Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 2.1.5: You Cannot Be Serious

More Tribbles, More Troubles

Star Trek More Tribbles More Troubles

“This is all YOUR fault, Ensign!”

David Gerrold’s sequel to his own classic is an interesting beast. It has a reputation as an uncomplicated romp, but that’s inaccurate on both counts. Firstly, this doesn’t become anything approaching lighthearted until Cyrano Jones appears aboard the Enterprise. This is the cliffhanger ending the first act, and everything that precedes it – other than Uhura’s hilarious exasperation –  is action sci-fi played entirely straight.

Gun Barrels And Grain Barrels

Too straight, in fact. Kirk’s initial approach to his vital relief mission is gung-ho to the point of grotesque irresponsibility. We can forgive him taking the grain-ships into range of a Klingon battlecruiser firing at a Federation vessel. It’s a risky decision, but this close to the Neutral Zone leaving the robot vessels to fend for themselves comes with its own dangers. Kirk surely knows that. You could argue pragmatism demand he not investigate at all, I suppose. A one-man scout-ship versus an entire planet is an easy choice to make from a utilitarian perspective at least. Still, I wouldn’t recommend it. That would be an unusually mean-spirited way of showing you don’t understand how fiction works.

No, where Kirk goes wrong is in shutting down Koloth’s extradition request without agreeing to discuss it, or even asking why it’s being made. Kirk is on a critical resupply mission. He knows the Klingons may have a secret weapon that could obliterate his small fleet. There’s no way to learn what crimes his incoming guest has committed, but clearly the Klingon Empire will risk a border incident and even a war in order to punish them. Forcing the issue is extremely perilous, and Kirk apparently does it for no better reason than ego.

Indeed, it’s only by sheer luck the mission – to save millions of people on Sherman’s Planet, remember – isn’t scuppered in the opening minutes of the skirmish. The Klingon warship could easily have destroyed half of the small fleet’s grain supplies, even by accident. Presumably we’d get the same result had the robot ship collided with its intended target. Kirk justifies this by arguing losing the Enterprise would be worse still. That’s likely true in the narrowest sense. Absent their escort the grain ships would be easy picking for Koloth. He might even decide to blackmail Sherman’s Planet into joining the Empire, or simply take the world by force. Still, though, Kirk is rather missing the point. The Enterprise is only in danger to start with because he has no interest in solving this problem with diplomacy. He doesn’t even want to bother trying to understand it, really. The idea of dialogue, even at the level of “We’ll talk about this after we’ve saved a planet from starving to death”, simply doesn’t occur to him.

Not that Koloth is blameless here either. His last-minute admission of his true goal is so far from his initial demands one could dismiss it as a plot hole. I think it’s something different though. I think it’s a calculated lie. Koloth is worried that should he admit exactly what he wants from Jones, Kirk will use it as a bargaining chip to gain advantage. Better to risk destroying the creature than admit how vital it is to Klingon interests. Specifically (and ironically), the interest in not letting tribbles consume the food stores of an entire Empire world.

So both captains would rather risk failing their missions and allow one of their own planets to starve than admit to what they really need. They’d rather lose huge and at speed than succeed through patience. That attitude might lead to an exciting space battle, but really all we’re watching is two arrogant men spraying testosterone into the void. No wonder Uhura is so sarcastic as the boys fret over their broken toys. This isn’t the time to be whipping out the rulers, guys!

Under other circumstances this display of machismo might only be depressing. With two worlds on the line it becomes actively horrifying. This is a ludicrously high-stakes game that never needed playing at all. Seeing Kirk buy so completely into all this is dispiriting to say the least. We need a way out of this muscle-flexing nightmare, and we need it fast.

Make Jokes, Not War

This is where the tribbles come in, literally and figuratively. Their appearance sweeps aside all the po-faced war-movie seriousness with a colossal wave of stupid jokes. Not all of them work, admittedly. Plenty do, however. The facial expressions of the glommer are a particular highlight, though nothing can beat watching the captain losing his chair to ever-larger tribbles. Getting laughs is only a part of the tribbles’ role here, though. They also push the narrative past the point where it can sustain the manly-man strutting Kirk and Koloth want to engage in. The high-tension metaphor for naval warfare can’t be maintained when giant pink hairballs are rolling across the screen. The episode doesn’t even try, in fact. The first time the Klingons attack Kirk tries to smash a vital grain shipment into them to buy the lives of his crew with those that crew were sent to help. It’s grimdark as you please. The second time around, Kirk beams a bunch of huge chirping candy-floss dust-devils into his opponent’s ship to clog up the transporters. It’s simply impossible not to realise which of the two is more fun. At this point the episode does become a romp. Just not an uncomplicated one.

Because it isn’t just the battle itself that can’t keep itself going under the avalanche of fluffy cuteness. Koloth himself breaks down the instant he sees a tribble, confessing that Jones was never the real issue here. Because insisting otherwise as an excuse to get some licks in against Starfleet now seems ludicrous. That’s what “More Tribbles, More Troubles” does; it renders ridiculous all the chest-thumping and saber-rattling by showing how divorced they are from anything approaching joy or fun or happiness. It isn’t just the humour and the silliness working to undercutting the militaristic posing, either. The arms race itself is portrayed as foolish and counter productive. The ultra-secret ultra-scary ultra-new Klingon weapon turns out to be as bad for themselves as it is for us. The need for new methods of violence weakens those that create them just as much as those they’ll be used against, at least in the long run [1].

Not that the old methods are getting the job done, either. The long queue of warriors waiting for their chance to leap onto the deck of the Enterprise (and what, in hindsight, could be funnier than the idea of Klingons queuing) prove that when they find their route to glory through fracas blocked by gigantic hairy spheres of purring friendliness. So does Koloth’s hapless underling when he shoots one tribble and generates thousands more. One squeeze of a trigger and he’s multiplied his tribbles. His troubles too, according to the utterly terrible but obviously vital pun Gerrold relies upon here (it’s even in the last line in the script). Extend this further, and the central idea becomes unmistakable. International conflict brings nothing but trouble. Pouring resources into weapons research brings nothing but trouble. Hiding your true agenda behind muscle-flexing and braggadocio brings nothing but trouble. And nothing brings more trouble than drawing your weapon unless you absolutely have to.

The purpose of “More Tribbles, More Troubles”, in other words, is entirely obvious: to shovel so much ridiculous fun into hard, militaristic sci-fi that it collapses under the weight of all the frivolity. This is about refusing to accept that the most aggressive pose must carry the day.

And that’s a tremendously valuable thing to say. The kind of pointless stand-off Kirk and Koloth were so eager to lock themselves into, even at the risk of starting a war, is often justified using words like “necessary” and “unfortunate” and “unavoidable”. The language of serious people talking seriously about serious things. The outpouring of blood-thirst and pomposity and ego-fluffing, cynically packaged for delivery to the masses as a need for sombre reflection on hard truths. Reacting to that by generating as much ridiculousness as possible is a valid tactic. Ridicule isn’t a sufficient weapon to take down warmongers, but it has its uses when properly applied. No war, ever, broke out because the people in charge were determined to not be taken seriously.

That’s an awful lot of good stuff packed into twenty-three minutes. All that, and there’s time for some nice jokes, too. This is exactly what this series should be doing, and exactly what it needed after the wretched “The Lorelei Signal”.  Even the fact it’s over-reliant on the franchise’s history isn’t the problem it might otherwise be. The criticisms here apply to that history as well, after all. We’re not just revisiting the past, we’re exploring how it could have been better. This show still needs to find a way to make new material work, and actually be good itself rather than improving seven-year-old material. But the fact Star Trek Animated needs to be able to do more than “More Tribbles, More Troubles” doesn’t take away from just how much this episode achieves in itself.

Ordering

1. More Tribbles, More Troubles

2. The Enemy Within

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

 

[1] This is presumably why the new weapon is dismissed so completely at the episode’s end, even though it could turn any Federation/Klingon battle in which Starfleet were even slightly outnumbered into a guaranteed massacre. If that happened, the Klingons could just hold down each Federation ship with one of their own and use their spare vessels to clean up. Still, it doesn’t really matter. Sometimes subtext matters more than story logic.

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