Given the scope of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy, it can be easy to overlook that he convinced Nichelle Nichols to stick it out on Star Trek—but Drunk History is here to help. Beginning life in 2007 on Funny or Die, Drunk History takes a decidedly novel approach to retelling great moments of cultural importance. Since its move to Comedy Central in 2013, the four seasons of the show so far have seen host Derek Waters get actors and comedians tanked to retell key historical moments with celebrities acting things out, warts and all.
For the current season of Drunk History, Waters discovered the particularly interesting career of actor Nichelle Nichols. Best known for playing Uhura on the original Star Trek, Nichols’ lasting cultural impact may never have materialized if it wasn’t for a one famous Trekkie: Martin Luther King.
EW has a segment from last night’s Drunk History in which Full Frontal writer and comedian Ashley Nicole Black tells the story of how Nichols nearly quit Star Trek to pursue a career on Broadway. Instead, Gene Roddenberry gave her the weekend to think it over, allowing Nichols to chance upon MLK and learn he and his children were huge fans of the show. In fact, King thought Nichols’ prominent and powerful position on the series was far too important to the black community for the actor to vacate the role. And as it turns out, he was right.
With Raven-Symoné playing Nichols, Jaleel White (Family Maters) as MLK, and Waters subbing for William Shatner, the story jumps from Nichols staying aboard the show to her and Shatner filming their most infamous episode. In 1968, NBC aired the first interracial kiss on screen between Nichols and Shatner, increasing the legacy of Uhura. But it wouldn’t stop there.
As Hidden Figures proved, NASA was once a place filled with white men, especially in positions of power. Nichols herself took issue with the lack of diversity amongst astronauts and championed NASA to work towards changing this. But their reluctance didn’t stop her, as she took it upon herself to tour around and recruit future astronauts by utilizing her popularity on Star Trek. As a result, she helped bring aboard Sally Ride (the first American woman in space), Guion Bluford (the first black astronaut), and Mae Jemison (the first black female astronaut).
The episode is more than just an entertaining retelling of the story, however, as it’s also fairly accurate. In fact, Waters tested the validity of the tale by going straight to the source: Nichols herself:
“Well, I don’t know what to think. But it was really funny and pretty good as a comedy version of what really happened.”
Fans may still be deciding of Star Trek: Discovery fits into canon, but it’s clear that Nichols legacy is alive on the diverse series. Roddenberry always imagined his show as one presenting a utopian future, and it’s clear that Nichols helped the real world move a little closer to his vision.
Drunk History airs Tuesdays on Comedy Central.
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