You’re going to remember the moment you met Uhura from Star Trek, aren’t you? It was Birmingham, 2002, in the grimy backroom of a shop, surprisingly. She was wearing ear-rings as big as percussion instruments and a scarf that went on for years and she sang to me. “The skies are green and glowing/Where my heart is, where my heart is.” That was special.

And now she’s away. Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Uhura in the original series and in all those films, has died aged 89. George Takei, who played Sulu, called her trailblazing and Leonard Nimoy’s son Adam said her legacy could not be over-emphasized. People forget it all because Star Trek was just a cheesy science-fiction show. But George and Adam are right.

Nichols, in the backroom in Birmingham, told me herself about the moment she realised the show was important. She’d actually decided to quit because her character was side-lined. Then she met Martin Luther King and he said: “You cannot leave”. For the first time ever, he told her, through Star Trek, the world is seeing black people as intelligent, qualified equals. Star Trek has opened the door, he said, but the door can close again.

For Nichols, it was an epiphany. “It blew my mind,” she said. “Star Trek was the same thing King was doing. In a non-violent way, we were changing minds.” A little later on, the show also included Uhura in the first inter-racial kiss on US television, which some of the southern states tried to ban, but lost. And so: the door opens a little bit further.

We know, obviously, just how far the door needed to open in America in the 60s, and lots of other places. Nichols told me when she was a little girl she asked her daddy whether aliens would ever visit Earth and she remembered his reply: aliens are probably too intelligent to land on a planet where people still make up their differences through war, he said. It still applies. And the racism: even though Nichelle was a star, she was a victim of it her whole life.

But Star Trek was making a difference and it seems to me like a very clever way of doing it: improving the world through a TV show. Partly, it’s because it mostly works on children who grow up and wonder what all the fuss is about. But partly too it’s because the effect works surely but subtly. People think they’re watching a show about aliens and spaceships, and they are, but they’re also watching a show about equality, racism, sexism and human rights. Brilliant.

Other science-fiction shows have done the same thing, including my favourite: Doctor Who. The Doctor spoke about pollution and fossil fuels, for example, long before anyone else did (in The Green Death and Terror of the Zygons). And he never resorted to violence (unless he had to). He also – and this was particularly important to me when I was seven – always stood up to bullies of every kind. He made them look silly, and his weapon was wit.

I suppose the problem is that, as Nichelle’s daddy predicted, if aliens did land on Earth, even now, they would still be pretty disgusted with the state of the place and might turn around and head back home. But at least we’ve made some progress, a bit, a little, and part of it is thanks to popular culture: people dressing up and pretending; an actress from Robbins, Illinois, pretending to be a space explorer from the future.

A word of warning though: for the Star Trek effect to work, it has to be subtle, because the moment you start banging on about your message – the moment it becomes too obvious – there’s a danger people will switch off, their tellies and their attitudes. And this is particularly so at a time when the politics of television and drama can be much too shouty and obvious (BBC, BBC, BBC).

Better, really, to have fun while we’re learning. Better for us to watch a communications expert in the far future patch through the Klingons and for us to have a whale of a time and not realise that you’re being changed a little bit. I’m now remembering Nichelle Nichols in that unprepossessing shop again telling me about what the message of Star Trek really was. “It can be summed up in one four-letter word,” she said. “Hope.”

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