They're soft. They're fuzzy. They purr. They are an ecological disaster and, for many, the principal gateway to Star Trek fandom. They are Tribbles and, to this day, they make most people smile (but a few unlikely folks run away in distaste.) This week marks the 45th anniversary of the Tribbles' first appearance, so if you take one Tribble, multiplying with an average litter of 10, producing a new generation every 12 hours over a period of three days… that's a lot of trouble!
When we did “One Trek Mind Live” at the Creation Entertainment Official Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas this year -- click HERE -- I was struck by just how much passion these cooing balls of fluff still inspired in people. When I floated “The Trouble With Tribbles” as a contender for one of the top 10 TOS episodes the room exploded. A faction leapt to their feet, cheering the little fluffy spheres of reproduction on, while another group shouted from their innermost depths how Tribbles were the absolute worst. Those who weren't so vocal were at least chuckling along. Everyone seems to have a strong opinion on Tribbles.
“The Trouble With Tribbles” is, quite possibly, the first episode of Star Trek you ever saw. It is a great, fun way to get hooked, and a perfect vehicle to meet the characters. Kirk, cocksure and independent; Spock, level-headed and analytical; Bones, curious and determined. Also Scotty, one part bruiser, one part tech-head; Chekov, filled with youthful ambition, and Uhura, caring and warm. (Sorry, Sulu, you took the week off to shoot a John Wayne movie.)
“The Trouble With Tribbles” is energetic, has lots of twists and also pulls the curtain back on the inner workings of Starfleet. (Kirk to Baris: “I have never questioned the orders or the intelligence of any representative of the Federation. Until now.”) Also, this episode really rolls its sleeves up when presenting interstellar baddies, the Klingons. The exchange of insults between Kirk and Koloth is arguably the most Flash Gordon-esque moment of the series.
Most important, however, is “Tribbles”' notion that the galaxy is weird. Even with “The Devil in the Dark”'s silicon-based Horta and “Errand of Mercy”'s pure-energy Organians, so many of the creatures we meet in Trek are humanoid-based (though both “Who Mourns for Adonais?” and TNG's “The Chase” make a clear canonical case for this phenomenon.) Most people seem to really dig that virtually anything in the Star Trek Universe could actually be a threat (or, if not a threat, then a genuine force) to reckon with.
Tribbles' legacy in Star Trek is massive, especially for little balls of fur that don't actually do much. They got the full-on sequel treatment in The Animated Series (“More Troubles More Tribbles”) as well as a biggest, wettest, fattest kiss from the “second generation” of shows to the classics: the Deep Space Nine fan favorite “Trials and Tribble-ations.”
Originally conceived as a “hats off” to Star Trek's 30th anniversary (oh my, has it been that long?) this time-travel epic put our current characters and dropped them in the middle of the old adventure. Finally, there was a REASON that little Tribbles kept bopping Kirk on the head after opening that container of quadrotriticale.
In the J.J. Abrams reboot there are, of course, no shortage of Easter Eggs and callbacks to the original, “prime” timeline. If you look closely when we first meet Simon Pegg's Scotty in his rundown Delta Vega workshop, you'll see a caged Tribble cooing off in the corner. (They also made their way into Dr. Phlox's menagerie on Enterprise. However, the Denobulan physician, usually such a kind man, actually used them as pet food!)
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Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, ScreenCrush and Badass Digest. On his BLOG, Jordan has reviewed all 727 Trek episodes and films, most of the comics and some of the novels.