Nutshell: Heavily nostalgic and quite fun. Motivation for the show beyond its very existence is scarce, but if you're a Trek fan you won't likely care.
Returning from Cardassia, Sisko and the Defiant crew are hurled back in time by a Klingon in disguise, and find themselves face-to-face with the original USS Enterprise and its crew, right in the middle of the events that took place in TOS's "The Trouble with Tribbles."
"Trials and Tribble-ations" comes advertised as a "special" episode of DS9. And "special" is the key word here. In many ways, this episode is about as atypical as I expect the series will ever get. There are things in this show that I never could've imagined would happen—it seems the producers of the show merely had a sudden, unrestrained sentiment of nostalgia and decided to see it through for themselves and everybody else.
It's tough to review this episode looking at the usual things that characterize an episode of Deep Space Nine. To analyze the plot would be absurd. Even scrutinizing characterization is best left in the back seat in favor of looking at the nostalgia factor.
Is there a plot here? Well, barely—just enough to serve as an excuse for the show's events. It seems awfully convenient that security would be so light on the Defiant that the "passenger" would have access to the Bajoran time orb, allowing him to catapult the ship back 100 years and set his master plan in motion—but, hey, who cares? It's what happens once the crew gets back in the past that makes the show a winner. Plotwise it's still not a whole heck of a lot—the events are perfunctory more than anything else, simply going through the motions just to give the show some semblance of a standard structure. In the episode's first few acts, Sisko and his crew go undercover (i.e., change into the uniforms of the time period and carry the contemporary equipment) to search the old Enterprise and the K-7 space station for signs of Darvin (Charlie Brill) who beamed off the Defiant to carry out his devious plan. Once they find Darvin, he reveals to Sisko that he's too late—there's already a bomb planted in a tribble, set to detonate and kill Kirk and change history to Darvin's (who was captured and dishonored by Kirk) own advantage. One rather silly notion is the fact that Darvin would reveal to Sisko what his clever plan is—for the obvious reason that it allows Sisko to foil it (but not before first searching through 1,771,561 tribbles, naturally).
But who cares about any of this plotting anyway? The point of "Trials and Tribble-ations" is its own high concept—that of the DS9 crew being integrated into footage of the original "Trouble with Tribbles" episode via the latest in digital manipulation and photography fakery. And what else can I say?—the results are convincing. Very convincing. I doubt that I could fully appreciate the amount of work and effort that went into making this episode so seamless.
One of my favorite sequences involves the reworking of the original "Trouble with Tribbles" scene where Kirk asks "Who threw the first punch?"—you know, that bar fight Scotty started by punching the insulting Klingon. (The entire brawl, by the way, has also been redone, and O'Brien, Worf, and Odo are now participants.) This time, though, O'Brien and Bashir are standing among the line of officers Kirk questions. It's odd how convincing the scene is, yet how much we're aware that the whole scene is a fabrication. I think, perhaps, that's why it's so hilarious and why we get a kick out it as well as much of the episode—visually we're stunned by how real it looks, but intellectually we're aware that the whole show is just an amiable, lighthearted hoax.
Aside from the digital tricks, the very fact that the producers reconstructed this entire old-Trek environment is a feat that's pretty astounding. Every little detail has been recaptured here, from the cheesiness of those old, low-tech sets (many of which have been painstakingly rebuilt to shoot the new footage) to the comparatively goofy costumes, '60s hairstyles, original props, starship and station miniature styles, and, of course, metal-trimmed devices. ("Classic twenty-third century styling," Dax notes—Terry Farrell delivering the line with tongue firmly in cheek.)
And that's crucial to the show's success. This is, without a doubt, the most apparent nostalgia episode the franchise has attempted, and a big part of getting the big picture right is in getting the little details right—and, believe me, these details are very right.
Another important part of working nostalgia without getting overly hokey is finding the right tone. "Trials and Tribble-ations" finds a similar tone of humor that reminds us about everything that was entertaining about the original "Trouble with Tribbles." A few scenes from the original episode have been inserted here purely for their amusing stand-alone entertainment value.
Also, part of the fun is the way the show pokes fun at those old, original Trek episodes. Really, "Trials and Tribble-ations" seldom needs to go out of its way to poke fun at yesterday's Treks—a lot of the humor is evident merely by comparing the way the new shows are and the old ones were. I think that's precisely the point. DS9 does not, for example, have a farcical bar fight every third week. TOS, on the other hand, loved getting into big, inconsequential fist fights, and seeing it break out here was a joy.
In finding the right tone, "Trials and Tribble-ations" also knows better than to try to take itself remotely seriously. Case in point: Worf's explanation of why Klingons have "changed" in appearance since 100 years ago—"We do not discuss it with outsiders." This is probably the most perfect answer that could've been written: a non-answer. For that matter, I also greatly enjoyed O'Brien and Bashir's entertaining-as-usual scenes together—especially the "pre-destination paradox" bit, where Bashir claims he could be his own great-grandfather (??!!), which in another episode might be relevant, but here is just a passing joke that pokes fun at Trek's own love for time-travel plots.
While "Trials and Tribble-ations" is a fun little package that we're all probably going to love, I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't point out the few things that aren't quite ideal here. First is Dax's behavior. What in the world did Terry Farrell drink before some of her scenes here? She's got pep. Too much pep. At times, she seems way out of character. Her reactions to seeing Kirk ("It's Jim Kirk! Don't you want to meet him? It would be fun!") are far too excessive to be convincing. As a science officer you would think Jadzia would be a little more reluctant in threatening the time line to indulge in a little bit of "fun."
For that matter, I thought the constant references to Kirk were a little bit over-enthused. Yeah, sure, he's Kirk and he's cool and all that, but I think the legendary captain was placed on too high a pedestal at times in this episode, and I sometimes got the sense that the writers were feeling just a little too proud of their nostalgia.
That's a minor complaint—surely nothing that significantly hurts the show. And I suppose even the writers can get swept up in all the endearing Trekkian qualities considering how close to the show they are. After all, they only get one shot at it, and on an occasion as such they're trying to make it, I suppose it's better to go a little overboard than to miss the opportunity. As a quick comparison between the two "30th anniversary shows" that have appeared on DS9 and Voyager, let me add that, in the nostalgia category, "Trials and Tribble-ations" beats Voyager's "Flashback" by a mile. "Flashback" had a better character core, yes, but "Trials and Tribble-ations" is not pretending to be anything other than a special anniversary episode, and on that level it's quite a success because it's taken to a daring new level that "Flashback" didn't attempt.
"Trials and Tribble-ations" is told in flashback by Captain Sisko to two of Starfleet's official "temporal investigators" who want to know exactly how and why Sisko ended up in the past. This use of narration makes sense—considering this episode exists on circumstances so far outside the conventions of a typical episode of DS9, the narration adds an extra element of unreality—almost like a person telling a tale which is merely a fictional story. I liked this offbeat notion. I also liked the idea of temporal investigators. (As much as Trek messes with the time line, you would hope someone out there would be trying to keep track of the paradoxes.)
When it comes down to it, this installment is a paradox in itself. It's little more than a series of events that try to give it a reason for its own existence. Everything that happens here is motivated purely to feed the episode with something to do. But I say who cares? Sit back and enjoy an interesting experience, characterized by a paper-thin story and some sweeping moments of yesterday's Trek. The show is not a model of the virtues of DS9, perhaps, but it's definitely a winner and a classic, and a show I'll remember for quite a long time. A special episode it's called, and a special episode it is.