From Nyota Uhura to Michelle Obama: The inspiration continues!

Inspiration across generations...

Inspiration across generations...

Actress Whoopi Goldberg was a child of 10 when the original series of Star Trek started its first broadcast on NBC in the US in September 1966. The futuristic science fiction series – about a spaceship travelling across space and time in the 23rd century in search of new civilisations – was to leave a lasting impression on many members of her generation.

In Whoopi’s case, it went beyond just general inspiration. Something in the show seemed incredible to the African-American child growing up in a land where colour and race were still divisive factors. She recalls running around the house, screaming: “Hey mom, look! There’s a negro woman on TV — and she ain’t cooking dinner!”.

‘That woman’ was the character Nyota Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols. This anecdote is captured in the 1997 documentary Trekkies, which explored the global fandom inspired by the show, which has gone on to become a franchise covering several TV series, 11 feature films (including the latest ‘origins’ film released on 8 May 2009), an animation series, as well as numerous books, video games and computer games. As Forbes magazine once noted, the allure is comparable only to that of Star Wars.

Sometimes, less is more!

Sometimes, less is more!

Uhura featured as the communications officer on board the USS Enterprise in Star Trek: The Original Series, Star Trek: The Animated Series, and the first six Star Trek films. She is significant as one of the first major black characters on an American television series and for engaging in a then-taboo interracial kiss with Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner). In the 2009 film, a younger Uhura is portrayed by actress Zoë Saldana.

The inclusion of Uhura, a black woman, in a critical technical position was certainly idealistic in the mid 1960s when the American civil rights movement was still agitating for equal rights for African Americans. She one of the first black women featured in a major television series not playing a servant; her prominent supporting role as a female black bridge officer was unprecedented.

As I’ve just noted in another blog post: “At a time when there were few non-white or foreign roles in American television dramas, Gene Roddenberry created a multi-ethnic crew for the Enterprise, including an African woman, a Scotsman, a Japanese American, and—most notably—an alien, the half-Vulcan Spock. In the second season, reflecting the contemporaneous Cold War, Roddenberry added a Russian crew member.”

But was the character, donning a sexy mini skirt uniform, somewhat tokenistic? Perhaps. But it still had considerable inspirational value – which is never to be under-estimated.

In fact, after the first season of Star Trek, Nichols had become frustrated at her relative lack of lines. At one point, she considered quitting the show, but was talked out of this decision by the civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.. MLK told her that a show that depicted a black woman working alongside whites in a position of importance was important for the goal of racial equality.

Another version of the story has MLK telling Nichols that he was a big fan of the series, and she “could not give up” since she was playing a vital role model for black children and young women across the country. It is also often reported that Dr. King added that “Once that door is opened by someone, no one else can close it again.”

After NBC executives cancelled Star Trek in 1969, Nichols went on to star in other roles — and also worked for NASA in a campaign to encourage African Americans to join the space service. Among those she helped recruit was Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to fly aboard the Space Shuttle, in September 1992. Jemison has cited Star Trek as an influence in her decision to pursue a career in space.

Goldberg: From inspiration to a regular role

Goldberg: From inspiration to a regular role

Meanwhile, things came full circle for actress Whoopi Goldberg, who was to get her own regular role in Star Trek: The Next Generation whose original run lasted from 1987 to 1994. In this successor series, she played the recurring El-Aurian female character Guinan.

Things have also moved on in the real world, where Barack Obama is now the President of the United States, with Michelle Obama as one of the most influential – if not powerful – women in the world. On 28 April 2009, CNN ran a story titled Why Michelle Obama inspires women around the globe. It noted: “Those who focus on Michelle Obama’s impact on America are underestimating her reach. The first lady is inspiring women of color around the globe to look at themselves, and America, in fresh ways.”

There is no linear link between Nyota Uhura and Michelle Obama, and the real world has very far to go to reach the utopian ideals of Star Trek. But the very fact that we have the Obamas where they are is an assurance that things can slowly move towards Gene Roddenberry’s grand vision.

Star Trek: Advocating a world of equality, tolerance and compassion

Going where no trekkie has gone before?

Going where no trekkie has gone before?

I’m exactly as old as Star Trek: we were both born a few months apart in 1966 (I’m older by seven months). But because we grew up on opposite sides of planet Earth in the pre-Internet era, our worlds didn’t collide until we were both well into our teens. From then on, I’ve been a Trekkie/Trekker since.

I can’t wait to see the latest (11th) Star Trek movie that opened on 8 May 2009. It’s an ‘origins’ movie – a chronicle of the early days of Captain James T. Kirk and his fellow USS Enterprise crew members. Read plot on Wikipedia.

Our world was very different when the one-time US Army pilot, screenwriter and TV producer Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek, the original series. It started airing on the US network NBC in September 1966. The Space Age was less than a decade old, and only a few men (and a couple of women) had made short trips to near Earth orbit. The great Space Race was in full swing, and NASA was spearheading the largest peace-time operation in history, aimed at landing men on the Moon and getting them safely back before the decade was out.

Star Trek, in contrast, offered ambition and hope. Every week at the appointed time, the United Star Ship Enterprise and its intrepid crew took viewers roaming around the universe. The stories appealed as much for insights into the infinite possibilities (and combinations) of life, technology, compassion and power at a cosmic scale, as for its glimpses of the near-Utopian human society in the 23rd century.

As Manohla Dargis, said this week reviewing the latest Star Trek movie (2009) in The New York Times: “Initially aired in 1966, Star Trek was a utopian fantasy of the first order, a vision of the enlightened future in which whites, blacks, Asians and one pokerfaced Vulcan are united by their exploratory mission (“to boldly go”), a prime directive (do no harm) and the occasional dust up.”

According to Dargis, the enduring appeal of Star Trek and the global cult following it inspired is “a testament to television’s power as myth-maker, as a source for some of the fundamental stories we tell about ourselves, who we are and where we came from.”

Star Trek Original SeriesAnd, we might add, where we are headed. The show was unique, for its time, for its portrayal of diversity and unity among the wider cast of characters. As the Wikipedia notes: “The show was unique, for its time, for its portrayal of diversity and unity among the wider cast of characters. As the Wikipedia notes: “At a time when there were few non-white or foreign roles in American television dramas, Roddenberry created a multi-ethnic crew for the Enterprise, including an African woman, a Scotsman, a Japanese American, and—most notably—an alien, the half-Vulcan Spock. In the second season, reflecting the contemporaneous Cold War, Roddenberry added a Russian crew member. “

This utopian scenario needs to be contrasted with the prevailing reality of the American Space Programme. No American had ventured beyond near Earth orbit in 1966, and NASA was struggling to catch up with the Russians. Yet, by the time Star Trek original series finished its initial run in September 1969, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin had returned safely and triumphantly from the Moon. In the event, the Apollo programme landed a dozen astronauts on the Moon, all of who returned safely – as did the astronauts of the disaster-stricken mission, Apollo XIII. Without exception, all of them were white and male.

The journey has only just begun...

The journey has only just begun...

It took many years for reality to catch up with Star Trek‘s vision, and then, only just. Although a Russian (Valentina Tereshkova) had become the first woman in space early on in 1963, it took the Americans another 20 years to have their first woman astronaut: Sally Ride, who traveled to Earth orbit on the Space Shuttle in June 1983. A few weeks later, in August that year, Guion “Guy” Bluford, Jr., became the first black American astronaut. Multi-cultural crews did not become commonplace until the late 1990s, when the International Space Station became operational.

It wasn’t just racial equality and harmony that Star Trek advocated in its subtext. While bringing intellectually stimulating entertainment, it also celebrated values like compassion and tolerance. In the Cold War world locked into Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), Star Trek gently reminded viewers that mutual co-existence was a viable option…if only enough effort was invested in it.

As space visionary and science fiction grandmaster Sir Arthur C Clarke noted in a 40th anniversary tribute to the series in 2007: “Appearing at such a time in human history, Star Trek popularised much more than the vision of a space-faring civilisation. In episode after episode, it promoted the then unpopular ideals of tolerance for differing cultures and respect for life in all forms – without preaching, and always with a saving sense of humour.”

He then added, in characteristic style: “Over the years, the sophistication of storylines and special effects has certainly improved, but Star Trek retains its core values – still very much needed in our sadly divided and quarreling world.”

The Enterprise will be cruising the galaxy for centuries to come...

The Enterprise will be cruising the galaxy for centuries to come...