Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Ship's Log, Supplemental: Bjo Trimble and “Save Star Trek!”

Yes, Star Trek did in fact come back for a third season. Barely.

Critically however, this wasn't a renewal in the traditional sense either. What happened in March of 1968 was something the likes of which had really never been seen before in US television, and about which there is a considerable amount of myth and contradictory lore, most of which seems to have been deliberate. Central to these events is a woman name Betty JoAnne Trimble, better known as Bjo. So, in the first entry of the “Ship's Log, Supplemental” series, which looks at miscellaneous aspects of the Star Trek pop culture phenomenon, in particular the history and historiography of its fandom, I'm going to try and piece together as best I can the extent of her influence and connection to the franchise and the series of events leading up to Star Trek's unexpected renewal...And inevitable, if postponed, cancellation.

Although Star Trek never commanded acceptable, let alone impressive, ratings in its original run, what fans it did have were notoriously passionate and vocal. Throughout the duration of the first season, NBC got close to 29,000 letters from fans gushing about the show, which was the most amount of mail they got for any of their shows save The Monkees. Although a comprehensive cross-section of Star Trek fandom in the 1960s is difficult to establish, it is clear a great many of these early fans were women. Numerous producers, executives and other creative figures associated with the franchise for decades have pointed this out, despite their tendency to make spectacularly unfounded inferences from this fact, mostly in regards to how all those women were apparently just lusting after Spock (Ron Moore is particularly egregious in this regard, having made a somewhat thoughtless comment in the context of one of his early Star Trek: The Next Generation scripts but we'll get to that). Although there were most certainly more then a few women who fixated on Spock and who turned him into a sex symbol for one reason or another, the sexism implicit in assuming the *only* reason women watched Star Trek was because of this should be self-evident. In truth there is a long tradition of a feminist Star Trek fandom which goes all-but-ignored thanks to the unbelievably patriarchal nature of science fiction culture, and which will start to become more of a theme once we reach the 1970s. This outpouring of fan mail is the first manifestation of it.

It's not terribly difficult to see why women would feel inspired and empowered by Star Trek in 1968. Gene Roddenberry may have had a tendency to act like a misogynistic bastard, but in the two years since the series has been on the air people who aren't him have used the show to make considerable strides for more egalitarian representation: We've had characters like Ann Mulhall and Charlene Masters being depicted as colleagues in equal standing with their male shipmates, not to mention Uhura, who's become a strong and capable character in her own right over the course of the last season. Even characters like Daras in “Patterns of Force” got to be surprisingly nuanced for the time with detailed backstories and complex, multifaceted personalities. Of course, for every Ann Mulhall or Daras there's been a Nona or Sylvia, but the fans were right to hold up the good examples in lieu of the bad ones, especially if they were trying to argue for the show's merit. There was also the matter of William Shatner's and Leonard Nimoy's acting, which most certainly drew the attention of more then a few woman fans, but that's beyond the scope of this particular post.

It would make sense then that the monumental letter-writing campaign spanning the last half of 1967 and the first half of 1968 to save Star Trek from cancellation would be spearheaded by female superfan Bjo Trimble and her husband John. Trimble initially reached out to a 4,000 member mailing list for a science fiction convention to write NBC as a show of support for the struggling series, and to ask ten additional people to do so in turn. The campaign quickly snowballed to frankly ludicrous proportions, with NBC receiving a staggering 116,000 letters between that December and the following March, 52,000 of which arrived in the month of February alone (one executive, Norman Lunenfield, vividly describes looking out his window at NBC's Burbank office and seeing a fleet of mail trucks stretching to the end of the road). Rumours even circulate this wasn't even the real number, with the network actually receiving over a million responses but never making the rest public. Eventually, what had come to become known as the “Save Star Trek!” movement grew to include mass demonstrations on college campuses such as Caltech, Berkeley and MIT. Eventually, NBC had to relent and, as the traditional account goes, made the unheard-of decision to announce Star Trek had been renewed for a third season on air just after the initial broadcast of “The Omega Glory”. However, this doesn't tell the full story of what exactly happened in March, 1968 and the events that led up to it.

First of all, Bjo Trimble was no ordinary Star Trek fan, and I don't mean in just the fact she organised one of the most massive and famous letter-writing campaigns in history. In what's perhaps evidence of precisely how insular and niche Star Trek always was, Bjo Trimble was absolutely an insider in the science fiction community of the late 1960s. She got her start attending the Tenth World Science Fiction Convention held in Chicago in 1952, where she was stationed as a WAVE (part of an all-female Navy volunteer emergency response system instituted during World War II). There she met both Robert Bloch and Harlan Ellison, the latter of whom had just sold his first story and decided to propose as soon as he met her (she obviously turned him down, and eventually went on to meet her actual future husband John at the same convention). She became a regular at the conventions in subsequent years, organising some of the first science fiction themed art and fashion shows. It was at one of these shows that she met Gene Roddenberry after being captivated by a screening of “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, and even convinced him to show off the Star Trek uniforms at one of her exhibitions, thus providing one of the first glimpses fans would get of the new show's costume design.

Most interestingly, according to Herb Solow and Bob Justman in Inside Star Trek, it was Roddenberry who gave Trimble the idea to launch the 1967-8 letter-writing campaign due to their prior familiarity and who secretly provided the effort's necessary funding. Now, I have to quickly add this isn't meant to diminish what Trimble did in the slightest: Even if “Save Star Trek!” wasn't all her, she still pulled off one of the most remarkable and foundational feats in the history of genre fandom. Equally though, Trimble was not merely an average, if uniquely passionate and driven, Star Trek fan who took it upon herself to do something to help save her favourite show on principle, which is how certain pieces of official literature have had a tendency to depict her. And if Roddenberry was indeed at least partially behind “Save Star Trek!”, it's hard to fault him for it: Roddenberry was first and foremost a businessman who had an eye on what sold, and he did what any savvy businessman would have done. With it becoming abundantly clear Assignment: Earth was dead on arrival, Roddenberry may have decided to take action to save his other line in the water. And, seeing how big of a following Star Trek was getting, he merely took advantage of it. This would be neither the first nor the last time Roddenberry mobilized Star Trek fandom for leverage.

No, what's more telling is the reasoning NBC cited for bringing Star Trek back, and what the actual details and meaning behind the announcement really were. This is best summarised by a pair of quotes from contemporary newspaper stories about the letter-writing campaign. Vernon Scott from the Oxnard, California Press-Courier said

“The show, according to the 6,000 letters it draws a week (more than any other in television), is watched by scientists, museum curators, psychiatrists, doctors, university professors and other highbrows. The Smithsonian Institution asked for a print of the show for its archives, the only show so honored.”

while Cynthia Lowry of the Pasco, Texas Tri-City Herald wrote

“Much of the mail came from doctors, scientists, teachers, and other professional people, and was for the most part literate–and written on good stationery. And if there is anything a network wants almost as much as a high Nielsen ratings it is the prestige of a show that appeals to the upper middle class and high brow audiences.”

Both of these statements expressed sentiments that were echoed in NBC's actual publicity material, and I find that incredibly revealing. Although Bjo Trimble may not have been the complete embodiment of Star Trek's everyday female (and feminist) fanbase because of her insider connections, she absolutely spoke for them. She was a person they could relate to, and her campaign gave them a way to express their voice. And while yes, Star Trek has always held an appeal for the technoscience sectors, this isn't the exclusive domain of the franchise's appeal, despite the impression you might get from contemporary fandom. In this regard, it is imperative to note that NBC made a conscious, deliberate attempt to publicly court one type of fan over the other, and this is decision that will hold repercussions for the entire rest of the history of Star Trek fandom. From here on out, it's the upper-middle class, “highbrow”, “educated” (and tacitly white cis male of 18-25 years of age) and technologistic demographic who will be seen as Star Trek's “Real” fans, and not the women who actually made it a cult phenomenon to begin with (look even at the schools who were doing the protesting: All universities known for their technoscience and industry connections).

There's also one more thing. NBC may have gone out of their way to court this demographic, but they also immediately recognised it for what it was: Small. Star Trek's fans may have been loud and prolific, but the ratings weren't backing up the amount of fan mail they were getting, and a network can't justify keeping a show like Star Trek on the air by virtue of fan mail alone. So NBC made, ironically enough, an incredibly logical decision. Star Trek would be renewed for third season yes, but there would be an unspoken implication the third season would also be its last. Oh yes, it couldn't be more clear to me that NBC always intended to pull the plug on Star Trek in 1969. NBC made a big deal about moving the show to Mondays to court its newfound audience, but then backtracked and moved it to Fridays instead to avoid competition with Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and, allegedly, to appeal to Star Trek's younger fans. This led Roddenberry to complain "If the network wants to kill us, it couldn't make a better move" and to promptly walk off the show during the summer hiatus. Gene Coon, D.C. Fontana and John Meredyth Lucas soon followed suit.

There's a lot of secret messages telegraphed in that series of choices. First of all, NBC was *never* going to privilege Star Trek over the wildly successful Laugh-In, which was culturally significant in its own right. Secondly, while a Friday timeslot may well have been good for children, the flip side of that is because the reason for that is children are the only people who are home watching television on Friday nights. It's called the Friday Night Death Slot for a reason, and this had the added bonus of giving a pretty damn good clue as to who NBC really thought Star Trek's audience was comprised of. Dropping the budget by $3000 should probably have been another sign the writing was really on the wall. This led Nichelle Nichols to famously fume

“While NBC paid lip service to expanding Star Trek's audience, it [now] slashed our production budget until it was actually ten percent lower than it had been in our first season ... This is why in the third season you saw fewer outdoor location shots, for example. Top writers, top guest stars, top anything you needed was harder to come by. Thus, Star Trek's demise became a self-fulfilling prophecy. And I can assure you, that is exactly as it was meant to be.”

Nichols is absolutely right, of course. And while this decision may be seen as a criminal act of betrayal by the fans (and even TV Guide, who are gigantic Star Trek fans anyway, called it the fourth “Biggest TV Blunder Ever” in a special), it makes absolute perfect sense from the perspective of the network. And anyway, as difficult as it may be to believe, NBC's move to kill off the Original Series may have been the final event that guaranteed Star Trek's immortality. See, had the show been canceled in its second season, there wouldn't have been enough episodes to sell a syndication package. Giving Star Trek a third season tipped the total episode count over the minimum. NBC knew they had a show that was floundering in primetime, but they also knew that if they could sell it as part of a syndication deal the loyal fans would follow it and turn it into a regular and reliable source of income. And that's exactly what happened, and furthermore, Star Trek proved to be even more popular in syndication than it was in its original run. So popular, in fact, Paramount approached Gene Roddenberry and the team a decade later with the idea to maybe bring the franchise back to television. This is the very definition of what a Cult Sci-Fi show is, and this is how Star Trek became the archetypical example of the genre.

And that's the story of how a ropey show that had pretty much everything working against it turned into one of the most lasting pillars of Western popular consciousness. And, although NBC had a part to play, it was really the female fans who came together to let the network know they had something that was special (in spite of itself) and that shouldn't be discarded. The real criminal act of betrayal was not that NBC eventually did pull the plug on the Original Series: Rather, that was what allowed Star Trek to undergo its own true Metamorphosis. No, the real act of betrayal was that these women were never given the respect and credit they deserve for providing the imaginative spark that allowed Star Trek to become Star Trek.


  1. You know, the stereotype of the lone, socially awkward, spotty, hyper-nerdy male Star Trek superfan is so prevalent that I've thought that it couldn't be entirely true. Sadly, I think it's only in the last few years that nerd culture has come to be seen for all the nuances and diversity that it really has, and has had from the beginning.

    Also very much looking forward to your take on the slash fiction.

  2. A very interesting account. I was vaguely aware of the whole letter-writing thing, but the details are fascinating.

    Just one question: how do you pronounce "Bjo"?

    1. I believe the "B" that stands for Betty is meant to be pronounced-So it would be something like "B-Jo".

    2. Thank you. I had always, ignorant of its derivation, pronounced it as if it were some Scandinavian name, so "Byo". Must recalibrate.

    3. No worries. I did the same thing before I figured out "Bjo" was supposed to be short for "Betty JoAnne".

  3. You know, it's funny that one never hears about the contributions of female fandom to this whole enterprise (pun absolutely intended). And by funny I mean tragic. Seriously, this is the first time I've ever heard of any of this. I can't thank you enough for doing this project.

    1. You're very welcome, and thank *you* for reading it!

      One of my Twitter friends gave me a link to a survey of Star Trek fandom, and one of the biggest things it highlighted was that the fandom is actually largely female (a 57%/43% split advantage women, according to this study). This actually doesn't surprise me in the slightest: In my experience there's at least two distinct Star Trek cultures.

      1968 is when I think this divide started to become apparent. It gradually becomes more distinct and blatant throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Actually, the post for Monday (as of this writing) talks a bit more about the kind of thing that made up early female fandom.

  4. I had read quite a bit about Bjo's campaign in various Trek biographies. Illuminating hearing about the numbers of women involved in Trek fandom. I do as a male get rather fed up with the overall terrible image of the white geeky male fan (even though I am one!) I do feel pretty lucky though to have a female partner who shares a love of sc fi, Trek and Doctor Who with me.

  5. It's also interesting to me that this all happened in 1968 - the absolute peak year of popular resistance and protest in the second half of the twentieth century, coming after the rise of the civil rights movement, etc. At the very least, the 'Save Star Trek' people must have had an awareness, at the back of their minds, of the other issues people were waving placards about. This is a very polite, middle-class dabbling in the safer style of protest - writing letters asking for concessions, at the initial suggestion of a personally-interested bigwig - but still, it looks like a whimsical demonstration of the way people in '68 thought they could change the world through demands... especially if one of the key issues was an attachment based on progressive representations.

  6. Ah, this was great to read, as it really highlights a point I think too few people in a variety of fandoms get. (Most recently I blogged about this in regards to the Legend of Korra fandoms inability to understand Nickelodeon's decision to make the series web-only.) You never explicitly state it, but you seem to get the fundamental truth of television as a capitalist enterprise: viewers are not the customers; shows are not the product. Advertisers are the customers, viewers are the product being sold, and shows the equipment used to manufacture that product.