Wednesday, January 4, 2017
STAR TREK: "THE TROUBLE WITH TRIBBLES" (1967)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*
"Trouble with Tribbles" remains, even after repeated viewings, an immensely likable episode. Though TREK was normally a dramatic show with strong adventure elements, the actors and producers had expanded upon the characters to a degree that it did not seem incongruous for them to show a dominantly comic side.
As almost everyone knows, the comedy in "Trouble with Tribbles" stems from the efficient star-sailors of the Enterprise being forced to tolerate an inundation of cute little creatures who never seem to stop propagating. They're so cute that they don't even have tribble-on-tribble sex, and though they have no limbs and are never seen moving around, they possess a Tinkerbell-like ability to show up wherever they're not wanted. I suspect that if by some miracle the budget had allowed any of the fuzzy things to be seen in motion, the tribbles might have lost some of their endearing qualities. Imagine how unappetizing it would have been for the audience, watching Kirk gaze at a tribble squirming about in his commissary food, or even to see a bunch of them squirming in Uhura's arms. The mere fact that they're so apparently helpless obliges the kind-hearted Enterprise-crew to handle them with kid gloves.
To be sure, there are flaws amid the fun. Why doesn't Cyrano Jones tell his customers, not to mention the vendor at the space station, not to feed the tribbles? If he's in the business of selling them, he ought to want to keep the critters from turning out more versions of themselves, given that this vitiates his market. Various dialogue exchanges establish that he's sold them before, but no one, not even the vendor, seems aware of the troubles associated with the tribbles' reproductive proclivities. Spock's metaphor of the genie released from the bottle is apt for the way the parthenogenetic puffballs are generally treated in the script: as if it's the first time any Federation personnel have been exposed to these particular beasties. Further, if Jones knows, as the dialogue suggests, what's going to happen, why doesn't he leave the space-station tout suite? Why hang around and wait for the weight of Starfleet to kick his ass? Given that this is exactly what happens to him because he sticks around-- why does he?
The whimsical conception of the tribbles is, happily, set against a more serious affair: another Klingon-Federation quarrel over territory, a world dubbed "Sherman's Planet." The terms of the Organian treaty force both parties to compete, in order to prove who can best develop the environment for its never-seen natives. It's broadly implied that the Klingons have no chance in this competition, for Sherman's Planet needs agratian development, and the Klingons are not exactly farmer-folk. It will turn out that the only way these spacefaring Mongols can win is to cheat, blackening the Federation's name by poisoning the grain they bring to the natives. The tribbles accidentally expose the plot by eating said grain, which made me wonder if the creatures were not symbolic stand-ins for the unseen Sherman-natives, since the tribbles suffer the fate that would have befallen those natives. Thanks to the tribbles' voracity, the Federation avoids political embarrassment and serves that same embarrassment up on a platter for their old enemies.
Another minor pleasure is seeing the age-old conflict between field-officers and desk-jockey types. I praised "The Deadly Years" for not painting Kirk's opponent Stocker as a "simplistic martinet." But the comedy in "Tribbles" profits from just such a self-important official, and it's an enduring joy to see Kirk bait and flout the authority of Under-Secretary Barrows. Spock and McCoy, of course, produce a few of their best funny interactions over the question of the tribbles' "usefulness."
Only in my most recent re-viewing did I notice one of the biggest gaffes in any TREK episode. Long after the Enterprise had been overrun with the fuzzy pests, long after Kirk knows full well how easily they insert themselves into air-ducts and vending machines, he demands of his listeners, "I want to know who put the tribbles in the quadrotriticale"-- when he should be more than aware that they put themselves there. (Even if the Enterprise hadn't been part of the equation, the impending fate of the space-station alone should have motivated Cyrano to head for deep space-- meaning that the only reason he really sticks around is to serve the script's convenience.)