Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek.
Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek. PBS
Tonight is the first installment of the new season of PBS's Pioneers Of Television — it will air at 8:00 p.m. in most places, but you should check your local listings.
At press tour in July, I had a chance to sit down with Nichelle Nichols, who you probably know very well played Uhura on Star Trek, and who appears on the special. (Nichols appeared on Tell Me More recently to talk about her role; you can listen.)
I asked Nichols about the phenomenon of very excitable fandom and what relationship she'd decided she wanted to have with what became the amazing pop-culture behemoth that grew out of a show that only aired for three seasons. Despite the fact that Nichelle Nichols has done so many interviews about Star Trek that it's hard not to get the sense that you're asking her to cover territory she's covered a hundred (or a thousand) times, she paused for a moment before she answered this particular question.
First, it was a first. Now, there are all kinds of conventions that celebrate their favorites, but this was the first. And so it was very, very different. And it was very honorable, you know? They loved the show. They got it. They got that Gene Roddenberry created something in the future that "today" — 1966 — dispelled all the racism, all the ... Dr. King was marching, every day you'd look on the TV and people are having hoses and dogs [used on them] because they wanted to eat at a fountain — though they wanted more than that.
And Dr. King was the person who was guiding that. And Gene was the person who was announcing that not only was this going to succeed, but it already has, because when the 23rd century [arrives], see, there's Nichelle, there's Uhura, in the 23rd century, communication officer, fourth in command. So it didn't just start in the 23rd century. It started from what you're seeing on television every day. Men and women of the future are here now.
[And the fans] got it. I'll just tell you one of the most important things that someone said who was white. He said, "When discrimination, when racial discrimination was outlawed, black people weren't the only people who were freed. We were freed, too. We were freed to care, we were freed to think and not be bound by racism, and protocol, and what our parents think." Because a lot of parents didn't want their kids looking at Star Trek.
Here's a trailer for Pioneers Of Television, which will later feature installments on Crime Dramas, Local Kids' TV, and Westerns.