Prior to this rewatch, I did rewatches of the first two TV spinoffs of The Original Series: both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. When the latter show reached its fifth season, which was also the 30th anniversary of Star Trek, I reviewed, not only DS9‘s anniversary episode “Trials and Tribble-ations,” but also “The Trouble with Tribbles” and DS9‘s sister show Voyager‘s 30th anniversary episode, “Flashback.” I stand by the review of “The Trouble with Tribbles” that I wrote in 2014, so rather than repeat myself, we’re just gonna rerun that rewatch entry. I promise new material next week with “Bread and Circuses”…
“The Trouble with Tribbles”
Written by David Gerrold
Directed by Joseph Pevney
Season 2, Episode 13
Production episode 60342
Original air date: December 29, 1967
Captain’s log: Kirk holds a briefing with Spock and Chekov. Since Chekov is all young and ensign-y, Kirk quizzes him on Deep Space Station K-7, to which they’re en route, and Sherman’s Planet, the closest Class-M world to the station. The planet is claimed by both the Klingon Empire and the Federation. Under the terms of the Organian Peace Treaty, whichever side can develop the planet most efficiently will be awarded the planet.
Uhura interrupts Chekov waxing rhapsodic about Russian history with a Code One Emergency—a disaster call—from K-7. However, they arrive at K-7 to find no Klingon ships, no evidence of a disaster. Kirk breaks radio silence to talk to Mr. Lurry, the manager of the station, who thumphers and says that maybe he should beam over. Kirk, livid, beams down with Spock. (Since neither Sulu nor Scotty are on the bridge, Kirk leaves no one in command in his and Spock’s absence, since we can’t have an ensign or a black woman in charge of a starship…)
Kirk points out to Lurry upon beaming over that misuse of the Code One Emergency frequency is a Federation offense, but it was actually Nilz Baris—the Federation Undersecretary for Agricultural Affairs—who issued the distress call. He needs Enterprise security to guard the tons of quadrotriticale they have on the station that is bound for Sherman’s Planet. It’s the only Earth grain that will grow on that world, so it’s key to the Federation winning the claim to it. Kirk therefore, very very very reluctantly, orders two security guards to report to Lurry, and also authorizes shore leave.
Uhura and Chekov go to the station bar, where a prospector named Cyrano Jones is trying to sell stuff to the bartender. While the latter is not at all interested in Spican flame gems or Antarean glow water, he is interested in tribbles. A small fuzzy creature that trills and purrs (and also eats the quadrotriticale that Kirk gave to Chekov), Uhura thinks it’s adorable, which is enough to convince the bartender to take them at six credits apiece (after considerable haggling). In gratitude, Jones lets Uhura have the sample tribble, which Jones insists will lead to tons of sales.
Back on the Enterprise, Admiral Fitzpatrick informs Kirk that the quadrotriticale is very important and he will render all aid necessary to Baris. Kirk isn’t exactly thrilled about that, and he’s even less thrilled when Uhura informs him that a Klingon ship has shown up. However, the ship’s captain and first officer, Koloth and Korax, are already in Lurry’s office, and it turns out that they just want shore leave also, which they’re entitled to by the treaty. Kirk agrees to allow Koloth to beam over only twelve of his people at a time, and he’ll assign one security guard for each Klingon.
Kirk and Spock hit the mess hall to find Uhura surrounded by people and tribbles. The one she got from Jones was apparently pregnant, as she now has a whole tableful of tribbles. McCoy takes one to check out and see what makes it tick, and various crew members take the others as well.
Baris then contacts Kirk, livid at all the Klingons. Talking to Baris gives Kirk a headache so he goes to sickbay, where McCoy’s single tribble has become eleven tribbles. Apparently 50% of their metabolism is given to reproduction. You feed a tribble, you get, not a fat tribble, as Kirk guesses, but a whole buncha hungry little tribbles.
Kirk sends Scotty, Chekov, Freeman, and some others to K-7—Scotty doesn’t particularly want to go, but Kirk insists—and they head to the bar. Korax and a couple of other Klingons are sitting nearby. Jones comes in and tries to see if Scotty, Chekov, or Freeman wants a tribble—they really really don’t—and when he tries to hit up the Klingons, the tribble reacts violently. Jones has never seen them act like that before.
He goes to the bartender, who, it turns out, is awash in tribbles. However, Korax decides to take pity on Jones and give him part of his own drink. Korax then interrupts Scotty and Chekov’s discussion of whose drink is more manly, the former’s Scotch or the latter’s vodka, to talk trash about the Federation in general and Kirk and the Enterprise in particular. Scotty is able to follow Kirk’s instructions regarding not causing trouble, right up to the part where Korax insults the Enterprise herself, at which point he starts a big-ass bar fight. The bartender runs to fetch security and Jones takes advantage of his absence to grab himself a few free drinks.
A half-dozen redshirts come in and break it up, leading to Kirk cancelling shore leave for both crews. He then lines up Scotty, Chekov, Freeman, and the rest to find out who threw the first punch. Nobody admits to it, but nobody admits who threw the first punch, showing very noble loyalty to Scotty. Kirk dismisses everyone except Scotty, who finally admits that he started the fight—but not after Kirk was insulted, but rather after the ship was insulted. Kirk is a little put out, but lets it go, confining Scotty to quarters—which makes him happy, as he can catch up on his technical journals.
The tribbles are overrunning the Enterprise. Sickbay is filled with them—prompting Spock to complain about how they serve no purpose—as is the bridge. Kirk actually sits on one. According to McCoy, they seem to be born pregnant, and they’ll be hip-deep in them soon. Kirk orders Uhura to have Lurry take Jones into custody, and also to clear the bridge of all the tribbles.
Jones, however, has done nothing wrong, and Kirk is forced to release him. Jones hands him a tribble on the way out. Baris then enters and complains that Kirk is taking this project lightly. Kirk insists that he takes the project very seriously—it’s Baris that he takes lightly. Baris also accuses Jones of being a Klingon spy, based in part on evidence compiled by his assistant, Arne Darvin. However, Spock has already checked into Jones, and there’s no proof that he’s a Klingon agent. Baris points out that he’s disrupted the station, and Kirk says you don’t need to be a Klingon agent in order to disrupt a station—all you need is a title.
Kirk and Spock head to the mess hall, which is now totally overrun by tribbles. Even the chicken sandwich and coffee he orders is all tribbles. Scotty confirms that they’ve gotten into the machinery, and Spock and Kirk realize that they may also get into the station’s machinery. They beam over and head to the storage compartments. Kirk orders the guard to open the compartment door, but it’s stuck. Eventually Kirk gets it open—
—and hundreds of tribbles cascade down upon him until he is shoulders-deep in gorged tribbles. They’ve eaten all the grain—and some of them are dead. McCoy confirms that, right after he announces that he’s figured out how to keep them from breeding: don’t feed them. McCoy takes a dead tribble for autopsy, while Kirk has Jones brought to Lurry’s office. Koloth and Korax are there also, insisting on an apology from Kirk to the Klingon High Command for the persecution of Klingon nationals. He also asks that the tribbles Jones is carrying be removed. The security guards do so, but as they pass Darvin, the tribbles go nuts in the same way they did around Korax in the bar.
Kirk takes two tribbles. He holds them in front of Koloth and Korax, and they spit and wail. They’re fine in front of Spock and Baris—but they also squeal in front of Darvin. McCoy, who entered in the midst of this, performs a medical exam that reveals that Darvin is a Klingon. McCoy also reports that the quadrotriticale was poisoned, which Darvin admits to rather than be subjected to the tribbles.
Kirk and Spock get Jones to agree to remove all the tribbles from K-7—starting with the ones in the bar that has buried the poor bartender, complete with one on his head—and then depart. Kirk is pleased to see that there are no tribbles on the bridge, either, and Scott explains that he beamed them to Koloth’s ship. “Where they’ll be no tribble at all.”
Fascinating: Spock claims to be immune to the trilling effects of the tribble, even as his speech slows down and he rhythmically pets the tribble. He also does his usual showing off, telling Baris that yeah, he does too know what quadrotriticale is, guessing the exact number of tribbles on the station (1,771,561), doing a full background check on Jones, and quoting the Bible at McCoy (“they toil not, neither do they spin”).
I’m a doctor, not an escalator: McCoy takes a potshot at Spock, telling him that he likes the tribbles more than him. Spock returns the favor by saying that the great thing about tribbles is that they don’t talk. Also McCoy pretty much saves the day by discovering that the quadrotriticale is poisoned and confirming Darvin’s Klingonicity.
It’s a Russian invention: Chekov insists that the region they’re in was charted by a Russian astronomer named Ivan Burkhoff. Kirk and Spock correct him in that it was John Burke (the English form of Ivan Burkhoff) of the Royal Academy. The ensign also credits Scotch and quadrotriticale to the Russians.
Hailing frequencies open: The entire episode is basically Uhura’s fault, since her finding the tribble to be cute is what leads to them proliferating.
I cannot change the laws of physics! Scotty has to be put into a headlock to go on shore leave, as he’d much rather stay on the ship and read technical journals to relax. He then goes and starts a bar fight, which will probably keep Kirk from ever suggesting he go on shore leave ever again. (Given what happened in “Wolf in the Fold,” it’s probably generally for the best that Scotty never ever, under any circumstance, leave the ship.)
Channel open: “I was making a little joke, sir.”
“Extremely little, Ensign.”
Chekov trying to show that he has a sense of humor, and Spock reminding him that he has none.
Welcome aboard: William Schallert plays Baris; he’ll be seen again in DS9’s “Sanctuary” as a Bajoran musician. Charlie Brill makes the first of two appearances as Darvin; he’ll reprise the role in “Trials and Tribble-ations.” William Campbell returns as Koloth, having played Trelane in “The Squire of Gothos”; he’ll reprise the role of Koloth in DS9’s “Blood Oath.” Ed Reimers, best known as a pitchman for Allstate Insurance, plays Fitzpatrick. Stanley Adams makes the first of two appearances as Jones; he’ll reprise the role in voice form in “More Tribbles, More Troubles.” Michael Pataki plays Korax; he’ll return in TNG’s “Too Short a Season” as Karnas. Whit Bissell plays Lurry and Guy Raymond plays the bartender, while David L. Ross and Paul Baxley appeared in the background in their usual roles as Galloway and Freeman (the latter actually named in the lineup interrogation scene in the briefing room).
Trivial matters: The behind the scenes of this episode was provided by scripter David Gerrold in his two 1973 reference books The Trouble with Tribbles: The Birth, Sale, and Final Production of One Episode and The World of Star Trek. (The latter volume was revised and reprinted in 1984.) Gerrold co-wrote two more episodes of the original series (cowriting the story for “The Cloud Minders” and doing an uncredited rewrite of the script for “I, Mudd”), and wrote two episodes of the animated (“More Tribbles, More Troubles” and “BEM”). He was also heavily involved in the development of The Next Generation (and novelized the pilot episode “Encounter at Farpoint”), though he, along with several of his cohorts left the show due to disagreements with Gene Roddenberry in the first season.
This episode has the first reference to the Organian Peace Treaty, which was obviously signed after the Organians forced the Federation and the Klingons to end their nascent war in “Errand of Mercy.”
The Battle of Donatu V that Spock references as an early conflict between the Federation and the Klingons was fought 23 years earlier. It’s dramatized in the novel The Killing Blow by Kevin Ryan, part of the Errand of Vengeance trilogy.
The tribbles will return in “More Tribbles, More Troubles” and “Trials and Tribble-ations.” The animated episode brings back the characters of Jones, Koloth, and Korax, though only Stanley Adams comes back to voice his character of Jones; Koloth and Korax were both voiced by James Doohan.
Adams would go on to co-write “The Mark of Gideon.”
Quadrotriticale is based on triticale, an actual hybrid grain. Quadrotriticale will be mentioned again in DS9’s “Business as Usual.”
Sherman’s Planet will be seen again—as a Federation planet—in the Starfleet Corps of Engineers eBook Oaths by Glenn Hauman, where they will suffer a horrible plague.
The infestation of tribbles in Koloth’s ship will lead to tribbles being declared an ecological menace in the Klingon Empire, as revealed by Worf to Odo in “Trials and Tribble-ations.” That episode also names Koloth’s ship as the I.K.S. Gr’oth. Koloth’s removal of the tribbles was shown in the short story “A Bad Day for Koloth” by David DeLee in Strange New Worlds 9, and he’ll look for vengeance on Jones in “More Tribbles, More Troubles.” Federation: The First 150 Years by David A. Goodman establishes that Koloth lead the armada that wiped the tribbles out.
Koloth and Kirk have obviously encountered each other before—one of those meetings was chronicled in the aforementioned Errand of Vengeance trilogy, and James Blish’s Spock Must Die! made reference to another conflict the pair had.
Koloth and Korax will go on to appear in a great deal of tie-in fiction, too numerous to list here, but a few of note besides those already listed include Dayton Ward’s In the Name of Honor; the backup story in DC’s Star Trek: The Next Generation Special #3, “Old Debts” by Kevin Ryan, Ken Save, & Shephard Hendrix (in which Koloth tries to get revenge against Scotty for beaming tribbles into his engine room); your humble rewatcher’s “The Unhappy Ones” in Seven Deadly Sins; and Margaret Wander Bonanno’s Dwellers in the Crucible.
Darvin’s backstory as to how he came to infiltrate the Federation government was chronicled in the second issue of the Blood Will Tell comic book miniseries written by Scott & David Tipton. That comic established that his real name was Gralmek.
Nilz Baris is the subject of a Citizen Kane-like story in the short novel Honor in the Night by Scott Pearson in the collection Myriad Universes: Shattered Light, which takes place in an alternate timeline where Darvin’s sabotage was never discovered, and the poisoned grain nearly killed everyone on Sherman’s Planet. Baris parlayed that defeat into an impressive career that included the Federation presidency.
Tribbles also show up again in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, the Enterprise episode “The Breach,” the 2009 Star Trek, and Star Trek Into Darkness.
George Takei did not appear in this or several other second-season episodes due to his filming schedule for The Green Berets, in which he played Captain Nim opposite John Wayne.
To boldly go: “First, find Cyrano Jones, and second—close that door!” There’s almost no point in reviewing this episode, because it’s arguably Star Trek’s most popular hour, has many of its most quotable lines, has one of the franchise’s best visuals (Kirk being drowned in tribbles), and has never failed to be near the top of any best of Trek list.
But I do want to single out a couple of bits in this episode that get lost in the shuffle. For starters, while it’s generally considered a funny episode for the tribbles falling on Kirk and Kirk’s abuse of Baris (which really is a delight) and the tribbles being just bloody everywhere, there’s a lot of more subtle and brilliant comedy work here. The scenes between Stanley Adams and Guy Raymond are vaudeville gold. The business between Scotty and Chekov when the former hands the latter a Scotch without him realizing it, and Chekov gulps it before staring incredulously at the glass. Korax imitating Scotty’s drawl (“Yer right, I should”).
But perhaps the best performance here is William Shatner. We’re all aware of how good Shatner is at broad comedy, from his performances in “A Piece of the Action” and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, not to mention in places like Third Rock from the Sun, Free Enterprise, and his historic role as Denny Crane in The Practice and Boston Legal. This episode, however, reminds us of his incredible skill as a straight man. His exasperation, his deadpan, his reacting to Spock, to Jones, to Baris, to Scotty—it’s a masterpiece of comic timing, and he’s never once over the top.
Everything came together perfectly in this episode: the writing, the directing, the acting. It seems almost churlish to point out the flaws, but I must mention two issues. One is that William Campbell is the most un-Klingon-like Klingon ever. It’s not surprising that when he reprised the role in “Blood Oath,” he pretty much had an entire personality makeover.
Also the scene between McCoy and Spock in sickbay—which was written by Gene L. Coon to add running time to the episode—is just pointless. It’s got too much of the mean-spirited part of their relationship without any of the affection.
But these are minor complaints—like getting the best steak ever and bitching because the parsley is slightly wilted. This is Star Trek at its finest.
Warp factor rating: 10
Next week: “Bread and Circuses”
Keith R.A. DeCandido is the author of, among many other things, the Marvel’s Tales of Asgard trilogy, including Thor: Dueling with Giants (available as an eBook, with the print book coming in March), Sif: Even Dragons Have Their Endings (coming this spring), and The Warriors Three: Godhood’s End (coming this summer).