How a couple saved 'Star Trek' while living in Oakland
This story most recently aired in the June 26, 2023 episode of Crosscurrents.
Let's face it. We're not exactly the most powerful people you've ever met. And we're obviously not big, celebrity types. They kept trying to figure out how did we manage to do all of this?Bjo Trimble
When I was a teenager, anytime I heard the theme song to “Star Trek: The Original Series,” I immediately changed the channel. I couldn’t get into the show. I preferred fantasy over sci-fi and the special effects were too outdated for me.
My mother is a big “Star Trek” fan. She bought me a DVD set of the show to get me on board. I didn’t make it through the first disk until years later when the COVID pandemic hit. I felt like we were living in a dystopian novel and I needed a mental escape.
I popped in Mom’s DVDs. Those old special effects took me back to the ‘60s and the storylines projected me centuries into a better future. “Star Trek” gave me hope. Daniel Bernardi is a film professor at San Francisco State University and author of “Star Trek and History: Race-ing toward a White Future.” He says hope was part of Roddenberry’s plan.
“if you look back into the late fifties, early sixties when Roddenberry was formulating his idea, [it] was based on an allegory of the contemporary environment,” says Prof. Bernardi. “You had the Cold War, the earliest days of the Vietnam war, racial strife, a wonderful, intense, Civil Rights Movement. You had the Women's Movement and all this conflict in the streets from marches to rebellions. [Roddenberry is] looking around saying, ‘Well, how do I provide something hopeful?’”
Sounds similar to today’s issues. Roddenberry imagined a future where humans work together, appreciate diversity and take care of Earth. “Star Trek” wasn’t perfect, but it was progressive for its time.
What surprised me most in my new fondness for “Star Trek,” is that this intergalactic series has history right in my hometown of Oakland, Calif.
Meet Bjo and John Trimble
Bjo and John Trimble have been married for 62 years. They’re legendary “Star Trek” fans. Bjo is 89 and John turns 86 this fall.
“We're three years, three months and two days difference between ages,” says John. “She was a ‘cougar’ before there was a word for it.”
The Trimbles are funny and young at heart. Bjo likes to sport a patch of dyed purple/pink hair near her forehead. John, a gray beard. Both wear glasses. They’re chatting with me over Zoom from their San Diego-area home on their wedding anniversary. The “Star Trek” franchise acknowledges there might not be much “Star Trek” today if it weren’t for the Trimbles.
Back in 1967, the Trimbles had to move to the Bay Area. John’s sales job transferred him from Los Angeles to their San Francisco office. Bjo was pregnant at the time.
“We looked around and frankly, honey, there wasn't much we could afford to rent,” recalls Bjo.”Neither one of us liked apartments. So we found this crazy little house in Oakland.”
The house is about one mile from Lake Merrit, and John adds, “on Santa Rosa Avenue, just over the brow of the hill from the Piedmont Rose Garden. It didn't take us long to find Fentons Creamery.”
“We're big ice cream fans,” Bjo laughs.
They’re revered “Star Trek” fans too. The Trimbles met Gene Roddenberry at the 1966 World Science Fiction Convention in Cleveland. Bjo organized a fashion show there. Roddenberry convinced Bjo at the last minute to include his models in the fashion show. They were wearing “Star Trek” costumes, but the series hadn’t premiered yet.
Bjo recalls, “The costumes got a lot of attention naturally, because they were the skimpiest of the costumes in the show. He says, ‘Well, next time you're in Hollywood, give me a call and we'll do lunch.’ And I'm thinking, yeah, yeah.”
The Trimbles did more than lunch with Roddenberry during their Hollywood trips. They visited the “Star Trek” set several times. John says the cast and crew were usually friendly. But during one visit, something was off.
“The whole atmosphere had changed,” recalls John. “People would come off a scene and they'd just slump in their chairs.”
NBC was planning to cancel “Star Trek” after its second season due to low ratings. Bjo and John knew that a show needed to last at least three seasons for syndication. The Trimbles discussed the show’s fate in the car.
John says, “We're driving back up to Oakland in a Volkswagen bug. There was no air conditioning, And I said to her, “There ought to be something we could do about that. Now I should have known better to say that to her.”
“Yeah,” says Bjo, “we'd been married long enough for that.”
During that long and hot ride, they came up with a grassroots, letter-writing campaign. Below is a shortened version of the longer letter:
Dear Science Fiction & Fantasy Fan:
This is a campaign to save Star Trek. Cancellation of the show is a definite possibility, unless thousands of letters and petitions offset Star Trek’s low Nielsen ratings. One more letter could be the deciding factor. The difference between keeping Star Trek on TV or not. Write those letters NOW!
The Trimbles’ asked fans to tell 10 friends to send a letter to NBC and the show’s sponsors. Remember, the Trimbles sent these call-to-action” letters before copy machines were common.
“I was doing all of this on a hand-cranked mimeograph machine,” says John.
Bjo further explains ,“Eventually we mailed out something like 25,000 pieces of mail, [over] several weekends with the whole house full of people. They were babysitting our kids, fixing dinner and answering the phone. They were down in the basement helping John.”
The Trimbles aren’t sure how many letters made it to the network. One NBC employee told them 1 million letters, but John says he suspects that person was trying to kiss up Roddenberry for a job. Another NBC employee told them in a condescending tone, that they received only 10,000 letters. John laughs as he retells Bjo’s response to the employee.
“Bjo says to him, ‘Wow! If we could get shows renewed with only 10,000 letters, that makes us even more powerful than we thought.’ Which wasn't what the guy wanted to hear at all!”
“We really scared him,” Bjo laughs.” They kept looking at us and let's face it, we're not exactly the most powerful people you've ever met. And we're obviously not big celebrity types. They kept trying to figure out how did we manage to do all of this? Well, a great deal of it was the enthusiasm of the people writing the letters.”
“It was also the power of 10,” adds John.
Oakland on “Lower Decks”
NBC canceled “Star Trek” after its third season in 1969. Fandom grew as people watched reruns. Now there are about two dozen “Star Trek” shows and movies One of the newer shows is “Lower Decks,” an animated comedy series on Paramount+, where the leading characters are not the usual high-ranked officers, but the ensigns.
Clip from “Lower Decks”
Ensign Beckett Mariner: Ugggh…We're already going to a bog planet, which is like the worst kind of planet as far as planets go.
Ensign Brad Boimler: Bogs are actually fascinating. Did you know that the–
Ensign Beckett Mariner: I don't wanna know about a bog! It’s a gross word for a gross place!
Ensign Brad Boimler: Well, you are being very unscientific.
The ships on “Lower Decks” are named after California cities. The Cerritos is the main ship. Another ship was mentioned in the first season – The Oakland. Mike McMahan is the show’s creator.
“So there's this important character in the show named Amina Rasmsey, and we needed to give her her own ship,” says McMahan. “We picked Oakland for the name of that ship because we wanted one that stood out.”
Amina is captain of The Oakland. But she, like other characters, trained in San Francisco, the location of Starfleet Command. Which is basically, “Star Trek’s” headquarters. San Francisco is very much a part of “Star Trek” canon. Prof. Daniel Bernardi says San Francisco’s liberal culture appealed to Roddenberry. Mike McMahan tells me it’s time for Oakland to be part of the “Star Trek” universe.
“Oakland needs to shine as well,” says McMahan. “I couldn't believe that it hadn't been in “Star Trek” before. So we jumped on it. We were like, let's give it its own ship. Not only is Oakland a place in our world, but it's a place that exists with a history and, and all of its importance in the world of “Star Trek.”
Oakland’s “Star Trek” history doesn’t stop there. Gene Roddenberry was an Army Corp pilot. According to his authorized biography, in December 1943, the Army transferred him to the Office of Flying Safety, which was located in Oakland. He served there for six weeks.
“Star Trek” turned me into a stargazer during the shutdown. Sometimes, I still look out of the window at the night sky, and wish that humans would go boldly toward a direction of peace, soon. If not soon, I hope the future is even brighter than the stars.