July 2, 2012 9:28 pm

Neil communicates with Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols, Part 1

One of the pleasures of working with StarTalk is catching up on all of the StarTalk Radio podcasts. With well over 50 of them, the question was, where to start?

As you’ll discover in a short time, I’m a sci-fi geek. (I’m discovering that many of you are, too.) Not that we don’t all love a good hard science interview with a scientist like Steve Squyres who worked on the Mars Exploration Rover, or an astronaut like Mike Massimino, or even comic geniuses like Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart or Seth MacFarlane.

But I’m a Star Trek fan (not a Trekkie, not a Trekker, just a fan), and the chance to listen to Neil interview Nichelle Nichols, Lt. Uhura of the original Star Trek series, was too much to pass up. Turns out, I made a great choice.

Pictured here: Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura, the communications officer on the bridge of Star Trek's starship USS Enterprise

Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura, Chief Communications Officer on the bridge of the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701)

From the first few minutes of A Conversation with Nichelle Nichols, I realized this was going to be a deeper interview than just the usual recounting of the story of how she told Gene Roddenberry she was going to quit the show to go to Broadway, only to have Dr. Martin Luther King, “her greatest fan”, personally ask her to stay on the show, because of how singularly important her role was to the black community, as well as to himself and his children. Not that it isn’t worth hearing repeated again and again because, if you are aware of the cultural context, it is cool beyond cool, and Neil does a great job of helping Nichelle capture the meaning of the moment.

But first Neil gets her talking about herself, her singing and dancing career before Star Trek (he even gets her to sing), her career on Trek (and he gets her to sing again… she still has an amazing voice). And when he does get her talking about Uhura, I learned things about her characterization I never knew, and how she viewed Lt. Uhura’s relationship to some of the other officers on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, including Mr. Spock, and what Gene Roddenberry was trying to achieve with the show.

Nichelle opens up to Neil about the impact of her role and the show on the civil rights movement, and her tale of an encounter with a skinhead in London years later is pure gold. Nichelle also talks about meeting Whoopi Goldberg, upon whom she was a big influence, and how Whoopi went to Gene Roddenberry and asked to be on Star Trek The Next Generation because of Nichelle. And of course, in addition to discussing the hopeful vision of the future shared by both Star Trek and Neil and the importance of Science Fiction to society, they discuss, “The Kiss.”

And by the way, if you haven’t ever heard the Dr. Martin Luther King story, this may be the best version you’ll ever hear. It easily brings tears to the eyes. Take a listen, and then tell us what you think in the comments.

That’s it for now.

Keep Looking Up!

FYI: Nichelle Nichols has a website at http://www.uhura.com/. Check it out.

  • Cory Valencia

    I discovered Dr. Tyson when he was a guest on the Nerdist Podcast and then I started listening to Star Talk. This is easily the best episode. From someone who was not a Star Trek fan (at least not the original) I had never heard either the Martin Luther King Jr. story nor the skinhead story and both bring a swell of emotions to me every time I listen to it. Well done Neil.

    • Jeff

      Cory, I am a fan, and I’d never heard the skinhead story either. The more interviews I listen to or see being recorded, the more I’m struck by how Neil can get people to be comfortable and open up. Just wait until you hear the GZA interview… Thanks for your comment.

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