“Trials and Tribble-ations”
(Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 5, Episode 6)
When it comes to long-running pop culture properties (particularly sci-fi and fantasy ones), legacy is a delicate and tricky thing. Beyond the challenges of maintaining the lore’s continuity (a gigantic bag of worms in itself), there’s the specter of the current incarnation living up to its predecessor(s). The Next Generation faced skepticism from fans of The Original Series but would eventually prove itself as a worthy sequel show. Like clockwork, Deep Space Nine was also a source of controversy and consternation – not just because that’s the way it is for any new installment of a long-running franchise, but also because it notably strayed from the traditional Trek formula.
Star Trek: The Original Series originally aired in the 60’s and had been on the air (and/or theaters) almost continuously the entire time up until the 90’s, when the franchise celebrated its 30th anniversary in 1996 (almost 30 years ago as of now… holy shit). The two Trek shows on the air at the time (Deep Space Nine and Voyager) both did tribute episodes to The Original Series that year to commemorate the occasion – “Trials and Tribble-ations” and “Flashback,” respectively.
As it’s been observed many times, the tricky thing about legacies is that it provides a rich history and potential springboard for future adventures. But more often than not a legacy seems to be more of a burden, an albatross that weighs down a property and limits its horizons rather than expanding them. A big universe can ironically feel more like a smaller, more stifling place when fan service-y connections and callbacks are over-used.
The wonderful thing about “Trials and Tribble-ations,” is that it uses the Trek legacy to soar without being weighed down by any continuity concerns. It’s an hour of pure mirth and whimsy that on paper should not work as well as it does. The most cynical reading is that it rips off Back to the Future II, with the crew being digitally inserted into footage of a previous adventure. But it flourishes as a charming and delightfully silly outing for a show that is Very Not That, generally.
The concept of “Tribble-ations” is basically a technical SFX exercise. Again, BTTF2 did this already with OK-ish results, and two years prior Forrest Gump really popularized the idea of inserting its main character into historical footage. This episode pulls the same trick, but integrates the DS9 characters and weaves a story that sidesteps the gimmicky-ness of BTTF2 and Gump. On a purely technical sense (and especially given that it was done on a TV budget), the results are marvelous, and seem even more so several decades later.
“The Trouble With Tribbles” is one of TOS’ most classic and memorable episodes on its own. It’s a whimsical and funny story that doesn’t veer into cloying or embarrassing territory, which made it a prime choice to insert the DS9 cast into (the producers also considered “A Piece of the Action,” but made the right choice with this one). One of the great achievements of “Tribble-ations” is that it actually manages to build on the fun of the original episode and ends up being even more enjoyable.
The events of the episode are told in flashback by Sisko, and the episode’s wraparound story is just sublime. Two (somewhat-feared) temporal investigators visit the station to debrief Sisko on his time-traveling adventure. It’s an inspired concept that Starfleet would have a bureaucracy of agents cataloguing and tracking time-fuckery, and the disposition of these two guys as humorlouss sticks in the mud is great. They’re essentially temporal IRS agents, and you definitely do not want to get audited by these suits. In a series about fantastical adventures and reality-bending antics, the boring, procedural aspects like Temporal Investigations give some nice color and nuance.
Anyway. The method of time travel is clever enough (and specific to the world of Deep Space Nine) but absolutely inessential, detail-wise. Time travel has honestly been way too easy in Trek, generally. I mean, in The Voyage Home Spock (still recovering from a total memory wipe, mind you) managed to compute the speed and trajectory to send an alien ship back to the specific point in time the crew needed by flying around the sun. And then did it again to come back. So the fact that the Orb of Time (which the Cardassians are conveniently surrendering for some goddamn reason) can just transport the Defiant back 100 years is wacky, but not glaringly silly enough to get in the way of the story. It’s all just an excuse to get us to the fireworks factory. And what a factory it is!
Darvin, the surgically-altered Klingon that Kirk outed at the end of “Trouble,” is still alive and trapped in Cardassian territory. He poses as a merchant on the Defiant to gain access to the Orb of Time and sends the ship hurtling back in time to the events of the episode aboard Station K7. The Defiant’s cloaking device hides the crew from detection and allows them to sneak around to find Darvin and figure out his evil plan. The plot makes clever use of many Deep Space Nine elements to allow the episode to proceed seamlessly.
Sisko and crew of course get dolled up in period uniforms and hair (Bashir’s is especially hilarious), split up, and hilarity ensues. Like, real, actual hilarity. Breaking up the crew into teams is a smart move on the episode’s part, allowing them all to interact with different facets of the old episode/time period in their own wacky subplots. O’Brien and Bashir buddy up and run into Bashir’s probably great-great-grandmother. Odo hangs out at the bar on K7, and Sisko and Dax shadow Kirk and Spock.
Besides the impressive effects that allow the crew to hang out in the backgrounds of the original footage, the production team goes the extra several miles in lovingly recreating the sets of The Original Series, as well as the original physical models of the Enterprise, Station K7, and the Klingon battlecrusier. The attention to detail of Star Trek‘s art department has always been consistently great, but here it’s just crazy good. The episode is a celebration of the bright wackiness of TOS in all its glory, down to the sets and lighting. There’s just so much to take in, visually. They go all out, and it’s really, really fun to see.
One of the most meta aspects (in an already very, very meta episode) is Dax’s wistful nostalgia for the period. The Dax symbiote was alive during this time, so she has actual memories of it and can’t help but go gaga over the aesthetics of the period, mentally undress Spock with her eyes, reminisce about the time she made out with a young Dr. McCoy, or plead with Sisko to let her go to the station so she can accidentally run into Koloth. It almost gets to be a bit much, but it’s all in good fun. Too much fun. She’s an audience surrogate who verbalizes the reverence fans have for the iconic place The Original Seies and its characters occupy. I like Sisko being the party pooper and reigning her in, much as Kirk is the grump who doesn’t find the tribble infestation cute.
The crescendo of silliness is when Worf, Odo, O’Brien, and Bashir get caught up in the Klingon-Starfleet brawl in the K7 bar. The integration of the new and old scenes is great, and there’s an awesome, fun energy to it. This of course leads to O’Brien and Bashir standing in line as Kirk demands answers. I love how jazzed O’Brien is about lying to Kirk afterwards.
Darvin is captured and his poetically dastardly plan is revealed: he’s put a bomb inside a tribble for Kirk to find during the climax. A delightful aspect of the episode is that although there’s technically a conflict and danger to Kirk (and the entire timeline/universe), it’s not something that’s actually a serious threat. We know that everything is going to be Just Fine by the end. Normally, this would rob a story of its efficacy, but the entire point of this episode is just to bask in the retro sights and sounds of the TOS time period. The conflict gives it some dramatic propulsion, but it doesn’t get in the way of the fun. In fact, it makes it more enjoyable to see how the events of the original “Tribbles” can proceed unchanged, both because Starfleet officers always try to be protective of the timeline, and because the footage has to remain mostly intact. For example, as an irritated Kirk is buried in an avalanche of Tribbles after opening a storage compartment, furry critters continue to rain down on his head, because Sisko and Dax are tossing them out of their way looking for the bomb. Ugh, it’s the best.
Speaking of not disturbing the footage, the episode’s biggest and most ambitious trick comes when Sisko, unable to help himself, introduces himself to Kirk before leaving. As the serious Fun Police guy of the episode, it adds an extra twinkle and is a perfect end to the past adventure. The Temporal Investigation suits almost seem impressed, even.
There’s one last silly twist, as we see the Promenade littered with the quickly multiplying tribbles, brought back from the past (and also extinction). The Original Series was an occasionally thoughtful and very campy show. Even at its absolutely silliest and worst, it was a thoroughly memorable and iconic series that rightfully spawned one of the most epic franchises in science fiction.
In contrast, Deep Space Nine was a seldomly silly show that delved deeply into some serious places, and featured nuanced and impressive characterization. At times it took an unflinching look into the dark side of the bright, primary world spawned by TOS, and it ended up being the black sheep of Star Trek for it. Of all the sequel series, it seems the most oddball of choices for it to attempt a lighthearted adventure into Kirk’s era, and maybe that’s why it works so well. Each of the Trek series have their own tributary connections with the original, but this outing is the most bombastically entertaining, sincere, and fun adventure that captures the magic and spirit of what it was all about in the first place.
- I didn’t mention Worf’s involvement, and it’s pretty great, giving us two important world-building details: that Klingons hate tribbles (because of course they do) and are responsible for their homeworld’s destruction and species’ extinction. And he lampshades the fact that TOS Klingons were almost identical to humans. It wouldn’t be until Enterprise that we would get a concrete, serviceable explanation for this discrepancy. The only thing that’s odd is that nobody else knows about it? Surely this info would have been declassified long ago? But so much of history gets forgotten, I guess…
- I’d love to see a cut of “The Trouble With Tribbles” that integrates all the DS9 shots. And for that to be the official version of the episode.
- Bashir fretting about not banging one of his ancestors is a little silly, but I love how little O’Brien cares. This idea would of course be followed through to a graphic degree in my favorite Futurama episode. Star Trek did it first!
- The episode makes clear that each of the Bajoran Orbs have a specific mystical focus. It kind of seems a little Infinity Gems-ish. I’m surprised the Cardassians didn’t try to build a really big glove to house them in. And again, why would the Cardassians willingly give up this insanely powerful artifact? Darvin is able to just bust in and use it to send an entire starship back in time like nothing, so it’s clearly user-friendly. Although a central aspect of Deep Space Nine, the Orbs still seem like an under-utilized and mostly unexplored idea. We’ll see the Orb of Time again being used by Kira in a much darker episode down the line.
- Everything about the bar fight scene is great, but I love how certain O’Brien is that some random dude is Kirk himself.