Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Trouble with Tribbles

“Too much of anything, Lieutenant, even love, isn't necessarily a good thing.”

Both the Federation and the Klingon Empire lay claim to a disputed system, Sherman’s Planet. A previously-established peace treaty exists between the two, enforced by the godlike Organians introduced in Errand of Mercy. Within the diegetic terms of this agreement can be found the thematic premise of this particular story: one side or the other must prove it can develop the planet most efficiently.

“Though the Klingons are brutal and aggressive, they are most efficient.” 

As Kirk so plainly observes, the Klingon’s represent an imposed, militant efficiency. In a fundamentally opposed counter-example, the iconic Tribble creatures encountered in the course of their investigation represent a purely biological, reproductive efficiency. In classic Star Trek form -- the macro reflected in the micro character triumvirate of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy -- our heroes must come to represent a balanced reconciliation of two extremes. In this case, those extremes are expressed through unchecked efficiency. From the mouth of the nefarious Captain Koloth himself, in direct contrast to the reproductive prowess of the Tribbles:

“We Klingons are not as luxury-minded as you Earthers. We do not equip our ships with, how shall I say it, non-essentials.” 

Punctuating his misogynistic implication with an unmistakable hour-glass gesture, Koloth’s point is clear: Klingon’s do not allow for the “luxury” of female officers as a reproductive distraction. This distinction broadens the thematic structure to allow for an interpretive exploration beyond the instigating “efficiency,” into the fertile mythological territory of base humanity versus imposed ideology.

As always, the Enterprise crew must function as a balancing force to reconcile these two pairs of opposites. Alone, each is doomed to perpetual conflict. With the intervention of our heroes, through the intersecting movements of plot and character, what thematic statement can ultimately be derived from the payoff to this setup?

"I see no practical use for them."

The answer lies in the form another question: what was it that lead to the Klingon infiltration of Starfleet’s efforts? What values were capitalized on by the enemy to assimilate into our heroes’ ranks? The eagerness to develop Sherman’s Planet, just as in the galactic prospector Cyrano Jones’ exploitation of the Tribble’s from their natural environment, casts the amusingly titled Federation Undersecretary for Agricultural Development, Nilz Baris, as an inept representative colonial bureaucracy.

It is only in through the humanist makeup of the Enterprise’s crew that these paradigms can be broken, and the truth revealed. How, exactly? Well, were it not for the loving curiosity of the decidedly female Lieutenant Uhura, the Tribbles would not have propagated to the attention of Captain Kirk, who leverages his newfound knowledge of the creatures alongside his formidable powers of observation to expose the underlying threat which faces them.

Against the Klingon’s militant efficiency and the Tribbles’ reproductive efficiency, our heroes emerge as a “luxurious” and diverse balance of integrated humanity and ideological efficiency.

The self-proclaimed conceit of the episode’s author David Gerrold is the classic “unexpected threat” personified by the Tribbles themselves, and appropriately used as a tool to expose the true antagonistic force: a Klingon double-agent. This turn of dramatic irony is satisfactorily rendered, if not thematically less ripe than the aforementioned subtext. This subtext can likely be attributed to the guiding hand of producer Gene Coon, who was responsible for the teleplay’s final revision.

Dramatically structured as a relatively light whodunnit, and popularly considered to be an example of Star Trek’s lighter fare, it is particularly impressive that this episode can sustain such nuanced exploration. It is a testament to the potential of this landmark series, which happens celebrate its 50th anniversary today.

May the next fifty continue to be just as ... untroubled.