In 1967, Star Trek aired “The Trouble with Tribbles.” Written by David Gerrold, the episode quickly attained legendary status, as pretty much any list of best episodes of the original series is likely to have the numbers one and two spots occupied by some combo of it and “The City on the Edge of Forever.” It’s one of the funniest episodes of Star Trek, and remains beloved to this day, with the image of Kirk being buried in tribbles falling out of the storage compartment one of the most iconic visuals in Trek history. When Deep Space Nine celebrated the franchise’s thirtieth anniversary in 1996, they celebrated it via that episode.
The latest Short Treks is the secret origin of the tribbles. It features H. Jon Benjamin—Sterling Archer his own self—so you know much wackiness will ensue.
Intellectually, I don’t see the point of this episode. The tribbles don’t really need a secret origin, and there are elements of this short that are just weird. And I have to wonder how, exactly, Edward managed to get into Starfleet…
But that requires thinking, and where’s the fun in that? Besides, not thinking is kind of the point of the short.
Newly promoted Captain Lynn Lucero is heading to her first command, the U.S.S. Cabot, after serving with distinction as an Enterprise science officer. Captain Christopher Pike sends her off to her new mission, which involves working near Klingon space.
Lucero’s first meeting with her department heads goes well right up until she gets to Edward Larkin. By far the oldest person in the room, and the only department head without an actual department (he works alone), he has trouble operating his equipment (insisting it’s broken, even though he’s just not working it right), and his big project is to breed tribbles as food.
Right away, the entire audience is squicked, because we’ve spent the last five decades thinking of tribbles as these sweet, adorable, purring fuzzballs, and you shouldn’t eat them! And Larkin never once comes off the idea of tribbles as the other white meat. (Well, red meat, apparently under the fur, they’re a deep red.)
We quickly realize just how clueless Larkin is. When Lucero expresses concern about their intelligence, Larkin immediately assures her that they’re not bright enough to evade capture for long, and he can always breed them to be brain damaged. Lucero patiently explains that there her concerns with their being intelligent are moral, not tactical, and then she quickly realizes that this guy’s not exactly Starfleet’s finest and transfers him to another department.
Larkin then sends anonymous letters to Starfleet Command calling her dumb and saying she shouldn’t be captain anymore. Lucero has no trouble figuring out that Larkin is responsible and has him transferred. Larkin then injects his tribble with his own DNA and alters their reproductive cycle so they’re born pregnant. They proceed to breed like, well, tribbles, and pretty much take over the ship. Eventually, they have to evacuate, but Larkin refuses to abandon ship, because dammit, he proved that he was right, he could do this and he’s not dumb, and then he gets overwhelmed by fast-breeding tribbles.
(One thing I like is that at no point does Lucero even consider the possibility of killing the tribbles. I’m sure many of them do die when the superstructure of the ship collapses, but it’s established that plenty survived, at least. The only fatality is Larkin himself, but tellingly, none of Starfleet’s attempts to restrain the tribbles are lethal: their phasers are on stun and they’re never consigned to space via an airlock.)
This is a completely goofy episode, with some horror overtones when the tribbles are taking over, but it’s mostly so over-the-top you’re getting a nosebleed watching it. And it’s funny as hell, which is what you want in a comedy short, and by being only fourteen minutes long, the goofiness doesn’t quite overstay its welcome. (The only bit that’s in danger of that is the “this conversation is over” sequence, which goes on about 12% too long.)
Benjamin is what makes it all work, of course. He’s very obviously been sent to the Cabot in a minor position without a real department in the hopes that he can do very little harm. (You have to figure he’s the son or cousin or husband of someone important.) And he so perfectly plays the just-clever-enough-to-get-himself-in-trouble imbecile that he’s made a career of, particularly as the voice of the title character on Archer. Anson Mount’s presence as Pike is always welcome, and Rosa Salazar does fine, mostly being Benjamin’s straight man, as it were, but she also gets the best part of the short.
As much as I enjoyed the silly absurdity of the piece, it was the inquiry board at the end that sold it. After Admiral Quinn enumerates everything that went wrong—including everything that happened after Lucero abandoned ship—he asks her to explain how this could possibly be the work of just one crewmember. Lucero, having sat there patiently as her failures are spelled out in graphic detail by her superiors, finally speaks the great truth: “He was an idiot.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in meetings just like that review board and wanted to say exactly what Lucero said, and unable to do so for whatever stupid political reasons. I laughed a lot during the fourteen minutes and thirty-eight seconds of this trifle of a short, but I laughed hardest at that last line.
(Well, it’s not quite the last line, as there’s a commercial for tribbles as a breakfast cereal after the credits that was just magnificent absurdist craziness.)
Star Trek is supposed to be about humanity at its best, but every once in a while you gotta remember that, even in a universe where the average human is good and noble and smart, you’re still gonna have your fair share of imbeciles. (It’s one of the things I liked about Bashir’s father in “Dr. Bashir, I Presume?” on DS9, in fact, as well as Reginald Barclay as we first saw him on The Next Generation’s “Hollow Pursuits.”) I wouldn’t want all my Trek to be like this, and, again, it’s not like the tribbles really needed a secret origin, but I was more than happy to bow to the ridiculous for a quarter of an hour.
Once again, we’re given no preview for the next Short Trek, which is entitled “Ask Not,” though it will be the third short in a row to feature Anson Mount as Pike, which is never a bad thing. It’ll go live on the 14th of November.
Keith R.A. DeCandido has been writing about pop culture for this site since 2011, including the current “4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch” every Friday (his review of Thor: Ragnarok also went live today) and reviews of every episode of Star Trek Discovery and Short Treks to date. Look for his reviews of the remaining batch of Short Treks over the next couple of months, as well as of Star Trek: Picard starting in January.