Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Saving Star Trek: An Inside Job

by Jared B.

By the middle of season 2, the writing was on the wall. The Nielsens had yet to climb. The ratings were moderate to bad. NBC's high-risk investment in Star Trek had flopped.

This "brain child" of Gene Roddenberry was not only expensive to produce, but it also failed to produce anything for NBC except a small and vocal fandom. The network was justifiably concerned. They were losing money. The gamble hadn't paid off, and it didn't make sense to renew the show for a third year, at least from a network point of view.

Yet, instead of cancelling Star Trek, NBC renewed the show for a third season. Without those final 24 episodes, it is doubtful that Trek would have lived on in syndicated reruns.

The story has been told and retold. With an almost religious fervor, many fans continue to recite the "official" and "canonical" version of events:

The fans saved the show! It was a glorious grassroots campaign! Two "Trekkers" in particular, Bjo and John Trimble, used mailing-lists to spread the word about the Trek's cancellation. They encouraged others to send petitions and letters of protest directly to NBC headquarters:

"We want to combat the good ol' traditional American attitude of 'well my one vote won't count much...' because your one tiny letter just may be THE letter that topples the scales in the right direction. If thousands of fans just sit around moaning about the death of Star Trek, they will get exactly what they deserve: GOMER PYLE! (Yetch!) But if thousands of fans get off their big fat typers and W*R*I*T*E letters, and do it soon (like NOW), it could happen that the man in charge of this sort of thing will be more impressed with our letters, than with the damned Nielsen ratings." (Shatner, Memories, 250)

An unprecedented show of support followed. By some accounts, Bjo Trimble was overwhelmed with offers of assistance, calls from volunteers, and donations of stamps and money. What started as hundreds of letters from a small number of hardcore Trek groupies blossomed into a hugely successful chain-letter movement.

According to several insiders, over a million letters and petitions flooded the offices of NBC, mostly addressed to executive Mort Werner. At that time, company policy demanded that each letter be personally opened, read, and documented. Also, it was NBC policy to respond to each piece of mail. Secretaries could not cope with so many letters.

Several weeks later, NBC announced that Star Trek would return for a third season: "And now an announcement of interest to all viewers of 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." (Shatner, Memories, 254)

This was the first time that a network directly informed its audience that a show would be renewed the following year.

The fans had saved the show! At least, that is the myth.

What really happened? The "Save Star Trek" campaign was an inside job, orchestrated and financed by Gene Roddenberry and Desilu/Paramount. The letter campaign was just one of many behind-the-scenes schemes to keep Trek on the air.

It began during the first season, when Roddenberry approached science-fiction celebrity Harlan Ellison with the idea of launching a "Save Star Trek" campaign. At the time, Ellison was still on good terms with Roddenberry, and he agreed to initiate a write-in effort. A "Committee to Save Star Trek" was formed behind closed doors, mostly in old Desilu (and soon to be Paramount) offices.

On Dec. 1st, 1966, Ellison pleaded with Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA). "Star Trek's cancellation," he argued, "would be tragic, seeming to demonstrate that real science fiction cannot attract a mass audience. We need letters! Yours and ours, plus every science fiction fan and TV viewer we can reach through our publications and personal contacts." (Justman and Solow, Inside Star Trek, 299)

Meanwhile, Roddenberry was meeting directly with fans, especially students of Cal-tech, who "spontaneously" participated in a torchlight march on NBC studios in Burbank. As they demonstrated their support for Star Trek, Roddenberry watched from a nearby park while disguised in leather and perched on his new Harley Davidson motorcycle.

Shatner recalled what happened next:

"Gene ordered a hit on NBC headquarters. Gene, Majel, Bjo and John then met over drinks, and Gene pitched his idea... to dig up a handful of local supporters who'd lead the assault on NBC's Burbank offices, and to also find one exceptionally gutsy fan who'd fly to New York and infiltrate the network's Rockefeller Center digs. Once inside, their mission would be to roam the network halls, spreading the word about Star Trek's unwarranted, unwanted demise, then offering bumper stickers and a printed call to any employees who seemed the least bit supportive." (Shatner, Memories, 251)

This small group of fans plastered every car in the NBC Burbank executive parking lot with bumper stickers that read "I Grok Spock!" and "Mr. Spock for President." Roddenberry paid $303.52 for these stickers, and the studio's business department reimbursed him. He also personally paid for Wanda Kendall to fly to New York to distribute more stickers at NBC studies there. As Joel Engel explains in his unauthorized biography of Roddenberry, Kendall later covered for him, telling the New York Post that she was a representative of other classmates who collectively paid for the trip.

According to William Shatner, Roddenberry also participated in late night raids on the studio mail room, carrying away the names and addresses of thousands of fans to add to a master mailing-list. Over the next few years, this master list of fans and science-fiction convention attendees would be guarded by those who orchestrated other campaigns, such as the write-in movement to name the first space shuttle Enterprise.

How effective were these efforts to generate publicity and create headaches for NBC? It is unclear. Over the years, more realistic estimates have surfaced. It is not true that NBC received over a million letters. NBC insiders have dropped the figure to as low as 12,000. It is also doubtful that bumper sticker terrorism endeared NBC executives to a show that was already causing headaches. Most likely, Roddenberry's efforts further annoyed and angered NBC.

So then, why did the show get renewed for a third season? In Inside Star Trek, producer Bob Justman and Herbert Solow present the most convincing explanation. NBC was owned by RCA, and RCA sold color televisions. While many existing programs still filmed in black and white, Star Trek was not only presented in full color, but it was also presented in vivid, futuristic color contrasts.

Despite the fact that the ratings were unimpressive, those at the very top had a vested interest in seeing Trek continue, if only for one more season. Back in 1966, three months after premiering, Star Trek became the highest rated color series on television. Although that honor was soon eclipsed by other programs, Star Trek was still a valuable resource to a network that was marketing itself as the only "full color network."