Why Lt Uhura didn't jump (star)ship
Click to follow
It's been a long trek for Nichelle Nichols. She began her career as a singer, dancer and actress in the Fifties but ended up in the 23rd century as Lt Uhura serving on the bridge of the most famous interplanetary starship in history.

She was already on the showbiz circuit before anybody realised the effect that television was going to have on popular entertainment.

"In those days, I felt very much in control of my career; being a television star wasn't really my goal. I loved live performance - that was what drove me on. I was only just beginning to make a name for myself when Star Trek came along."

Television then had a simple formula: shows were constructed around one - or possibly two - (male) actors and a handful of minor support characters. Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek's creator, wanted an ensemble cast for his new sci-fi series - and the television network resorted to underhand means to thwart him.

By chance, Nichols discovered that the studio had been keeping her fan mail from her: "Popularity means power. They didn't want me to realise where I stood when it came to re-negotiating my contract. When I found out, I came close to quitting; I felt that I'd lost control of my career. By leaving I could have wrested some control back." At a crucial time, however, a Trekkie intervened, and convinced her to reconsider. His name: Martin Luther King.

"He said to me: `You cannot leave. This is not a black role and this is not a female role. You have the first non-stereotypical role on television. You have broken ground.' He made me realise how valuable I was and how I had a foot in the door for peoplewho suffer from discrimination. He had realised, even in those days, the power of television."

And the rest is history (even if it did happen 300 years in the future). But the struggle to overcome discrimination was, she feels, worth it: "I feel so gratified by the number of letters I get from young women of every race and religion telling me I was their inspiration."

Nichols' latest career move has been prompted by the realisation that the original Enterprise crew is unlikely to take the helm ever again: "I'm working on my first novel, called Saturn's Child. The main character, Saturna, is the very first coloured sci-fi heroine. I'm very excited about it. She isn't based on me. But her mother is."

n `Beyond Uhura' by Nichelle Nichols is published by Boxtree Press, at £15.99

Maxton Walker