Trekland, Extra #14: Tribble True-Love Is Tremendous
My daughter-in-law-to-be opened one of her presents Christmas morning and discovered …. a pair of tribble slippers.
That right there tells you just about all you need to know about the impact of those ever-hungry, born-pregnant furballs that first saw the light of broadcast day exactly 45 years ago this week.
Yep, that’s right: It’s a happy birthday to “The Trouble With Tribbles” that first aired on Dec. 29, 1967. Grain storage compartments have not been quite the same since.
Now if, for some bizarre reason, you are reading this — at STARTREK.com — and have NOT seen this classic episode, then by all the Holy Rings of Betazed I don’t care what your preference of Trek series is or is not: Get thee to a Netflix or a friend’s Blu-ray or DVD set or even this link—and watch. You need the cultural milestones, the dialogue references, the introduction of commerce into Trek, the comic use of Klingons… you need to see the longest fight in Star Trek history … and you need to see its biggest sight gag ever, too. Plus—it’s Patty Duke’s dad, the original Allstate guy and the head of The Time Tunnel! What more could you want? The Jetsons’ instant drink machine? Yep, it’s there, too.
Let me put it this way: If the BBC’s “Christmas special” tradition had been in effect at NBC in the States, THIS would have been Trek’s entry. A spotlight scene or two for every regular, to boot—and even theme music for Scotty.
Yes, there have been reams and megabytes of direct commentary on this classic episode that don’t need to be repeated here—beyond simply my teasers to get all you unawares to be educated at last.
But a legacy it has indeed, all the more incredible since “The Trouble With Tribbles” began its pop-culture life not expecting one. Today, though, you can read about it everywhere. And see the animated sequel. And even in the J.J. Abrams altverse, courtesy of IDW and of course Delta Vega Lab.
In hindsight, producing “The Trouble With Tribbles” was actually a daring move. I mean, think about it: sci-fi in the ‘60s was not exactly taken seriously by the mainstream, especially on television. You’ve seen the bloopers—even Star Trek’s devout actors, writers and designers were not above goofing on the insane moments they found themselves in. Occasional humorous scenes IN the script were no stranger to Star Trek, either, and proved its stock of fully-rounded characters and a believable universe. But for Trek’s two good producer Genes—Coon and Roddenberry—to take such a leap of faith on an all-out comedy vehicle with only a hint of danger… well, it was more than an academic exercise in “showing the format’s broad potential.” It was taking a Big Risk.
One that, thankfully, paid off—and maybe for more than we give it credit. “The Trouble With Tribbles” also holds the distinction of being the only episode to have ever been “brought back.” For the 30th Trek anniversary in 1996, both then-series chose to revisit a moment in Trek’s past: on Voyager, the springboard became the Excelsior scenes with Captain Sulu, a subplot of Star Trek VI, for “Flashback.” Over on DS9, flush with the new capacity for Gump-style CGI retro mashups on a TV budget, the decision was made to do just that by hijacking the entire plot of “Tribbles” and overlaying a new story with Sisko & Co.
As DS9 producers Ira Steven Behr, Ron Moore and others have noted, there was only one choice for a TOS show with a vibe light enough to serve their retelling, while at the same time fitting as an iconic-enough Trek for the widest audience. “Trials and Tribble-ations” is of course its own story, and even managed to ret-con background into the original episode and universe (Thank you, Ron, for finally making “D-7” battlecruisers canon, for one). In turn, the DS9 show’s look unwittingly set the bar high for any future revamping of visual effects and sight/sound quality—which arrived with the first remastered HD versions in 2006.
That anniversary honor bestowed in 1996 points back to the universality and plain ol’ irresistible charm of “The Trouble With Tribbles”—which is also the only episode of any Trek series to get its own stand-alone “making of” book. Then-rookie scriptwriter David Gerrold was smart enough to get this classic tome done—and it still serves as a perfect complement to Stephen Poe Whitfield’s The Making of Star Trek. Detailing how all the twists and turns of a pitch sale, story development and script revision process work in TV, this one has our heroes and favorite actors backstage to help tell the tale. (It’s also the first reference we have to how Trek writers name people and planets after old girlfriends all the time. I just hope Holly Sherman knows of the spot she holds in Terran-Klingon history.)
Thanks to David’s Tribbles book, we also get our best extended look at writer-producer Gene Coon in action—a man who died woefully too soon to get the credit and acclaim due him, as so many others did, once the Trek train picked up steam and became a phenom. Coon has enough data points on the record, as the creator of the Klingons and the Prime Directive, for starters. But his running conversations with David for “Tribbles,” as recounted in the book, reveal exactly how a showrunner can have pivotal and even historic input to the final product without ever getting “screen credit” at all. As with the stories in Whitfield’s book, these chapters describe the industry from the typewriter-and-index-card 1960s, and yet are STILL a great bible on the sweat and tears behind television “magic.”
Not to mention the book is the source of the fact that “Tribbles” lost out for that year’s Hugo Award in the TV/film category by just six votes—to sister Trek classic, “The City of the Edge of Forever.”
I can also credit “Tribbles” with the most fun and effortless thing I ever wrote, long or short: the on-stage “making of” feature for DS9’s “Tribble-ations” in Communicator magazine, before my editor days. You can read the interwoven shoot log and creator chats here —including my amazing discovery of veteran gaffer Frank Brooks on the crew, who told me he had worked on BOTH episodes, almost 30 years apart! He said those 1960s prop Tribbles were a running joke around Desilu for months… and a sure way to crack up Lucille Ball herself when they turned up in a desk drawer on her show with the cameras running.
So, here’s to the Tribbles. Despite the decades, the glommer, the Klingon Great Tribble Hunt and all the rest … they’re still one of the most-beloved icons of all things Star Trek to the biggest mainstream audience. They popped up on Christmas morning at my house … and chances are, they’ll being doing it everywhere else for a long time to come. Hopefully, in a non-pregnant state.
So—what’s your favorite bit from “The Trouble With Tribbles”? Or do you not have one, and this furball fete is not on your Trek Top 10 radar?
Larry Nemecek, author of The Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion, Star Trek Magazine columnist and longtime editor of Star Trek Communicator, is currently producing The Con of Wrath, a documentary about the most “glorious failure” convention ever, and the TREKLAND: ON CD audio series from his interview archives. He will also host the 2013 return of the “Hollywood to Vegas: Trek Film Sites” tour for Geek Nation Tours; click HERE for details. Larry shares his years as Star Trek author, historian, consultant and insider at conventions and on larrynemecek.com. His posts and original video chats with all your favorites are at Treklandblog.com, plus @larrynemecek on Twitter and Larry Nemecek’s Trekland on Facebook.