April 8, 2019

From the Vaults: Bjo Trimble

 

    If you are not a hardcore Star Trek fan, then you have no reason to recognize the name Bjo Trimble.  If you are a red (or perhaps green) blooded Trekkie, then you probably already know that she is the woman who saved the program from being canceled after its second season.  She had a lot of help, but she was definitely the sparkplug who made it happen. Writing about the television series that most certainly “boldly went where no one had gone before,” William Shatner paid Trimble her due when he revisited the iconic TV series’ gestation and three year run on the NBC network twenty five years after the program first aired (Star Trek Memories by William Shatner with Chris Kreski – Harper/Collins 1993).

    Bjo Trimble knew nothing about Star Trek in August of 1966.  She was busy organizing a ‘futuristic fashion show’ for the largest Sci-Fi gathering of the time, the twenty five year old Tricon convention in Cleveland, Ohio.  Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry had asked if he could screen his soon to be aired TV series and volunteered to bring along a few costumes from the show.  Trimble had been told she had one hour and one hour only to showcase her twenty futuristic outfits. She had everything timed out perfectly, except nobody told her Roddenberry was coming.  Bjo was not a happy camper, but Gene turned on the Irish charm and offered to buy her a cup of coffee so they could discuss getting his props into the show. According to Trimble, “I didn’t really want to give in, but Gene was persistent, charming, and at one point, he even showed me his costumes by having three local models parade them in front of me.  I can still remember that one of these costumes was the one that Sherry Jackson wore in What Are Little Girls Made Of? and that the model who wore it actually had to spend most of her evening beating men off with a stick.”

    The costumes were a hit, but Roddenberry was still sweating about screening the pilot.  At one point, he asked a large, loud man to pipe down during ‘his pilot’, only to be told later that he had just insulted Isaac Asimov.  As the screening wound to an end, Roddenberry was mortified when there wasn’t any ovation offered by the auditorium full of Sci-Fi fans. He apparently didn’t realize that they were too busy taking in the credits to see who was responsible for what they had just witnessed.  Roddenberry was greatly relieved when the room erupted in wild applause when the credit scroll ended. He dashed off a telegram to the production team in LA: “Star Trek hit of the convention.  Voted best ever. Received standing ovation.  Gene R.” He didn’t happen to mention that his first rocky encounter with Bjo Trimble had forged a bond that would pay the show big dividends in the future.  He also didn’t mention insulting Asimov who, despite his ‘introduction’ to the Star Trek universe via a shushing from Roddenberry, became a big supporter of the TV series.

    To understand Trimble’s role in getting Star Trek renewed for a third season, a short primer on the show is necessary.  It began in the mind of ex-World War II pilot Gene Roddenberry. Gene was fascinated with nickle science fiction magazines as a youth and started pondering some sort of literary career during the large amount of down time he had as a Pan Am pilot flying the ‘low man on the totem pole’ routes across the Pacific Ocean.  A career change to Los Angeles policeman put him closer to the action in terms of selling stories for that emerging entertainment medium called television. He got his first big break by visiting a popular watering hole frequented by agents. He drove up on his police motorcycle with the lights blazing and the siren blaring.  He strode into the bar in full regalia and sought out a particular agent named Irving Lazar. He handed him a packet containing examples of his work and left the gawking, slacked jawed agents in his wake. It was the kind of dramatic introduction that allowed Roddenberry to get a foot in the door because without an agent pitching his work, he would have ended up a full time cop and part time writer.

    Writing scripts and teleplays isn’t an exact science so there are more story outlines that find the circular file than get turned into teleplays.  Teleplays may survive to become pilots, but unless the pilot makes an impression on the suits who will sign off on it becoming a series or TV movie, it can die even if it is a great story.  This is precisely what happened to the first Star Trek pilot  Roddenberry filmed after jumping through all the hoops needed to sell NBC on his ‘Wagon Train to the stars’ concept.  After the whole Star Trek framework from ship to crew to mission had been worked up,  the NBC executives watched the pilot episode. They loved it – but they didn’t buy it.

    In the conventional TV wisdom of 1963, it was deemed to be ‘too cerebral’ for the average TV watcher (meaning “too much thinking involved and not enough action”).  Ordinarily, this would have signalled the death of Star Trek, but NBC surprised Roddenberry by authorizing a second pilot with ‘conditions’.  The first was that it could not cost a nickel more than $300,000 (the first pilot clocked in at a modest $686,000).  Secondly, they had to reuse as many of the sets from the first pilot as they could (thus saving more money). Lastly, he must recast the entire crew, including his girl friend Majel Barrett (who played a no-nonsense second in command referred to as Number One) and a half-human/half Vulcan character named Mr. Spock.  Roddenberry agreed to two and one half of these conditions, but he needed the Spock character to remind viewers that this was the story about an interplanetary spacecraft. After some tricky negotiations where he promised to dump the Number One character and keep Mr. Spock in the background, Roddenberry pressed on with writing the action packed second pilot.  It should be noted that cutting his girl friend wasn’t as cold blooded as it sounds: Barrett returned as nurse Chappel and has hung around long enough to be cast in just about all of the various spin offs in the Star Trek universe.

    It was during the recasting phase that characters familiar to Trekkies began to appear:  DeForest Kelley signed on as Dr. McCoy (although he had been offered the Spock character for the first pilot), George Takei as Mr. Sulu, Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura, and James Doohan as Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott.  Roddenberry had written and produced a serial called The Lieutenant prior to the development of Star Trek.  All of the principles listed above had appeared on that show in some capacity.  All they needed was a leading man and for that Roddenberry turned to an upcoming Canadian actor named William Shatner.  They spent the next year inventing the Star Trek universe and when they screened the second pilot in early 1966, the suits loved it and immediately placed it on the fall schedule.  While Roddenberry agreed to all the conditions that had been laid down by NBC to get his show picked up, he had no intention of hiding his secret weapon in the background.  He did resculpt the character of Spock by toning down his emotional tendencies (he actually showed some stress and anxiety in the first pilot) and giving him the less emotional,  somewhat stern personality of the now deposed Number One character.

    The first season went reasonably well.  There were the usual problems with special effects, cost overruns, endless revisions of scripts;  in other words, the typical things that plague any new TV or movie production. When it came time for the NBC luminaries to choose the lead off program, they picked the worst story of the three available, thus ensuring the first audience ratings would not be terrific.  As the story telling improved, a form of Spockmania suddenly broke out. Fan clubs were being organized and the same brass who wanted the character dumped for the second pilot instructed Roddenberry to feature him more than ever. Shatner admits that he had a bit of ‘leading man angst’ about Leonard Nimoy’s sudden shooting star career trajectory, but Roddenberry assured Bill that a great leading man like himself could only benefit from such a strong supporting cast.  Shatner may have only heard the ‘great leading man’ part, but it worked.

    As the first season gave way to the second season, the Star Trek machinery was well oiled and rolling along.  The high pressure environment caused some breakdowns and personnel changes in the production team, but each change seemed to make the show better.  Unfortunately, the ratings remained so-so and by the middle of the second season, rumours were flying that the series was about to be canceled. Bjo Trimble and her husband had become fast friends with Roddenberry and visited the set often.  It was on one of these visits during the filming of an episode called The Deadly Years when they caught wind of the cancellation rumours.

    Driving home after their visit, Trimble and her husband John decided they had to do something.  They huddled with Roddenberry and a plan was crafted to start a letter writing campaign before the series was actually cancelled.  Roddenberry helped the Trimbles collect about 7,000 names of probable Star Trek fans before he made the conscious decision to become the bemused spectator who could feign ignorance of this fan driven revolution.  Trimble crafted a letter encouraging anyone with an interest in the show to get ten or more names on the list. By the time she had greased the wheels of this little letter writing pyramid scheme, NBC’s mail room was inundated with more than a million pieces of mail imploring them to not cancel the show.  Trimble even dispatched a volunteer named Wanda Kenndal to New York to infiltrate the NBC headquarters to distribute bumper stickers (“I GROK SPOCK” and “STAR TREK LIVES”) in the executive parking lot and around the building.  She managed to gain entrance to the business floors at 30 Rock and enlisted fans from the NBC staff who continued her campaign after she returned to Los Angeles.  Everyone from Johnny Carson (who was still broadcasting from New York in those days) to the NBC Board of Directors got bumper stickered (which Roddenberry could deny even though he was the one who had the bumper stickers printed to begin with).

    In this age of Kickstarter campaigns and YouTube, getting a massive mobilization like this is happening with greater frequency.  To think that the Trimbles accomplished this in the days of ‘snail mail only’ is remarkable. NBC relented and at the end of a late winter show, they ran the following message, “And now a message of interest to all viewers interested in Star Trek.  We are pleased to tell you that Star Trek will continue to be seen on NBC television.  We know you will be looking forward to seeing the weekly adventure in space on Star Trek.”  They even went so far as to promise it a new primetime place on the Monday evening schedule at 7:30 PM.  Everyone was elated and Roddenberry’s stamina was renewed. The ‘Great Bird of the Galaxy’ vowed to personally produce every segment in season three.

     There are only so many places on the primetime viewing schedule and NBC already had a highly rated program in the 7:30 Monday slot:  Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In.  Instead of the primo Monday slot, Star Trek got kicked to Friday evenings when their core audience wouldn’t be home watching TV.  Roddenberry pulled back on his commitment to the show and the overall quality of the scripts and production declined.  The end was near. There would be no season four. Nevertheless, Bjo Trimble had saved the show that ‘boldly went where no man had gone before’ and showed that a dedicated group of fans could get the network’s attention.  The series had a hiatus until the first Star Trek movie revived interest in Roddenberry’s baby,  but it was Trimble’s campaign that solidified the foundation that the future Star Trek franchise(s) would be built upon.

    Ironically, when the networks began tracking audience demographics soon after the series had been canceled, they learned that the show’s core audience was shifting and that it very well may have been a ratings winner had they not pulled the plug after season three. Cancelled or not, the original Star Trek series is still being aired and people are still flocking to see the movies more than fifty years on.  The series reboot with actors Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto in the pivotal Kirk and Spock roles has enjoyed its own successful run.  The franchise has outlived its creator which spells ‘successful’ in any language.

Top Piece Video:  A nice medley of Star Trek music courtesy of the Danish National Symphony.  If you can read the subtitles in the opening segment, then I picked this out just for you!