*This post contains spoilers for the 2nd-season Short Trek, “The Trouble with Edward.”
Star Trek: The Animated Series – “More Tribbles, More Troubles” (season 1, episode 5)
Written by David Gerrold; directed by Hal Sutherland; first aired in 1973
We open with a log entry from Captain Kirk, explaining that the Enterprise is escorting robot ships full of a grain called “quintotriticale” – one better than “quadrotriticale,” I guess – to Sherman’s Planet. That grain, and that planet, are references to the Original Series episode “The Trouble with Tribbles,” and they aren’t the last, as the Enterprise intervenes to stop a Klingon ship from attacking a smaller vessel filled with tribbles, piloted by Cyrano Jones, the original source of the Enterprise’s tribble troubles. After barely surviving the Klingons’ new weapon – a stasis field capable of immobilizing starships – and beaming Jones and the tribbles aboard, Kirk fears a repeat of their last disastrous run-in with tribbles. But Jones assures him that these tribbles have been genetically engineered not to reproduce, and that his new pet, a “glommer,” is the perfect predator to keep their numbers down at any rate. The Klingon captain, Koloth – another call-back to “The Trouble with Tribbles” – demands that Jones be turned over, and when Kirk refuses, they continue their attack, during which the tribbles find their way into damaged grain containers and grow too big for the glommer to eat. Kirk implements “Emergency Defense Plan B” – beaming giant tribbles on board the Klingon ship – and a desperate Koloth admits that he just needs the glommer, to save a Klingon planet from being overrun by the tribbles Jones sold there. Kirk has the glommer beamed over, and Dr. McCoy figures out how to break the enormous tribbles down into “colonies” of small, “safe” tribbles, which Kirk finds himself buried under once again.
Star Trek: Short Treks – “The Trouble with Edward” (season 2, episode 2)
Written by Graham Wagner; directed by Daniel Gray Longino; first aired in 2019
We open on the Enterprise under Captain Pike’s command, a decade or so before Captain Kirk’s trouble with tribbles. Pike bids farewell to a member of his crew, Lynne Lucero, who has herself just been made Captain of the Cabot, a science ship on a mission to help the starving inhabitants of Pragine 63, near Klingon space. Pike gently warns the brilliant Lucero that not everyone under her command will be “on” her “level,” and this turns out to be true when she meets Lt. Edward Larkin, the Cabot’s “protein specialist,” who is weirdly obsessed with a newly discovered species: “Tribleustes ventricosus.” His crewmates are taken with the cute little tribbles, but Larkin mostly values them for the meat under their adorable fur, and thinks that with some genetic tinkering to make them reproduce faster, they might make a good source of food for the local population. Put off by the moral implications – and by Larkin himself – Captain Lucero orders him off his work with the tribbles. He genetically engineers them anyway, adding some of his own DNA (ew), and they begin reproducing so quickly that they soon overrun the Cabot, forcing Lucero to give the order to abandon ship. But Larkin refuses to get on board the escape shuttle, repeatedly insisting that he’s “not dumb” until a flood of tribbles crushes him. When Lucero finds herself questioned on the loss of her ship and a member of her crew by Starfleet Command, she explains that Larkin “was an idiot.” The credits roll, and are followed by a parody of a 1980s Saturday morning-style TV commercial (complete with the wavering picture quality of a VCR recording), advertising Tribbles Breakfast Cereal, the cereal that’s “pregnant … with flavor!”
To explain how the world of The Simpsons works, series creator Matt Groening has used the phrase “rubber band reality,” meaning that the show was deliberately designed to be flexible in its tone, subject matter, and even genre – to be exactly as absurd, and/or exactly as grounded, as it needed to be, in any given moment of any given story. This is, most obviously, why the geography and scale of Springfield is so notoriously, and intentionally, impossible to pin down; the supposed small town is home to an international airport, a Grand Canyon-sized gorge, and the headquarters of the Republican Party, purely because particular episodes need it to be. More importantly, though, rubber band reality is the reason The Simpsons can, at its best, shift so smoothly from slapstick sight gags to social satire, from absurdist meta-humor to genuine emotional moments. It’s why the same series that explored the emotional impact of societal expectations on children in “Separate Vocations” (in which the arbitrary results of a career aptitude test turn gifted idealist Lisa into a nihilistic badass) and gave us a shockingly dark take-down of the American Dream in “Homer’s Enemy” (in which hard-working self-made man Frank Grimes literally dies trying, unsuccessfully, to stop society from rewarding Homer’s unthinking incompetence) can also pit Homer against amusement park animatronics run amok in “Itchy & Scratchy Land” and send him into space in “Deep Space Homer.” Rubber band reality allows The Simpsons’ creative team to try just about anything, in a familiar setting with familiar characters; it allows the series to be almost anything, and to still always, somehow, be itself.
This isn’t unique to The Simpsons, of course. I’d argue that all fiction has some degree of rubber band reality to it, and TV might be the medium where that’s the most obvious. If I had to describe The X-Files in one sentence, that sentence would not contain the word “comedy,” and yet some of the series’ most well-known and well-received episodes – including my personal favorite, “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” – are largely or entirely comedic. Likewise, my brief description of the meta-sitcom Community probably wouldn’t include the words “science fiction,” despite the fact that its episode “Remedial Chaos Theory” might be, without exaggeration, the best treatment of alternate-reality sci-fi I’ve ever seen on TV. I get that there are viewers for whom this sort of thing doesn’t work, for whom it’s pretty important that a show – especially a drama, and especially a genre drama – faithfully follows a well-defined set of rules. I tend not to be one of those viewers, though I’ll admit I always had a hard time suspending my disbelief when an android would show up in Buffy the Vampire Slayer … a show about, you know, vampires, and demons, and other things that should be a whole lot harder to believe in than androids. Still, I believe that part of what’s fun about fiction is the fact that its rules, unlike the rules of reality, don’t always have to be followed. And a fictional universe as long-running and well-established as Star Trek’s can, I think, support a particularly flexible rubber band reality, without necessarily breaking what we like about it.
That flexibility of the Trek universe was originally established by The Original Series itself, arguably starting in its second season with “The Trouble with Tribbles.” Humor had certainly been a part of the TOS formula before that, with the first-season episode “Tomorrow is Yesterday” serving as a striking example, but I’d argue that “The Trouble with Tribbles” was the first episode of Trek that wasn’t just “science fiction with some funny parts,” but “comedic science fiction.” The whole episode is structured – in its writing and direction, its musical score, and the delivery and comic timing of its actors – much more like a sitcom than a drama. And the tribbles themselves are the perfect parody of a typical Trek threat, a misunderstood alien presence gradually taking over the ship and unintentionally endangering its crew … all while looking ridiculously, adorably non-threatening. So, if “The Trouble with Tribbles” is such a departure from the standard formula for an Original Series episode – if not an outright spoof of that formula – then why is it one of the most beloved, acclaimed, and widely recognized episodes, not just of TOS, but of Trek, period? I suspect that’s because, in stretching the boundaries of what Star Trek can be, it demonstrates a truly impressive understanding, especially for such an early episode, of why viewers were drawn to Trek in the first place. “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” pokes fun at the tropes and seriousness of The X-Files, while showing that it understands and respects the show’s interest in, and empathy for, the effects of grand, mysterious forces on the lives of individual people; “Remedial Chaos Theory” bends the reality of Community, but does so as a way of dramatizing the on-the-nose mission statement of the entire series – that individuals, however different the paths their lives have taken, are always, ultimately better off when they come together to form a … well, you know. And “The Trouble with Tribbles” gives us a comedic break from Trek as usual, while still giving us exactly what we’ve come to expect from Trek: diverse reactions from diverse characters to an outlandish sci-fi situation that stands in for an uncomfortable truth of the real world – that truth being, in this case, that if we’re not careful, our actions can have unintended and unpredictable effects on the natural world around us (and the episode’s legacy certainly hasn’t been hurt by the fact that this message, subtle as it is, has only become more relevant over time).
After “The Trouble with Tribbles,” comedic episodes would become one of the standard tools in Trek’s toolbox, as seen in episodes like The Original Series’ “A Piece of the Action,” The Next Generation’s “A Fistful of Datas,” and the first-season Short Trek “The Escape Artist.” In fact, one of DS9’s most popular episodes, “Trials and Tribble-ations,” would return not only to comedy, but to “The Trouble with Tribbles” itself, using groundbreaking visual effects to insert time-traveling DS9 characters into the classic TOS episode. And this wasn’t even the first time Trek revisited its tribbles. The Animated Series, that 1970s oddity from the time between The Original Series’ cancellation and The Motion Picture’s debut, made a habit of making sequels to specific episodes of TOS, and this unsurprisingly included the return of Cyrano Jones and his tribbles, not to mention Klingon antagonist Koloth, in “More Tribbles, More Troubles.” The episode’s writing credit even goes to David Gerrold, the writer of “The Trouble with Tribbles” himself, though I find myself wondering how much control Gerrold had over the way this episode turned out. Not just because “More Tribbles, More Troubles” isn’t as good as “The Trouble with Tribbles” – in fairness, how many episodes are? – but because it isn’t as funny.
I’m all for Trek revisiting its own ideas – Trek vs. Trek wouldn’t exist if I wasn’t – but I believe this works best when Trek has something new to add to those ideas. The episode “Yesteryear” is not only The Animated Series’ most successful homage to The Original Series, but its most successful episode, period, because it uses the Guardian of Forever to visit not a pivotal moment in history writ large, as “The City on the Edge of Forever” does, but a pivotal moment in Spock’s personal history; it takes one of the themes from that all-time classic TOS episode – history is very personal for those who live through it – and uses that theme to explore aspects of Spock’s upbringing, as a half-human, half-Vulcan child trying to find a place for himself. What a newer episode adds to an old idea doesn’t necessarily have to be that profound, of course. Deep Space Nine’s “One Little Ship” builds on an idea from The Animated Series itself, taking the shrink-ray fun of “The Terratin Incident” and simply adding one of DS9’s runabouts into the miniature mix … along with an extra dose of self-aware humor, allowing its characters to literally break down laughing, before the opening credits even roll, while describing the premise of the episode we’re about to watch. “More Tribbles, More Troubles” follows the formula of “The Trouble with Tribbles” too closely at times, with the same thing at stake – grain to feed a colony – and even two of the same antagonists, in Koloth and Cyrano Jones. It does go off in a direction of its own by introducing the drone ships (a cool idea), the new Klingon weapon, and the glommer. But the glommer becomes largely irrelevant almost immediately, and is mostly just an excuse for conflict with the Klingons, whose new weapon is interesting, but out of place here. Much like “The Terratin Incident,” in fact, “More Tribbles, More Troubles” gets a bit bogged down in taking the technobabble behind that Klingon weapon too seriously, when it could be spending more time just having unapologetic fun with the clearly campy concept of tribbles.
Don’t get me wrong: “More Tribbles, More Troubles” is probably one of the better episodes of The Animated Series. The issues I have with it are mainly issues I have with the series as a whole, issues that perhaps stem, at least partly, from unfair expectations on my part. I came to TAS late, first watching it only a few years ago. Approaching it from my post-Simpsons perspective, I wish TAS would have used its animation to embrace rubber band reality much more than it did. Or, to put that more simply and less pretentiously, I want animated Star Trek to be wacky Star Trek! I want it to stretch the possibilities of what Star Trek can be, in ways that only an animated show can. I want it to run wild with those possibilities, in the way that post-Simpsons animated sci-fi shows like Futurama or Rick & Morty have (and which the upcoming animated Star Trek projects may well do, for all I know now). But TAS came long before The Simpsons firmly established that animation wasn’t only for kids, and it presumably was aimed at kids, though its relatively slow, talky pace creates some confusion about that (and the pacing isn’t helped by the fact that Bill Shatner’s voice acting as Captain Kirk was so obviously, and maybe literally, phoned in, a far cry from his famously animated – sorry – performances on The Original Series). For whatever reason, the show often seems more intent on justifying itself as a continuation of Star Trek than on having fun with what Star Trek could be, though I do appreciate it adding decidedly non-human characters to the crew in some episodes, in a way that The Original Series (and arguably every other series of Trek to come after it, up until Discovery) would find challenging, on a budget level. Here in “More Tribbles, More Troubles,” I also appreciate the giant tribbles – something else that would have been hard for the original “Trouble with Tribbles” to show us – but again, I would have liked to see the episode take the opportunity to turn the number of tribbles flooding the halls of the Enterprise right up to 11 … to do more with the cute little puff-balls than, say, recreate the iconic visual of Kirk buried up to his neck in them.
Turning the flood of tribbles up to 11 is something “The Trouble with Edward” absolutely does. This second-season Short Trek isn’t animated (though an animated Short Trek appears to be coming soon, as of the time I’m writing this) … but it might as well be. I think it’s pretty safe to say that “The Trouble with Edward” stretches Star Trek’s rubber band reality farther than it has ever been stretched before – arguably in the main episode itself, and unquestionably in the post-credits commercial parody – and the fan reactions I’ve seen to it so far have been predictably, and understandably, divided. As I acknowledged above, this is to be expected from fiction that pushes the boundaries of its fictional universe, especially when that boundary-pushing is done with a self-aware wink to its audience; in some ways, this sort of thing is almost the polar opposite of fan service, acknowledging the existence of us, the audience, not by reassuring us that some character or plot detail we remember is still relevant to the fictional universe, but by forcefully reminding us that the universe in question is fictional – that all those characters and plot details we remember so fondly are ultimately just some stuff that someone made up. This can be uncomfortable, of course – it’s at least partly meant to be uncomfortable, I think, even when it’s also meant to be fun – and is bound to bounce right off some members of the audience, in the same way that the robots in Buffy tend to bounce off of me.
For some viewers, I think, it’s the tongue-in-cheek, unabashedly comedic tone of “The Trouble with Edward” – again, throughout the episode but especially in the post-credits sequence – that pulls them out of the episode. (I would point out that, aside from the commercial parody, “The Trouble with Edward” makes use of a pretty similar comedic structure to “The Trouble with Tribbles” itself, right down to the “Johnny Appleseed” montage, which even sounds spot-on like the score from that earlier episode; but honestly, if “The Trouble with Tribbles” were airing as a brand new episode in the current media and fandom landscape, I strongly suspect that it, too, would bounce off of some viewers, however beloved it might be today.) For others, it’s this Short Trek’s loose, semi-contradictory relationship with pre-existing Trek continuity that bothers them. (Again, I would point out that the precise details of Trek’s past world-building have long been open to re-interpretation and revision as the franchise has carried on and grown, and in fact one of the most memorable jokes in DS9’s fan-favorite “Trials and Tribble-ations” hangs a lantern on this with its teasing references to the evolution of Klingon makeup design since The Original Series; but, well, let’s not even get into how more recent changes to the look of the Klingons have been received by some!) I’m not going to say that anyone shouldn’t feel the way they feel about this episode, just as I wouldn’t want anyone to say I shouldn’t react the way I do to robots on Buffy. I will gently suggest, though – as other fans of Buffy might do for me – that it can be healthy for us to be reminded that these stories we’re so invested in are stories; that an episode of Short Treks (or Buffy, or The X-Files) isn’t a technical manual, in which consistency and accuracy are ends unto themselves. (And of course, if you want technical manuals based on the Trek universe, they’ve been written – by all means, go read them!) Accuracy and consistency certainly are useful tools in a writer’s toolbox, but they’re not the only tools, and just as hammering a light bulb isn’t the best way to change it, accuracy and consistency aren’t the best way to tell every story. Stories should be, among other things, fun – for the audience and the artists – and reveling in rubber band reality is the kind of fun we can only have in fiction.
And for me, at least, “The Trouble with Edward” is a lot of fun. It commits to turning Trek into comedic sci-fi – not just sci-fi with some funny bits – in a way that takes full advantage of the more compact format of a Short Trek; it’s as densely packed with jokes and sight gags as any episode of, say, Archer or Bob’s Burgers (both of which are named for characters voiced by H. Jon Benjamin, who plays Edward Larkin here) or the American incarnation of The Office (for which this episode’s credited writer, Graham Wagner, also wrote). Not all of those jokes land, necessarily – the running gag of “This is the end of the conversation” / “But … ” after Captain Lucero fires Edward feels awkwardly forced to me – but I imagine that’s why so many contemporary comedies are so densely packed with jokes: because it’s near-impossible for every joke to land for every viewer. Overall, though, Benjamin’s well-established comic timing, and his impressive ability to turn on a dime between deadpan and frantic, are on full display here, and Rosa Salazar balances him out perfectly as Captain Lucero, the Abbott to his Costello.
And besides being fun to watch, that dynamic between the two is, I think, the part of “The Trouble with Edward” which most clearly contributes something new, not just to Trek’s tribble stories, but to Trek in general. (Well, aside from that unprecedented parody commercial at the end, of course, which just might be an absurdist nod to “More Tribbles, More Troubles” and its Saturday morning time-slot.) While Star Trek has always had its fair share of idiotic admirals and ambassadors, it’s also trained us to expect that the senior staff of any Starfleet vessel will be a bastion of competence and professionalism in an unpredictable universe. Reg Barclay, the recurring Next Generation holodeck addict, shook that status quo a little, but Larkin makes Barclay look like employee of the month, leading Lucero to openly question, to his face, how he made it this far in his Starfleet career. Yes, the fact that he has made it this far flies in the face of Trek’s typical futuristic optimism, and its trope of Starfleet as the perfect workplace. It also feels hilariously, uncomfortably real, in an episode that’s otherwise stretching its rubber band reality almost as far as it can be stretched. Precisely the kind of episode in which Trek can, just maybe, get away with challenging its own unrealistic, if inspiring, expectations for humanity … before running a fake commercial to suggest that everything we just watched was some sort of comedic fever dream. Is it really possible to fail upwards in Starfleet, as Larkin has? Is Tribbles Breakfast Cereal really pregnant with flavor? Who can say?