Look for a list of DS9’s top ten episodes and you’ll find “Trials and Tribble-ations” right near the top. It’s not my favorite hour, or even my favorite of this season, but make no mistake, this is a great episode of television. Not only does it hold up as a story, it was wildly influential, seamlessly incorporated new VFX technology, and successfully pulled off a thirty-year-old retcon, albeit a minor one.
Tasked to write an episode for the thirtieth anniversary of Star Trek, the writers of DS9 -- unabashed Trekkies all -- wanted to reach back into the hallowed history of the show and produce something really special. Going to the fan-favorite episode of TOS, “The Trouble with Tribbles” (which featured eventual DS9 guest star Koloth), they grafted an entire new episode in the margins of that one. Essentially, this was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead set in the 24th Century, with Klingons and tribbles.
The show opens with the arrival of two glowering men from Starfleet’s Temporal Investigations Office who are upset at Sisko for messing with the timeline. I love that DS9 acknowledges that Starfleet would have to have something like this. Considering how often the various Enterprises zipped around through time, and even allowing that those were remarkable ships, you have to figure every Starfleet captain will eventually time travel. Just one of those things.
And, in case you were wondering what kind of episode this will be, the two agents are called “Dulmur” and “Lucsly.” X-Files was huge when this aired, and the fandoms shared a lot of members, including yours truly. These two form a framing device for the episode, questioning Sisko about his actions in the past.
The Defiant accidentally travels in time, and the best part of this whole thing is that the writers totally don’t care why. There’s some nonsense about the Bajoran Orb of Time, but who cares. At the end, they get back to the present with a single throwaway line of how “Kira learned to use the Orb.” I love this. Any kind of time travel is going to be utter nonsense, so don’t waste my time. Here, the time travel is purely a story contrivance, hand-waved to get to the good stuff.
On that subject, Cardassia was finally returning the Orb of Time after having looted it during the Occupation. Along with the Orb, the Defiant also picks up a human merchant who was stuck on Cardassia Prime when the Klingons invaded. He’s thrilled to see humans (or yumins, as his thick New York accent would have it) again, and mostly complains about how in the mornings Cardassians drink hot fish juice. It’s not as weird as it sounds. After all, the most popular condiment in ancient Rome was made of fermented fish. Yep. Think on that.
On the way home, everything turns gold, there’s a bright flash, and when the Chief gets the viewscreen working again, what’s right in front of the cloaked Defiant but the classic Constitution class USS Enterprise. “His ship,” the Temporal Investigations guys note with disgust. “He was a menace.” Meanwhile, the merchant has beamed off the Defiant to the nearby starbase of K7.
Turns out, this merchant is not a human, but a Klingon surgically altered to look human. His name is Arne Darvin, and he was a Klingon spy eventually exposed and disgraced by Captain Kirk. His new plan is to use a bomb planted in a tribble to take Kirk out and become a hero once again to the Klingon Empire. The crew has to go over to the station, find Darvin, find the bomb, all without altering the timeline too much.
They accomplish this by Forrest Gumping themselves in the background of the episode. By keeping the interactions with the original cast to a bare minimum, they never have to resort to the awkward mouth animations that turned Forrest Gump into one of the most terrifying horror films of the ‘90s. This allows scenes where Dax gives an amused shrug to Kirk, O’Brien stonewalls the captain about who started a bar fight, and Sisko gets an autograph to be seamless triumphs of the medium. The cast of DS9 are so well-integrated that it’s hard to imagine “The Trouble with Tribbles” without them. In fact, they close an extremely minor logic gap in the end, accounting for the tribbles who bounce onto Kirk’s head after an initial flood from an overhead compartment as being tossed away by Sisko and Dax as they scan for a bomb.
The show takes much the same tack that The Force Awakens would try nearly twenty years later. The heroes of DS9 haven’t just heard of the original crew, they’re unabashed fanboys. It’s fun watching a stoic-like Sisko light up at the prospect of meeting Kirk, or Dax wax hipster-nostalgic about “classic” 23rd Century design. It’s also a treat to see them all in the old costumes, from Bashir’s Beatle-hair, to the lanky lines of the uniforms’ cuts. Dax, of course, is the standout, being absolutely stunning in a minidress, go-go boots, and a mile-high beehive hairdo.
The writers also take this chance to gently lampoon some of Trek’s continuity and logic issues. Bashir becomes absolutely convinced that the attractive woman he flirts with in a turbolift is his great grandmother, and he might be inviting his own nonexistence if he doesn’t become his own ancestor. His increasing hysteria is expertly played off O’Brien’s annoyed disgust, who would really like his dear friend to stop.
Most famously, the modern crew don’t recognize the Klingons aboard the ship. Mostly because they look entirely human. In the old days, Klingon makeup was far less impressive. Or even present. The real reason it got more elaborate is the increased budget in the movies, but it’s not like that will fly as an in-series justification. While Bashir and O’Brien grill Worf with the most common fan theories, the show picks the best answer of all. An embarrassed Worf just tells them, “We do not discuss it with outsiders.”
“Trials and Tribble-ations” is the most famous DS9 episode, and for good reason. Even the DVD menu acknowledges its special place, as the usual starship beeps and boops is replaced by the contented trill of a tribble. It should function as a portal for new fans to find the show, rather than a one-and-done exploration. This is not the best episode of DS9, but in many ways it’s the most accessible.
And, it still is a damn fine hour of TV.
Next up: Worf is a wet blanket.