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Star Trek: "The Trouble With Tribbles" / "The Gamesters Of Triskelion"

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Did you know there was a commemorative plate made for the original Trek? Probably more than one, I guess, but the one I remember had Kirk in a pile of tribbles, in a painting inspired by one of the series' most iconic scenes. I've never understood the appeal of commemorative plates, and I'm not sure anybody actually does; I think it's one of those things they sell on TV that doesn't have a reason to exist, but costs money so we assume it's worthwhile. Like Chia Pets or trailers for Transformers 2. (Okay, I guess the trailers have a point, because how else would we know that Megan Fox is still a functional delivery system for both T and A?)  But that damn Trek plate haunts me. It's ridiculous to the point of being sublime. I can imagine some blue-haired old lady out in Iowa having it in her china hutch, right next to a Santa Claus head mug and her Spoons of the World collection.

"The Trouble With Tribbles" is one of Star Trek's successful forays into comedy, and while I have a few reservations, it holds up well. I mean, they don't make plates about Voyager episodes, right? (God, what a terrible way to diet: punishing yourself every time you finish a meal.) Shatner normally gets stuck playing the straight man whenever wackiness happens, and "Tribbles" is no exception to the rule; he seems to be having more fun than usual with the premise, though, and some of his reaction shots here are Nimoy-level hysterical. Kirk's growing frustration and bemusement could've come off as smug, but it doesn't. Instead, he sets the tone for the entire episode; playful, often silly, with just enough of a grounded storyline to keep from floating away completely.

We open with Kirk, Spock, and Chekov having a chat about Sherman's Planet, a nearby locale that's currently the subject of dispute between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. (Who aren't officially at war. Looks like the Organian interference back in "An Errand of Mercy" held.) It's been a mildly irritating running gag that Chekov likes to claim that everything in the universe was created by the Russians, and we get a couple more of those gags in "Tribbles," neither of which are funny. Thankfully, the info-dump is cut short by an emergency distress signal from Deep Space Station K-7. The Enterprise moves to respond and learns that the signal was a slight over-reaction, made by the latest in our on-going series of Administrative Assholes, Nilz Baris.

See, Baris (played by William Schallert, who, according to his IMDB page, has been in everything, and some of it twice) has this special grain, called quadrotriticale, and it's the only stuff that grows on Sherman's Planet. So it's vitally important that the grain makes it there. (I'm not sure why the Enterprise can't just transport it themselves. Maybe they don't have the right storage units?) Given the planet's tenuous diplomatic status, any problems could mean disaster for the Federation, and Baris used the distress signal to get Kirk to come by so he could order Kirk to put guards on the grain bins. Kirk's not real happy about this, but the word comes down from Starfleet that he's stuck at the station. Might as well make the best of it by letting the crew take some much needed shore leave.

One of the reasons "Tribbles" works is that, even though we're dealing with another tedious bureaucrat, we never feel like Kirk is stuck under the creep's thumb. He makes no attempt to hide his contempt for Baris, and since we're firmly on his side (even if Baris's complaints are legitimate, the guy is a total tool), that makes his encounters with the Man actually fun for a change. The way the episode unfolds means Kirk's constantly dealing with things he doesn't really want to deal with, and there's a surprising amount of enjoyment to be had in seeing him complain about it to Spock.

And then there are the title characters. Uhura and Chekov run into them while hanging out on the station bar. (On her leave, Uhura wants to go "shopping." Ah, women!) A con-man named Cyrano Jones is trying his best to sell the bartender a fuzzy little purring mound. Uhura is instantly smitten; Spock later theorizes that the sound the tribbles make has a calming effect on humans, so I guess that's why everybody gets such a kick out of them, but they're mostly just pet rocks minus the personality. Cyrano gives Uhura a tribble, and Chekov has time to notice it eating some quadrotriticale he spilled on the table (foreshadowing!)(that the tribble was eating grain, not that Chekov spilled or noticed anything) before we move on to the next scene.

Cyrano's my least favorite part of the episode; I know some folks expressed surprise at my fondness for Harry Mudd, but Cyrano to me just points to how well Carmel fit into the show. Stanley Adams doesn't get as much screentime as Mudd might've, but for those times he is in our focus, he's mugging it up fierce, doing all sorts of facial expressions that I assume are supposed to be comic but aren't. The bar-fight at the ep's midpoint is broken up by lots of cutting to Cyrano doing business over at the bar, and it makes the scene go on for ages. The character is never enough a part of the story to matter, and while his comeuppance isn't bad, you kind of wonder why anyone cares to punish him. It's a waste of a name that should've been bad-ass. (Like, what if Casey Jones had a cousin? And his cousin was into being a vigilante, only he'd watched a lot of theater, so he, um… Okay, moving on.)

But hey, that bar-fight? It happens because the Klingons arrive, and, per the usual, they're up to no good. Hell, the Squire of Gothos is with them! Not literally, but the actor who played the Squire, William Campbell, plays Koloth, captain of the Klingon ship. (Because I'm a nerd, I like to think that Koloth really is Trelane, and that this is just something his parents did to make him learn humility, or because he banged up the space car or got some star skank pregnant. And the reason Kirk doesn't recognize him? He's wearing a cunning goatee.) Koloth demands that he and his men be allowed to have some fun time on the space station like everybody else—apparently, Klingons don't travel with their own entertainment, like porn or board games—and Kirk reluctantly agrees. This is bound to turn out poorly, since a dozen or so of the Enterprise crew are already wandering around.

The build-up to the fight is decent, with Scotty telling Chekov to ignore a series of insults to Kirk from Koloth's second-in-command, only to lose his shit when the guy starts ragging on the Enterprise, but the best part of the whole thing is the aftermath, with Kirk questioning his men as to who started the fight, and then dragging the whole story out of an embarrassed Scotty. The timing here is terrific, and it's one of the few times on the show when having a character describe something that we've all just seen actually works; Kirk's slightly disappointed reaction in learning that he got insulted, and that no one came to his defense, is hilarious.

During all of this, the tribbles have started to multiply, and once they start, they don't stop. Another great thing about "Trouble" is the way the tribbles pop up everywhere, to the point where they're dominating the bridge and even getting into the food supply. It's a sight gag that never stops working, and it gains steams as it goes. McCoy does some tests and determines that nearly half of a tribble's energies are devoted to reproduction. And as Spock points out, without their natural predators, there's nothing to keep their growth in check. Everybody's still charmed by their constant purring, but something's going to have to be done, and soon.

Apart from Cyrano Jones, "Trouble" has a light touch, and it's one of the better scripts we've seen. Writer David Gerrold provides a couple of through lines—the importance of the grain that Kirk was called in to protect, and the rapid population growth of the tribbles—but never puts too much stress on either of them. Generally I prefer my Trek episodes with some danger to them, and there's really nothing like that here; you never worry that the Klingons are going to shoot anybody, or that the tribbles are going to go mogwai. But it works, because the causualness isn't sloppy. When Kirk opens the storage bin and gets buried under a mound of dead (and near dead) hairballs, it's an a-ha moment, without ever needing to be stressed; the story comes together in a delightfully laid-back fashion, like a long form joke that's really more an anecdote than something with a punchline.

So the Klingons were up to their usual tricks, tainting the grain with a poison that would make anyone who ate unable to get full (there's something wonderfully dark about that; the most memorable moment of "Trouble" comes from Kirk standing in a pile of cute aliens that starved to death), and they've got an inside man in the form of Baris's assistant, a Klingon passing as human. He's discovered when a tribble freaks out at him. Tribbles don't like Klingons, which leads to another amusingly dark bit when we learn that Scotty's beamed every tribble on the Enterprise over to the Klingon ship's engine room. Ha-ha, all those pets we loved are going to be slaughtered by our enemies! (It's weird that it's that easy to beam stuff into the Klingons' engine room. Does that mean the Klingons could return the favor? Is anybody checking the pipes?)

If "Trouble" works largely because of its easy-going nature, "The Gamesters of Triskelion" serves as a reminder of why that nature was so refreshing. On the plus side, I finally get all those "200 quatloos on the newcomer!" jokes, and the costumes are amusingly ridiculous. Uhura gets to do a little more than usual; between this and "Trouble," it's sort of a banner week for her. I dug Spock's efforts to track down Kirk, Uhura, and Chekov after they disappear, too. Unlike other episodes, the scenes on the Enterprise, while not exactly relevant to the plot, don't come off as wasted time. Also, there are colored throbbing brains under glass, and that counts for a lot.

On the minus side, well… Let's get through the story first. Kirk, Uhura, and Chekov are all about to beam down to do some repair work on a communication station. ("Communiation station, what's your… Haitian.") Things get weird when they step onto the transporter; instead of winding up in the usual grey-sand-and-purple-rocks set, they're snatched mid-beam and set down on the planet Triskelion. Triskelion has its own share of purple rocks, but it also has a fighting arena, "thralls" (aka slaves), a master thrall, and a bunch of disembodied voices that like telling Kirk how spirited he is. Nothing can ever be easy, I guess.

Kirk and the rest have been recruited to take part in the Triskelion fighting games; they'll be trained, sold to the highest bidder, and then pitted against other slaves for the disembodied voices' (called "Providers") amusement. Since it's hard for a disembodied voice to train anyone (there's not a lot of local news, so nobody's got a paper to hit Kirk on the nose with when he's been bad), the Providers use other thralls to get the job done. There's Lars, a barbarian type who's a little too into the whole thing; an orange-skinned woman who takes a strong interest in Chekov (we're talking "death by snu-snu" strong); and Shahna, a green-haired hottie in a tinfoil diaper who latches on to Kirk. There's also a caveman, but nobody really talks to him, and in the end he gets a spear in his stomach.

All of the thralls, as well as our heroes, have to wear special collars around their neck; the collars show proof of ownership (once a thrall is sold, part of the collar changes color to indicate who that thrall's owner is—fittingly enough, the colors match up with the colors of the brains we see at the end), and they also allow the Providers to deal out punishment as needed. This kind of thing always freaks me out. There's a part in The Great Hunt, the second book of Robert Jordan's Wheel Of Time series, where a magic user named Egwene gets captured by the Seanchan, a race that hates magic. They stick a collar on her called an a'dam (I had to look up the names on this stuff, but I felt bad that I had to look it up, so I guess I don't lose all my nerd-cred); the a'dam lets them read her mood and make her suffer horribly if she does anything they don't like.

I found myself thinking about that collar during "Gamesters." Say what you will about Jordan's writing, but I remember the a'dam stuff being incredibly harsh, a nightmarish portrayal of slavery so complete that it offers no distance between slave and master; Egwene couldn't even hide in her own mind without those fuckers knowing it. "Gamesters" doesn't come close to that kind of ugliness. It's not really the episode's fault that I never felt that concerned for Kirk's well-being. He gets zapped a couple of times—they all do—and Shahna gets it pretty bad when she's caught falling for Kirk's charms, but it was all too damn goofy to really get worked up over. Part of the awfulness of the a'dam is that's controlled by a whole race that thinks they're doing the right thing. Kirk gives the standard Big Speech about how awful slavery is, but we don't see enough of Triskelion civilization to really feel what he's saying; slavery needs a society to uphold it. Without that, it's just an S&M party where everybody forgot the safe word at the same time.

"Kirk putting the moves on Shahna" was tedious even without the speechifying. She's instantly smitten with him—sure, she puts up a good front, but she's definitely got that "I am intrigued by you, man-animal, so I'll be all snooty" vibe. Kirk uses her to try and get himself and the others freed, and then he ditches her at the end without so much as a hug. He's managed to free her people, and even got a promise from the Providers that they'll teach the released thralls how to provide for themselves, but when she asks to go along with him on the Enterprise to see the stars, he's all, "Oooo, right, about that—hey, I'll maybe, maybe I'll call you? Like, in a few weeks? I'm moving, and I gotta get settled in first. And there was this thing, with this guy… It's complicated. You're too good for me, really. You're better off with that bald guy in the robe who used to torture you."

The whole Triskelion system never really coheres. The brains in charge all evolved beyond the need for bodies (note: evolution does not work that way), and they're bored because being a brain under glass isn't the most exciting thing in the world to be, especially when the cable goes out. So these brains (aka, the Providers) have set up a system where they snatch people from other races and planets and make them fight, and they bet money on the fights to make it exciting. Nothing wrong with that, and I'm as big a fan of talking brains as the next guy, but it's like one of those standard sci-if "outs," isn't it? You've got a weird premise, so it's either EARTH ALL ALONG or some kind of god-like being (let's face it, physical appearance aside, these are your standard god-like beings) is responsible.

There's this freaky scene where Lars comes in to Uhura's room and they go off camera and Uhura starts screaming; you think he's trying to rape her, and you're pretty sure nothing happens, but it's an all-too-real moment in an otherwise campy episode. It doesn't help that Chekov's interactions with the orange-skinned woman (too many carrots?) are played entirely for laughs.

I'd say "Gamesters" ranks around average, maybe a little below, and how much you enjoy it depends on how much of a kick you get out of the goofy outfits and goofier dialogue. There is a solid three-on-one fight at the climax to save the Enterprise and everyone on it; the rules are unclear, though, because while we're told that Kirk can't step out of the yellow area without losing a weapon, he steps out of it constantly and nothing bad happens. Also, at the he end, he wins by making Shahna surrender, and seeing as how  they were sort of on the same side (even though she was pissed at him), I can't help thinking the brains got shafted. After the fight, the last thing we see is Shahna making a tearful promise about finding a way to go after Kirk, and it's played very serious, as though she'd decided to quit smoking and discover raidum or something. It's enjoyable ridiculous, but not actually good.

"The Trouble With Tribbles": A
"The Gamesters Of Triskelion": B-

Stray Observations:

  • The suggestions about covering Deep Space Nine's excellent "Tribbles" riff, "Trials and Tribble-ations" were solid. I just didn't have a chance to get the DS9 ep before this week, because I am very lazy. I have failed you as a reviewer, and as a human being. Also as a career balloonist, but that's not really relevant here.
  • Kirk's best Baris put down: "I think of this project as very important. It's you I take lightly."
  • During Kirk's "training," he bitches about having to jog two miles without stopping. Ha! I can jog at least three miles without stopping, and I don't even have a green-haired babe in a shiny brassiere to keep me going.
  • Some nice "Amok Time" theme action going on during "Gamesters."