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'Star Trek: Discovery' dropped a tribble on us

The alien threat ramps up on "Star Trek: Discovery" with the quiet introduction of an adorable fuzzball from the original series.

Don't feed the tribble, Captain Lorca.
Video screenshot/red arrow by Amanda Kooser/CNET

Caution: minor spoilers ahead.

"Star Trek: Discovery" aired its third episode on Sunday, and it's already jumped right into one of the sci-fi franchise's greatest conflicts. I'm not talking about Klingons versus the Federation. I'm talking tribbles. Tribbles are hungry, adorable, reproducing balls of fluff made famous by the original Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles."

Captain Kirk is not a fan of tribbles in "The Trouble with Tribbles."

Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

When "Discovery" lead Michael Burnham first meets Captain Lorca on board the new ship, we hear a very familiar noise: the cooing of a tribble. The alien creature sits on the desk in Lorca's ready room, a surprising bit of cuteness in a spare space. Nobody makes any mention of it. It's just there, taunting us with possibilities.

Thanks to the original series, we know a few things about tribbles. According to Spock, their cooing noises have a tranquilizing effect on the human nervous system. Dr. McCoy discovers the only way to get them to stop reproducing in massive numbers is to quit feeding them. Tribbles also get extremely upset when in the presence of a Klingon. 

Lorca is playing with fire by keeping his bowl of fortune cookies so close to the tribble, which already looks dangerously plump. 

"Discovery" -- which airs on CBS All Access (and Netflix for most of the world) -- takes place prior to the original Captain Kirk-led series. (Disclosure: CBS is CNET's parent company.)

The Enterprise crew didn't seem to know much about tribbles, so we have to guess Lorca and the Discovery didn't add any data about tribbles to the Federation knowledge base. Perhaps that means Lorca's tribble won't be anything more than a piece of set dressing.  

Tribbles tend to serve as comic relief. "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" famously revisited the critters in the fun 1996 episode "Trials and Tribble-ations." Will "Discovery," which so far is taking a fairly serious tone, venture down the path of fur-lined comedy? It's too soon to tell.    

We already know "Discovery" isn't afraid to pay tribute to the Treks that came before. The technology may feel more advanced and the uniforms are sleeker, but the phasers and communicators look familiar, Spock's dad has a prominent role and we know to expect the appearance of actor Rainn Wilson in the original-series role of con artist Harry Mudd. Still, the decision to toss a tribble onto the ship is an intriguing one.

Is Lorca's pet just a bit of fan service for Trekkies, or will tribbles' hatred of Klingons come into play somewhere down the line? Maybe the captain just uses it to help him keep calm, like a purring, living cup of chamomile tea. It's amusing how the casual appearance of one over-sized alien dust bunny can spark so much speculation. 

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