It’s hard to believe, but it was a little over 50 years ago that the term “tribble” entered the American lexicon. Now, most people of a certain age, as well as many people who adore science-fiction screenplays, know that a tribble is a round ball of twittering and vibrating fur that invaded the starship Enterprise. These at-first-adorable houseguests are a precursor to the horror-film “Gremlins,” which also begin life as cute and sweet-natured before becoming overbearing and domineering. No wonder that the fan-favorite “Star Trek” episode was called “The Trouble with Tribbles,” because that’s what these furry folks brought with them—loads of trouble, mayhem, and laughter! It also explains why “Star Trek” has continued to be a vehicle that begs to be made into different collectible figures, plush toys, and even teddy bears.
I was reminded of tribbles as I visited some booths at Toy Fair this year. Douglas, in particular, had an array of fuzzy, furry-looking critters (as pocketbooks, keychains, and pom-poms) called Fur Fuzzles. The owl ones, in particular, reminded me of Captain Kirk and how his crewmembers became overrun by these chittering, chattering creatures.
“The Trouble with Tribbles” first aired on December 29, 1967, and the response was instantaneously positive from most viewers. (The die-hard, logical fans who wanted the show to be a serious treatise on space travel hated it! Think Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory.” They thought the episode was too silly and too much slapstick.) Children and their parents, the general public that just tuned into “Star Trek” for escapism, adored this installment. So did the critics! And it was nominated for the Hugo award for Best Dramatic Presentation. (It ended up losing to another “Star Trek” script, “The City on the Edge of Forever.”)
Obviously, with this in mind, it’s easy to see why tribbles continue to be sold to this day, in a galaxy of different versions and treatments. Every member of a household can own a tribble, from toddlers to teens (who love fashions) to active pet cats. Tribbles still reap profits.
The cast and characters that populate the universe devised by Gene Roddenberry have evolved and expanded over the decades since the show debuted on NBC. Running from 1966 through 1969—next year will mark the 50th anniversary of its cancelation—the show has grown more famous and more beloved with each passing year. It was rebooted and re-imagined for several new television versions, and has had a healthy existence as a movie franchise as well.
Because “Star Trek” has never pulled a “black hole” move and vanished by collapsing into itself, it has always remained relevant and reflective of the audience that is embracing it. The original show, which ran for three seasons in the midst of the controversial and societal-shifting 1960s, mirrored where Roddenberry felt the world was heading. The bridge of the Enterprise was an integrated one. While real-life African-Americans had just recently won the right to sit at the front of the bus in the South, on “Star Trek” Lieutenant Uhura was working as a communications specialist and was spearheading a mission to investigate and explore the final frontier.
It is really remarkable that Roddenberry had the clout to include a strong, smart, remarkable character like Uhura (portrayed by Nichelle Nichols). Whereas so many black actresses were relegated to playing maids, nannies, and other domestic servants, Uhura was an African-American woman who eventually was promoted to the rank of commander. That was a major step forward in race relations.
“Star Trek” also showed Asian characters in positive and uplifting roles. It wasn’t afraid to show friendships, relationships, and even forbidden/taboo kisses between actors of different races. It was as forward thinking as a prime-time show could be in the 1960s. It featured the first interracial lip-lock on November 22, 1968, when Kirk (William Shatner) and Uhura (Nichols) shared that intimate moment—an intimate moment watched by millions.
Over the years since then, “Star Trek” has broken down other barriers, and each re-invention has opened the door to new firsts, new achievements, and new ways to study and understand the world around us. That’s the genius of Roddenberry’s premise. Even though it was set centuries in the future, it was actually kneading and prompting people to take careful stock of what their current world was like, and could it be improved.
The “Star Trek” characters have been made as action figures—that’s a no-brainer—and as pop-culture Barbie dolls. That also makes sense, since Barbie has never seen a career that she would shirk. It doesn’t matter if it is piloting a spaceship through the Milky Way on Saturday; she will gladly return to dog grooming on Sunday. Barbie is very well-adjusted that way! Plus, “Star Trek” was an ideal tie-in for Barbie, who unapologetically loves all kinds of gadgets and gizmos. (A hot-pink phaser, anyone?)
The “Star Trek” bears and other plush critters are amazing, especially because very often the manufacturers sit down and plot out why a certain breed should become a particular character or hold a specific rank as their collectible counterpart. Gund definitely did that with their lineup of “Star Trek” characters that I profiled at Toy Fair in 2016. The designers gave Kirk the courage of a lion, Spock the aloofness of a cat, McCoy the loyalty of a canine (also his nickname is Bones, and we know how much dogs love to gnaw on those), and Uhura the strength and resolve of a bear. It was quite commendable.When Vermont Teddy Bears unveiled its 50th anniversary line of “Star Trek” characters, they went that extra mile by changing their bears’ silhouette to mirror Mr. Spock’s legendary Vulcan pointy-eared visage. The bear has a clipped and elfin-like look to its ears. They stand upright and have that pointy appearance that defined the Leonard Nimoy characterization.
Since fans, and particularly super fans, are always aware of anniversaries and dates that hold special significance, one should expect more “Star Trek” plush and collectibles to flood the market at the end of this year and into next year. It will be 50 years since the first TV airing had the plug pulled on its space mission. It currently has a spin-off—a stepchild of the Roddenberry franchise, a re-imagined version by J.J. Abrams—playing exclusively on CBS All Access, the network’s streaming service. People have signed up to watch the new “Star Trek,” and pay a monthly subscription fee to do so.
That’s why there will always be a “Star Trek” bear, dog, monkey, cat, and maybe even a platypus heading your way. The show is part of our modern mythology.