The Good: Good political story, Generally decent acting, Interesting use of characters, Fun plot
The Bad: Use of Klingons as punchlines, Too much 4th wall-type humor
The Basics: A fun episode, "The Trouble With Tribbles" holds up less well when one looks closely at it, especially with its use of humor that is uncharacteristic of Star Trek.
One of the things about Star Trek that not everyone knows is that there are broadcast versions and syndication versions of each episode. What is the difference? Eight minutes (at least)! When Star Trek originally aired, there were less commercials in an hour of television programming. So an hour show like Star Trek took fifty-one minutes of the hour with only nine minutes of commercials. Now television shows air anywhere between forty-two and forty-four minutes of program for an hour timeslot. That's pretty terrible, in my book, but in some cases, it makes a huge difference as far as the program goes. So, for example, in Star Trek episode "The Paradise Syndrome," the remastered version that aired in syndication had to edit out the entire subplot involving Kirk's wife getting pregnant.
I mention this at the beginning to my review of "The Trouble With Tribbles" because after years of attending conventions and speaking with people about "that episode with the fur balls," something became quite clear to me. This episode, generally considered one of the top ten episodes of Star Trek of all time, suffers seriously in its syndication version. In order to edit this particular episode for time, the Tribbles are emphasized and the political issues are truncated, in effect de-emphasizing the political plotline through editing. Yet, anyone who watches this episode on video, DVD or when it originally aired is much more likely to describe this episode as a clearly political episode with comedic moments, as opposed to a comedy bogged down with a political subplot.
The Enterprise is summoned to space station K-7 under the pretense that there is an emergency only to learn that the administrator of the station has overreacted and simply wants a shipment of highly important grain, quadro-triticale, guarded. This upsets Captain Kirk, but he understands the importance of the quadro-triticale to the Federation in developing a colony on Sherman's Planet. So, in addition to guarding the station, Kirk allows Enterprise crewmembers to go to K-7 for shore leave. Uhura meets up with a trader named Cyrano Jones, a petty smuggler who is distributing small, sentient furballs named Tribbles. The Tribbles, absent any predators, multiply ferociously. Soon, the Enterprise is overrun with them and Kirk has to deal with an infestation on his ship as well as keeping his crew and the crew of a newly-arrived Klingon vessel from coming to blows.
Of course, the Klingon potential menace plot and the Tribble plot come to interrelate and the way they do actually makes decent use of the bothersome Tribbles. I say "bothersome Tribbles" because the Tribbles are something of an inconvenience that works well as far as the plot goes, but they are an organism riddled with problems. Dr. McCoy characterizes the fast-multiplying furballs as "born pregnant," which is actually an intriguing idea. But how Cyrano Jones managed to get to K-7 with only a few Tribbles seems strange.
The Tribbles overrun the flagship of the Federation in less than a week and space station K-7 in about the same amount of time. Cyrano Jones is a petty smuggler, small time. He'd have - if other pirates in the Star Trek universe are any indication - a small shuttle or very small ship at best. And it's wouldn't be a state-of-the-art thing, either, it would go fairly slow. My point here is that in order to believe the ridiculous Tribble reproductive ability, Cyrano Jones (nor any other smuggler) would never be able to export them without having to slaughter most of them.
This little nit-pick is relevant for a couple of reasons, but most notably because the incredible Tribble reproductive machine and consumptive ability becomes a critical plot point in the episode and in order to make the Tribbles plausible, serious suspension of disbelief is needed and it forces the episode to rely more heavily on the comedic sensibility than most episodes of Star Trek do. The Tribble plotline is a ridiculous comedic bit that plays on the idea that people like small, cute furry things (this is actually addressed in the episode).
But the bulk of the episode is actually focused on the Federation/Klingon relations. Following the events of the first season episode "Errand Of Mercy" (click here for that review!), peace has broken out between the Klingons and the Federation. Up until this episode - this is only the third episode the Klingons actually appear in! - that has been ignored, but here the Organian Peace Treaty is in effect. As a result, the Federation and Klingons may compete for disputed planets by developing them. Sherman's Planet, referenced frequently in this episode, is a strategic gem that both the Federation and Klingons want and the Klingons are ahead in the development race.
Kirk's adversary in the episode, Koloth, is serious and determined to bring victory to the Klingon Empire. While his first officer and most of the Klingons may appear like buffoons, Koloth is steely and efficient. It is Koloth that inspires the administrator of K-7, Mr. Lurry, and his Federation project representative, Nilz Barris, to be so on edge. More than the Tribbles, Kirk's time is spent negotiating with the station administrator and his assistants. Barris and his assistant Arne Darvin are as much thorns in Kirk's side as Koloth, but most of Kirk's time is spent dealing with the Klingon problem until the Tribbles overrun the Enterprise.
The problem with "The Trouble With Tribbles" (other than the Klingons not looking anything like Klingons!) is that the Klingons are treated as a punchline. They are a ridiculous villain here who are petty, avaricious and generic. They are bland and just obnoxious individuals as opposed to representing any genuine sense of an alien culture. Here, they're just guys with goatees in different uniforms and they are made dull because the episode relies so heavily on humor.
Because it is belabored so much, the episode becomes a weird exploration of how two powers that would otherwise be at war manage to compete when war is not an option. It's an intriguing episode in that regard. And Koloth has many worthwhile leadership characteristics that make him an interesting adversary for Kirk. It's too bad there was less with Cyrano Jones and even more with the Klingons. On the subject of Cyrano Jones, he is essentially a remolded Harry Mudd and we ought to be thankful that writer David Gerrold did not simply reuse Mudd.
While guarding the grain, the episode degenerates into something of a farce with Kirk confronting Koloth and being insulted by him, Scotty getting into a brawl with the Klingon first officer, and everyone mooning over the Tribbles. The latter part certainly informs the viewers about character traits we never knew our heroes possessed, but it does not necessarily do them justice. After all, if "The Trouble With Tribbles" is any indication, get a cute enough entity and the Enterprise crew can easily be incapacitated!
What is bothersome about this type of Star Trek comedy is that it is far less structurally comedic and more contrived. Instead of being put into a humorous situation, which political brinkmanship and espionage hardly qualifies as, the episode forces humor from unlikely sources, like the futility of a human punching a giant Klingon in the stomach to no effect before being thrown away by the same Klingon. Or the simple, stupid humor of burying Captain Kirk in a mountain of puff balls. It's almost a screwball comedy and the political and humor elements often work incongruently with one another.
"The Trouble With Tribbles" works as much as it does because the actors force the characters to play along. William Shatner plays Kirk as harried until he just starts to laugh along with the situation and delight in catching the Klingons acting up. Recurring guest stars like Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koenig have the opportunity to get some screen time and actually show their characters playing, which they seem to delight in.
"The Trouble With Tribbles" attempts to be a political story that plays as a comedy and it is more accessible to those who like screwball comedy than political thrillers, though it's also likely to seem not quite funny enough to straight-out humor fans. Perhaps the reason "The Trouble With Tribbles" is so popular with fans is because it is unlike anything else in the series; most of the comedic attempts fail so dramatically. This one works better than most, it just feels less like the Star Trek we are accustomed to.
"The Trouble With Tribbles" has a sequel, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's "Trials And Tribble-ations." The Klingon captain Koloth recurs in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Blood Oath."
[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete Second Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the second season by clicking here!
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© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.