice of pizza. Then I got a call from Ira saying, “We had no idea for this anniversary of Star Trek. We were all sitting at Mulberry Street. You walked in and we knew exactly what we were going to do. We’re going to bring you back in for this Tribbles episode.” So, Ira and I did not talk at the pizza place. He put the call into me after the episode was written. Funny story: He tried to get me to say Klingon without the G, but I’m from Brooklyn, so it’s always going to be Klin-gone instead of Kling-on.
So that call from Behr was totally out of the blue for you…
Completely out of the blue. I had no idea. When they told me how they saw me in the episode, I couldn’t believe it. I was doing another series at the time called Silk Stalkings and I asked the producer if he could give me an episode off so that I could do Deep Space Nine, and he said, “I can only give you three days off.” Ira told me had I given him more than three days the part would have been much, much bigger, but I couldn’t break away from Silk Stalkings to give them more than the three days. Still, it was the most fun I’ve ever had. To go on the Enterprise again was mind-blowing.
It is interesting to wonder what Trials and Tribble-ations would look like with an expanded role for Charlie Brill as Arne Darvin. As it stands, the character seems to get just enough play; he spurs the plot to action, and then mostly stays out of the way, bar a quick and tidy resolution.
Understandably, word spread quickly about the plans for the anniversary special. Rumours began to circulate about ambitious plans to meld Star Trek and Deep Space Nine as early as the May 1996 issue of Sci-Fi Universe. Ira Steven Behr was fielding questions about it in the June 1996 issue of Star Trek: Communicator teasing the idea that it might air one week ahead of the premiere and out of continuity. Paramount announced the episode as early as August 1996, more than three months before the episode would be broadcast.
Understandably, the episode became a point of focus for fandom and those involved. William Shatner complained to TV Guide in late August 1996, “I don’t recall giving them my permission for that.” However, the actors were compensated for their likenesses; Ira Behr even talked through the episode with Leonard Nimoy. Walter Koenig even visited the set during filming and volunteered to teach the actors how to use the classic Star Trek consoles; he would later remark that he earned eight times as much money for Trials and Tribble-ations as The Trouble with Tribbles.
Veteran Star Trek writer David Gerrold, the author responsible for The Trouble with Tribbles, even appears in the episode as a featured extra. He is a security guard who can be seen at multiple points in the episode. According to Gerrold, he had to negotiate the invitation with Rick Berman:
I kept calling them and saying, “Hey, I hear you’re doing a Tribble thing.” Rick Berman kept saying, “No. No, we’re not. If we do, we’ll call you.” All right. No big deal. One day I called again and he said, “No, David, if we do something, we’ll let you know.” I said, “Oh, okay. What should I say to the New York Times reporter who’s going to call me back in a half hour? He’s preparing a big story about the 30th anniversary of Trek and the DS9 Tribble episode.” There’s this long, uncomfortable pause and finally he says, “OK, what do you want?” I said, “Well, it might be very good press to acknowledge the guy who actually created the tribbles. I think it’d be fun to be an extra.” So I came in and I was an extra for a day or so, and it was great fun. The episode was brilliantly written and even more brilliantly produced. The production values were stunning. And the director, Jonathan West, was just a remarkably friendly guy. There was one moment on the set where they had a tape (of footage from The Trouble with Tribbles) – this was back in the day of videotape – and they were trying to match the scene they were about to shoot to the (old) episode, so they were running the tape real fast through the machine, looking for the scene. Here’s all the cast and crew, about 30 people, staring at the monitor. They don’t know who I am, most of them. And after a moment, I said, “Actually, you’re going the wrong way (in the tape).” They all turned around and looked at me, like “Who the hell are you?” Jonathan – what a wonderful guy – said, “If anybody should know, he should. He wrote this (TOS) episode.” There’s a pause again and they all looked at me, and it was like, “Oh, that’s why he’s here! OK.” Jonathan asked me other questions later on, like, “Are there too many Tribbles in this shot?” That kind of stuff. So it was nice to be there and to be acknowledged and included, and I thought everybody on that episode did a brilliant job.
It was nice to include Gerrold in the production of the episode, as a way of acknowledging his contributions to the franchise and to the episode in particular. The Star Trek franchise has a long history of downplaying key creative personnel like Gene L. Coon and D.C. Fontana, so it is good that Gerrold was included.
From a purely technical perspective, Trials and Tribble-ations is a triumph. Even discounting the anniversary celebrations, the fact that such a show could be produced on a television schedule with a television budget is a testament to all involved. Forrest Gump had won multiple Oscars less than two years earlier for seamlessly integrating its title character into actual footage of a number of key historical moments. Those special effects were groundbreaking in the context of a major motion picture released in 1994; attempting them on television in 1996 was audacious.
The production staff outdid themselves. Trials and Tribble-ations is a technical marvel, packed with all manner of impressive work. The sets and costumes look fantastic, many constructed from scratch. There are a number of stunning special effects shots, particularly a sequence of Sisko and Dax eavesdropping on Kirk arguing about what constitutes a “swarm” or the bar fight on K-7. Even the editing is very clever, most notably during the aforementioned scene of Sisko and Dax throwing tribbles on Kirk or Sisko collecting Kirk’s signature.
It is impossible to overstate the level of craft involved in all this. Even the way that the production team shot the episode was changed to bring it closer to the texture of the original show. As director Jonathan West explained, there was a lot of care taken in how the episode was filmed and lit to help integrate these sequences:
“We’re trying to stay true to the lighting of the original show in terms of style, and density and colour so it’s an invisible, seamless editing process. We’re using slower-speed film than we usually do” – ASA 250 speed film, instead of the ASA 50 used in the sixties but half of the AA 500 normally used on DS9 – “and that means we’re using higher light levels than we normally do. Generally on Deep Space Nine we never light directly where the actual lamp comes right at you. We generally bounce or use fluorescent tubes.”
This demonstrates an astonishing attention to detail, but it pays off. The footage of Sisko working on the sensors on the bridge, for example, looks and feels like it could have been filmed in 1967. The cinematography is a little rougher and grainier than the usual Deep Space Nine footage. It captures the tone of the original show in a very subtle (but effective) manner.
It is worth pausing to note just how striking all of this was in the context of the Berman era. Since the launch of The Next Generation, there was a recurring sense that the later Star Trek shows were a little embarrassed by the original show. This was reflected in a number of different ways, but most obviously in a policy of strict verisimilitude and self-seriousness. The sets and costumes on the later Star Trek shows were bulkier and more detailed than they had been on the original show. Alien designs were more grounded and less ridiculous.
During the peak years of the revived franchise, there was a palpable anxiety around the seriousness of Star Trek. Rick Berman seemed quite insistent that Star Trek should always be cheesy and tasteful, that it should never give its critics fodder for mockery or spoofery. This meant doing away with a lot of the more striking elements of the original Star Trek. Robert Hewitt Wolfe has talked about how he could never get an Andorian to feature on The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine. The productions shied away from distinctive background music in favour of “wallpaper.”
My only real gripe was the music — I had hoped it would be more like the original score and I thought it hurt the show particularly during the barroom brawl by changing the tone of the scene. Rene and I also had this idea to redo the entire end title sequence as an homage to the original series, with freeze frame shots from various DS9 episodes in the background, the TOS end credit music and changing the font of our credits to match theirs. That idea never got very far chiefly because we were the only proponents of it and also because the show was so far over budget that we couldn’t afford to spend any more money anyway.
It is certainly a fair criticism, and it is worth noting that Deep Space Nine was beginning to push away from that “wallpaper” aesthetic by hiring composers like David Bell and Gregory Smith to score episodes like The Sword of Kahless and The Assignment.
Indeed, it is important to stress just how much Trials and Tribble-ations actually managed to get away with. Up until this point, the majority of crossovers between Star Trek and its spin-off series were largely sterile affairs. When characters crossed over, they tended to crossover from the movie era rather than the era of the sixties television show. Flashback might have taken the character of Janeway back almost a century, but in production terms it was was rather more modest; it crossed a mid-nineties television show over with an early nineties film.
Nineties Star Trek seemed embarrassed by the retro aesthetic of the classic series. When Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II brought Voyager back to nineties Los Angeles, there was no interest in acknowledging the sixties futurism of Space Seed. When classic aliens like Romulans and Klingons appeared, they were in forms that downplayed their sixties origins. The Romulans developed forehead ridges to make them look more alien, and a less colourful dress scheme. The Klingons were very much in keeping with the redesign from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
What sets Deep Space Nine apart in general, and Trials and Tribble-ations apart in particular, is a willingness to acknowledge the goofy aesthetic of the original Star Trek. In Uniting Two Legends, for example, Moore discusses the fact that Trials and Tribble-ations would have to acknowledge the differences in production design between Klingons in the original Star Trek and the various spin-offs:
Early in the discussions, well, we knew… “There are these Klingons that don’t look like our Klingons, gotta address it! Hard to put Worf in a room with them and say they’re Klingons and not comment on it, boys and girls!” And there was no… this was an issue that had been chewed around Star Trek – and Star Trek fandom – for many years. “Well, what’s the explanation?” There is not a single explanation that is anything less than preposterous. I mean, it’s all preposterous. “Genetic mutation”, “oh, there’s the bumpy headed guys lived on the northern continent and the human guys lived on the southern continent”, “oh, they were conquered by another race”, it was just all these ridiculous Rube Goldberg ideas. And the truth is, it was a make-up change. There’s no other way around this. So we just said, “Just have Worf say it’s a long story and leave it at that.” And that’s fine, that’s a wink and a nod to the audience. “We know this doesn’t make sense. Just… just go with us on this.”
It is worth noting that Trials and Tribble-ations does not take those differences particularly seriously, instead reducing them to a wry joke that relies on Michael Dorn’s masterful comic timing. Certainly, the production team takes the matter a lot less seriously than the writing staff on Enterprise, who would flesh that nice jokey aside out into Affliction and Divergence.
Trials and Tribble-ations is very much an affectionate homage to classic Star Trek as it actually was, embracing the inconsistencies and the weirdness in a way that both The Next Generation and Voyager seem to find deeply uncomfortable. It is an episode that readily accepts that Star Trek was goofy and silly, but which recognises that the goofiness and silliness was part of the charm. Behr has talked quite a bit about wanting to use Deep Space Nine to puncture the self-seriousness of The Next Generation, and this is one way to do this.
In some ways, this was another example of Deep Space Nine being ahead of its time. Although the nineties Star Trek shows seemed embarrassed by the tone and style of the classic Star Trek, later incarnations of the franchise would come to embrace it. The final two seasons of Enterprise would come to embrace the highly stylised sci-fi aesthetic of the classic Star Trek, culminating with a similar tribute in In a Mirror, Darkly, Part I and In a Mirror, Darkly, Part II. JJ Abrams would recapture that sixties aesthetic in Star Trek. Bryan Fuller returns to it in Star Trek: Discovery.
It is too much to credit all of this to Deep Space Nine and Trials and Tribble-ations, but there is a definite sense that Deep Space Nine understood that the intrinsic appeal of Star Trek lay in more than just the show’s concepts or characters. Audiences loved Mister Spock and the intrinsic optimism of the Star Trek universe, but that was only part of it. The look and texture of the original Star Trek was not a source of embarrassment or a hindrance, it was a core part of the show’s identity in a way that The Next Generation and Voyager tended to downplay.
Then again, this makes sense. Deep Space Nine understands fandom in a way that The Next Generation and Voyager do not. It is worth noting that pretty much the entire Deep Space Nine writing staff is credited on Trials and Tribble-ations, while Flashback was written by one of the most senior writers on Voyager who (rather infamously) claimed that he had never watched the original Star Trek. There is a very clear gulf between those two positions, and it plays out in the differences between the two episodes.
Flashback is very much an episode that looks at fandom from the outside, as an object of curiousity. It is an episode that explores nostalgia and memory, suggesting that there is a sizable gulf between what we remember and what actually exists. This is certainly a valid point to make about Star Trek fandom, particularly given the personality cult that developed around Gene Roddenberry. However, it is debatable about whether that is the best approach to take in a celebratory anniversary special.
In contrast, Trials and Tribble-ations is very much an affectionate ode to fandom that treats its subject as a living thing. This is not just an episode about worshipping (or exploring) the memory of Star Trek. It is an episode about interacting and engaging with that history. The episode makes it clear that the Deep Space Nine characters are not passive observers; Jadzia shares a glance with Kirk, O’Brien and Bashir get caught up in a brawl, Sisko even gets to meet his hero. Dax and Sisko even get to throw tribbles down on Kirk at the climax of the episode.
This all contributes to the sense that the past is not a moment frozen in time or locked in memory, but something organic and flexible. To be fair, this is very much consistent with how Deep Space Nine approaches the concept of time in general, as something fungible and elastic. It is reflected in the non-linear perception of time as experienced by the Prophets in Emissary, as borne out by Sisko’s ability to take the role of Gabriel Bell in Past Tense, Part II. more broadly, it is reflected in the tendency of history to rhyme and mirror across the run of Deep Space Nine.
More than any other Star Trek show, Deep Space Nine understands that history is not an abstract concept but something that informs and shapes the present. It is no surprise, then, that Trials and Tribble-ations ends with the crew of the Defiant bringing back a little piece of history with them. The closing shot of Trials and Tribble-ations confirms that somehow a tribble managed to sneak back through time. The creatures are thriving in their new climate, a piece of living history and tangible proof that the past does not always remain there.
After all, Star Trek is itself a living document. It cannot help but be a living document. Although the show might have been produced in the late sixties, it exists beyond that. It is impossible for an audience member to view it entirely in those terms. Star Trek is very much a product of a particular moment, but it speaks to viewers outside of that moment. Star Trek cannot be divorced from its production context, but it must also be considered in the context of the audience watching it. Watching Homefront and Paradise Lost in 1996 is different to watching them in 2016.
Star Trek fans appreciate this. After all, it is increasingly unlikely that modern Star Trek fans would have watched the show in its original broadcast context. In fact many of the ardent Star Trek fans who worked on the franchise watched it outside that context, catching it in syndicated reruns on local affiliates years after the show was cancelled. There is no singular right way to approach Star Trek, no uniquely valid way to embrace the franchise. That is in many ways the show’s greatest strength.
Trials and Tribble-ations appreciates this, serving as much as an ode to fandom as to the franchise. It is worth noting the first appearance of the Enterprise, at the end of the show’s teaser. As the story is told from the perspective of the Deep Space Nine cast, it makes sense that the Enterprise is first seen through the viewscreen on the Defiant. However, that is not the point. Thrown back in time, the ship’s systems are thrown out of whack. The cloak fails, the viewscreen is filled with static. Then, gradually, the image comes into view.
It is a sequence that is very clearly designed to emulate the experience of watching Star Trek. The interference on the viewscreen recalls the kind of “snow” associated with television broadcasts, grainy static that washes out the image on screen. It is an artifact of television history in the era of digital connections and high-speed broadband, but it was a tangible part of watching television for people who grew up during the second half 0f the twentieth century. It is a part of the experience of watching Star Trek, even if it is not part of Star Trek itself.
Similarly, the episode embraces the idea of fandom. The crew of Deep Space Nine are treated very much as tourists engaged in a sight-seeing trip, luxuriating in their surroundings and soaking it all in. Like a lot of Deep Space Nine, certain aspects of Trials and Tribble-ations have aged very well. Although Star Trek fans always wore costumes to conventions, the montage sequence of the characters dressing up before embarking on their mission seems even more affectionate in an era where “cosplay” is a widely accepted fandom activity.
In fact, Trials and Tribble-ations frequently treats its time travel premise as something akin to roleplay, as if the characters have wandered into a VHS tape of the classic episode. Dax is able to quote lines from the historical record (“… starting with one tribble with an average litter of ten every twelve hours…”) as if quoting from a familiar script. Plot beats in The Trouble with Tribbles are treated as actors hitting their marks. “The Klingon ship just transported two people to the station manager’s office, Captain,” Kira reports.
Despite the threat to the timeline, the episode treats this very much as a tourist trip. It is a source of wonder and adventure, much more lighthearted than something like The Ship. Dax pleads with Sisko to visit K-7, to see her old friend Koloth in one of his most memorable adventures. “It’s not as if he would recognise me,” she pleads. “I’d love to see him at his prime.” For the characters, this adventure is a joyous celebration of Star Trek. The episode itself is a joyous celebration of that joyous celebration.
This interest in fandom as a concept is particularly apparent in the story thread following Sisko and Dax. Dax is amazed to see Star Trek coming to life in front of her, holding a tricorder in her hands. “I love classic twenty third century designs. Black finish, silver highlights.” Dax is excited to see various characters in person, particularly Spock. In a wry acknowledgement of Spock’s status as unlikely sex symbol, Dax reflects, “He’s so much more handsome in person. And those eyes.”
Sisko is just as thrilled, although decidedly more professional. When Dax presses him on the matter, Sisko admits, “Of course I want to meet him. I’d like to shake his hand, ask him about fighting the Gorn on Cestus Three!” Indeed, Sisko even takes advantage of the situation to share a brief interaction with Kirk at the end of the episode, to tell Kirk “it’s been an honour” to share the screen with him. Even the stoic Department of Temporal Investigations Agent Dulmur cannot begrudge Sisko that small indulgence. “Probably would have done the same thing myself.”
Trials and Tribble-ations is careful to emphasise the difference in how Sisko and Dax came to their fandom, to underscore the idea that there is no single correct way to be a Star Trek fan. While Sisko knows Kirk by reputation, having been born long after the original adventures, Dax lived through this period in history. For her, this is not so much an abstract embodiment of the past, but a period of which she remembers. “I guess the difference between you and me is I remember this time. I lived in this time and it’s hard to not want to be part of it again.”
However, even allowing for this, Trials and Tribble-ations never looses sight of its own identity. As much as the episode is a celebration of the original Star Trek, it is very much a Deep Space Nine episode. A lot of the episode’s strongest beats derive from the characters themselves, ensuring that the characters never get lost in the shuffle. As much as Worf declining to discuss the finer points of Klingon forehead ridges is a continuity joke, it is also very much a joke that stems from Worf as a character. Dax’s fandom fits logically with what we know of her character.
Nowhere is this more obvious than the subplot focusing on O’Brien and Bashir as they take part in the hunt for the bomb. While Odo and Worf get to have some fun with tribbles, and while Sisko and Dax get to indulge their fandom, O’Brien and Bashir essentially get to have a generic “fish out of water” time travel adventure that just happens to take place on the classic Enterprise. It is not too hard to imagine their scenes transposed to another time travel locale, whether mid-nineties Los Angeles like Future’s End, Part I or the late forties like Little Green Men.
While the other story threads are very firmly tied to the continuity of Star Trek, the sequences with Bashir and O’Brien are unique to Deep Space Nine. This is very much a showcase for one of the franchise’s most interesting (and engaging) dynamics, as Bashir and O’Brien ineptly blunder their way through a delicate assignment and banter incessantly. Much like the Sisko and Dax sequences play to the strengths of Brooks and Farrell, the Bashir and O’Brien sequences are built on the easy rapport shared by Alexander Siddig and Colm Meaney.
Of particular note is the scene in which Bashir flirts with Lieutenant Watley, and begins to speculate that he may be fated to become his own grandfather. The paradox is a classic science-fiction trope, but it is the dynamic that sells the comedy beat. “You saw the way she looked at me,” Bashir insists. “You can’t just dismiss this.” O’Brien reacts much as anybody would when confronted with the prospect of timey wimey incest. “I can try.” Bashir responds, indignantly, “I can’t wait to get back to Deep Space Nine and see your face when you find out that I never existed.”
As with a lot of the more memorable aspects of Deep Space Nine, that particular sequence was the result of sheer chance rather than design. It was added in late on Friday night when the episode ran short, and only came about as a result of the difficulties that the production team had casting the role of Watley. As René Echevarria explains:
“None of them could say the words ‘Deck Fifteen’ convincingly – they all looked like the lovely Carol Merrill doing a presentation. One of them, the fifth, came in, cleared her throat loudly, waved her hand, and said, ‘Deck Fif- oh, I’m sorry, can I start again?’ We were just on that floor!” Thinking quickly, Echevarria had Surma call up an actress friend of his, Deirdre Imershein, who was such a big fan of Star Trek – and had been Joval, the Risian pleasure girl on ST: TNG’s Captain’s Holiday – that he knew she’d do the part for fun despite its small size, just to wear the uniform. She did, and as luck would have it, the scene shot Friday.
“And we got together – Ira was out of town – and… I said maybe we could use Deirdre, because I knew she could do something – and I said, what if they crossed paths again? What if she flirts with Bashir? And Robert threw out the grandfather paradox – what if there’s some kinda gag with that? And Ron and I went off and wrote that; it’s the only time I’ve ever been on the show where I’ve written that kind of scene under that kind of time pressure, where it had to film that day. And we wrote it and we faxed it to Ira – it was Friday afternoon, he was visiting his family, he read it over and faxed it back with his notes – we walked it down to the set about five o’clock and we watched it film that night! And of course Deirdre was thrilled because suddenly she had a nice guest-starring role.”
It is amazing to think that the gag was thrown in at the last minute, the result of a series of happy coincidences. Then again, Deep Space Nine‘s willingness to embrace happy coincidences was one of its greatest strengths. It is a scene that works remarkably well on its own merits, one that demonstrates Trials and Tribble-ations is more than just a loving tribute to The Trouble With Tribbles, but one that showcases the wit and verve of Deep Space Nine.
(Indeed, that short scene was so effective that it would be affectionately referenced by Futurama. The episode Roswell That Ends Well is essentially an episode built around the conventions of Star Trek time travel episodes, with nods to everything from Time’s Arrow, Part II to The City on the Edge of Forever. However, that episode’s most outrageous gag is essentially a riff on the short Bashir and O’Brien scene from Trials and Tribble-ations. It is a testament to the quality of the humour in Trials and Tribble-ations that all Roswell That Ends Well had to do was push the joke further.)
Trials and Tribble-ations is a loving and appropriate celebration of the franchise’s thirtieth anniversary. It is funny and clever, but also sincerely and affectionate. It is very much a love letter to fandom in a way that These Are the Voyages… could only hope to be. It is perhaps the most memorable episode of Deep Space Nine, one of very few to register in the popular consciousness. It is almost certainly the best birthday present for which Star Trek could have asked, which explains the episode’s popularity for fiftieth anniversary lists and screenings.
At the same time, there is a sense that Ira Steven Behr’s anxieties about doing a tribute show were not entirely misplaced. There is a sense that Trials and Tribble-ations did somewhat overshadow the rest of the fifth season and (perhaps) the rest of the show. Cinefantastique dedicated an entire magazine to the production of the episode. There was an entire book (The Magic of Tribbles) dedicated to the making of this one episode. Even today, there is a sense that Trials and Tribble-ations is more widely accepted by the fandom than Deep Space Nine itself.
This is a shame. Trials and Tribble-ations is an absolutely brilliant piece of television and one of the best anniversary celebrations of any long-running franchise ever. It is a credit to the staff working on Deep Space Nine that it is not even the best episode of the fifth season.
- Apocalypse Rising
- The Ship
- Looking for Par’Mach in All the Wrong Places
- … Nor the Battle to the Strong
- The Assignment
- Trials and Tribble-ations
- Let He Who is Without Sin
- Things Past
- The Ascent
- The Darkness and the Light
- The Begotten
- For the Uniform
- In Purgatory’s Shadow
- By Inferno’s Light
- Doctor Bashir, I Presume
- A Simple Investigation
- Business as Usual
- Ties of Blood and Water
- Ferengi Love Songs
- Soldiers of the Empire
- Children of Time
- Blaze of Glory
- Empok Nor
- In the Cards
- Call to Arms