Tuesday, December 17, 2013

“purr purr”: More Tribbles, More Troubles

The absolute pinnacle of limited animation.
Making a sequel to an Original Series episode is a self-evidently obvious thing for the Animated Series to be doing. Doubly so when the episode in question is “The Trouble with Tribbles”.

I don't think there's any disputing the fact “The Trouble with Tribbles” was the moment at which Star Trek secured its immortality. It's pretty much the definition of “iconic” and an absolutely perfect bit of television. No questions asked. In fact, perhaps the most damning evidence the season three team simply didn't understand Star Trek is to be found in Fred Freiberger saying “The Trouble with Tribbles” was too silly a thing for the show to be doing. But that said there's danger in revisiting a story like this: There's a significant risk that, in doing so, the sequel will inevitably cheapen the original's impact and retroactively damage its reputation. Sequels simply are not as good as their source material, and I'm comfortable making that a firm declaration. There are rare exceptions of course and serialized, episodic stories are another matter entirely, but as a general rule that's frankly the way it is.

Things look pretty bad for “More Troubles, More Tribbles” then. However, this is no ordinary sequel: For one, Dave Gerrold is writing again (and mercifully back in what's familiar and comfortable territory for him this time) and then there's the matter of this being planned for the third season of the Original Series. “More Troubles, More Tribbles” was not meant as a cheap cash-in on the popularity and legacy of the Original Series' most beloved episode for the low-budget animated spinoff, it was a follow-up the original writer wanted to write, and for the “proper”, “grown-up” show to boot. Gerrold was one of the first people D.C. Fontana called when the Animated Series was greenlit and, as the two had become friends, basically told him “and the first thing you're doing is writing that Tribble episode you wanted for the third season”. And so it was.

But even so, there's an inescapable sense of...sequel-ness about “More Tribbles, More Troubles”. The Enterprise is escorting two robot ships loaded with special quintotriticale grain (it's like quadrotriticale, except quinto) to Sherman's Planet (of course) and they have to be on the lookout for the Klingons (of course) who are rumoured to be testing a new super weapon. Eventually, they run into some: A Klingon battlecruiser is pursuing a Federation scout ship and relentlessly pummeling it with disruptor fire. As this is in violation of treaty, the Enterprise moves to intercept and Kirk demands a cease fire, which is soundly ignored. A couple more volleys of words and gunfire and the scout ship is destroyed (though not before Scotty manages to rescue the pilot and cargo) and the Enterprise gets whacked with the Klingon's new weapon, a projected stasis field that immobilizes all higher level energy functions on a starship, but drains a massive amount of power from the user's own ship. The pilot turns out to be Cyrano Jones (of course) carrying a cargo of Tribbles (of course) genetically engineered to not breed (of course). The Klingons hail the Enterprise, and it turns out the commander is Kirk's old friend Koloth (of course) who demands Kirk hand Jones over to stand trial for Eco-terrorisim.

This episode is also a good case study on precisely what Gene Coon contributed to stories he had a hand in, and indeed how much of “The Trouble with Tribbles” was in fact his. “More Tribbles, More Troubles” isn't quite as tight and smooth as its predecessor. While the writing, in particular the dialog, is still first class, it just doesn't seem to flow quite as well, and there are a few confusing logic and plot points. Jones says he was able to get off Deep Space K-7 early because he had help from a Glommer, supposedly the Tribbles' natural predator. But later, it turns out Jones stole the Glommer from a Klingon colony, and the Glommer is an organism genetically engineered to specifically prey on Tribbles. It's never made clear at what point during his sentence Jones was able to pop of to a Klingon colony and pick one up, and indeed it's further revealed this is the whole reason the Klingons are after him in the first place. Also, the big gimmick this time is that the Tribbles don't multiply, they just grow larger (even McCoy confirms this), and this causes problems of their own. But then it turns out they do in fact multiply and the giant Tribbles are in truth just huge colonies of Tribbles. Things like this don't really significantly detract from this episode, but it's clear it could have used a bit more polish.

The acting too is a little bit changeable: The main cast are all terrific, in fact this might be their best outing in the Animated Series yet and light-years removed from their near-comatose performances last time. Stanley Adams is back as Cyrano Jones too and is as good as always, probably proving he was a better actor than a writer. But, because this is Filmation, we could only afford one Special Guest Star this week so that means Koloth is played by James Doohan. Not to knock Doohan, who was amazing, and he does as good a job as can be expected of him, but it's hard not to deeply miss William Campbell in that role. The banter between Kirk and Koloth just isn't the same without him there.

But none of this to say “More Tribbles, More Troubles” is especially bad either. Far from it-It's perfectly delightful. There are a number of genuinely charming moments here: My favourites are Kirk repeatedly having to push the steadily-growing Tribble colony off his chair and his interactions with Jones and Koloth. This exchange in particular is just classic:

KOLOTH [on viewscreen]: Ah, Captain Kirk. We'll take control of your ship now.

KIRK: Not if I can help it.

KOLOTH [on viewscreen]: I want your prisoner.

KIRK: Much as I hate to admit it, Captain Koloth, Cyrano Jones is a citizen of the Federation and entitled to Federation protection. I must, much as it pains me, refuse your request.

KOLOTH [on viewscreen]: It is not a request. Don't force me to take steps that we will both regret.

KIRK: Close channel, Lieutenant.

UHURA: With pleasure, sir.

SPOCK: Aren't you going to sit down, sir? (the captain's chair is occupied by a Tribble colony bigger than Kirk)

KIRK: I think I'll stand.

I also love what Gerrold does with the other characters: Scotty muttering under his breath as the transporter keeps acting up is terrific, and Uhura seems to have taken up the role previously occupied by Chekov as the ship's resident smartass, and its a fantastic use of her character. Just after the Enterprise is hit by the projected stasis field and Spock points out that literally all systems are inoperative, Uhura snarks “Well, we could always throw rocks” and you can hear Nichelle Nichols' eyes rolling as she delivers the line. It's genius.

Furthermore, there's a legitimate plot reason you'd want to bring the Tribbles back aside from their marquee value, and Gerrold does seem to get this. What the Tribbles seem best suited to is the sort of story where they can hang around in the background for a bit seemingly as a cute B-story before suddenly exploding into and seizing control of the main plot as a metaphor for how the situation has spiraled out of control. Indeed, the ever-growing Tribble colonies in this story are an almost better metaphor for a “snowballing” situation than the multiplying ones in “The Trouble with Tribbles”. Secondly, Tribbles are very good at diffusing conflict and pointing out its absurdity, and they gamely do both of these things here. In the first episode they showed up to put an end to the Federation and the Klingon Empire's ridiculously macho diplomatic posturing, and here they stop Kirk and Koloth from blasting each other out of the sky and starting a war, which is a fitting raising of the stakes.

(We'll ignore, I suppose, the fact Kirk resolves the crisis the exact same way Scotty did in “The Trouble with Tribbles” by transporting all the Tribbles to the Klingon engine room. At least Koloth points out that “He did it to us again!”).

Ultimately though it's hard to get too worked up about this episode. It's inoffensive, more than entertaining, and at twenty minutes it doesn't take up a lot of your time. Best of all, it displays all the hallmarks of an above-average sequel: It doesn't detract from or retroactively ruin the original work and can be safely disregarded if you're so inclined. But why would you want to? “More Tribbles, More Troubles” delivers exactly what it says it's going to in its title, and it's tough to get upset about that.


  1. I hadn't thought of using Uhura as wise-ass until now, and it does seem to be a constant source of amusement to have a Communications Officer be a bit comedically over-communicative. I haven't got to watching this yet, but I do see some fun overlap between these K-7 Tribble episodes, and the concept of "space stations having regular recurring casts", and the eventual Deep Space Nine, and therein DS9's absolutely appropriate choice of which TOS episode to revisit.

    Glommers also bring to mind Worf's declaration that the Empire declared war on Tribbles - he didn't say how they fought that war, and it seems silly in hindsight to imagine armies of Klingon soldiers and civilians scooping up space vermin, or rallying massive pesticide units, when they have the option of genetically engineering a perfect Tribble predator.

    Fun stuff.

  2. I think I got two episodes confused... in my memory, the Klingon commander in this episode was not Koloth but a new character, a Klingon Kirk had somehow trained with at some point in the past? Is there an episode with such a Klingon or is my memory just all wonky?

    1. I don't recall any episode like that, to be honest...The only other appearance of the Klingons in the Animated Series is, if I recall correctly, Kor in "The Time Trap", and I certainly don't remember that being a plot point.