Bjo Trimble: The Woman Who Saved Star Trek - Part 1
Fans around the world are gearing up to celebrate the 45th anniversary of Star Trek next month, but the truth is there might be nothing to celebrate, or certainly a whole lot less, were it not for the efforts of Bjo and John Trimble. Longtime fans surely know the story, but newer fans may not, and it’s time to re-tell the tale for the old-timers and pass it on to younger ones. For the record, when NBC seemed to be on the verge of axing Star Trek after a low-rated second season, the Trimbles devised a grassroots letter-writing campaign that saved the show and resulted in a third season. Though the network dropped Star Trek after its lackluster third year, enough episodes had been shot for the show to enter syndication and, in syndication, Star Trek emerged as such a phenomenon that it was resurrected as an animated series and, in 1979, a big-budget feature. And from there the franchise grew and grew, spanning from Star Trek: The Next Generation and all the subsequent shows to Star Trek (2009) and everything in between. So, truly, you might not be reading this now, and might not be on the boards debating the merits of this Trek book or that Trek game had the Trimbles not stepped up to the plate back in 1968. StarTrek.com recently caught up with Bjo Trimble for an extensive interview, conducted via email, in which she talked about her life, love of sci-fi, the legendary letter writing campaign and what she and John are doing these days. Below is part one of our interview, and check back tomorrow for part two.
To many people, you are the "woman who saved Star Trek." But let's go back to your life before that. Where you born and raised, and what was your life like growing up? And John’s, too?
Trimble: I was born in Oklahoma, raised in California. My mother was a very determined lady who knew the way off a hard-scrabble dust bowl farm was to make something of herself. She was a waitress, deputy sheriff and owned several small businesses, and ended up as a Master tailor and well-known self-taught gesneriad hybridizer. I met my father when I was 13 years old and he only wanted me as a babysitter for his second litter of kids. I had a series of stepfathers, all heavy drinkers. We moved as often as 4 or 5 times a year, so I never made close friends. I got my first art job at age 9, painting nose art on private airplanes, and continued in a freelance graphics art career off and on for much of my life. At some point I also tried writing and have had two books and several articles published so far. John’s life was much simpler and a lot less turbulent; he was born in North Dakota and raised in a perfectly normal family in Southern California. He has been forever grateful to his folks for moving out of those winters to more sunny climates.
Obviously, somewhere along the line, you developed a keen interest in sci-fi. How did you discover it? What did/do you appreciate most about the genre? Were you more a fan of sci-fi prose or sci-fi film/TV?
Trimble: I’d always loved fairy tales, where everything worked out happily ever after. So it was an easy step into fantasy when I could find books. Since that was a subject that librarians deplored, there was not much fantasy available except Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series. I was introduced to science fiction about 1946 or so, when I was being a brat about having to stay in bed to recover from flu. We lived in a trailer park where everything was parked pretty close, so noise carried. One of our neighbors was the Swedish Angel, a professional wrestler. His wife read sci-fi, and one day brought me a big stack of Astounding Science Fiction to shut me up.
I had no idea what a robot or an alien was, or how a rocket ship worked, or that we ever hoped to get off this planet to visit strange new worlds. The stories were so exciting that I couldn’t give up on them, though I had to re-read them several times to figure out what was going on. When I tried to find sci-fi in libraries, I discovered that it was the one thing that librarians deplored above fantasy! Then I found that drug stores sold sci-fi magazines. There were only 3 genres back then: fantasy, science fiction, and a sort of combination. I’d not have gone to any sci-fi movies then because all the family went to see were westerns and Disney films. There was nothing on TV for those who owned a blurry little black and white set that qualified as sci-fi.
Your involvement in sci-fi conventions and societies started well before Star Trek. How did that come about? And give us a sense of what you were involved in early on.
Trimble: My first convention was Chicon II in 1952, when I was a WAVE at USNTC Great Lakes. I was in the hospital with an infected ear when I saw a small blurb in Astounding Science Fiction about a convention that Labor Day weekend in Chicago. So I wrangled a 3-day pass, Radar O’Reilly style, and took off. I was technically AWOL, but nobody caught up with the paperwork until I’d returned. At the convention, I met a bunch of other excited SF fans, including this bespectacled young man who had just sold his first short story. He decided he liked me and proposed on the spot. I said thank you, but no. His friends assured me that Harlan Ellison really meant marriage, and I assured them that I really meant no.
I also met Robert Bloch, Wily Ley, August Derleth and several other writers at that wonderful convention. I was hooked on science fiction fandom! Since I was an artist and cartoonist, fan editors quickly engaged me in the wonderful world of fanzines, where I drew many covers and interior illos for fan publications. I have also done an occasional professional illustration, too. Later on, John and I organized and directed the World Science Fiction Art Show at Worldcons for many years. That show is still going strong.
Somehow, John doesn't receive as much attention as he deserves. How did the two of your meet? When did it become apparent that you shared a love of sci-fi and fighting for things you believed in?
Trimble: John and I met under Forrest J. Ackerman’s baby grand piano. Forry was holding a very large, crowded party, and there was no place to sit. A group of fans snaffled some chips and crawled under the piano, where people wouldn’t step on us. John was in the Air Force, so he and I traded Stupid Office Stories and discovered we liked each other a lot. We knew right away that we both liked the same kind of science fiction, but discovered our willingness to fight for things as we went along. At first it was little things: city block zoning that was unfair to less wealthy home-owners, schools that needed voter support, things like that. By the time we devised the Save Star Trek letter-writing campaign, we were both in sync about what we wanted to do.
What's it meant to you to have John by your side for so long -- and how long is it now?
Trimble: It took awhile for us to decide to marry, but it’s lasted for 51 years this July, so we must be doing something right! It has meant everything to me to have John by my side because he is my closest friend. We don’t do well when we are separated for very long.
OK, how and when did Star Trek enter into your life?
Trimble: John and I were going to Tricon in Cleveland, 1966, to set up the Art Show. A friend was to handle a Futuristic Fashion Show, but she got appendicitis and that project went to me. At the convention, the con-com told me they had promised this Big Hollywood TV Producer that he could put three of his costumes in my fashion show, but since we were already so tight for time, I said no. None of us had any idea what show he was talking about; he was premiering three episodes at Tricon, but it had not yet been aired. A little later, this big handsome man jollied me into putting his costumes in the show: two from “Mudd’s Women” and one from “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”. The upshot was that we made friends with Gene (Roddenberry), and afterward visited the Star Trek set fairly often when we all returned to California. Gene was thrilled that the fans liked his show since everyone in Hollywood was betting it would not last very long.
In fact, there was a small letter campaign organized by Harlan Ellison and other science fiction writers when Star Trek was threatened at the end of the first season. Their main push was to save the only TV show that actually bought scripts from writers who knew the subject, so not many fans were involved. Details are hazy on just what happened, but NBC at least did not cancel the show, so it must have worked.
The whole Save Star Trek campaign was John’s fault. We had visited the Trek set, about when word sifted down that the show would be canceled at the end of this, the second season. So we watched actors do their stuff beautifully in front of the camera, then slump off looking depressed. On our way home, John said, “There ought to be something we could do about this!” Now, he’d been married to me long enough to know better. By the time we got back home, we’d mapped out a basic plan of action. So we called Gene Roddenberry to see if he was OK with this idea. Gene had just told his staff that it would be wonderful if there was just some way to reach to fans and get their support. So things began to happen.
But all the news at that time was about Women’s Lib and “the little housewife speaking up,” so the news media had little interest in a businessman. Reporters focused on me instead of John. To my sorrow, John has seldom gotten even the fan credit he so well deserves for his part in making the Star Trek we know now a reality for all of fandom.
What is it that you appreciated most about the original Star Trek series?
Trimble: The grown-up approach to the stories, instead of the standard “there’s an ugly alien, let’s kill it!” story that was so common. Star Trek presented the ugly alien as a loving mother, an amazing twist. We also liked the sense of wonder presented in an adult manner, plus the three-dimensional characters.
Many of us knew the Star Trek Concordance as our only real Trek reference guide for many, many years. What do you remember most of assembling the book and the reaction to it at the time?
Trimble: The Concordance started with a young lady taking copious notes on episodes as they were viewed. I started helping her. When she had shoeboxes full of 3x5 index cards, I suggested that we put together a sort of encyclopedia fanzine. But it began to take too long and she lost interest. When we finally produced the Concordance fanzine, I was foolish in giving the young lady all the writing credit, which was not entirely true. For subsequent publications of the book, she had no input at all. John and I produced the first fan-published edition on an offset press in our basement. If you purchased a copy and happened to be in town, you had to come to our house to collate your own book! One of the reasons for the delay was Gene Roddenberry’s removal from his own show for the third season. The new producer did not like Trek fans and refused to let me have any access to scripts. Then President Eisenhower died before the final episode was shown; it did not air until the opening of the late re-run season. So we had to wait until then to make notes on that final episode, then print a third-season supplement.
The fan reaction was about the same as anything that happens Trek-wise today: some fans loved the Concordance, others hated it and nitpicked it to death. Some of their criticism was valid, but a lot of it was simply jealousy that they had not thought of the idea. Subsequently, several worked on their own version, but Mike Okuda was the only one who ever gave us credit for our pioneering research into the subject.
Let's get more into to saving Star Trek. Take our younger readers back to what was happening with the show, with NBC, etc., and what you and John did to help alter the course of Star Trek and entertainment history.
Trimble: Back when only three networks controlled almost all of TVland, NBC had a stranglehold on every word that was said, every action that happened, on the TV shows they aired. An NBC censor was on hand to read all the scripts and go over all the costumes with a beady eye. For some reason, the Empty Suits at the Top were convinced that one glimpse of a belly-button would totally ruin the morals of American Youth. Considering what’s on the Internet today, it sounds positively Victorian.
NBC figured Gene Roddenberry for a loose cannon – and they were right. Gene was as iconoclastic as he could possibly get away with, and he suffered a fair amount of slings and arrows due to his unrelenting envelope-pushing. NBC was also convinced that Star Trek was watched only by drooling idiot 12-year olds with no buying power. They managed to ignore the fact that people such as Isaac Asimov, a multiple PhD, and a multitude of other intellectuals enjoyed the show. So, of course, the Suits were always looking for reasons to cancel shows they didn’t trust to be raging successes. They used faulty Neilson Rating numbers to “prove” that Star Trek was failing badly, and decided to cancel it. Fans decided to take action, and we did it very well, thank you very much! So well that NBC came on, in prime time, and made a voice-over announcement that Star Trek was not canceled… so please stop writing letters.
This was all accomplished before the Internet. Only the very rich had computers; many big corporations farmed their computer work out. We mimeographed newsletters and& mailed them out to addresses we got from SF conventions, book dealers and even some ST fan mail that Gene helped us obtain from the fan mail service that Paramount contracted with. The newsletters had guidelines for letters, and asked each person to write a letter and then pass the information along to at least 10 people, asking them to write a letter and pass the information on as well. Thus was the Rule of Ten born.
There is another weird anomaly of the TV biz: in the 1960s, any show that did not have three seasons was never re-run! So with three seasons of TOS in the can, it could go into re-runs. It is claimed that ST has never been out of syndication somewhere in the world in all these years. Saving TOS meant another series, then another, and so on. Then the movies, and more movies.
Visit StarTrek.com again tomorrow for part two of our interview with Bjo Trimble.