“I’m a doctor, not an historian”: The Trouble with Tribbles (TOS) vs. Trials and Tribble-ations (DS9)

Star Trek: The Original Series – “The Trouble with Tribbles” (season 2, episode 13)

Written by David Gerrold; directed by Joseph Pevney; first aired in 1967

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

The Enterprise crew responds to a distress call from Deep Space Station K-7, where their help is urgently needed to protect … grain?!? Oh, but it’s not just grain, it’s … quadrotriticale! And it’s the only Earth crop that will grow on the nearby Sherman’s Planet, making it critical to the Federation’s hopes of staking a claim on the planet by proving that they can develop it more efficiently than the Klingons can. Captain Kirk reluctantly assigns some crew members to guard the station’s grain stores from Klingon sabotage, while allowing the rest of the crew to take shore leave on the station, where they end up in a bar brawl with some Klingons. They also meet shady intergalactic businessman Cyrano Jones, who’s selling tribbles: adorable little floof-balls that would make ideal pets if they didn’t reproduce so fast … and if they didn’t have a taste for quadrotriticale.  

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – “Trials and Tribble-ations” (season 5, episode 6)

Teleplay by Ronald D. Moore & Rene Echevarria; story by Ira Steven Behr & Hans Beimler & Robert Hewitt Wolfe; directed by Jonathan West; first aired in 1996

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

A pair of Temporal Investigators question Captain Sisko about the Defiant’s recent trip back in time to the 23rd century, but the how and the why don’t really matter. You don’t watch this episode for its plot – you watch it to see Sisko and his crew meet Kirk, and his crew. While the crew of the Enterprise get up to their wacky hijinks on Station K-7, the crew of the Defiant go undercover in brightly-colored 23rd-century Starfleet uniforms to try and stop a timeline-altering attempt on Kirk’s life. Dax and Sisko go all fannish; Bashir and O’Brien get yelled at by Kirk; Worf offers no comment on his ancestors’ smooth foreheads; and Odo may or may not have brought home a time-traveling tribble.

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Like the Horta – the giant pizza monster from “The Devil in the Dark” – tribbles are among the most iconic images Star Trek ever produced, and “The Trouble with Tribbles” is one of the most widely recognized and referenced episodes of the Original Series, as shown by Deep Space Nine paying tribute to the episode in “Trials and Tribble-ations”, their celebration of the franchise’s 30th anniversary in 1996. But where “The Devil in the Dark” is the prototypical episode of Trek in many ways, “The Trouble with Tribbles” really isn’t, in that it’s structured entirely as a comedy.

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It’s not the only funny episode of Trek, of course; far from it. Trek has always had a sense of humor about itself – more so than some fans like to acknowledge, I think – and any number of episodes have taken a more light-hearted approach to their subject matter than, say, “The Devil in the Dark” (and even that episode, while delivering a critique of xenophobia, still gave us one of the franchise’s most well-known comedic lines: “I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer!”). When I wrote about TOS’s “Tomorrow is Yesterday”, for instance, I observed that it took a much lighter tone than some of Trek’s other time-travel stories, and it certainly included comedic scenes, like a bemused Kirk’s interrogation by an exasperated 20th-century naval guard. But “The Trouble with Tribbles” isn’t a sci-fi drama with comedic moments; it’s a sci-fi comedy. From its comedic character tropes (the blowhard bureaucrat, the slick, greedy salesman, the hard-nosed bartender) to its call-back comic beats (the constant repetition, to Kirk’s annoyance, of the word “quadrotriticale”), to its outright use of slapstick (Cyrano Jones weaving through the bar brawl with his stolen drink), the structure of this episode probably has more in common with the average episode of Futurama than the average episode of Star Trek. So why is it considered one of the all-time classic Trek episodes?

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The easy answer – if not an entirely satisfying one – is that “Trouble” feels like classic Trek, in a surprisingly timeless way. It had been years since I’d last seen the episode, and before I rewatched it, I was honestly expecting something of a novelty: fun at best, silly at worst. Instead, I enjoyed it immensely, and found that it stands up better than a number of episodes I had fonder memories of – not just from TOS, but from the more recent series as well. I suspect this is partly because it doesn’t take a serious, heavy-handed approach, and instead lets its environmentalist theme lie in the background; the tribbles, multiplying exponentially in the absence of their natural predators, work both as a cautionary tale of environmental disruption, and as an ironically cute threat. Still, I can think of other light-hearted episodes that haven’t aged nearly as well as “Trouble”; I recently rewatched the TOS episodes featuring famous funny Trek character Harry Mudd – “Mudd’s Women” and “I, Mudd” – and honestly, I found them both … difficult to watch. So what is it – besides a lack of disturbing sexual politics – that makes “Trouble” stand up so well as prototypical Trek, when it’s also so atypical?

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If “Trouble” is a comedy, then we should judge it as one, and I know what makes comedy work for me: characterization. My favorite comedies, the ones that make me laugh out loud when I watch and rewatch them – from classic Simpsons to Community to Bob’s Burgers to The Good Place – tend to derive their best comedic moments from the fact that their characters all have distinct voices, distinct personalities. They spend less time on ‘jokes’ – one-liners that could be delivered by just about anyone – and more time on character-based comedy, funny moments that could only come from placing that particular character in that particular situation. And what makes “Trouble” work so well, I think – not just as a comedy, but as an iconic episode of Star Trek – is its reliance on character-based comedy.

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Sure, there are slapstick moments and visual jokes: the bar brawl, the tribbles on the food trays and in the captain’s chair, and, of course, that iconic image of Captain Kirk buried under a torrent of tribbles. But even many of these moments are firmly rooted in character. Cyrano Jones and the station’s surly bartender are new characters in this episode, but they’re defined for us quickly and efficiently enough that their pratfalls feel in-character. When the bartender starts sarcastically pulling tribbles from every nook and cranny of the bar, or when Jones, surrounded by the chaos of a bar brawl, immediately starts casually serving himself drinks, I think to myself, “of course he’d do that”.

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And those are just the incidental, one-episode-only characters. The real, lasting appeal of “Trouble”, I think, lies in its great characterization of every member of the Enterprise crew (with the unfortunate exception of Sulu, who is absent from this episode). An issue I sometimes have with TOS, in comparison to, say, TNG or DS9, is that I don’t always feel it gives crew members other than Kirk, Spock, or McCoy enough to do. But “Trouble” gives everyone something to do, which results in some great character moments. The recurring joke around Chekhov – the Russian officer insisting that everything was invented by Russians – does nothing for me; it feels like a reference to something audiences at the time might recognize, which goes right over my head. But otherwise, his and Uhura’s scenes in the bar give us a nice sense of these characters that we don’t always get to spend enough time with. And Kirk’s clashes with Nilz Baris, the bureaucrat (who reminds me, a little, of Walter Peck from 1984’s Ghostbusters), show us an interesting side of the captain – how he deals not with crisis, but with annoyance. “I have never questioned the orders or the intelligence of any representative of the Federation – until now” is a line that feels perfectly in character for Kirk, as someone who takes both the letter and the spirit (but especially the spirit) of his duty very seriously.

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But of course, the real stand-out character moments in “Trouble” come from Scotty. The fact that he’s drawn into a fight with the Klingons by their insults of Enterprise – after ignoring their insults of Kirk – is a joke that’s perfectly book-ended by references to his preference for spending his down-time reading technical manuals. His response to being punished by confinement to quarters – unsarcastically thanking Kirk for giving him more time to read his manuals – nicely subverts the machismo of his boasts to Chekhov about Scotch being stronger than vodka. It keeps his seemingly chivalrous defense of the Enterprise’s honor firmly rooted in nerdiness, which is a really endearing aspect to his character. It’s a great example of how “Trouble” understands that it’s not the ships or the technology or the aliens that keep audiences invested in Trek, not really. It’s the characters, and the sense that being out on the edge of known space would be just fine as long as these folks were out there with you.

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If the lasting success of “The Trouble with Tribbles” lies in its understanding of the importance of character, then how should we judge Deep Space Nine’s “Trials and Tribble-ations”? By first equipping its cast with the costumes and communicators of their TOS counterparts, and then literally editing them into scenes from “The Trouble with Tribbles”, isn’t DS9 kind of downplaying its own characters, and fetishizing the more superficial details of Trek? Well, yes, at least partly. “Trials and Tribble-ations” is explicit, unapologetic fan-service, and was pretty much presented as such when it first aired in tribute to Trek’s 30th anniversary. But is that all it is? Or, like “The Trouble with Tribbles”, does it shed some light on not just what we like about Trek, but why we like what we like?

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I’ll be honest here: “Trials and Tribble-ations” doesn’t do a lot for me, personally. I mean, it’s fine, I enjoyed rewatching it – it’s fan service, after all, and I am a fan (though maybe not exactly the sort of fan this episode was made for). But it felt more like an exercise, to me, than a story in its own right; it felt like the kind of novelty episode I was expecting, but didn’t get, from “The Trouble with Tribbles”. But I also know that this episode is absolutely beloved in many circles, and it’s interesting to explore why other people feel that way about it, even if I don’t, myself. And besides, maybe I’m wrong to judge “Trials” for not fully standing up as a story in its own right, separate from “Trouble”. I doubt it was ever really meant to. It seems likely that the people making “Trials” always saw it not so much as a sequel to “Trouble”, but as more of a companion piece, a different way of viewing the original (like the black-and-white cut of Logan, only, you know, cuter).

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It’s interesting to imagine what it would be like to see “Trials and Tribble-ations” as your first episode of DS9 (as I’m sure some people probably have; if I knew someone who liked TOS but had never seen DS9, it might be the first episode I’d show them). Would the characters of DS9 stand out as clearly to someone who didn’t yet know them, as the characters of TOS likely would if a newcomer to Trek watched “Trouble”? When it comes to characterization, I’d say that “Trials” isn’t quite as successful as “Trouble”, though there certainly are some really good character moments here.

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The standout character moment in “Trials” has to be Sisko’s choice to take one last risk of contaminating the timeline, just so he can meet Kirk in person, face to face. It syncs up nicely with Sisko’s well-established interest in Earth history, and with his tendency to judge each situation as it comes rather than always going by the book, and I’d imagine that Sisko’s characterization throughout this episode, and in that scene in particular, would tell the first-time DS9 viewer much of what they’d need to know about him. And the runner-up for best characterization would probably be Worf. This episode makes a good opportunity to have fun with Worf’s awkwardness when placed in a situation poorly suited to warrior-ing, and the writers (and Michael Dorn) took full advantage of it. The sight of Worf huddled at a barroom table in his Cyrano Jones-style outfit, getting all anxious about tribbles and uncomfortably dodging the question of why 23rd-century Klingons look like humans in fake beards (more on that below) … it’s all pretty fun, and fits in nicely with the long-standing tradition, from TNG before DS9, of undercutting Worf’s tough warrior image to make him more vulnerable and relatable.

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Bashir and O’Brien’s established characters also shine through, though their scenes do veer into contrived jokes a bit more than I’d like. Bashir’s musing about whether he’s predestined to, uh, become his own ancestor, actually seems pretty in-character for him, creepy as it is. But the idea that Bashir wouldn’t know who his relatively recent ancestors were seems very out of character, and is transparently just there to set up the joke (a joke that Futurama would later go on to take to its, uh, logical conclusion, giving us the memorable line, “If history doesn’t care that our degenerate friend Fry is his own grandfather, who are we to judge?”). Dax, too, while she gets some good jokes and some of the higher-profile moments, has been more or less repurposed as a joke generator here – and a decidedly gendered one, at that. I do like the obvious, but still satisfying joke that she finds Spock more attractive than Kirk. But the joke about one of her past selves hooking up with McCoy is eye-rollingly silly, and combined with the cheesecakey photo-shoot posing in her short-skirted uniform, it just feels like the character’s been forced to carry a lot of this episode’s sexy baggage. And yes, I get it, Terry Farrell in a vintage women’s Starfleet uniform is the stuff of a million fanboy/fangirl/non-binary-fan fantasies. Of course I get it. It’s still, like, the textbook definition of gratuitous.

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But at the end of the day, we don’t come to “Trials and Tribble-ations” for its characterization of DS9’s characters, do we? We come for its reverence for TOS’s characters, the respect it shows for their legacy, and it’s hard to fault “Trials” in that regard. An obvious point of comparison is Enterprise’s final episode, “These Are the Voyages”, which infamously turns its own characters into a footnote to a random episode of The Next Generation from roughly a decade earlier. “Trials”, too, lets DS9’s characters be footnotes to “The Trouble with Tribbles”, but it places them into the TOS episode in a way that’s gentle, well thought out, and rarely feels anything but reverent.

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Worf’s discomfort over the appearance of Original Series Klingons is a particularly clever example of this, I think. As I mentioned above, part of the charm of “The Trouble with Tribbles” is its ability to take its characters seriously without taking itself too seriously. “Trials and Tribble-ations” shows that it understands that, by remarking on the Klingons’ appearance, and having Worf be uncomfortable with it in a very in-character way, but resisting the urge to give any heavily-retconned explanation. “Trials” acknowledges that “Trouble” was a product of its time (and special effects budget), and winks at us about it, without taking anything away from “Trouble” because of it. It’s refreshing, after all the online arguments over the appearance of Star Trek: Discovery’s Klingons, and the slightly baffling demands for an in-universe explanation for that appearance, as if the appearance of the Klingons – of all aliens – hasn’t always depended on the real-world makeup and effects available at the time. It’s refreshing to see DS9 admit, in “Trials and Tribble-ations”, that each iteration of Trek is its own time’s take on the future … and to see them embrace that reality, and celebrate their chance to build on those visions of the future that came before.

Okay, I may have just talked myself into liking “Trials and Tribble-ations” more than I thought I did.

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Next time, we’ll go back to talking about Discovery, as we compare Spock’s daddy issues in “Journey to Babel” with Burnham’s daddy issues in “Lethe”!

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