Star Trek Re-Watch: “The Trouble with Tribbles”

“The Trouble with Tribbles”
Written by David Gerrold
Directed by Joseph Pevney

Season 2, Episode 15
Production episode: 2×13
Original air date: December 29, 1967
Star date: 4523.3

Mission summary

As Enterprise arrives at Deep Space Station K-7, Chekov and Spock brief Kirk on the history of the area. This could be a tricky mission; they’re only one parsec away from the Klingon border, and control of nearby Sherman’s Planet is disputed by the Federation and the Klingons. The Organians have stipulated that whichever side can best develop the planet will win the prize, as if this were some reality show for their amusement. A call from Uhura interrupts Chekov’s Russian nationalism to tell them that K-7 is transmitting a Code One Emergency distress call, used only in situations of “near or total disaster.” Assuming a Klingon attack, Enterprise goes to warp six, prepared for battle.

When they reach K-7, it looks perfectly fine. Kirk hails them to find out what’s up, and the station manager Mr. Lurry apologizes for the false alarm and asks them to beam over. Lurry, you got some ’splainin to do…

Kirk and Spock are greeted by Nilz Baris, the Federation Undersecretary responsible for agricultural affairs regarding Sherman’s Planet, and his assistant, Arne Darvin. Baris ordered the priority distress call and demands that Kirk post security guards around the storage compartments. “Storage compartments? Storage compartments?” Kirk asks, his mind already broken. I’m glad you asked, Captain. Baris is worried about the compartments filled with quadrotriticale—space wheat! Lurry describes the episode’s plot:

Quadrotriticale is the only earth grain that grows on Sherman’s Planet. We have several tons of it here on the station. It’s very important that grain gets to Sherman’s Planet safely. Mister Baris thinks that Klingon agents may try to sabotage it.

Kirk’s upset that Baris called him out there to watch some grain, so he orders a security detail of only two guards, authorizes shore leave for off-duty personnel, then he and Spock hit the station bar. Chekov and Uhura join them there, ready to do some shopping. While Kirk shows Chekov his sample of quadrotriticale, Uhura’s attention is captured by a small ball of fur that a trader, Cyrano Jones, is attempting to sell to the bartender. She holds it and it starts purring. Cyrano calls it a tribble. The bartender and Jones finally settle on a price (a bargain at six credits! Have you seen how much Paramount charges for these things?), and Jones gives Uhura one for free. Good thing, because it’s already eating Chekov’s grain.

Kirk and Spock are having a coffee break in the briefing room when Uhura calls him with a priority message from Starfleet. Admiral Fitzpatrick orders Kirk to give Undersecretary Baris whatever he wants—nothing is more important than that grain. Uhura has more bad news: the Klingons are coming. They go to red alert and he rushes to the Bridge, only to learn that there’s no danger after all. The Klingon commander is already in Mr. Lurry’s office, having a nice chat. They cancel the emergency, again, and beam over to the station.

The Klingon captain Trelane Koloth welcomes Kirk and tells him the Klingons are there for shore leave. No one really wants them to stay, but there’s that pesky Organian Peace Treaty… Kirk allows them to beam down twelve men at a time, with an equal number of Enterprise red shirts keeping an eye on them. Koloth assures him there will be no trouble.

Meanwhile, Uhura has brought her tribble on board the ship, and it’s already reproduced. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy discover the new pets in the mess hall. The doctor and science officer are clinically interested in the unusual lifeform. Spock comments:

A most curious creature, Captain. Its trilling seems to have a tranquilizing effect on the human nervous system. Fortunately, of course, I am immune to its effect.

Which doesn’t stop him from stroking the tribble, which we hope isn’t the equivalent of Vulcan bestiality considering that thing they do with their fingers. McCoy takes one back to his lab, and Uhura gives away the rest of the litter to the entranced crew. Another heated conversation with an agitated Baris about the “swarming” Klingons sends Kirk to Sickbay himself—diplomacy gives him a headache. McCoy tells him what he’s learned about the tribbles he’s studying, which have already multiplied from the one Uhura gave him:

KIRK: How do they? How do they…?
MCCOY: I haven’t figured that out yet, but I can tell you this much. Almost fifty percent of the creature’s metabolism is geared for reproduction. Do you know what you get if you feed a tribble too much?
KIRK: A fat tribble.
MCCOY: No. You get a bunch of hungry little tribbles.
KIRK: Well, Bones, all I can suggest is you open up a maternity ward.

A Scotsman, a Russian, and a lieutenant walk into a bar… Cyrano Jones tries to sell Scotty and Chekov a tribble but they pass, and he has worse luck selling it to Korax—the tribble emits a high screech in the Klingon’s proximity. Korax sends him away, then begins insulting humans. Scotty, ordered to take shore leave with instructions to keep an eye on his crewmates, stops Chekov from getting up. Even when Korax calls Kirk “a swaggering, overbearing, tin-plated dictator with delusions of godhood” and “a Denebian slime devil,” he tries to calm the angry ensign down.

SCOTT: Forget it. It’s not worth fighting for. We’re big enough to take a few insults. Now, drink your drink.
KORAX: Of course, I’d say that Captain Kirk deserves his ship. We like the Enterprise. We, we really do. That sagging old rust bucket is designed like a garbage scow. Half the quadrant knows it. That’s why they’re learning to speak Klingonese.
CHEKOV: Mister Scott!
SCOTT: Laddie, don’t you think you should rephrase that?
KORAX: You’re right, I should. I didn’t mean to say that the Enterprise should be hauling garbage. I meant to say that it should be hauled away as garbage.

Scotty canna take anymore of it: he hauls up and hits Korax. An old-fashioned bar brawl ensues, while Cyrano Jones helps himself to free drinks behind the bar. An Enterprise security force finally shows up. Before you can say “shore leave’s cancelled,” Kirk is dressing down the crewmen who participated in the fight, demanding to know who threw the first punch. No one admits to anything so he confines everyone but Scotty to quarters. Scotty finally confesses that he’s the one who started the fight, admitting it wasn’t because they disrespected Kirk, but his ship. He restricts the engineer to quarters, too, which thrills him because he can catch up on reading The Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual. This is the equivalent of grounding your kid in his bedroom where he keeps his videogames.

Kirk returns to the Bridge and takes his seat. A tribble squeaks when he sits on it, and he realizes tribbles are everywhere. McCoy and Spock have been working out their nature: they’re born pregnant, and reproducing at an alarming rate that threatens to overrun the ship. Kirk orders maintenance to clean up the ship and beams over to K-7 with Spock to speak to Cyrano Jones about his animal trade. Kirk comments, “You should sell an instruction and maintenance manual for this thing.” (Rule 1: Don’t feed tribbles after midnight…er, or ever, really.)

Baris bursts in, angry as usual, and Kirk snaps:

BARIS: Captain Kirk, I consider your security measures a disgrace. In my opinion, you have taken this important project far too lightly.
KIRK: On the contrary, sir. I think of this project as very important. It is you I take lightly.

Darvin, Baris’s assistant, accuses Cyrano Jones of being a Klingon agent sent to sabotage the grain. Spock actually vouches for the trader and Kirk takes off: “People have disrupted stations before without being Klingon agents. Sometimes, all they need is a title, Mister Baris.” No more Mr. Nice Guy. Plus, it’s time for lunch!

The mess hall is covered in tribbles. Kirk orders his food, and his tray comes with a plate of tribbles and one perched in his Styrofoam cup. This is the last straw.

KIRK: My chicken sandwich and coffee. This is my chicken sandwich and coffee.
SPOCK: Fascinating.
KIRK: I want these off the ship. I don’t care if it takes every man we’ve got, I want them off the ship.

Scotty, strangely no longer confined to quarters, comes in with an armload of tribbles and explains that they’ve gotten into the machinery and air vents. Kirk realizes that space stations also have air vents and beams over to K-7, asking Lurry and Baris to meet him at the storage compartments. There, he tries to open the door to the compartment but it’s jammed. He tries an overhead door, and is buried in an avalanche of gorged tribbles. Spock calculates there are 1,771,561 of them, “assuming one tribble, multiplying with an average litter of ten, producing a new generation every twelve hours over a period of three days.” McCoy shows up and helpfully tells him that he’s figured out how to stop them from breeding: don’t feed them. They also discover that many of the tribbles are dead. Kirk sends him back to the lab to analyze the grain and tribbles.

Back at Lurry’s office, Jones, Koloth, and Korax join Kirk, Spock, Lurry, and Baris. I’m sure you’re wondering why I’ve gathered you all here… Kirk has questions: “Who put the tribbles in the quadrotriticale? What was in the grain that killed them?” Koloth requests that the tribbles be removed; as the guards escort them out, Darvin enters and the tribbles freak out. Kirk performs the tribble test, holding them near Korax—they screech. They don’t like Klingons. He brings them near Spock and Baris, and they purr. But when they get close to Darvin, they screech again. McCoy takes a less scientific approach and scans Darvin with his medical tricorder: “Heartbeat is all wrong. His body temperature is… Jim, this man is a Klingon.” Talk about a wolf in the fold! Darvin fooled them all by shaving.

What’s more, McCoy confirms that the grain was poisoned:

MCCOY: Yes. It’s been impregnated with a virus. The virus turns into an inert material in the bloodstream. The more the organism eats, the more inert matter is built up. So after two or three days, they reached a point where they couldn’t take in enough nourishment to survive.
KIRK: They starved to death. In a storage compartment full of grain, they starved to death.

Darvin gives his confession under threat of tribble and they arrest him. Kirk orders Koloth to leave with his ship. They give Jones a choice of punishments: spend twenty years in a rehabilitation colony for the crime of transporting dangerous animals, or spend roughly 17.9 years clearing them out of K-7. He settles for the latter.

Back on Enterprise, the tribbles have been taken care of. The Bridge and the captain’s chair are clear of the squeaking menaces. He asks what happened to them. McCoy, Spock, and Scott pass the credit (or the blame?) around, until Kirk demands an answer. The engineer tells him he used the transporter and then looks off into the distance…

KIRK: Where did you transport them? Scott, you didn’t transport them into space, did you?
SCOTT: Captain Kirk, that’d be inhuman.
KIRK: Where are they?
SCOTT: I gave them a good home, sir.
KIRK: Where?!
SCOTT: I gave them to the Klingons, sir.
KIRK: You gave them to the Klingons?
SCOTT: Aye, sir. Before they went into warp, I transported the whole kit and caboodle into their engine room—

Wait for it…

SCOTT: —where they’ll be no tribble at all.

Analysis

This is a perfect episode, deserving of its status as a fan favorite. This is one of the episodes usually trotted out as an example of the show at its best, and probably what people most readily associate with the franchise in general. It has everything: snappy, funny dialogue; Starfleet bureaucracy; Klingons; spies; political intrigue and mystery; cute, furry animals; and a show-ending pun. It is not quite as smart or provocative as many of Star Trek’s best episodes, but what it lacks in social commentary or reflections on the human condition, it more than makes up for with top-notch humor.

As terrific as Gerrold’s script is (and it’s quite brilliant), the story may not have worked as well without the talents of the fine cast. William Shatner shines in particular, conveying Kirk’s growing frustration with comical subtlety. He is shown as impatient, straining against his diplomatic responsibilities, caught in a job he doesn’t want with the situation on his ship spinning out of control.

A lot of the humor in this episode is underplayed, such as checking his chair for a tribble at the end before sitting. I especially liked him borrowing lines from Cyrano Jones when he’s finally had enough of Baris: “I have a ship to tend to. Au revoir.” I didn’t catch that until writing up this review, and there were a lot of other lines, gestures, and moments that I missed when I re-watched it that add to the humor on repeat viewings. I’ve seen this episode, or segments of it, so many times, I found myself laughing in anticipation of the punchlines—then laughing again because they were still hilarious. I could barely keep it together during Scott’s conversation with Kirk about the bar fight.

Every time I watch this episode, I forget exactly what Enterprise is doing at K-7 in the first place. The A-plot of protecting the grain shipment takes a backseat to the tribbles; in fact, you could almost say this show has no A-plot, only two intricately linked B-plots. Everything in the script has a payoff.

A few small things I delighted in when I noticed them this time around: In Lurry’s office on K-7, you can see Enterprise through the window, parked beside the station. Koloth actually gives Kirk a quick bow when he’s dismissed at the end! And is this the first time we see one of those portable magnetic locks (which Kirk uses on the storage compartment)? The technology turns up a lot in TNG and DS9, but I don’t remember it much from the original series.

Nitpicks? Not really, but I was surprised at Uhura’s comment, “If you’re going to dissect it, I don’t want to know about it.” Good ethics, there. Kirk mentions a diverted freighter at the end, but I didn’t remember hearing anything about that earlier; was it on its way to Sherman’s Planet with grain from K-7? Just goes to show how little that plot ultimately matters. As for the disposal of the tribbles… Couldn’t they just beam them off K-7, instead of having Cyrano Jones pick them up by hand? Or are they too small to lock onto? I suppose he needed something to do. It also never sat right with me that they beamed them over to the Klingon ship—surely that’s tantamount to killing them! Like Uhura, perhaps as long as they aren’t the ones doing it, they can sleep at night.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 6 (on a scale of 1-6)

Torie Atkinson: Long before I ever saw an episode of Star Trek I knew what a tribble was, what it sounded like, and why they were a menace but people loved them anyway. This episode and the creatures that define it are so much a part of our cultural memory that I couldn’t possibly overstate their significance to television history. “The Trouble with Tribbles” is iconic, and it entirely deserves to be. Like many fans, I love this episode without reservation.

As Eugene said, this really is a perfect episode. No matter how many times you see it every joke is still funny. Every look, every gesture, every tiny bit of body language is comic gold. David Gerrold’s script is brilliant not just because it’s got sharp dialogue and situations that lend themselves naturally to comedy, but because every character here is so very much him or herself. No one but Uhura could be so rapt by the tribbles cuteness and trilling, and no one but Chekov beside her could so immediately distrust the things but want to touch them anyway. Only Kirk could be so incensed by a bureaucratic asshat as Baris to ignore the real threat, and only Spock could dispassionately indict the tribbles while secretly enjoying their presence. And then there’s Mr. Scott, whose pride in his ship extends to his off-hours, whether it’s reading the latest technical manual or defending her in a bar brawl.

Like the best comedies, this episode brings out everyone’s humanity. I love the way that Kirk is constantly having to stick his foot his mouth over Baris, because of course everyone thinks that their job is the most important, whether it’s being the captain of the flagship, or the Federation Undersecretary responsible for agricultural affairs. Kirk finally can’t take it and begins openly insulting him, and the adult in me cheers him on in that wish fulfillment way. (Who hasn’t wanted to do that to some boss or superior who threw his weight around to you over something trivial?) The recurring shots of people around the Enterprise who can’t possibly resist petting and holding the things are so adorable, and it reminds you that no matter how competent and heroic these folks are, they’re still just people stuck in a tin can who probably miss cute furry little purring things.

And the performances! The entire sequence where Kirk meets Baris is just amazing. As Spock demonstrates his knowledge of the grain, the camera goes from one face to another and in those reaction shots you know exactly the kind of person each of these people are. Baris looks angry and self-righteous, refusing to be impressed; Mr. Lurry looks embarrassed and sheepish; and Darvin looks irritated and impatient to get out of there. They’ve barely spoken a word and you know exactly what to expect from them, based on that one telling look. This is television at its absolute best.

The tribbles themselves are a little inconsistent—sometimes people treat them as puppets and just toss them around, and sometimes people treat them tenderly, taking great care to pick them up and place them down, as living creatures. My favorite tribble-as-prop moment is certainly at the end, when Kirk uses the tribbles as a kind of weapon against Darvin. He waves them around threateningly and Darvin is terrified—of these big poofballs made out of shag carpeting and faux fur! Genius.

But really, nothing compares to the scene where we first meet the tribbles, as Uhura’s eyes widen and the whole room brightens with her excitement.

If I have any criticism it’s this: I think Cyrano Jones got screwed. What a horrible punishment! Eighteen years of veritable servitude! That still strikes me as ridiculously extreme. He clearly knew they bred, but he couldn’t possibly have known that they would take over the station. He seemed like a nice guy!

So, all: what was your reaction when you first saw this episode, and what’s your reaction now? Do you remember first seeing it? And pick your favorite scene/line!

Torie’s Rating: Warp 6 (on a scale of 1-6)

Best Line: Too hard to choose, but at this moment: SPOCK: “So would an ermine violin, but I see no advantage in having one.” (In discussing the usefulness of tribbles with Dr. McCoy.)

Syndication Edits: A reaction shot of Spock when they see K-7 is safe; Kirk complaining about guarding grain in the bar before Chekov and Uhura arrive; Jones offering the bartender Antarian glow water as well as his compliment to Uhura and haggling over four credits; the bartender asking when he can have his tribbles; Kirk leaving Sickbay, a transition to the transporter room, an establishing shot of K-7, and Scotty, Chekov, and Freeman walking into the bar; the bartender puts away his tribbles and rushes out for security; Captain’s Log, stardate 4536.6; Kirk asks Freeman who started the fight; a close-up of McCoy’s tribbles before he and Spock talk about them.

Trivia: A live-action sequel to this episode was planned for the third season but abandoned when Gene Roddenberry left the show; David Gerrold finally wrote it for the animated series six years later, for the episode, “More Tribbles, More Troubles.” The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Trials and Tribble-ations” refers to this episode more directly than usual, when the DS9 crew travel back in time to stop a plot to kill Captain Kirk; filmed to celebrate the franchise’s 30th anniversary, and integrating DS9 actors with original footage, that episode became another fan favorite.

This episode was David Gerrold’s first professional sale. The original title was “A Fuzzy Thing Happened to Me…” David Gerrold named Sherman’s Planet for his friend Holly Sherman, and tribbles were modeled after her fuzzy keychain; the planet appears on a star chart in Star Trek Generations. Spock’s line, “He heard you, he simply could not believe his ears,” was taken from a Mad Magazine spoof of Star Trek called “Star Blecch.”

A tribble makes a cameo in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot film.

Unsurprisingly, tribbles were instantly merchandised by fans and toy companies alike, which continues to this day.

Other notes: In production order, this episode is listed as number 42, which seems appropriate.

Many of the guest stars in this episode have other ties to science fiction and Star Trek: the ubiquitous William Schallert (Baris), the Kevin Bacon of television, appeared in The Man from Planet X and The Incredible Shrinking Man, and appeared in numerous other shows, including DS9 (“Sanctuary”); Whit Bissell (Lurry) appeared in the original (and best) Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Time Machine, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and played General Kirk in The Time Tunnel; William Campbell (Koloth) also played Trelane in “The Squire of Gothos,” but due to scheduling conflicts, he wouldn’t reprise his Klingon role until DS9; Stanley Adams (Jones) returned to Star Trek in animated form, lending his voice to the same role in “More Tribbles, More Troubles,” and he also co-wrote the Star Trek episode “The Mark of Gideon” in the third season. Some may remember Adams as Tybo, the giant carrot from the worst episode of Lost in Space, “The Great Vegetable Rebellion.”

Director Joseph Pevney had a background in vaudeville, which he used to great effect in this episode and later in his career on The Munsters.

Real-world note: Chekov refers to Leningrad in this episode, which was renamed to St. Petersburg in 1991. They probably changed it back in the aftermath of the Eugenics War.


Previous episode: Season 1, Episode 14 – “Wolf in the Fold

Next episode: Season 2, Episode 16 – “The Gamesters of Triskelion.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.


This post originally appeared on Tor.com.

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About Eugene Myers & Torie Atkinson

EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is forthcoming from Pyr. TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former Tor.com blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.