What made Nichelle Nichols essential to ‘Star Trek’ as Uhura

The original Star Trek may have been canceled in 1969, but it’s still with us. That three seasons of a television series could then produce 79 episodes led to a healthy syndicate life that brought new generations of viewers to the voyagers of the Starship Enterprise and led to the creation of a dedicated fandom, several ongoing conventions and the eventual creation of a franchise that stays true to the original pays respect.

As Communications Officer Lt. Uhura (first name Nyota was a later addition), Nichelle Nichols, who died Saturday at the age of 89, was on the show from start to finish, including the subsequent Star Trek: The Animated Series. six feature films built around the original cast. Nichols was an elegant, confident performer — she was a trained dancer who carried herself like one, simply sitting at her console, one leg forward, one leg back, one hand on her earphone — and on a series where it sometimes seems like overdoing the baseline, she never did too much. But Uhura was far more than a character on a television show, just as Nichols was more than an actor: they were inspirational figures of historical importance, both the player and the role, models of dignity who, simply by their actions, point to a better future pointed out their professions.

While racism was a recurring theme on Star Trek, the 23rd century Earth is portrayed as having moved beyond prejudice, and so in the context of the series there is nothing unusual about a black woman in a position of responsibility – has Nichols described Uhura as “fourth in command” – which made her exceptional in the context of late 1960s television.

“Where I’m from, size, shape or color doesn’t matter,” Kirk tells William Shatner to little Michael Dunn in season three of Plato’s Stepchildren, in which Kirk and Uhura have their famous kiss — not the first interracial kiss in the series TV, it has been pointed out, but as far as I can tell, the first between a black woman and a white man. The fact that they are being coerced into doing this by telekinetic aliens, which robs them of their agency, doesn’t make the scene any less groundbreaking, and Uhura’s speech to Kirk just before takes things in a deeper direction: “I’m thinking of all the times on the Enterprise, when I was scared to death. And I would see you so busy with your command. And I would hear your voice from all parts of the ship. And my fears would fade away. And now [the aliens] make me tremble But I’m not afraid.”

Aside from the kiss, there’s no question that Nichols was underused on the show; In the show’s hierarchy, in terms of screen time, there’s Kirk and Spock, and then McCoy and Scott, and then Uhura (and Sulu and Chekhov). Lots of guys. (Majel Barrett’s recurring Nurse Chapel was the only other female element, often scantily clad notwithstanding various guest aliens.) Uhura rarely joins a landing party. But even when she is not the focus of a scene, she is a regular feature on screen, even if only seen at her post on the bridge, and completes the picture, adding to the emotional tenor. (And when she’s not there, you can tell.) As communications officer, everything runs through Uhura: she is the voice of what’s happening elsewhere on the ship and what’s happening off the ship, whether she’s announcing the presence of another starship or narrating what’s going on with Planet X. Even as she recites lines like “I’m receiving Class Two signals from Romulan ship” or “Revised estimate for cloud LOS 3.7 minutes,” she’s the picture of the pro. She sets up exhibitions, asks important questions; responding wordlessly to an on-screen deal, she brings an emotion and energy to the scene that differs from that of her sometimes boisterous male colleagues.

William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols in 2006

William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols at Comedy Central’s Roast of Shatner in 2006.

(Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images)

Still, in the show’s first episode, Uhura admits that she’s “starting to feel too much a part of this communications console.” And whenever she is released from her post for a minute and is allowed to do something else at all, you notice it and remember it. Whether she’s in a crawl space setting up a subspace bypass circuit or she’s teasingly talking to Spock (“Why don’t you tell me I’m an attractive young lady, or ask me if I ever Tell me how are you (Planet Vulcan looks like a full moon on a lazy evening”) or pretend to be an evil mirror universe version of itself, these excursions leave you wanting more. Despite all it’s accomplished, the series missed a few tricks when it came to Nichols.

Before, after and during it had more to offer than “Star Trek”. A performer since she was young, Nichols had toured as a dancer (and at least one night as a backup singer) with Duke Ellington and made her screen debut in the 1959 film Porgy and Bess. Originally, she had set herself the goal of a career in music theater. In the second episode of the series, you get a glimpse of this performer when Uhura starts singing mischievously, pacing the ship’s lounge like a cat while Spock plays his Vulcan lyre: “Oh, on the Starship Enterprise / There’s someone who’s in Satan’s guise / whose devil ears and devil eyes / could rip your heart out of you.” (Nichols got a few more singing opportunities on the show and performed a fan dance in “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.”) To star in a Broadway play, Nichols decided to leave the series after season one, only to, after an often-recounted chance meeting with self-confessed huge fan Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to stay, who she later recalled telling her, “For the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day as intelligent, high-quality, beautiful people, who can sing, dance and fly in space.”

Aside from Star Trek films, which began in 1979, a decade after the series was canceled, Nichols continued to act sporadically, including episodes of Heroes, Downward Dog, and The Young and the Restless, as well as films of varying budgets and quality, including Disney’s Snow Dogs and zombie film The Supernaturals; Perhaps her least Uhura-like role comes from Isaac Hayes in the 1974 blaxploitation film Truck Turner, in which she plays a stone-cold, highly mundane madam. (She played another kind woman in 2008’s Lady Magdalene’s, a ridiculously low-budget action comedy.) Whatever the vehicle, her work always feels engaging and confident.

But “Star Trek” remains her legacy and her gift, and it shaped her life, leading Nichols to work with NASA and recruit women and people of color to the space program (as recounted in the 2019 documentary Woman in Motion) . Finally it was home. In the 2007 feature-length fan film Star Trek: Of Men and Gods, directed by Star Trek: Voyager actor Tim Russ and starring Nichols’ old castmate Walter “Chekhov” Koenig, Nichols played Uhura one last time, one part that – with no Kirk, no Spock in the way – she finally took center stage. The film, which is currently available on YouTube, definitely feels homemade, but it’s clearly a labor of love, and Nichols, white-haired and still beautiful, is wonderful in it. And Uhura is still alive in the persona of Celia Rose Gooding, who plays the character’s younger self in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. Trek women have a lot to do these days. And often they are women of color.

“I think it was fate,” Nichols said of meeting Dr. King, who sent her back to Star Trek. “And I’ve never regretted it, I’ve never regretted it. Because I understood that somehow the universe had, somehow, this universal spirit had brought me there. And we have the choice – do we go this way or the other? And it was the right path for me.”

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2022-08-01/nichelle-nichols-star-trek-uhura-appreciation What made Nichelle Nichols essential to ‘Star Trek’ as Uhura

Sarah Ridley

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