STAR TREK At 50: The Trouble With Tribbles

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Tom Pheby looks back at one of the most famous (or is that infamous) episodes of the original series, The Trouble With Tribbles.


The Trouble with Tribbles (1967) is one of those episodes that divides viewers opinions massively, more so arguably than any other episode. Let's be honest here, if you were at a production meeting deciding on which scripts to shoot and you were informed that the Tribbles were fluffy, seemingly inoffensive and non aggressive powder puffs, you would have probably thrown the heap of pages at the tea boy.

Star Trek was certainly heading off to places it hadn't been before and I dare say even a few actors were mildly perturbed. After all, we'd had the Klingons and Romulans, so the prospect of cutesy, balls of fluff parading around the set and across the laps of our intrepid galactic explorers must have seemed as appetising as a hotdog outside a football ground.

Over 1500 Tribbles were created to swamp the set, and later in the episode they seem to be breeding before Kirk's eyes, then he suddenly realises that they are not quite what they seemed. But I'm getting ahead of myself.


The Enterprise answers a distress call from a space station (K-7) a stones throw away from Sherman's Planet, which has become the focus of an ownership battle between the Federation and those infernal crusty headed Klingons, led by Koloth (William Campbell). What's the cause of all this urgency? Well it turns out that some agricultural boy scout wants them to protect some grain. Not quite any old grain but Quadrotriticale grain (space wheat?), which is the only thing that will grow on this sought after sphere. A challenge even for the nimble fingers of dour gardening God, Alan 'Twitmarsh'. Apart from this inconvenience, Kirk also has to resolve the dispute between the two sides of the tug of war (even in the future, impartiality is short supply).

We encounter a trader Cyrano Jones (Stanley Adams) with the dreaded Tribbles (sounds like a space STD) and also a handful of irritated Klingons (and again!) who are there to keep an eye on things. Jones gives Lieutenant Uhura one of these space gerbils, and before you can say 'total eclipse', they are multiplying and planning on poisoning the precious cargo. Of course, due to their pet like appearance everyone on the Enterprise has succumbed to Tribblemania, but they have yet to realise that the fur balls are interfering with equipment and eating food as if their lives depended on it. Kirk himself seems curiously charmed by the creatures, perhaps because they were modelled on his whispy bouffant!

It's difficult to tell what is Kirk's hair and what is Tribble in the above image.

In this outing we even get a bit of bar action when Scotty and Chekov swap theories on what a real man drinks (Scotch or Vodka), and get to the stage of fisticuffs when a Klingon decides to insult the Enterprise and its Captain. Just to ease the pulse rate of the serious fans, there's still the usual diet of 'Priority Ones', Red Alerts and a fair smattering of the tech talk that we are much more comfortable and familiar with - it's Trek Jim but not as we know it.

When reading the dialogue it does feel like it could have come straight out of Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy:
(McCoy enters, stroking a tribble.)
KIRK: Doctor McCoy.
McCOY: Yes? Did you want to see me, Jim? Don't look at me. It's the tribbles who are breeding. If we don't get them off this ship, we're going to be hip deep in them.
KIRK: Explain that.
McCOY: The nearest thing I can figure out is they're born pregnant, which seems to be quite a time saver.
KIRK: I know, but really
McCOY: And from my observations, it seems they're bisexual, reproducing at will. And, brother, have they got a lot of will.
SPOCK: Captain, I am forced to agree with the doctor. I've been running computations on their rate of reproduction. The figures are taking an alarming direction. They're consuming our supplies and returning nothing.
UHURA: But they do give us something, Mister Spock. They give us love. Well, Cyrano Jones says a tribble is the only love that money can buy.
KIRK: Too much of anything, Lieutenant, even love, isn't necessarily a good thing.
Hopefully you can see from the small sample of the brilliantly devised and interesting plot that The Trouble With Tribbles is not exactly short of comic potential, and offers something entirely different from Trek's usual style. However it was such a radical departure that it infuriated a number of die hard fans at the time, yet strangely it's probably the most remembered and spoken about for varying reasons.

Watching The Trouble With Tribbles is kind of like seeing the entire cast beaming down to planet Sesame Street, or watching them in some trippy send up, but the story itself is solid enough and this prevents it from becoming completely naff, which it so easily could've done with the bizarre premise.

The Trouble With Tribbles is certainly unusual Star Trek, but it's also unusually entertaining Star Trek.

Script Writer, Poet, Blogger and junk television specialist. Half English, half Irish and half Alsatian, Tom is well known for insisting on being called Demetri for reasons best known to himself. A former film abuser and telly addict who shamefully skulks around his home town of Canterbury after dark dressed as Julie Andrews. Follow Tom on Twitter
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