Women of Speculative Fiction: Bjo Trimble

For any of those self-appointed male gatekeepers of geekdom who have convinced themselves that women can never quite achieve the levels of serious fandom that men attain, allow me to offer a counterpoint: Bjo Trimble, the woman who saved Star Trek.

I’ll briefly qualify that title by acknowledging that Bjo (born Betty JoAnne Conway) wasn’t alone in her work, her most notable ally being her husband John Trimble. However, it’s an indisputable fact that without her efforts, Star Trek would never have become the enormously successful franchise it is today. Her story proves that women are present at every level of sci-fi and fantasy fandoms, as well as showing how a little grass-roots movement can go a long, long way.

According to a 2011 interview, Bjo had a love of speculative fiction from the very beginning – first fairy tales, then whatever fantasy she could find at her local library (not much, but there was some Edgar Rice Burroughs at least). She wasn’t even aware of the existence of science fiction until a neighbor handed her a giant pile of issues of Astounding Science Fiction. As speculative fiction tended to have a reputation of being trashy, she had to scrounge around pretty hard to grow her sci-fi collection. She was immersed enough, however, to catch wind of a convention in Chicago in 1952. In spite of being in the hospital for an ear infection, she sneaked off to spend three days at the convention.

It was there that she fell madly in love with science fiction fandom. Conversing with fellow fans, meeting writers (apparently she was even subjected to a rather aggressive, impromptu marriage proposal by a not-quite-famous Harlan Ellison, which she firmly rejected) and since she was an artist, becoming involved with drawing artwork for fanzines. She ended up meeting John Trimble at a party hosted by Forrest J. Ackerman, a vastly influential sci-fi writer and editor, when they had both crawled under a piano to escape the crowds. The two would become partners in more ways than one.

Her first awareness of Star Trek came before the show aired, when she and her husband were running a sci-fi art convention and were approached by someone wanting to include a few costumes from this new upcoming show. They were tight on available space and initially said no, but eventually conceded. And that was how they met Gene Roddenberry.

Bjo and John frequently visited the Star Trek set while it was filming, and thus became aware that the show was perpetually in danger of cancellation. The first movement to keep it running was during the first season, and it was run largely by writers rather than fans. However, when things looked grim yet again during the second season, the Trimbles decided they needed to do something themselves. Reaching out to their fellow Star Trek fans (and with Roddenberry’s approval) they organized a letter-writing campaign. Keep in mind that this was long before the Internet, so there were quite a few more obstacles to overcome in spreading word to the fans and sending the studio a message as efficiently as possible. According to Bjo, though the project was equally John’s doing as much as hers, the media seized upon the notion of “the little housewife speaking up” and therefore gave him far less credit than he deserved. Interesting that their take not only failed to acknowledge John, but also painted Bjo in a rather patronizing light even while praising her efforts.

Well, one way or another the show was saved, but only for one more season. The ratings just weren’t good enough, and most fans agree there was a sharp decline in quality during the final season (Roddenberry was no longer allowed to be involved, and network interference ruined many a storyline). So we might call Bjo’s influence a minor one, if not for the fact that the Star Trek fandom continued to flourish even without a currently-airing show. With three seasons, the show could continue airing in reruns and thus continue to draw in new viewers and new fans. And fans new and old continued to organize conventions and put out fanzines.

One particularly noteworthy achievement of Bjo’s within the fandom is her Star Trek Concordance. Originally collaborating with another female fan before she lost interest, Bjo collected copious notes about every episode so that each character, location, event or object was documented down to the last detail. It was so comprehensive and thorough that it was reportedly the number one resource for Star Trek canon at Paramount studios. About the Concordance Bjo said, “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.” Yes, that sounds like a highly typical experience in the vicissitudes of fandom.

With such an active fandom, it was clear that cancellation hadn’t killed Star Trek after all. So the studio finally decided it might be lucrative to revive the franchise, first with an animated version of the TV show, then deciding to go all out with a film released in theaters. Bjo and John’s efforts in fandom were rewarded with an offer to have a cameo in the movie – John had to decline because of his work schedule, but Bjo, along with a few other fans, got to appear in a crowd scene on the Recreation Deck. Sure, the movie itself is turgid, the storyline uninspired, but it wasn’t enough to stop the momentum spurred on by an ardent fandom. Star Trek II came out, and four more films set in the era of the original series. New TV shows added to the franchise as well, and now, fifty years after the original show aired, the Star Trek universe shows no sign of dying out.

There was also the second letter-writing campaign the Trimbles oversaw, to have the first NASA space shuttle named Enterprise. And the book she wrote, On the Good Ship Enterprise, about her experiences with Star Trek and its fandom (no longer in print, though). And her involvement in the SCA, an equally geeky fandom for medieval history. And the business she and her husband established, Griffin Dyeworks & Fiber Arts.  I would say she fits the definition of Renaissance Woman pretty precisely.

Like any ardent fan, she has plenty of strong opinions about each incarnation of Star Trek. “We enjoyed TNG very much, really liked DS9 – which is still one of our favorite series – watched most of Voyager but didn’t get into it as much, and frankly thought that Enterprise was not even close to being Trek….Of the movies, some have been fairly good, some really horrid…Of course, we are always asked what we think of the J.J. Abrams film. We think he did pretty well, though we’re a tad tired of bald, tattooed villains in long leather coats.”

Whether other fans agree with her specific opinions or not, they should at least take this advice to heart: “Be kind. Be nice to each other. Be welcoming to newbies; they are the future of fandom, whatever you are a fan of. We hope that all of you are inspired to be a part of the future we may never see, inspired by a little TV show conceived by a far-seeing 20th Century writer and humanist. We are pleased to know that we have been a part of making sure it happened. We envy you the future, and wish we could come along on all of your new voyages of creativity and imagination.”

Seeing how she pretty much saved the franchise and its fandom, she probably knows what she’s talking about.

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