Trek Back: ‘Trials and Tribble-ations’

Vedran Bileta

Written By: Ronald D. Moore and René Echevarria

Directed By: Jonathan West

Story By: Ira Steven Behr, Hans Beimler and Robert Hewitt Wolfe  

The year is 1996. Star Trek is enjoying its golden age and celebrating its Thirtieth anniversary. To mark this special occasion, two TOS tribute episodes are made. One is done by Voyager, the flagship show. The other is done by the “black sheep”, Deep Space Nine. And as usual, the iconoclastic DS9 team, misunderstood by many of the fans at the time, creates another masterpiece. There is no better word to describe the hilarious and charming “Trials and Tribble-ations”. The best Trek homage ever made. And the episode that I am happy to re-watch. Again, and again.

At first, this episode should not work. There is barely a plot, and the sense of nostalgia is strong with this one. For DS9, the show that was defined by the complex and intelligent stories and shunned nostalgia, this is a clear red alert. But the concept is not only working. It is working spectacularly. From the very moment when captain Sisko is visited by the two temporal agents (I am still waiting for the Temporal Investigation Bureau spin-off), we know that we are in for a treat as shenanigans ensue in spades. Through the misuse of the Bajoran orb (of Time, obviously), the Defiant and its crew are thrown in the past. To the K-7 space station, the place familiar to the fandom. The crew needs to navigate the station undercover, find the Klingon agent in disguise Darvin (Charlie Brill reprising the role), and stop his nefarious plan. Oh, and not to change history, the crew needs to avoid attention. Of course, they fail in that spectacularly. This allows for some amazing technical feats for the 90s, as the DS9 actors are seamlessly inserted in the scenes from the TOS cult classic “The Trouble with Tribbles.” The actors have time of their life, while Sisko and the company are interacting with no one else than the captain James T. Kirk and his crew.

The Holywood magic makes for some ingenious retconning, which up to this day is rarely done so well. The iconic brawl in the station bar, which Scotty started by punching a Klingon is now redone. O’Brien, Worf, and Odo are now part of the scene, and after the fight, O’Brien and Bashir are among the line of the officers answering Kirk’s questions. My favorite part is the scene where Kirk opens the storage compartment, only to be buried in a pile of tribbles. Thirty years later, the mystery is resolved, with Sisko and Dax being the ones who are tossing the odd tribble (inadvertently) at Kirk. The recreation of the TOS era is done to such detail that it seems that we are watching TOS, and not DS9 episode. From the moment Defiant’s cloak fails, and the image of classic Enterprise (not A, B, or C) comes into view, we are transported to another time, together with the characters. From the uniforms to the sets, the episode emulates retro aesthetics of the classic series. This astonishing attention to detail pays off. As Dax notes with glee: “Classic twenty-third century styling…The matte finish, the silver highlights”.

DS9 team is aware of the importance of the details, even when making in-universe jokes. After all, this is the place where Worf canonized the reason why the TOS era Klingons look different from the TNG era counterparts. “We do not discuss it with outsiders.” One simple sentence, a non-explanation, which works perfectly (unlike unnecessary and complicated Enterprise retcon a decade later). And not only this. We also discovered, with shock, that the cute, fuzzy Tribble was at some point considered the archenemy of the mighty Klingon Empire! “Tell me, do they still sing songs of the Great Tribble Hunt?” Only Odo could deliver this line, with his trademark snark. O’Brien and Bashir have an obligatory entertaining scene together, which makes fun of the “predestination paradox”, and Trek penchant for time-traveling. Even Sisko fights hard to lose his coolness while in the presence of his idol Kirk. And Dax…

Dax is literally the stand-in for us, the fans. Her joy of being on THE Enterprise, her excitement on seeing the classic technology, and to be in presence of Kirk and Spock…this is something that every one of us would feel and do if we ever got the chance to visit that universe. Like everything else, the DS9 team does it aptly, and with purpose. Dax is, after all, more familiar with the TOS era, as she lived in that period. She knew Kirk and Spock, and Bones (perhaps too well), and more importantly, she knew some Klingons too. She is one Sisko from greeting Koloth, the same Klingon whom she met in “Blood Oath”. Not everything was perfect in the 60s. Dax “and women wore less” scene is also a subtle commentary on the sexism in the 60s, but I must admit that she looks good in that miniskirt.

The DS9 characters that we know and love, and their natural reactions to the TOS world around them is the primary reason why this episode works. Nowadays when the retro aesthetic is brought back in big style by Discovery, it is hard to imagine that this was something that TNG and Voyager were embarrassed off. But not the DS9. DS9 understood that the appeal of Star Trek lay in more than style and characters. “Trials and Tribble-ations” is not just an anniversary episode. It is an episode about interacting with Star Trek history and making it part of the bigger Trek universe. It is not surprising, then, that at the end of the episode, the crew brings a part of that history with them. To Quark’s “delight”, the tribbles are back, and this time they are here to stay. Just do not say it to the Klingons.

I could say with complete certainty that this episode could be done only by the DS9 team. In the time when Trek tried to distance itself from its past, and follow the safe formula, it took the iconoclast show to deliver the love letter to Star Trek and all that represents. TOS got its ultimate homage, while DS9 did not lose anything of what made it special. After all, pretty much all the DS9 writers are credited at the episode’s end. And it shows. “Tribbles and Tribble-ations” is a textbook example of how to do nostalgia right. How-to do-good fan-service, while making something new and memorable. And this makes it crucial to the success of the episode, and its cult status, almost thirty years after its premiere.

“Tribbles and Tribble-ations” is deservingly one of the best Trek episodes ever made. And I am searching for an excuse to depart once again, to this fascinating and unique adventure. To experience the triumph with tribbles.

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