Denver Comic Con – Spotlight on Nichelle Nichols

I spotted a friend waiting in line for Nichelle Nichols’ spotlight event. She said that Nichols was one of the last original Star Trek cast she had yet to see live. I don’t recall how many of them I have seen: all I can say for sure is George Takei at the 2013 Denver Comic Con. Maybe James Doohan a long, long time ago?

(I’m pretty sure I paid close attention to the moderator when he started things off, but I missed getting his name. Apologies, my friend.)

With a brilliant halo of white hair, chunky blood-red jewelry and enrobed in a voluminous gown, Nichols seated herself in a regal pose, like Cleopatra on her barge. But she wasn’t at all aloof and reserved. Clearly accustomed to these occasions, she was gracious and warm throughout (occasionally bantering with a lively tot in the front row), at times wry and teasing. A true pioneer for opportunity and equality, she always related her responses to uplift and encouragement.

Engaged with the audience.

Engaged with the audience.

The key was her own experience. While still paying Lieutenant Uhura, she met civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. Informing him that she was considering leaving the show, King told her—and here Nichols dropped her voice an octave—“What are you talking about?” She had an offer for a show in New York, “and I was go—and that’s as far as I got. And he said, ‘You cannot.’ ” Because, he continued, as Uhura, she had an unprecedented platform to express Gene Roddenberry’s edifying and progressive ideals to the entire world. It was invaluable to present that people who believed in the same things. Staying on as Uhura meant that she had to temporarily set her future ambitions aside. But that did not mean that she had to give up her plans, emphasizing that postponement does not equate to the termination of a pursuit. As a matter of fact, she has continued acting (and singing and producing) since the end of the original series through today. Nichols urged the audience never to give up on one’s dreams, but added pragmatically that realizing them depends on the strength and length of one’s talent and work. “You have to breathe life into a dream,” she proclaimed, and then giggled at her own spontaneous poetry.

And even if your dreams don’t come true during your life, your efforts toward it could impel someone else to make it happen. Again, Nichols drew from her own career: during the ’70s and ’80s she was a spokesperson for NASA, boosting astronaut recruitment of women and minorities (she recounts this in an interview with the inimitable Neil deGrasse Tyson here). The diverse list of space explorers and administrators since then attests to the success of her endeavor.

Twice Nichols veered from answering a question directly. When the moderator touched on Uhura’s fan dance in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, she mocked surprise and coyly responded, “She did?” but elaborated no further. And at the end of the hour, questioned about her fondest memory of Gene Roddenberry, she only praised his achievements, adding that he was a great man.

Perhaps she felt that such memories can only go so far, though, in inspiring others to dream big, and make those dreams come to life. In speaking to us and so many more through past decades, Nichols has certainly achieved greatness of her own.