The passing of the glorious Nichelle Nichols, my first crush...
...brought me back to a slightly embarrassing truth: Star Trek, as in the original Star Trek, has been my favorite TV show for more than fifty years now. I have vivid early memories from a couple episodes in the original run ("Arena" and "The Savage Curtain," stayed with me, no doubt because of their monster content). But it was when the series went into syndication in the early '70s that I became a full-on addict.
I saw every episode dozens, probably hundreds of times. I played with the action figures and (ineptly) built the plastic model kits. I had coloring books and jigsaw puzzles and View-Master slides and calendars and posters, including a poster of Ms. Nichols in her "Mirror, Mirror" costume that hung in my bedroom as adolescence approached. I made my parents take me (along with a like-minded nerdy cousin) to Warren, Ohio, to see William Shatner in Arsenic and Old Lace with the Kenley Players, and later to Fredonia, New York, to hear Gene Roddenberry give a lecture at SUNY.
The franchise was also a big reason why I became an avid reader: I read the James Blish Star Trek anthologies, and Blish's Spock Must Die! was, I think, the first full-length novel I ever bought for myself. I read Mission to Horatius by Mack Reynolds and the Gold Key Star Trek comics, not to mention the non-fiction books; Stephen E. Whitfield's The Making of Star Trek and David Gerrold's The Trouble With Tribbles and The World of Star Trek were sacred texts for me.
As I got older, while adding countless other obsessive pop culture enthusiasms, I never quite grew out of Star Trek. I even monetized it, a little; over the course of my writing and radio career I had the opportunity to meet and/or interview Walter Koenig, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan and Grace Lee Whitney.
Of course I realize that what I'm describing is a very routine level of fandom by Star Trek standards. I've never cosplayed, or learned Klingon, and only once, in reaction to the death of Leonard Nimoy, did I ever write a piece of parody fanfic (which I managed to get published). I never became a serious fan of any of the sequel shows (though I've enjoyed Star Trek: Discovery very much). But I still own a couple of Star Trek t-shirts, and I have a Gorn bobblehead on my desk, and I regularly watch the original series reruns; they're an ongoing source of amusement and comfort to me.
Which makes it peculiar whenever I discover that there are areas of Star Trek ephemera with which I am completely unfamiliar. Like for instance, The Mystery of Black Sulu and White Uhura.
A couple of weeks ago The Wife was browsing in the vinyl section of a junkshop, and scored for me a piece of Trek merch I had never encountered: one of the albums in the Star Trek series from Peter Pan Records.
It was from 1979--it has a still from Star Trek: The Motion Picture on the cover--at which time I would have been unlikely to notice an album for kids.
On each side is an original story, performed radio-theater style (by uncredited actors who don't sound like the original cast members). And inside the sleeve is a read-along comic illustrating the tales. And in this rather nicely-drawn comic...Sulu appears, quite unmistakably, to be African-American, and Uhura appears to be white, indeed blond. Their roles are otherwise exactly as they were on the show, but their pigmentation is altered.
I was baffled at this. Certainly Star Trek has long been admired as, for its time, a pioneer in racial diversity on TV, but this didn't seem to make sense as part of that tradition, nor does there seem to be any other reason for the change. I looked online for guidance, to find that the oddity had, indeed, been noted on various fansites, though none I saw offered any explanation for it.
I did learn, however, that most of the audio dramas on the Peter Pan Trek records were written by Alan Dean Foster, the prolific sci-fi author who also wrote the Star Trek Log books, paperback adaptations of the cartoon series from the '70s (not to mention the original Star Wars novelization). I messaged Foster to ask if he knew anything about it.
His reply: "As to the miscoloring, I believe some of it was done overseas and no instructions were given to the artists."
As good an explanation as any, I guess, although the likenesses of Kirk, Spock and McCoy look impressively accurate. So do those of the uniforms, the sets and the Enterprise herself. Maybe whatever pictures were given to the overseas artists for reference didn't include Sulu and Uhura; a serious omission if so.
Anybody else ever heard of any other reason?
In any case, it's a testament to how iconic even the supporting characters in Star Trek are that this innocent, probably even well-intentioned variation seems so shockingly weird. On the other hand, maybe smoldering encounters of Black Sulu and White Uhura could be the basis for a whole new genre of fanfic.
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