Monday, the day the US celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. day, there will be a special segment highlighting MLK’s conversation with Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Lt. Uhura in Star Trek for both the first series and a majority of the movies. While Trek fans are familiar with the story, most people aren’t aware that Nichols almost left the show after the first season. She was tired of her very limited role on the series and wanted to return to the musical stage.
King said something very profound to her and I’d like to just comment on it. When Nichols met King, he told her that he was a fan of the show. When she said she was thinking about leaving the show, he had this to say:
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, Nichols says King told her, was showing the nation a universe where “‘for the first time, we [African-Americans] are being seen the world over … as we should be seen’.” And ” ‘you have created a character’ ” that is critical to that, he said.
King’s assertion that imagining a future, even in fiction, was powerful enough to create that future is a concept Science Fiction writers need to take to heart. If they see it, they can make it happen. Yes, we made cell-phones to look like Trek communicators, and named our shuttle after the Enterprise, but more importantly, we modeled peaceful relationships with different races and different nationalities. We saw Russians, Japanese, Scottish, American midwest, American Southern, Vulcan, and African-American all working together as a team. King thought that this image of peace was as important as the peace itself–and that an image could lead us there. It’s natural to imagine dystopia after dystopia, and even, sadly, Star Trek, seems to mess with every Utopia it showcases. But I think we can imagine a better place, a better us.
Writers have the ability to model the future we want. While stories must have conflict, we can guide people towards something positive by helping them imagine it. Blueprinting. King thought we could too. And his inspirational talk with Nichols kept her on the show at a time when we needed to see that we could work together. (I wish someone would design a show with an American and North Korean working side by side.)
You can hear snippets of Nichols’ interview with NPR on their site, and listen in Monday, on the show Tell Me More. The link has listening times.