Betty Jo Trimble, known to most people as Bjo (pronounced BEE-joe), became one of the most famous Trek fans of all time in 1968, when she organized the first grassroots, fan-led campaign to keep a TV show on the air, paving the way for campaigns (many of them successful!) on behalf of shows like Arrested Development, Twin Peaks, Firefly, Felicity, Veronica Mars, even Kim Possible.
The thing you have to know about Star Trek, beyond the obvious it-forever-changed-how-we-envision-the-future stuff, is that when the original series first aired in 1966, it was just about dead in the water. Audiences didn’t love the original pilot episode, and the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, had to fight to convince NBC executives to air more episodes of this weird, forward-thinking show about space exploration. The network and let him air a second, new-and-improved pilot (with the role of Captain James T. Kirk recast with William Shatner) and then a whole season, and then a second season, but although the show was slowly gaining viewers, the ratings were still pretty low, so NBC announced its cancellation.
Bjo, however, would not hear of it.
“It really annoyed me,” she said on a recent episode of The Real Story on the Smithsonian Channel. “I think we had a moral prerogative not just to save the show, but to let these networks know that the public had an opinion.”
With the help of her husband, John, Bjo orchestrated the Save Star Trek campaign, a massive letter-writing effort that mobilized Trek’s nationwide fan base. Armed with lists of addresses from sci-fi convention and publisher mailing lists and sacks of unopened Trek fan mail rescued by the Trimbles from Paramount (with help from sympathetic friends at the studio)—plus some under-the-table postage-stamp funds from Gene Roddenberry himself—Bjo and John sent out a chain letter detailing the do-or-die situation at hand, giving concerned fans a step-by-step guide for writing protest letters to the network, and urging those fans to forward copies of the letter to likeminded friends. As a result, Trimble says, NBC received more than 110,000 letters from fans across the country. (Some off-the-record former NBC employees claim the number was much, much higher.) It was a feat never before been attempted in a fan community, let alone on such a large scale.
Obviously, Bjo’s plan worked: Star Trek got a third season, which is what they needed to go into syndication. Syndication means your show can be rerun into perpetuity, and reruns are the only reason anyone you know has ever even heard of Star Trek. The show’s ratings didn’t improve much in the third season and the show was finally, irrevocably canceled. But the reruns quickly surpassed the ratings boom NBC had hoped for with the show’s original run, and then continued to grow, making the show the cultural force it is today.
Bjo’s pre-internet fan victory is so legendary within the Trek community that she is often referred to as “the woman who saved Star Trek”—but at the time, she remembers, she wasn’t portrayed quite so heroically.
“The media didn’t understand [the Save Star Trek campaign],” Bjo, who is now 79, told me when I called her at her Southern California home in April. “Women’s Lib was at the forefront of the news, and here were women speaking up, finally—a whole bunch of people getting together and saying, ‘This must change.’ The news media didn’t understand in the first place, and their agenda was to make us all look like idiots. The ‘little woman’ angle was of far more importance than what was actually happening.”
What Bjo managed to do as a female sci-fi fan in the late ’60s was remarkable, especially since, as she told me, most of the “idiots” and “little women” watching Star Trek and writing to NBC hardly knew of one another’s existence. Bjo changed that too. In most of the envelopes they mailed, she says, “We would include a note that said: ‘Oh, by the way, here are the names of a few other fans who live in your area. You guys might get together…’”
Generalized science fiction conventions had been happening all over the world for at least 40 years when Joan Winston, a 39-year-old Brooklynite and PR wiz started planning a New York gathering of Star Trek fans in April 1971. Winston, who by day worked in television (though not on Star Trek), knew that small local Trek fan clubs had been formed around the country, many of them thanks to the Trimbles’ letters, but there had never been a whole convention built around a single TV show.
“Isolated fans…were hiding their love for Star Trek because they had no one to share it with,” Winston wrote in her 1977 memoir, The Making of the Trek Conventions. “[They thought] they were alone.” Clearly, they were wrong. The first official Star Trek convention, held at the Hotel Pennsylvania in January, 1972, featuring appearances by the show’s creators and cast, quickly became the stuff of fandom legend. Winston and crew had planned for 500 attendees. Instead, they got over 3,000.
Reporters from Variety, TV Guide, and the Daily News covered the convention, noting that the crowd was an a diverse and “ecumenical group” and that women—mostly writers, grad students, and scientists—were running much of the show.
By 1976, just four years after that first con, more than 40 other Trek-specific conventions had sprung up around the country. “We did it,” Winston wrote. “We lit the fuse, and fandom burst into flame.”
“In spite of all of the hurrah of Women’s Lib, [the reality of equality] was not always true in each home,” Bjo told me. “There were still big bosses, there were still [husbands] who could still beat the hell out of their wives if they thought they could get away with it. These women [fans], in many cases, were attracted to a society where this kind of thing did not happen.” With Star Trek, she says, “the average housewife could get involved in an adventure where women could go out into space and do things and be valuable members of exploring strange new worlds, while in real life, [sexism] was still happening.”