Written by Angela Rairden
Although I’ve long been more of a Star Wars fan than a Star Trek fan, there is something undeniably extraordinary about a television show that broke barriers by casting minorities in important roles long before such a thing was the norm. Or, to some, before such a thing was even deemed “acceptable”.
And yet, the first, iconic Star Trek series gave us Nichelle Nichols, a Black woman, as Lieutenant Uhura and George Takei, a Japanese man, as Lieutenant Sulu all the way back in 1966. These weren’t secondary characters or the stereotypical portrayals of race that Hollywood was prone to at the time but, rather, valued officers aboard a powerful spaceship tasked with conducting scientific research far across the galaxy. At a time when the entertainment business wasn’t particularly worried about diversity, Star Trek proved that representation matters.
Nichelle Nichols’ recent passing at the age of 89 asserted just how true this was as fans of the actress took to social media to share how her portrayal of the smart, capable, and incidentally sexy communications officer had affected their lives. As one of the first Black women to ever be cast in a recurring role on a television series, Nichols was also part of what is widely believed to be the first interracial kiss in television history when she and William Shatner’s character embraced during a November 1968 episode.
Making television history wasn’t Nichols’ only accomplishment, however, because in 1977 she used her Star Trek fame to join with NASA in a campaign to recruit women and minorities to the aerospace program. Due to her efforts, NASA’s astronaut class of 1978 included Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, and Guy Bluford, the first Black American in space. Upon her death, NASA tweeted “She partnered with us to recruit some of the first women and minority astronauts and inspired generations to reach for the stars.”
Throughout her life, Nichols continued to encourage women and minorities to pursue careers in NASA, STEM, and other programs and organizations where they had historically been absent. She also attended comic conventions until her health would no longer allow her to do so and was widely heralded by fans for her kindness and attentiveness.
Although her death saddened many, it’s only logical to conclude that it had a particularly emotional effect on fellow Star Trek castmate George Takei. I recently read the graphic novel They Called Us Enemy, a memoire of Takei’s childhood spent in American concentration camps during World War II, which he co-wrote with Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott. The novel details what it was like for Takei and his family to spend several years of his childhood living in internment and concentration camps as some of the 120,000 Japanese Americans that were imprisoned during that time, an imprisonment that was based solely on their race.
With charming yet detailed art by Harmony Becker, The Called Us Enemy is a compelling graphic novel that portrays a child’s view of what living in those camps and growing up behind barbed wire fences was like. It wasn’t until he was older and his family had been freed from them that Takei really began examining what those camps had meant, diving into history books and long conversations with his father as he strove to reconcile how American democracy could claim that “all men are created equal” despite the fact that his childhood imprisonment seemed to declare otherwise.
In 1965, producer Gene Roddenberry cast Takei in Star Trek as the Enterprise’s helmsmen Lieutenant Sulu, an important and reoccurring role. Unlike most Asian characters in Hollywood at that time, which were regularly portrayed as brutes or barbarians, Sulu was smart, competent, and scientifically minded. Much like Nichelle Nichols’ Lieutenant Uhura did for Black women, Sulu significantly raised the bar for Asian Americans in the entertainment world during a time when such a change was long overdue.
Takei’s particular history would be a catalyst for him to become a champion for democracy and equality throughout his entire life, stating in 2018 “But as my father once told me, America is a great nation but also a fallible one — as prone to great mistakes as are the people who inhabit it. As a survivor of internment camps, I have made it my lifelong mission to work against them being built ever again within our borders.”. The notoriety that his role as Sulu has given Takei allows him a platform from which to share important social issues that need attention, including his support of the LBGT community after officially coming out as gay in 2005.
Although the first series of Star Trek only ran for three seasons, it spawned six movies that also starred the original cast, and would later sprawl to eleven other series. The futuristic world that the Star Trek universe is set in is one based in equality and civil rights – a precedent that was set from the very beginning with the casting of two admirable actors who dared to boldly go where no man had gone before.
Angela “LaLa” Rairden is an avid fan of comic books, Star Wars, and most things nerdy. A cosplayer, she loves to attend comic cons dressed as her favorite fictional characters, particularly Harley Quinn. Although her day job is at a grocery store, writing has always been her true calling. She lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she is currently writing her first novel.