Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Trouble With Tribbles

The Trouble With Tribbles must be Star Trek's most well documented episode. Writer David Gerrold wrote a book covering the story's development from outline to revised final draft (at least from memory that's what the book does, my copy now starts on page 55 for some reason). In the book Gerrold discusses what works, and what doesn't, and is commendably honest about the accidental resemblance of tribbles to the Martian Flat Cats from the Robert Heinlein book The Rolling Stones.

Gerrold goes into such a level of detail it's actually a bit awkward to review the episode. There's not much left to mention. The book talks about everything from points of continuity to story logic; such as Klingon secret agent Darvin, and his inability to withstand even the most minor questioning. Even the editing gets mentioned, including a moment during Captain Koloth's line, “we Klingons are not as luxury-minded as you Earthers. We do not equip our ships with, how shall I say it, non-essentials.” As William Campbell says, “non-essentials,” he uses his hands to trace a womanly hourglass shape in front of him. The footage is edited to cut right through the unscripted gesture, and does a good job of making it almost indistinguishable on screen. David Gerrold puts this down to badly timed editing, but the choice of shots used seems so deliberate it's tempting to wonder if someone on the production team wanted to remove this action as much as possible from the final episode. William Shatner has Kirk react to the gesture by giving a little chuckle. With the gesture present Kirk is laughing with Koloth, as if he sympathises over the lack of feminine company, with the gesture obscured he's laughing at the Klingons and their spartan lifestyle. Could someone on the production team have not wanted Kirk to get too chummy with the enemy?

Something else Gerrold mentions is the reaction to the episode; both from the cast and the viewers. There is no false modesty here, understandable when your first professional sale is nominated for a Hugo award, but the book is laced with enough self-deprecating humour to avoid becoming unbearable. Unsurprisingly the cast loved the script. The results are there on screen. As with
This Side Of Paradise, Amok Time, or Mirror, Mirror the cast are visibly enjoying coming to work and that enjoyment is reflected in their performances. William Campbell is back, after his season one performance as Trelane in The Squire Of Gothos. He joins Roger C. Carmel and Mark Leonard in the very small group of actors who have returned to the series. Campbell is great, it's a more reined in performance than Trelane but the energy and enthusiasm are still present. He puffs out his chest, and sticks out his chin, and often stands hands on hips. He's every inch the proud and arrogant Klingon so it's a surprise to see, in long shots, how skinny Campbell is; there's almost nothing to him.

So everybody likes The Trouble With Tribbles. Everybody except associate producer Robert Justman. He says, in the book Inside Star Trek, “although the concept was amusing, the story was just too cute. I feared that... it would lead to a loss of believability. Kirk, Spock, and the others were real people, and real people just did not behave that way; our finely drawn characters should never parody themselves.”

Justman's concerns about the characters are justified. Look at the moment when McCoy comes in at the end of the storage compartment scene. He says, “Jim, I think I've got it. All we have to do is quit feeding them. We quit feeding them, they stop breeding.” It's a great line, made better by Kirk's, “now he tells me,” response from the tribble pile, but it's a moment of pure sitcom. Apparently McCoy is bursting to tell Kirk the news of his discovery. It's so urgent he's come hot foot all the way from his lab on the Enterprise. He's in such a hurry that he's still carrying a tribble in each hand. He's so distracted by his discovery he doesn't even react to the sight of Kirk buried up to his chest in a pile of tribbles.

Why does McCoy enter the scene at that point? It's because it's the best place in the script for McCoy's joke, and he needs to be there with a medical scanner to instantly diagnose the tribbles as dying. This is what Justman means about the characters becoming parodies. They stop behaving like people and become articulate props, moving around the sets to make scenes work, and to keep the plot moving forwards. It's similar to a scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit when Roger and Eddie are handcuffed together.

EDDIE VALIANT: You mean you could've taken your hand out of that cuff at any time?
ROGER RABBIT: No, not at any time, only when it was funny.

KIRK: Bones, couldn't you have told me about not feeding the tribbles at any time?
MCCOY: No Jim, not at any time, only when it was funny.

Fortunately audiences tend to be more tolerant of things like this in a comedy. So the moment with McCoy fits perfectly into the tone, and pace, of the story. That's not to say pitching a story as a comedy will give a writer a free pass, nothing will sour an audience more quickly than a bad comedy, but it stands out less than the moment in The Alternative Factor when the galaxy spanning scale of the, “cosmic winking out,” is dialled back to nothing because Kirk can't realise there is more than one Lazarus until act four. Or when Doctor Adams is suddenly revealed as the baddie in Dagger Of The Mind because it's the end of act three, and the story needs an antagonist, and Adams is the only suitable character.

Minor gripes aside this is a solid script. A lot of attention has been paid to the structure. The two plot lines, tribbles and Klingons, parallel each other nicely until the climax when the tribbles accidentally reveal Darvin's true nature. Seinfeld was renowned for the way separate story lines would converge at the end of an episode, and we see something very similar here. Sleight of hand by director Joseph Pevney means the expanding tribble population only seems like a problem on the Enterprise. Barely any tribbles are seen on space station K-7 until the big reveal at the end of act three; a few are held by humans in the bar, and there are none at all in Station Manager Lurry's office. On the Enterprise they are stuck to every possible surface.

The teaser is a good summary of the strengths of the episode. What looks mundane when written down, a knowledge check and performance review for Chekov, zips along when performed. Chekov comes across as a gauche young man, cracking jokes, and trying to impress his commanding officer. Spock does his best to step on those jokes, and delivers useful background information. Kirk asks relevant questions and does his best not to appear too amused as his first officer puts Chekov in his place. Bruce Schoengarth's editing gives pace to the teaser. As Spock talks about the history of the quadrant Schoengarth cuts in a reaction shot of Chekov nodding along in the way people do when they want to look knowledgeable. Reaction shots are a bog standard editing technique to break up what would otherwise be a succession of talking heads, but the choice of shot used here really adds to the sense we are eavesdropping on a conversation, and helps with the portrayal of Chekov as someone setting out to impress. Even Chekov's final line of the teaser makes sense in context, “code one emergency, that's a disaster call!” It's a classic example of someone telling other characters something they already know, but here it fits perfectly. Whether it's nerves or showing off, Chekov just can't keep his mouth shut.

Enterprise crew deaths: None but 1,771,561 tribbles die a horrible, horrible death by poisoning.
Running total: 43

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