I looked over the remaining episodes of the original Star Trek, and “The Trouble with Tribbles” may be the last great episode. To be sure, the show has a number of memorable episodes left. Some of them are even memorable for good reasons. But critical consensus seems to be that the series started to decline about halfway through season two, never to recover. I mean, we still have “Spock’s Brain” to get to. But “The Trouble with Tribbles” is easily one of the best episodes of the entire series. And for a show known mostly for adventure and sci-fi action mixed with moral philosophizing, it does so while basically being a comedic story.
There’s a lot to like and even love with “The Trouble with Tribbles.” I mean, I love this one, so I’ve got that going for me.
Let’s consider how this one goes down. We have two instances where the Enterprise goes on Red Alert. Both times, nothing happens. The only real action scene is a barroom brawl between Scotty, Chekov, some other crewmen, and a bunch of Klingons. Insult Kirk, Scotty can handle that and advice caution to the hotheaded Chekov. Insult his ship, and now he’ll throw the first punch. And even if you do punish Scotty, he’ll use it as an opportunity to catch up on his technical journals.
Later we’ll see Kirk buried in Tribbles, and a final solution for the Tribbles in the form of beaming them onto a departing Klingon ship as the episode ends. The musical notation the series uses at the end of an episode whenever McCoy, Spock, or Kirk make a little jab at each other plays throughout the episode. And even if we don’t have Harry Mudd, we do have Cyrano Jones here in a Mudd-like role, only a lot less disreputable.
The worst thing Cyrano Jones does is steal some drinks during the brawl. Mudd somehow steals whole starships and engages in human trafficking. I’m not even sure Jones knew what he was doing with those Tribbles. We can chalk some of his actions up to ignorance. If we view Mudd as comically harmless in the grand scheme of things, Cyrano Jones is even less dangerous.
But it turns out there’s a lot going on here that didn’t really pan out. The writer of the episode, David Gerrold, actually had a sequel episode in mind for the third season. That never happened, but he was able to recycle the ideas for an episode of The Animated Series. Likewise, there was an intention to bring the Klingon character of Captain Koloth back as a reoccurring antagonist for Kirk. The two seem to already know each other, and not just because Willaim “Trelane” Campbell is playing him. Koloth would return on other shows, not always portrayed by Campbell, but he would return.
Mostly, it turns out Gerrold and the producers actually intended to make the Tribbles representative of invasive species. Sure, considering they were just hairy balls of fur, they seemed harmless enough, but they just ate and reproduced. McCoy, examining an ever-growing pile of the things, suggests they may be “born pregnant.” Spock, on the other hand, doesn’t see the use of the things. Uhura can say they bring love, but that doesn’t work on Spock. It doesn’t work on Kirk either as he gets continuously exasperated seeing Tribbles everywhere and dealing with stuffier-than-usual bureaucrats. Kirk is quick to say there can be too much of a good thing, including love. That’s some good work backing up Spock as the Science Officer insists the Tribbles have no practical uses whatsoever.
But then we see Spock is wrong. Hey, it happens.
Yes, Tribbles do have some uses. Their ravenous appetites mean they’ll eat the poisoned grain meant to sabotage a Federation colony. They also act as uncanny Klingon Detectors. Since Klingons still look human, Tribbles going nuts when a mole walks past them is a nice touch. Heck, by then even Spock can concede they’re quite perceptive creatures, possibly because they do like Vulcans.
And so, aside from that brawl, we get an episode made up of more jokes than action. I’m fine with that. Heck, this episode went a long way towards fleshing out both Scotty and Chekov. Scotty, by this point, was mostly just a stalwart officer who could fill in for Kirk as needed. Beyond that, he’s mostly the guy who gets hurt defending women who won’t date him. Here we see he’s a bit of a dork, level-headed, and about all he really cares about is the engines of the ship he loves. He may love the Enterprise more than Kirk does. He looks more like the comic relief character that appears in the movies, moreso than he has so far.
As for Chekov, this episode really leans into his bit about saying everything comes from Russia. That includes Scotch. We’ve seen that a couple times so far, but his Russian patriotism hits an all-time high here.
That actually makes me wonder a bit about how the government on Earth functions. We know there is one, and that the Federation has a president. But is it a democracy? We see officials all the time, but never find out how they got where they are. Could Russia still be a distinctive political entity in this time period? Aside from Scotty being all about Scotch and maybe Edinburgh, we don’t see this much fervor for a native land unless McCoy’s Southern accent is showing.
Still, it fleshes these characters out in ways that makes this episode more fun than it already is. And when Kirk is chest-deep in Tribbles, well, that’s just fun.