Seventh in a series of posts, each one analyzing a single Captain Kirk scene from the Star Trek canon.
The joke is on Kirk | “The Trouble With Tribbles” | Star Trek: The Original Series | Season 2, Episode 15 | December 1967
“The Trouble with Tribbles” begins with Kirk in a state of open exasperation. The Enterprise has been ordered to guard a shipment of the hybrid grain quadrotriticale targeted for a terraforming project. (Terraforming doesn’t violate the Prime Directive because it’s aimed at pre-colonized planets. In any case, exceptions to non-interference are made.) Kirk has been known to violate the Prime Directive, or indeed any number of directives, when it suits his purposes. This is part of what makes him such an admirable leader; he’s only rigidly by-the-book when by-the-book is best; he legislates the law with outsider spirit. But here he’s stuck within the letter.
Seeing no plausible reason to go rogue, Kirk must toe the line. But he is careful to only toe; the Enterprise, after all, was built to boldly go. In other words, to hunt, not to gather. Domestic chores like grain husbandry are left behind; what Kirk husbands is his ship.
Kirk flouts the alleged gravity of grain by assigning a minimum guard and allowing his crew shore leave. Uhura, the only female member of the Enterprise C-Suite, beams down to “do some shopping.” Immediately, she is lightly conned into acquiring a space-pet, an intergalactic guinea pig known as a tribble. Now tribbles have two major characteristics, the first being major cute, so of course all the girls want one. But the second characteristic is the kicker. Born pregnant, all tribbles need to breed is an adequate supply of food. For example: grain.
The Klingon Empire makes an appearance but is relegated to the status of subplot, about which the space-villains are clearly unhappy. Federation and Klingon crews provoke cafeteria fistfights, resulting in on-board detentions. Meanwhile, tribbles are massively multiplying, occupying every surface of station and ship, including the Captain’s Chair.
That, for Kirk, is the final frontier.
Every adventurer needs his comic relief. Usually laughs come at the expense of First Straightman Spock, with McCoy and Scotty rounding out the ensemble ribbing. After a long, strenuous episode, there’s nothing better than kicking back on the bridge and taking a few intuitive jabs at logic. Rare is the occasion when Kirk is the target of teasing himself. Kirk has a certain way with the ladies, as female humanoids across the galaxy will agree; but he has no intention of sharing the Chair.
Finally connecting the dots of food, sex and satire, Kirk beams back to the station and opens the overhead grain compartments, only to find that the contents have shifted. Out surges an avalanche of tribbles; I’m sure that when he imagines immersion in female fur, this is not exactly what our Captain has in mind.
The Tribbles have infested the grain and have multiplied at an amazing rate. They’re also dying, because the Klingons have indeed sabotaged the shipment. Our Captain is buried up to his neck in the realization that he was wrong. The joke is — for once — on him. Literally.
2012: KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Captain Kirk scenes): Dafna Pleban: Justice or vengeance? | Mark Kingwell : Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | Nick Abadzis: “KHAAAAAN!” | Stephen Burt: “No kill I” | Greg Rowland: Kirk browbeats NOMAD | Zack Handlen: Kirk’s eulogy for Spock| Peggy Nelson: The joke is on Kirk | Kevin Church: Kirk vs. Decker | Enrique Ramirez: Good Kirk vs. Evil Kirk | Adam McGovern: Captain Camelot | Flourish Klink: Koon-ut-kal-if-fee | David Smay: Federation exceptionalism | Amanda LaPergola: Wizard fight | Steve Schneider: A million things you can’t have | Joshua Glenn: Debating in a vacuum | Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons: Klingon diplomacy | Trav S.D.: “We… the PEOPLE” | Matthew Battles: Brinksmanship on the brink | Annie Nocenti: Captain Smirk | Ian W. Hill: Sisko meets Kirk | Gabby Nicasio: Noninterference policy | Peter Bebergal: Kirk’s countdown | Matt Glaser: Kirk’s ghost | Joe Alterio: Watching Kirk vs. Gorn | Annalee Newitz: How Spock wins
ALSO ON HILOBROW Peggy Nelson on William Shatner as HiLo Hero | Greg Rowland on Leonard Nimoy as HiLo Hero | Peggy Nelson on William Shatner in Incubus | Matthew Battles on enlarging the Trek fanfic canon | Radium Age Supermen | Radium Age Robots | Radium Age Apocalypses | Radium Age Telepaths | Radium Age Eco-Catastrophes | Radium Age Cover Art (1) | SF’s Best Year Ever: 1912
2014: KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (typefaces): Matthew Battles on ALDINE ITALIC | Adam McGovern on DATA 70 | Sherri Wasserman on TORONTO SUBWAY | Sarah Werner on JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | Douglas Wolk on TODD KLONE | Mark Kingwell on GILL SANS | Joe Alterio on AKZIDENZ-GROTESK | Suzanne Fischer on CALIFORNIA BRAILLE | Gary Panter on SHE’S NOT THERE | Deb Chachra on FAUX DEVANAGARI | Peggy Nelson on FUTURA | Tom Nealon on JENSON’S ROMAN | Rob Walker on SAVANNAH SIGN | Tony Leone on TRADE GOTHIC BOLD CONDENSED NO. 20 | Chika Azuma on KUMON WORKSHEET | Chris Spurgeon on ELECTRONIC DISPLAY | Amanda French on DIPLOMA REGULAR | Steve Price on SCREAM QUEEN | Alissa Walker on CHICAGO | Helene Silverman on CHINESE SHIPPING BOX | Tim Spencer on SHATTER | Jessamyn West on COMIC SANS | Whitney Trettien on WILKINS’S REAL CHARACTER | Cintra Wilson on HERMÈS vs. HOTDOG | Jacob Covey on GOTHAM.
2013: HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (old-school hip hop tracks): Luc Sante on “Spoonin’ Rap” | Dallas Penn on “Rapper’s Delight” | Werner Von Wallenrod on “Rappin’ Blow” | DJ Frane on “The Incredible Fulk” | Paul Devlin on “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | Phil Dyess-Nugent on “That’s the Joint” | Adam McGovern on “Freedom” | David Abrams on “Rapture” | Andrew Hultkrans on “The New Rap Language” | Tim Carmody on “Jazzy Sensation (Bronx Version)” | Drew Huge on “Can I Get a Soul Clap” | Oliver Wang on “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” | Douglas Wolk on “Making Cash Money” | Adrienne Crew on “The Message” | Dart Adams on “Pak Jam” | Alex Belth on “Buffalo Gals” | Joshua Glenn on “Ya Mama” | Phil Freeman on “No Sell Out” | Nate Patrin on “Death Mix Live, Pt. 2” | Brian Berger on “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” | Cosmo Baker on “Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse)” | Colleen Werthmann on “Rockit” | Roy Christopher on “The Coldest Rap” | Dan Reines on “The Dream Team is in the House” | Franklin Bruno on The Lockers.
2011: KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Jack Kirby panels): Douglas Rushkoff on THE ETERNALS | John Hilgart on BLACK MAGIC | Gary Panter on DEMON | Dan Nadel on OMAC | Deb Chachra on CAPTAIN AMERICA | Mark Frauenfelder on KAMANDI | Jason Grote on MACHINE MAN | Ben Greenman on SANDMAN | Annie Nocenti on THE X-MEN | Greg Rowland on THE FANTASTIC FOUR | Joshua Glenn on TALES TO ASTONISH | Lynn Peril on YOUNG LOVE | Jim Shepard on STRANGE TALES | David Smay on MISTER MIRACLE | Joe Alterio on BLACK PANTHER | Sean Howe on THOR | Mark Newgarden on JIMMY OLSEN | Dean Haspiel on DEVIL DINOSAUR | Matthew Specktor on THE AVENGERS | Terese Svoboda on TALES OF SUSPENSE | Matthew Wells on THE NEW GODS | Toni Schlesinger on REAL CLUE | Josh Kramer on THE FOREVER PEOPLE | Glen David Gold on JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY | Douglas Wolk on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | MORE EXEGETICAL COMMENTARIES: Joshua Glenn on Kirby’s Radium Age Sci-Fi Influences | Chris Lanier on Kirby vs. Kubrick | Scott Edelman recalls when the FF walked among us | Adam McGovern is haunted by a panel from THE NEW GODS | Matt Seneca studies the sensuality of Kirby’s women | Btoom! Rob Steibel settles the Jack Kirby vs. Stan Lee question | Galactus Lives! Rob Steibel analyzes a single Kirby panel in six posts | Danny Fingeroth figgers out The Thing | Adam McGovern on four decades (so far) of Kirby’s “Fourth World” mythos | Jack Kirby: Anti-Fascist Pipe Smoker