When America tuned in to Star Trek on December 29, 1967, it got its first glimpse of tribbles. These small, plush alien beings, which swamped the U.S.S. Enterprise and its brave crew, were merely sewn-up pouches of synthetic fur stuffed with foam rubber. But in the fictional Trek universe, tribbles were cute, purring, alive and—because they bred so rapidly—hilarious.
Fifty years after its small-screen debut, “The Trouble with Tribbles” may be the most famous episode of any iteration of Star Trek. It was an unintentional comedy that has delighted generations of fans. Surprisingly, it irritated some of those who helped put it on screen—including Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, once dismissed it as “frivolous.”
“The Trouble with Tribbles” was the first professional sale for David Gerrold, a 23-year-old California college student. An unknown budding writer in September 1966 when he saw Star Trek’s first episode, he almost immediately began thinking of story premises. One of them drew on his teenage experiences of raising frogs, mice, rats, and fish. “I loved animals,” recalled Gerrold, now an award-winning author of many science-fiction novels and stories, in a recent interview. “But all of those critters died on me.”
So in February 1967, he drew up a proposal for an episode he called “The Fuzzies.”
“My original conception was, ‘Aliens are always scary. What if they’re cute but we don’t realize they’re dangerous? What if you had white mice or gerbils that got onto the Enterprise and got out of control?’ ”
Gerrold envisioned a real ecological disaster. “My attitude was that it would be whimsical but that we would have a serious threat,” he said. Nowhere in his work was there to be found now-classic slapstick moments, like William Shatner’s Captain Kirk getting buried in a mountain of tribbles. Gerrold also imagined the buffoonish and chortling Cyrano Jones, the interstellar trader who introduces the beasties to the Enterprise, as a Boris Karloff type. (“You can just see him stroking it and saying, ‘Can I interest you in a harmless little tribble? . . .’ ”)
Gerrold was trying to stay true to what he called the “gravitas” of Star Trek’s first season. One person who would probably have rather seen that gravitas stay intact was Gene Roddenberry. For all his celebrated humanism and we’re-all-alike-under-the-skin tolerance, he wanted Star Trek to be a straightforward, square-jawed action-adventure. “Gene Roddenberry had no sense of humor,” Gerrold said, “and working with him was a joyless exercise.”
Roddenberry was balanced, and sometimes thwarted, by producer Gene L. Coon, who joined Star Trek on August 8, 1966—exactly one month before the show premiered, and at a time when Roddenberry was already burning out from innumerable rewrites and production headaches. Described by associate producer Robert H. Justman as “a romantic with an obvious sense of humor,” Coon brought a welcome wink and nod to the production.
“He knew you had to balance gravitas with lightheartedness—that you can’t save the galaxy every week,” said Gerrold. “Roddenberry never understood that.”
With Coon’s encouragement, Gerrold fleshed out “The Fuzzies” into a full story outline called “A Fuzzy Thing Happened to Me.” (He eventually dubbed his title creatures “tribbles” to avoid legal conflicts with H. Beam Piper’s science-fiction novel Little Fuzzy.) Star Trek story consultant Dorothy Fontana compared the outline favorably to a recent episode with distinctly bright overtones. “This story is one we should purchase,” she wrote. “[It has] the elements of fun grounded in serious problems for our principals that made ‘Shore Leave’ so well received.”
“Roddenberry did allow us to take off in lighter directions sometimes,” Fontana told Vanity Fair recently. “He just didn’t want to do an outright comedy.”
It was on the set of the otherwise grim episode “The Apple” that Gerrold realized the potential for more laughs. At one point, he saw Leonard Nimoy casually toss aside an unstable mineral sample that explodes upon hitting the ground. Gerrold picked up on Shatner’s reply: “Would you mind being careful where you throw your rocks, Mr. Spock?”
Gerrold never lost sight of his episode’s underlying drama. From the first, he had his tribbles devouring a highly important experimental grain. And he hit upon using the villainous Klingons (introduced in “Errand of Mercy,” a first-season episode written by Coon) as a central menace.
But with Coon’s encouragement, the jokes ballooned. “I never intended the episode to get that funny until we got into the development,” Gerrold said. “I realized there was the possibility of a lot more humor.”
Many jests were scripted, e.g., Kirk suggesting to Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) that he “open up a maternity ward” as the tribbles began to multiply. But many bits were improvised. When Kirk sees the Russian navigator, Mr. Chekov (Walter Koenig), absentmindedly stroking a tribble at his console, he peevishly snatches it away. In that same scene, the communications officer, Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), appears with a tribble peeking out of her uniform’s décolletage. At episode’s end, Kirk makes peace with the problematic pests by billing and cooing at them . . . and they respond in kind.
None of this is in Gerrold’s final-draft shooting script. Other shticks, only casually mentioned in print, were played up. In the third act, Gerrold writes that Kirk must “scoop three or four tribbles” from his command chair before he can sit down. On film, the good captain accidentally sits on one of them (it emits an indignant squeak). Gerrold also wrote that even after the tribbles in the storage compartment inundate Kirk, “more and more keep tumbling out.” In the end, the unseen property master Irving Feinberg deliberately and playfully bopped Shatner with a stray tribble or two every few seconds following the initial tumult.
Some of this nonsense, Gerrold said, was because “Tribbles” was shot immediately before a two-week Labor Day break. “I think it was just a case of ‘Let’s just party out on this one.’ ” He also credits the director, Joseph Pevney: “Dorothy Fontana said, ‘Let’s hope Joe directs, because he knows comedy.' ” (Ironically, Star Trek’s other main director at the time was Marc Daniels, who had steered many episodes of I Love Lucy.)
Eddie Paskey, who was William Shatner’s stand-in, said that it was the star’s antic spirit that carried the day. “Bill was the one. He got into it. He realized, ‘You know what? This is fun and we’re having fun.’ ”
“Tribbles” was developed and shot during the summer of 1967, when Roddenberry was out of town on vacation (or writing a pilot for an aborted Robin Hood series, depending on whom you speak to). As Gerrold put it, “You could say that when Roddenberry was away, the cast could play.”
But when the so-called “Great Bird of the Galaxy” returned to the Desilu soundstages, he was appalled. “Roddenberry entered Stage 10,” said Marc Cushman, author of These Are the Voyages, a three-volume set about the making of the series, “and saw them filming the scene in which Kirk is buried in tribbles. Shatner was having a ball, and people were laughing to the point of tears. But Roddenberry wasn't laughing.” Shortly afterward, Coon—credited as the godfather of this turn toward comedy—left the show. (Coon became a producer of It Takes a Thief and, under the pseudonym Lee Cronin, wrote several third-season Star Trek episodes. He died of cancer in 1973 at the age of 49.)
Robert Justman, the associate producer, took Roddenberry’s side on “Tribbles.” “Although the concept was amusing, the story was just too cute,” he wrote in 1996. “Kirk, Spock, and the others were real people, and real people just did not behave that way; [I felt] our finely drawn characters should never parody themselves.”
And so Justman tried to shunt the show off into what he thought was a dead zone. “Tribbles” ran at 8:30 P.M. on the Friday between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, 1967.
“Justman told me how he was responsible for selecting the order in which the episodes would air on NBC,” said Cushman. “Since he wasn't fond of 'Tribbles' when it was first made, he scheduled it to air when most of the networks were showing repeats.”
On the other hand, “Tribbles” may have been the Star Trek equivalent of “a Christmas show,” as director of photography Gerald Finnerman suggested in a 2002 interview. If that was the idea, Dorothy Fontana believes it worked. “I don’t think it was dead zone time at all,” she said. “A lot of viewers were home on vacation and watching television.”
Gerrold never had any doubts. He hosted around 30 friends to watch the episode on his first color television set; one guest was his college buddy Robert Englund, later Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street series. “He said, ‘I had no idea you were such a good writer,’ ” Gerrold recalled. “And I said, ‘No one will remember this in 20 years.’ ”
He was wrong, of course. “The ratings were good, the fan letters poured in, and [Justman] and Roddenberry had to reconsider their stance on whether Star Trek should make all-out comedies,” Cushman said. “As a result, 'Tribbles' was given a network repeat.”
Five decades later, Gerrold has only a few complaints—mostly about the “whiny” tribble theme composed by Jerry Fielding, and the dappled white-and-brown fur from which most of the 500 tribbles were built. “It was godawful,” Gerrold said. “It was ugly as hell.”
“But,” he added, “it photographed well.”
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