The Shallow Pocket Project is a series of essays based on conversations with the brilliant filmmakers behind the independent films that we love. Check our last chat with Jim Cummings (writer/director of ‘Thunder Road’). Special thanks to Lisa Gullickson and the other Dorks at In The Mouth of Dorkness.
Fandom in 2018 is a bit of a slur. Logging online and dipping your toes into the swamp of conversation surrounding The Last Jedi or the Snyder Cut of Justice League can not only scar your mood for the day but for the entire concept of so-called fans that spew their venomous thought in your general direction. Fandom means passion, and so often with that passion comes an upsetting level of defensiveness. The best defense is a strong offense, and the resulting war leaves a field of Twitter corpses; their putrid remains left as a warning to anyone who dares utter the name Skywalker.
Forget those jerks that speak from on high. That’s not fandom. That’s a crybaby prattle from a child who cannot conceive of a different point of view. We need to stop recognizing this toxicity as fanboy or fangirl behavior (ah, whom I kidding, it’s almost always fanboy behavior). Fans come in all shapes and sizes, and their enthusiasm is actually something to truly admire.
In his new film United We Fan, director Michael Sparaga turns his camera on those who fought tooth and nail to keep their favorite television programs on the air. He asks these combatants “Why?” Their answers strike to the positive nature of geek culture, and at the capability of art to effect positive emotional change.
The documentary begins with a pair of O.G. fan activists: Bjo and John Trimble. When this married couple learned that Star Trek was on the verge of being canceled after its second season, they turned their lives around in an effort to save the show. Rounding up every fan they knew, plus a few thousand others they did not, Bjo and John Trimble ignited a letter-writing campaign that proved to NBC that Star Trek had legs. Their efforts paid off and a third season was ordered.
Star Trek would not be around without that third season. Those 79 episodes allowed the studio to sell the show into syndication. In that nebulous realm is where the notion of Trekkies truly exploded. From there Paramount saw a need for The Motion Picture post-Star Wars, and the franchise became an unstoppable, fifty-year-old money-making machine. Whether you’re a fan of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, or Discovery, you owe your love to The Trimbles.
It was a true pleasure to speak to Bjo and John Trimble. As a loud and proud Trekkie myself, the opportunity to say thank you for their diligent work in 1967 is a tremendous gift. The even greater wonder is to hear and witness how their work in the community continues to this day. They’ve never stopped fighting the good fight.
Their story is just one of several in United We Fan. Sparaga’s movie picks up the baton from the Trimbles and passes it from one fan crusade to another. Cagney and Lacey, Veronica Mars, and Person of Interest: these narratives strike deep with individuals, and inspire excitement beyond the usual appreciation. These tales inspire great warmth for those that have shared a similar connection with an entertainment, and they spark curiosity for those waiting to experience such a bite.
Here is a segment of the conversation Lisa and I held on the In The Mouth of Dorkness podcast (you can listen to their story in its entirety by clicking HERE):
Brad: Good morning. Thank you so much for joining us today. Bjo and John, I don’t know if you remember, but we met briefly during the Star Trek 50th Anniversary celebration at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. It was a real honor to meet the two that really are responsible for Star Trek lasting as long as it has, 50 plus years now.
John: We’d love to have had a piece of that action. Even a little teeny piece.
Bjo: Unfortunately a lot of fans think that we made a fortune off of doing that. No, we didn’t.
Brad: Well even if you didn’t make your fortune I can assure you that as somebody who didn’t come to Star Trek until the early 1980s, I am very thankful for your letter writing campaign. And in my relationship with Lisa, my co-host right here, some of our early bonding dates were centered on conversations circling around Star Trek. So thank you for that.
John: We were saying the other day, what the hell did we accomplish? And I said well, we made history and changed it.
Bjo: Yeah, that’s amazing.
Lisa: As a fellow nerd couple, we see you guys as the patron saints of nerdy marriages. What about fandoms helps sustain a relationship after all of these years and decades?
Bjo: Originally this was happening back in the ’70s, ’60s, whatever I can’t count.
John: Late 50’s actually.
Bjo: A lot of people felt very, very disassociated from their own family. In some cases from their community, what should have been their community of friends and fandoms generally? That includes all of them. People together who had similar interests, and if they weren’t exactly similar they were at least something they could argue about without starting World War III. That had a great deal to do with it.
John: We were pink monkeys in our whole world of brown monkeys. We were drawn together for that. We got to be friends, and then a relationship went further, and we’ve been married for 58 years and are still each other’s best friend.
Bjo: Yeah we are.
Lisa: That’s so awesome.
Brad: Fandom as we know it today began in that era. It’s evolved obviously, but Michael, in putting United We Fan together, why start with the Trimble’s?
Michael: I mean, for me, the film’s start was always about community. It’s about people, identity. It’s funny, the quick pitch on the film, it’s about fans who fight to save their favorite TV shows. I know it sounds like an Entertainment Tonight story. It sounds like something cuts really fast with really fast-paced cutting. And it’s like today blah blah blah. That can’t sustain a 90-minute movie. It has to be something deeper. And I knew from writing my first ever letter to a network to try and save a show called Crime Story when I was 13 years old, even though it’s just one letter, I remember feeling like I was part of a democratic grassroots movement. I watched the show independently, I didn’t even have any friends who liked the show, I watched it by myself.
When I saw there was a letter-writing campaign, I felt like I was part of a community, which was great. I just knew going into it that I wanted to find people that were part of a community. And they were all. Every story of every fan campaign that’s in the film are about people that were in some ways we’re trying to save the show, for sure trying to save the show, trying to see more stories, see those characters, but really in a way also fighting for the people they shared the show with. The group of people. And I really loved talking to Bjo and John.
Just hearing their story was so inspiring and I knew it had to be the film. I knew the Star Trek story had to be the film. It’s the granddaddy of all fan campaigns. But meeting them and hearing the story of community they put together and how they knew Gene, I just knew it was going to be more than just a one-off appearance. They were gonna appear throughout the whole film.
Brad: What is the appeal of the fan who fights for their love?
Bjo: I think it’s being able to have a say in things.
John: Yeah. We were mad as hell and weren’t gonna take it anymore is essentially our feeling when we discovered that they were gonna cancel the show.
Bjo: They had already canceled some really nice shows. One about the James River called My World and Welcome to it, which by the way starred William Windom, one of the Star Trek actors. They gave them four episodes, then boom, out of work. Nobody understands send-up humor and certainly not big business, so the problem is they didn’t know how funny it was. Things like that. Things were happening all over the place and all of a sudden we hear that Star Trek is being canceled, it’s like, alright that’s it.
Lisa: What is the world coming to at that point?
Bjo: Yeah, really.
John: We lived in Oakland at the time, we’d been in Los Angeles, so we’re regretting the 380 some miles to get home. This was before the interstate so it was a lengthy drive. And we’re talking with each other about this, and this is when I said to my dear wife, I should’ve known better, “You know, it’s really sad that the show’s being canceled. There ought to be something we can do about that.” We spent the rest of the trip formulating the Save Star Trek campaign.
Lisa: You poured so much energy into it. You were caring for your child and you were working, and then you were taking your weekends to bring this community together, to get them writing these letters. Was there any point in that initial campaign where you got discouraged or you felt like your efforts were going to be futile?
John: Actually no.
Bjo: Yeah, John doesn’t feel that way, I every now and then would think, “What have we done here?” But let me tell you a little something. We didn’t know until about then that our oldest daughter had been born mentally retarded. When we got this news it was devastating. So frankly, running the campaign gave us something outside ourselves.
John: It gave us a focus, to focus on besides that. And gave us hope. It wasn’t just on the weekends.
Brad: In 2018 with so much division out there in the world, fandom online has earned this reputation of toxicity. Now the word “fan” is thrown around as a negative. How are you guys feeling right now about fan communities and the conversation online?
Bjo: Well I’m a fan. I don’t think I have to explain it and I don’t think I have to defend it. If people don’t want to like me for that, hey. I don’t know who’s problem it is, but it isn’t mine. I don’t believe in labeling. I was labeled all my life, my family were Oklahoma crop diggers. My stepfather was a trucker, you know what kind of thing we were all greeted within towns we moved into? Obviously, we carried disease and we were thieves. But the thing is, we had to live through that. And my grandmother would’ve taken a switch to all of us if we’d stolen anything. We did not even steal from orchards. We would find the farmhouse and ask if we could take something. That’s what I was raised.
Well look, I’m 85, I get to be a grouchy old lady if I wanna be. We both have been to San Diego Comic-Con, and we run into people who unfortunately make comments within their hearing because they’re not the right shape for a superhero, or whatever. You know something, I don’t really care if a 500-pound Tooth Fairy comes, floating by, if she’s happy with the costume, or he, and feels good in it? I’m gonna tell them they have a beautiful costume.
Michael: I remember walking in with them into Wonder Con, we were filming with them. And just trying to walk in, and Bjo you stopped and talked to everybody who’s costume you liked, you asked them questions. It was great! It was just so wonderful to see that sort of camaraderie. We definitely have seen some negativity in fandom. Look it was a little bit more difficult before the internet, you had to write a letter to someone to say you disliked them, or call them up on the phone. What it comes down to is, you had to be a person, you had to personally put yourself on the line to tell somebody your opinion.
And that happened. That absolutely happened. I think when people are in a high-pressure situation trying to do something like save a TV show or even show that they’re the biggest fan of something, you definitely would’ve had some personal problems. Now it’s impersonal. It’s much, much easier to be negative, to be like StarFanNumber1BestGuyEver @, and that has its problems. But generally, we find fandom that’s ridiculously positive. It exists to be positive in a negative world. It exists for that. It exists to support a side, a vision of something, whether or not it’s a hopeful future in this 1967 when it did not look like the world was going to be hopeful.
United We Fan opens in select theaters and on iTunes on December 4th.