December 29, 1967—The first comic episode of Star Trek, “The Trouble With Tribbles,” aired on NBC. The Season 2 teleplay, about tiny, furry creatures that multiply aboard the Enterprise, became among the most memorable in the sci-fi show’s three-year run.
When I say “comic,” I mean more than the bristling dialogue between coolly logical Vulcan Mr. Spock and the irascibly human Dr. Leonard McCoy. I mean more than the stentorian recital of the U.S. Constitution by William Shatner in the “Omega Glory” episode later in that second season (which, come to think of it, served as excellent preparation when the hammy actor turned his energies to covering recent pop hits such as “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”). I mean more than the unintentionally hilarious motif of Shatner’s Captain James Kirk hitting on every intergalactic babe he comes in contact as he (oh, dear!) boldly goes “where no man has gone before.” (Why none of them didn’t at least hint that his ensemble—black pants and yellow shirt—couldn’t fit a more bit comfortably—i.e., loosely—is beyond me.)
The surprising thing—well, to me, anyway—is that the original version of the script, by David Gerrold, wasn’t supposed to be comic, either. It drew its inspiration from the 19th-century introduction of rabbits into Australia by British aristocrats desiring a little recreation. The result: a vast multiplication of the little animals, producing the decline or extinction of many native species.
Some funny things happened on the way to the script’s air date, however. For one thing, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and his creative crew noticed that the submission in several ways resembled Robert A. Heinlein's 1952 novel The Rolling Stones, which featured massively multiplying “flat cats.” But Heinlein wasn’t too bent out of joint, as he told Gerrold that the two of them were probably heavily influenced by yet a third source: Ellis Parker Butler’s turn-of-the-century short story, “Pigs is Pigs.” (I guess space might be nearly limitless, but not the human imagination.)
Somehow, in this whole process of fretting and massaging Gerrold’s material, the dark environmental implications of his original got lost and tongue-in-cheek was in. (Even Lucille Ball, whose production company, Desilu, had signed off on this most un-Lucy-like show, might have gotten some chuckles for a change.) Perhaps that’s why the episode has not spawned, tribble-like, all sorts of sociological and metaphysical explanations.
Now, I would have thought that this show might have referred, not so obliquely, to the way that McDonald’s and its fast-food imitators were spreading tribble-fashion, until—like the furry creatures crowding out the Enterprise—they were leaving less and less room for human habitation, let alone fine cuisine, in the United States.
But others have drawn more prosaic (and, frankly, not as unique!) interpretations. One, taking the religious view, sees tribbles as those cuddly, none-too-serious venial sins that human beings tolerate until they grow in geometric proportions. A more secular view sees tribbles as distractions from the work human beings should do.
There are all sorts of explanations for why they breed, starting with “Bones” McCoy’s perfectly plausible one that they’re not only bisexual but also born pregnant (“quite a time saver,” he allows).
But isn’t there a simpler explanation? What true human being can resist a cute little bundle of fur from the animal kingdom? Do you think we as a species are going to be in such a hurry to stem the growth of such creatures?
It’s a different matter entirely with the noisome, noisy critters that bedevil poor Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. They look dark and geeky. I don’t know how high the body count of these creatures reaches in James Cameron’s thriller, but I’m sure they don’t match the estimate that Spock, whom I trust implicitly in such matters, comes up with for tribbles (“1,771,561”). I’d say that the aliens had better work far harder if they hope to beat that total, which comes from exponential growth.
It turns out not only that there are over a million tribbles but that, judging by the enduring popularity of the episode, they have enormous staying power. In the IDW comic series derived from the series (and its recent film “reboot”) that started last year, a plotline has been hatched in which tribbles invade Earth.
Fan fondness for this episode has been something of a mixed blessing for Gerrold. How would you like to be remembered primarily for your first teleplay—especially when that rookie effort, for all its small charm, is not exactly Citizen Kane? Over the past several decades, Gerrold—23 at the time he submitted his script—has sought to come to terms with this, just as he has with his larger, even more ambivalent relationship with the Star Trek franchise, as he acknowledged five years ago in an interview with Thomas Vinciguerra of The New York Times.