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Star Trek's H. Jon Benjamin explains how to eat a tribble (and make history)
In the original Star Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles," Dr. "Bones" McCoy discovers the reason why the furry menace known as tribbles reproduce so fast is that the little fuzzballs are "born pregnant." And now, in the latest Short Treks episode, "The Trouble with Edward," we find out why. It turns out a Star Trek-version of a mad scientist genetically modified the tribbles with seemingly good — but crazy — intentions.
"The Trouble with Edward" hilariously reboots the origin story of the tribbles and at the center of it all is H. Jon Benjamin, probably best known to millions as the voice of Archer or of Bob on Bob's Burgers. In the new mini-episode, Benjamin plays Edward Larkin, a misguided, unethical Starfleet officer who very intentionally creates the cutest Frankenstein monster of all.
SYFY WIRE chatted with Benjamin about beaming into the Trek universe, why comedy works with sci-fi, and whether or not Edward Larkin was really acting alone.
**SPOILER WARNING: This story contains spoilers for Short Treks' "The Trouble with Edward."**
Written by David Gerrold, 1967's "The Trouble with Tribbles" is a madcap episode of the original series so beloved that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine time-traveled to the episode itself in 1996's "Trials and tribble-ations." But beyond their cutesy fame, Trek canon has featured the tribbles sparingly. We saw one in a bar in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, Bones brought one back to life in Star Trek Into Darkness, and Captain Lorca mysteriously kept a tribble in his ready room in the first season of Star Trek: Discovery.
In terms of chronological canon, Dr. Phlox had a tribble in "The Breach," an episode of the prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise. And in that episode, Phlox actually used a tribble as food for another animal.
Which is where Benjamin's Edward Larkin actually finds some common ground with existing Trek canon.
"It wasn’t that I created the tribbles," Benjamin says dryly. "I discovered they were edible."
The basic premise of "The Trouble with Edward" is that a Starfleet science vessel — the USS Cabot — has been tasked with helping a planet on the edge of starvation (and the edge of Klingon space) to find a new food source. Larkin suggests that the tribbles could be introduced as a food source for the ailing population, likening them to scallops. But, at this point in the Star Trek timeline, it appears the tribbles haven't acquired their most famous attribute: rapid breeding.
After defying the orders of Captain Lynne Lucero (Rosa Salazar), Larkin genetically modifies the tribbles with some of his own DNA and makes them "born pregnant." This is when the tribbles hit the fan and start reproducing like the tribbles we all know. Captain Lucero is mystified as to how Edward has gotten by in Starfleet, saying: "I don’t know how you made it this far in your career behaving like this." So how did he make it this far?
"We didn’t do a ton of backstory before shooting it," Benjamin explains. "But I talked to the writer [Graham Wanger] and there was a conversation about how he got there. Was it like nepotism? Is he like barely a scientist? Or is he just of dubious ethics? Or an outsider and nobody liked him? I think we landed on the latter. Like, I think he might have some basis in real science and maybe some real credentials. But, he’s a bit of a lunatic."
In one scene, right before Larkin injects the tribbles with whatever genetic cocktail he's cooked up to modify them, he seems to be briefly sporting an ominous black vest and one of the all-black Starfleet badges usually worn by members of the clandestine organization Section 31. In essence, for one moment, it's like Larkin raided the closet of Captain Leland from Star Trek: Discovery. Later in Trek canon, the tribbles end up being a huge problem for the Klingons. (In DS9, Worf said tribbles were declared an enemy of the Empire at some point.) So, did someone in Section 31 plant Larkin with the hopes that he would act crazy and create new alien pest species?
Benjamin isn't ruling it out. If someone were pulling Larkin's strings, it would certainly explain how he got on the ship.
"Oh, a false flag," he says. "Well, it’s very possible. Very possible."
Outside of complicated tribble canon, "The Trouble with Edward" plays as a straight-up comedy, which Benjamin thinks is right at home with the tone of the original Star Trek.
"Comedy was always a big part of the original series; Bones and Spock arguing; Spock’s relationship with Kirk; a lot of inside jokes that kept going on throughout the series. I’m not saying that was like the focus, but it was a big part of it," he says. "['The Trouble with Edward'] is pretty different since it’s a pretty hard comedy take on an original concept from original Star Trek. But, I would say Star Trek has always done character-based comedy — how characters interact and how characters have to work together."
Benjamin also is a self-described fan of the original Star Trek, and says "doing this comes full circle. This derives from the original series, so I guess I’ve waited this long to return to the fold." He also says that he's totally open to his character returning, assuming, of course, that he survived.
"I don’t know. I think he got suffocated behind a wall of tribbles!" Benjamin says. "Did he survive that? I don’t know, that was like an avalanche. But, yeah, for sure. He was a really fun character to play and being the comic relief was fun to do. And I could certainly see Edward Larkin coming back."
Like Rainn Wilson before him, Benjamin's time on Star Trek comes across as the perfect combination of the franchise's myriad sensibilities; the appeal of Star Trek is that it's both serious and funny, sometimes at the same time.
"Star Trek has always seemed like it's a reflection of its time to a degree and sci-fi has always had that benefit," Benjamin says. "It’s sort of a mirror to what is happening — but with crazier outfits."
Short Treks' newest episode "The Trouble with Edward" begins streaming on Thursday, October 10 on CBS All Access.