Movies + TV

Boldly Going Where No Man (or Woman) Had Gone Before

How a bunch of nerd girls saved Star Trek from total obscurity.

~ * ~

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.”

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18 Comments

  • dylonlee July 26th, 2013 12:56 AM

    PRAISE THIS POST
    Love Uhura’s little Feminist badge <3
    So proud to be dressing up as her for Comic Con this August!!

  • rainingmay July 26th, 2013 1:04 AM

    I’m in love with this!!!!!! I saw star trek for the first time YESTERDAY and I fell in love and it’s just the best thing ever.

  • Pentom July 26th, 2013 1:44 AM

    This is so cool! I’m a Trekker myself and it’s always awesome to read stuff about your fandom. :D I first heard about Bjo’s letter writing campaign through Trek Nation, a documentary by Roddenberry’s son, and I was so happy when I saw it here on Rookie!

    Live long and prosper.

  • elliecp July 26th, 2013 3:24 AM

    This is awesome. Praise be to rookie

    http://roseandvintage.blogspot.com/

  • stellarbell July 26th, 2013 3:44 AM

    i am absolutely IN LOVE with the original series–i can totally understand why they fought so hard to keep it on the air! i do have some problems with J.J. Abrams’ reboot, though

  • flocha July 26th, 2013 5:05 AM

    NERD POWER

    http://www.whimsicalprocrastination.blogspot.co.uk

  • Sophie ❤ July 26th, 2013 6:24 AM

    I haven’t really watched Star Trek yet; but I want to really badly after reading this!

    New blog in town:

    http://theneonpapaya.wordpress.com

  • whyamidreamingwhenimstillawake July 26th, 2013 7:05 AM

    This is really cool.
    I wish Rookie would post a Star Wars article though. I’ve seen so many other fandoms represented but not Star Wars. I am a huge Warsie so this makes me sad.

    One thing that really annoys me, though, is that at the bottom of the second page, it says ‘when sexism was still happening’. I know it’s a quote, but it really really bugs me.
    I’m just saying this.
    Sorry.
    I feel stupid now.
    I am sorry for being obnoxious.

  • KatGirl July 26th, 2013 10:09 AM

    I’m going to be annoying here, but in the second-last paragraph on page 1 it says, “made a lot of diehard Trekkers made”.
    qaHoy’ for writing this article! :D

  • wallflower152 July 26th, 2013 10:29 AM

    This is an awesome post! I’ve only seen the rebooted Star Treks but I loved them. If Spock is anything like he is in the movies I’m sure I would love it. There are just so many things I need to watch. When there are shows/movies about the future I think it’s awesome when the characters are played by both genders and a variety of races, but I think it’d be even better if they were played by actors of mixed and ambiguous races cuz that’s what people in the future are gonna look like…hopefully. : )

  • ellestolemyname July 26th, 2013 1:49 PM

    I was never a big fan of Star Trek, but I recently saw the reboots and I loved them so much I’m definitely going to have to waste a few hundred hours watching the original series :)

    http://www.ellestolemyname.blogspot.com

  • loonylizzy July 26th, 2013 7:34 PM

    ahh this is so great! moral: never underestimate the power of nerd girls who love their fandom!!!

    http://www.theflightoftheflamingo.blogspot.com

  • momobaby July 27th, 2013 12:31 AM

    I love Star Trek!! Nerd chicks are probably the best people in a lot of different fandoms. My parents are both Trekkies so I sort of inherited it. Women passionate about anything are almost unstoppable! :)

    http://littlerebellia.blogspot.com

  • Katzemuse July 27th, 2013 2:33 PM

    I love rookie and I love Star Trek,so I was excited to see two of my favorite things combined. But the quote “we got As because we were terrible at sports” made me grimace. Please don’t assume someone who plays sports has terrible grades. That declaration has all types of ugly stereotypes nestled in it and for someone like me who works very hard at school to achieve good grades and enjoys sports, it’s alienating. I love a good fan fiction and Daniel as much as I want as well as being athletic. Just something to think about, darlings.

    • dev0n July 29th, 2013 12:22 PM

      You’re totally right that you can be both! Another of my best friends growing up was an all-star varsity athlete – I used the line “we got As because we were terrible at sports” to explain how I, personally, had time for my own schoolwork. Doesn’t imply other wondergirls can’t juggle both. :)

      • Katzemuse August 9th, 2013 1:54 PM

        ah! thank you so much for the clarification. I’m no wondergirl, just someone who gets unnecessarily butthurt at generalizations. really enjoyed the article though! thanks for sharing :)

  • ArmyOfRabbits July 28th, 2013 1:28 PM

    The Next Generation and Deep Space 9 are my favorite Star Trek series.

    I liked the fact that Jean Luc-Picard does his best to negotiate with difficult encounters rather than plainly attacking. There’s something so diplomatic about that show. It feels very homely.

    In Deep Space 9, there are actually some Ferengis (and other species) who are portrayed with more empathy, as if they’re not so different from most humanoids, including Earth humans.

    It feels like Degrassi, but in a science fiction form.