One of the all-time highest rated Star Trek episodes is The Trouble with Tribbles, often vying for the #1 position against Mirror, Mirror. I know which I prefer because you could say that I had a little trouble with Tribbles myself. I think it’s because of the “Kling’ns”, as everyone says their name. Unlike Kirk, I’m not bothered because they are there, but rather Kirk’s attitude toward them. Here’s what contemporary viewers would have seen by this point: Errand of Mercy where, while they cause trouble, they do little more than any other “bad-guy” race in Trek up until that point and certainly less than humans, by miles. (Frankly, the Romulans did far worse to the starbases in Balance of Terror.) The second time we meet the Klingons, it’s a singular guy causing problems while Julie Newmar is having a kid. Hardly a race of villains. Yet Kirk seems to utterly despise these guys and upon learning of their involvement, he’s all over them. He dictates terms to a space station that he doesn’t even run, forcing only 12 Klingons to visit at a time, and saying he would have an equal number of guards present from his own people. What gives him that right, exactly? (And dare I point out that none of the guards were present for the slapstick bar brawl!) What Kirk ends up displaying is a distinct racism toward these people; a quality he did not allow against the far more deadly Romulans. Is he so against Captain Koloth because he reminds him of The Squire of Gothos? Or that his second in command reminded him of Lazarus in The Alternative Factor? I’m saying no: he actively dislikes all Klingons and not only does he not object to torturing Klingons with close proximity to Tribbles, but he has no issue with Scotty beaming an entire ship load over to the Klingon vessel. (And if Kirk was horrified by Scotty potentially for beaming the Tribbles out into space, is he totally oblivious to what the Klingons will do to the little creatures?)
As if racism isn’t enough, Kirk is also extremely rude to Nilz Baris and, while I agree that Baris is an officious ass, Kirk’s attitude toward him is not the mark of a good leader and certainly not a hero. “It is you I take lightly.” And I don’t know if the message Kirk as aiming for about the cute, cuddly Tribbles is adequately expressed with, “too much of anything, even love, isn’t necessarily a good thing!” (Did he pick up one disease too many from his multiple trysts?) And Kirk isn’t the only one who shows deplorable behavior: Scotty is responsible for the bar brawl but doesn’t own up to it which condemns at least a dozen crew members to be confined to quarters. And Scotty’s reason for being willing to start the brawl is “a matter of pride” about the ship, not his captain. Well, after this episode, I might understand that! This episode might have been written as a comedy but applying any amount of thought shows us how poorly the characters were written. Even McCoy fares better than Kirk and Scotty.
Other crew members have some fun moments though. Chekov has a list of inventions that came from Russia and this might have made for a great running gag had it lasted for more than one episode. Spock’s “immunity” to the tranquilizing effects of Tribbles was funny. And Uhura’s “how often do I get shore leave” just reaffirmed my belief in season one that she doesn’t get enough time off to even do her own laundry! Kirk does have a few funny lines to deliver at the start: “The what, the what?” “The wheat, so what?” Alas, not enough to impress me with the writing…
What did interest me was the continuity that was present in the series; something I never realized growing up. They reference the Organian Peace Treaty was the result of Errand of Mercy. I am also stunned at the technology in Trek sometimes. When someone needs Jim, they start calling all the wall comms ship-wide until Jim happens to be walking past one. Our technology is far better than that! We can be called even if we’re in a movie theater; Jim has to be walking past one of those red boxes. Not efficient!
Even for that epic scene of Kirk being buried in Tribbles, does anyone else wonder why a cargo container full of grain would open from the bottom? Even if it weren’t Tribbles, would pounds and pounds of grain pouring down on Kirk make any more sense? Yeah, the whole episode is written to be a comedy and maybe I should take it as such. It’s just sort of hard to do when the hero is so badly written. It feels like a 50 minute joke all targeted at one punchline, “…where they’ll be no tribble at all”. I’m not against it if the rest works, but this episode truly does not. ML
The view from across the pond:
Before I started watching these, if you had asked me to name some Classic Star Trek episodes I would have only been able to come up with a list of two: City on the Edge of Forever and The Trouble with Tribbles. I don’t know if they are considered the best two episodes, but they must surely be the most well-remembered. I was not surprised to find that City is rubbish, but it was definitely a surprise to find that this one is too. That’s a shame, because I was really looking forward to watching it.
To be clear, I’m not setting out to be controversial or different, and I’m not in the business of trashing things just for the sake of it. In fact, if you look at Mike’s reviews (as a fan) and mine (as a newbie to Classic Trek) so far, you will probably find that I have praised a higher percentage of episodes than Mike, and have found enjoyment from several that fans generally consider to be turkeys. But when it comes to the episodes that fans claim are the best ones, I have to admit to being completely baffled.
Part of the reason I was looking forward to this one so much was that I came to Trek in reverse, having seen TNG, DS9 and Voyager as a teenager. The DS9 episode that revisits The Trouble with Tribbles (Trials and Tribble-ations) is an absolute classic, and one of my favourites from DS9, so I was expecting to enjoy the original as well.
Here’s what I want when I watch television. I want one of two things, or ideally both: (a) something to make me think, and/or (b) something to stir an emotion. That emotion might simply be happiness caused by some good comedy. I’m fine with that, but there needs to be some kind of a response other than boredom. It’s pretty obvious what category this episode is trying to fall into. There’s nothing to make you think here. It’s trying to be a comedy. That’s not what I tend to expect from Trek as such, but I have no objection to the writers having a go.
Some of this stuff obviously raised a smile in the 60s, although I’m pretty sure the slapstick stuff such as Cyrano weaving his way through a fight and trying not to spill his drink was looking tired even then. The business with the tribbles… well, let’s be honest here: it’s just not funny, is it. I mean, it’s impressive how many of those things they made, but seeing everyone pretending that a ball made of fur is an alien creature is exactly the sort of thing that makes the not-we laugh at sci-fi in general, and I can’t blame them. The sad truth about this episode is that it’s very silly, and a failed attempt to be a Trek comedy, by and large.
I say “by and large”, because there are occasional comedy moments that do work. None of them have anything to do with the balls of fur, but Scotty is the most fun he has ever been here. He remains calm when he hears Kirk being insulted by the most un-Klingon Klingon ever, but when he insults the ship that’s another matter altogether. That’s probably the one joke that really succeeds, and the writer has another go at basically the same gag when Kirk refuses to do anything about the problems on the station until it affects his coffee. But most of the time I thought I had tuned into a Laurel and Hardy film by mistake, and I didn’t sign up for that.
I’m sorry to say I was thoroughly spoilered about the true identity of Darvin, having watched DS9 first, so I can’t really comment on how well that twist works, although it does highlight the uncomfortable fact that Trek’s best stab at recurring alien villains are nothing more than humans with facial hair. If your enemy can shave off his beard to look exactly like a human, infiltration isn’t too difficult. Presumably no human has facial hair in the future, for fear of being mistaken for a Klingon.
I think the ending of the episode sums up why it doesn’t work for me. Everyone starts laughing. Ha ha ha ha ha end credits. That’s something American television used to do a lot, and might still do for all I know. Even as a child watching a few American imports I could see that was damned silly forced humour whenever it happened. And there you have Tribbles in a nutshell: the silliest episode of Trek I’ve ever seen. RP