Never meet your heroes, they say. After meeting one of mine, Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek fame, today I’d say they are wrong.
Thanks to the good people at the Armageddon Expo in Auckland I interviewed Nichelle today . . . and I must say the 83-year-old actor exceeded all my expectations. But more on that later.
I loved the crew of the original starship Enterprise long before other Star Trek shows came along and, that included Nichelle who played the ship’s communications officer Lieutenant Nyota Uhura.
Gene Roddenberry launched Star Trek in 1966 in the middle of America and the West’s Cold War with Russia, amidst civil unrest in the United States between folk of different ethnic origins and before equality of the sexes was considered.
Roddenberry put a black woman on the bridge of his starship. Uhura served alongside an American captain and doctor, an Asian helmsman, a Scottish engineer and an alien first officer who was so advanced he could double as science officer. Star Trek, set 300 years in the future, showed we could get past such things when it brought a Russian navigator into the fold in the second season, to reinforce its message of hope for the future of mankind.
It was this optimism that attracted me to Star Trek during its home video release in the 1980s since that other favourite of mine, Star Wars, was taking a long rest.
Start Trek started with the unscreened pilot The Cage, followed by the second pilot Where No Man Has Gone Before getting into the series proper. It was from this point, on September 8, 1966, that Lieutenant Uhura first appeared on American TV screens in her red ships operations uniform.
While it was Captain James T Kirk, science officer Spock and Dr Leonard “Bones” McCoy who were always at the heart of the action, it was Lt Uhura who made first contact with strange new worlds, new life forms and new civilisations from her communications console on the bridge. And it was Nichelle who brought her to life.
Yet Nichelle wasn’t happy with the amount of screen time Uhura was getting and resigned from the show part way through the first season. Roddenberry refused to accept the resignation on the spot and told Nichelle to reconsider her position over the weekend.
That weekend she was approached at an event where she was shoulder tapped and asked to come and speak to a fan who turned out to be none other than Dr Martin Luther King.
But, just as remarkable, was how NASA eventually approached Nichelle to help recruit women and minorities into the space programme. She went into some detail about if during our interview, and how she was so successful NASA has to ask her to stop. Perhaps this was one of Nichelle’s most defining moments.
While she was excited and engaged when we talked about her character, and her impact on pop culture and wider, her enthusiasm reached new heights as we discussed her work for NASA working towards making Star Trek’s fiction a reality.
Nichelle almost exploded with enthusiasm when I introduced my 10-year-old son, who is being introduced to the original series, at the interview’s end.
Imagine my surprise when Nichelle’s team approached us, as we packed up our gear, to have her photograph taken with us.
Moments later Nichelle walked on stage and was greeted with a standing ovation before she had time to open her mouth or sit down for her Star Trek panel. She talked about so much there, included that famous first interracial kiss on television with William Shatner (I interviewed him last year) and much more.
I’ll be writing up my interview, commissioned by an internationally available magazine, over the next few days and will post about it again when it is published.
In the meantime, if you’re toying with the idea of visiting the Armageddon Expo in Auckland on Sunday to listen to a panel, get an autograph or photo taken with one of you heroes, just go for it. You never know if you’ll ever get the chance again.