Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: The Trouble with Tribbles

(Note: If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start.)

Original Air Date: December 29, 1967

Crew Death Count: 0 (but a lot of tribbles die and I’m not sure how funny that is)

Bellybuttons: 0 (but watch for the barmaid uniforms on station K-7)

Last week, in “Wolf in the Fold,” we conveniently blamed a traumatic experience and its awful consequences on a woman. This week, it’s all Uhura’s fault. The Enterprise responds to a distress call from Deep Space Station K-7. (Is this a precursor to the deep space stations of DS9?) Federation Undersecretary Nilz Baris (William Schallert), responsible for agricultural affairs in the quadrant, is overseeing a shipment of quadrotriticale grain for crop development on nearby Sherman’s Planet. The station, and the planet, are in territory claimed by both the Federation and the Klingon Empire. Klingons soon arrive and mayhem ensues, including what must be the longest barfight in television history. Meanwhile, Uhura takes possession of a tribble from space trader Cyrano Jones (Stanley Adams) and brings it aboard the Enterprise. Despite their harmless appearance and nearly hypnotic effect on humans, the tribbles reproduce so rapidly they become a danger to both the Enterprise and K-7. When the tribbles find their way into the quadrotriticale, everyone finds out the hard way that the grain has been poisoned by Baris’ assistant Arne Darvin (Charlie Brill), who turns out to be a Klingon spy under heavy disguise.

The highly professional Enterprise crew starts a drunken brawl

“The Trouble with Tribbles” gives us humor, political intrigue, Klingons, plenty of banter between the crew members, and a background of deeper issues that remain relevant today. Writer David Gerrold may or may not have been influenced by Robert Heinlein’s 1952 novel The Rolling Stones, which Gerrold had read fifteen years prior. Heinlein’s novel, in turn, took some inspiration from the 1905 short story Pigs is Pigs, about over-producing guinea pigs, by Ellis Parker Butler. Cyrano Jones is a scoundrel along the lines of Harry Mudd, not surprising as Gerrold also did an uncredited rewrite of the “I, Mudd” script. “The Trouble with Tribbles” even harks back to “Errand of Mercy,” as K-7 and Sherman’s Planet are subject to the Organian Peace Treaty resulting from that experience. This creates a neutral status on K-7 allowing both Federation and Klingon personnel to take shore leave there while the grain situation is sorted out. Neutrality is only temporary, however, as claim will be offered to one empire or the other if the treaty’s requirement is satisfied, which Chekov tells us is: “one side or the other must prove it can develop the station most efficiently.” This puts the Federation’s claim in jeopardy, because, as Kirk tells us, “Though the Klingons are brutal and aggressive, they are most efficient.”

Cyrano Jones faces the music, and the tribbles

Portrayal of the Klingons is my only real dispute with the episode. Even that complaint isn’t entirely fair, as we can’t help but view “The Trouble with Tribbles” from our modern-day perspective with years of Klingon appearances in various Star Trek episodes and movies. Still, even by the episode’s own criteria, we can’t help but feel let down. Besides Kirk’s “brutal and aggressive” comment, the Klingon commander himself, Koloth (William Campbell), tells us, “We Klingons are not as luxury-minded as you earthers. We do not equip our ships with – How shall I say it ?– nonessentials.” Koloth’s light-hearted conduct might not be so distracting if he did not look like Trelane in blackface. Campbell was a good actor, but he was not the best fit for a military commander from a warlike, “death with honor” species. In his final scene with Kirk, Koloth goes so far as to bow without protest when Kirk tells him to depart the system.

Early tryouts for the Village People did not go well

There are a few other character moments that don’t quite add up. Spock quotes, of all things, The Lilies of the Field, the 1962 novel by William Edmund Barrett, when describing the tribbles: “They toil not, neither do they spin.” (Maybe it’s an in-joke – Stanley Adams appeared in the 1963 film adaptation of the novel.) Chekov, in addition to his usual refrain of crediting every invention and discovery to Russia, refers to the Klingon second-in-command Korax (Michael Pataki, much more effective in a Klingon role) as a “Cossack” when the Klingon criticizes humans. The Cossacks, Orthodox Christians who primarily inhabited rural areas, defended Russia against Napoleon’s army and served Russia courageously in World War I, but fierce anti-communism led some Cossacks to serve the Nazis during World War II. So the insult might have seemed sensible in the 1960s but likely wouldn’t make much sense by the twenty-third century. Finally, Chekov also accompanies Uhura, who is such an essential officer she asks Kirk, in passing, “How often do I get shore leave?” This scene delivers our weekly misogyny, as Chekov tells Kirk he is escorting Uhura because “she wants to shop and I thought I would help her.” Kirk then asks Chekov his opinion of quadrotriticale but ignores Uhuru. The shopping, of course, leads to Uhura getting all girly over the tribble and bringing it on board the Enterprise. A typical woman. Yikes. On the other hand, maybe I shouldn’t criticize, as Nichelle Nichols was reportedly happy with the story, bringing Uhura off the bridge and giving her more screen time than most other episodes.

Original sin: Uhura obtains the first tribble

Federation bureaucracy is, as always, a bit muddled: K-7 has a local manager, Lurry (Whit Bissell), whose authority is superceded by Baris as the Federation’s undersecretary. Baris seems to have limited authority to direct Kirk, and he clearly has pull within Starfleet, as an admiral contacts Kirk with orders to cooperate. Meanwhile, Darvin influences Baris from behind the scenes. Darvin is intent on setting up Jones as a Klingon agent, feeding information to Baris that reflects unkindly on Jones. It all amounts to effective dramatic intrigue and an observation on the complexities of government service. We like to think bureaucratic positions can be precisely defined, but when it comes to government service in a complex and diverse world (ours or the Federation’s) it will never be possible to anticipate every situation. Individuals will butt heads and areas will remain gray and, if reasonable individuals are involved, proper solutions will be worked out. It doesn’t help that Baris and Kirk are immediately unkind to one another, with Baris refusing to acknowledge that his emergency is only one of many in the Federation, and Kirk insulting the undersecretary at every opportunity. At one point, Kirk says, ““I have never questioned the orders or the intelligence of any representative of the Federation until now.” We know that’s not true, given Kirk’s history with Starfleet administrators.

The spy who fooled me: Baris and Darvin

Scott complicates matters with nearly schizophrenic behavior. He is initially reluctant to take part in shore leave until Kirk orders him (much as Kirk the enabler set up Scott with the ill-fated dancer in “Wolf in the Fold”); no, Scott is happy to sit in his quarters studying technical journals. Yet, once on the planet, he goes bar-hopping with Chekov. After the two have imbibed unspecified amounts of Scotch and Vodka, they are goaded into a barfight with Korax and his men. Korax hurls insults at the human species and Captain Kirk, he even mimics the chief engineer’s Scottish dialect, but it’s his criticism of the Enterprise that provokes Scott into throwing the first punch. The overly drawn out fight scene with about a dozen humans and Klingons is intended for comedic effect, but Scott’s assault and battery, so soon after his brush with murder in “Wolf in the Fold,” isn’t very funny. We can’t help but wonder if this is typical behavior for the chief engineer, who we also find recovering from “a wee bout” of shore leave in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Soon after the drunk and disorderly incident, Scott is thrilled to be restricted to quarters, where he can return to his technical manuals, before finally committing an act of war against the Klingon Empire (more on that later).

Mr. Scott’s unfortunate history of post-shore leave line-ups

The tribbles and quadrotriticale both represent human (or humanoid) mismanagement of nature. Spock describes quadrotriticale as a “high-yield grain, four-lobed hybrid of wheat and rye,” derived from triticale. In fact, triticale is a real wheat-rye hybrid, developed in Europe in the 1800s to generate a higher yield with improved disease resistance compared to ordinary wheat. The first North American triticale breeding was conducted by the University of Manitoba in 1953 (Spock references Canada as the point of origin of quadrotriticale’s predecessor). Triticale crops struggled to deliver on the high-yield objective until a breeding program in Mexico in 1964 led to improved outcomes. What “The Trouble with Tribbles” does not anticipate are the potential hazards of what we now know as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs are commonly fed to livestock and are ingredients in increasing numbers of processed foods. There are sufficient reasons for concern about GMO safety to justify more research, but so far regulators and consumers have largely accepted the word of large agribusinesses that have a profit incentive to sell more GMOs. The inability to isolate GMO crops only complicates matters – wind and pollinators easily transfer GMO pollen to other crops, creating accidental hybrids that not only affect crop integrity, but create legal challenges, because GMOs are typically the intellectual property of whichever company bred the specific grain.

Spock delivers the lowdown on quadrotriticale

The need for quadrotriticale is never really justified. Lurry calls quadrotriticale “the only earth grain that will grow on Sherman’s Planet.” Why do they require an earth grain? If Sherman’s Planet is M-class (and Memory Alpha says it is), the planet must have native plant life suitable for humanoid consumption. The fact that the quadrotriticale on K-7 is so easily poisoned demonstrates the danger of relying too heavily on only one food source. Then there is the risk of introducing a potentially invasive species to Sherman’s Planet. Kudzu is the classic invasive plant example in the U.S. Kudzu arrived from Japan in 1876 and was promoted to farmers in the 1930s for soil erosion and inexpensive livestock feed. But kudzu is an invasive weed in much of the U.S. While kudzu’s true impact is sometimes exaggerated, I well remember the years I lived in North Carolina, where it was common to see entire fields overrun with kudzu. Invasive plants can devastate native plant and animal species and are nearly impossible to remove once established. How closely has the Federation studied quadrotriticale’s potential effects on Sherman’s Planet?

Housekeeping on the Enterprise has suffered since Rand left

Tribbles are an even more problematic invasive species. They are initially regarded as low-maintenance pets, small animals that purr in a way that’s pleasing to both man and Vulcan (Spock denies being affected as he quickly comes under a tribble’s spell). Spock also identifies a “redeeming characteristic” that coincidentally explains one of the things I love about dogs: “They do not talk too much.” Yet tribbles soon turn up throughout the Enterprise. The episode doesn’t identify the tribbles’ home world, but Spock claims that Jones removed tribbles from a place where natural predators controlled their explosive breeding. (McCoy says the critters are “born pregnant – which seems to be quite a time-saver!”) David Gerrold’s real inspiration for “The Trouble with Tribbles” was Australia’s rabbit population. Like Kudzu in the U.S., non-native rabbits were introduced to Australia in the 1800s. The rabbits were originally intended as a cheap food source, and those rabbits came in handy during the 1890s and 1930s, when economic depressions forced a lot of Australians into poverty. But Australia offered these European rabbits mild winters where they could reproduce year-round, allowing the animals to spread faster than any mammal known in human history. The rabbits have had ruinous effects on native plants and animals, livestock crops, and soil erosion.

Spock learns that “touching the tribble” doesn’t mean what he thinks it means

By episode’s end, tribbles have infiltrated every part of the Enterprise and station K-7. It seems inevitable that they will end up on Sherman’s Planet; like invasive plants, invasive animals are nearly impossible to eradicate. Besides the Australian rabbits, read about the spread of Asian carp and Burmese pythons in North America for only two examples. Should we view the tribbles as an overbred domestic pet, or as a pathogen, essentially a very large bacteria or virus? McCoy is assigned to investigate the tribbles, and puts aside his usual complaining to do a masterful job, putting the creatures solidly in the pathogen category. We must also consider the tribbles’ rapid rate of reproduction – Spock says they reproduce every twelve hours. Because of their short life spans, viruses and bacteria evolve quickly, leading to virus variants and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The tribbles can already cling to walls – who knows what abilities evolution might endow them with? Looked at more closely, tribbles might be equivalent to large, fuzzy anthrax. The question is relevant, not only to how we treat the tribbles, but how we dispose of them. This brings us back to Mr. Scott. He ingeniously removes the tribbles from the Enteprise by beaming all of them to the Klingon ship (wasn’t he confined to quarters?) and thereby commits an act of biological warfare. Let’s consider the facts:

  • Kirk and Spock charge Cyrano Jones with transporting harmful animals, acknowledging that tribbles amount to biological weapons.
  • The episode establishes that tribbles and Klingons have a mutual disgust for each other.
  • Scott informed Kirk the tribbles were on the verge of disrupting mechanical systems on the Enterprise, and that’s from a starting point of one tribble. We can safely expect the increased tribble population will quickly overwhelm the Klingon vessel.
  • Klingons and the Federation are already hostile parties with their claim on Sherman’s Planet in delicate balance. We can only imagine the consequences of sabotaging a Klingon ship.

I’m no expert on international (or interplanetary) war crimes, but I’m confident this qualifies. Kirk and Scott will have a lot of explaining to do.

The terrifying consequences of unchecked tribble evolution

Star Trek at its best sneaks up on us with life lessons tucked inside entertainment, and “The Trouble with Tribbles” is a fine example. The episode has moments of genuine humor (the scene with Kirk and Scott after the barfight is especially funny) but amounts to a testament to humans’ inability to out-think nature. Just as human over-hunting of humpback whales will create a problem for the Enterprise crew in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), this same crew might be creating disasters for later generations by aiding in the proliferation of quadrotriticale and tribbles. We might think Kirk’s final punishment of Cyrano Jones is excessive, eighteen years picking up tribbles on K-7, but it’s equivalent to the Federation’s penalty for transporting harmful animals: twenty years in a rehabilitation colony. (And we saw one of those colonies in “Dagger of the Mind,” so Jones is getting off easy!) If the twenty years seems equally excessive, consider the dramatic consequences of the kudzu, rabbits, carp, and pythons cited above, not to mention the many other invasive species we dimwitted humans have spread throughout the globe. How do we account for the endangerment or extinction of native species and the associated impact on public health and the economy? Maybe a little humor is an effective way to broach such uncomfortable subjects. If we need Kirk buried under a pile of tribbles to get to a serious conversation about humans’ impact on our environment, including human-caused climate change, beam me on board. Just, for now, give me the grain-free bread.

From invasive to extinct: The Enterprise crew cleans up humans’ misuse of natural resources

A final note of Trek trivia: If you have not yet seen the DS9 episode “Trials and Tribble-ations,” what are you waiting for?

Next: The Gamesters of Triskelion