How Star Trek Created Its Most Adorable Alien Lifeform

Star Trek's Tribbles were designed by Trek's great unsung hero, Wah Ming Chang.

By Michileen Martin | Published

star trek tribbles
William Shatner up to his chest in Tribbles in “The Trouble with Tribbles”

They’re furry, they coo, they spawn like wet Gremlins, and they cause no end of trouble. They’re Star Trek’s Tribbles, and their realization on the screen is all thanks to the late designer Wah Ming Chang. Called one of the “great unsung heroes” of Trek by, Chang designed some of the most iconic devices and creatures of the franchise including tricorders, phasers, the Gorn, the first Romulan Bird of Prey, and — yes — the Tribbles.

As recalled by Vanity Fair, when the Tribbles debuted in the mid-Season 2 Star Trek: The Original Series episode “The Trouble with Tribbles,” most of the cute, fuzzy creatures were “sewn-up pouches of synthetic fur stuffed with foam rubber.” Of course, while most of the Tribbles appeared as little more than stuffed animals, some of them needed to actually move and for that the series put effects artist James Rugg to work. Rugg used Tribble costuming to disguise toy dogs that he could move around, and in some cases used a squeeze bulb to simulate Tribble breathing.

In “The Trouble with Tribbles” we learn that while the titular creatures may be adorable, there are some good arguments to be made that they’re more trouble than they’re worth. Rather than sex, Tribbles reproduce through eating, meaning all you have to do is give one of the little puffballs a snack and soon you’ll have a lot more of them. In the beginning of the episode there isn’t a single Tribble aboard the Enterprise, but by the end they’re all over the place.

star trek tribbles
William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, James Doohan, and a whole bunch of Tribbles in Star Trek‘s “The Trouble with Tribbles”

And yet, Star Trek’s Tribbles aren’t without their uses for the heroes. The furry beasts are naturally unfriendly toward Klingons, and it’s the heroes’ knowledge of this in “The Trouble with Tribbles” that allows William Shatner’s Kirk and his friends to discover that Arne Darvin (Charlie Brill) is actually a Klingon surgically altered to resemble a human.

“The Trouble with Tribbles” is no doubt the creatures’ most well known appearance in the franchise, but it was far from their last. They returned briefly for Star Trek: The Animated Series, Enterprise, Discovery, and other series as well as films. But after their debut their most well remembered appearance came with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s “Trials and Tribble-ations.”

star trek tribbles
Avery Brooks and Terry Farrell in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s “Trials and Tribble-ations

In the historic Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode, the series used emerging VFX technology to transport the DS9 cast into the decades old “The Trouble with Tribbles” episode. The much older Charlie Brill actually reprised his role as Arne Darvin, and painstaking care was taken to recreate the sets, props, and costumes of the ’60s era series.