How Nichelle Nichols Made Uhura the Life of the Party
Star Trek fans worldwide mourned the passing of actress Nichelle Nichols on July 30, 2022, at the age of 89. As with every other actor associated with the original series of Star Trek, Nichols’s other personal and professional roles were doomed to be eclipsed by her participation in three seasons of the cult phenomenon show that went on to spawn an ever-increasing count of film sequels and spinoffs. I am no biographer and will leave the task of eulogizing Nichols as a person to those who knew her and can properly pay tribute. Like so many others, I knew her for that one role: Lieutenant Nyota Uhura.
Of course, Uhura’s very existence as a character was groundbreaking. Her position as a bridge officer in a future starship was symbolic of a world in which Black people were promoted as active participants in competent and professional ways. So significant was her symbolic role that, as Nichols would often remark, Martin Luther King, Jr., himself insisted she remain as an actor in the show even when she grew disillusioned with her small part in it. The culmination of her involvement at the time came in an otherwise unremarkable episode of Star Trek’s lackluster third season, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” in which William Shatner’s Captain Kirk kissed Uhura—perhaps the first black/white interracial kiss in television history.
Growing up watching Star Trek reruns as a kid and a teenager, I didn’t really know the historic or symbolic importance of Uhura. I only knew that I liked her, that she was someone I would want to hang out with—a sentiment shared by the rest of the Enterprise crew. What Nichols did was to invest her signature character with a vibrant life that transcended her comparative lack of screen time, inhabiting a full range of worthwhile human activity.
In truth, her formal position wasn’t the most glamorous role. As communications officer, her bridge scenes often required her to deliver generic lines; how many ways are there to say, “Hailing frequencies open”? And though Star Trek was forward-thinking for its time, Uhura was still subject to some of the more dated aspects of the era, from the ubiquitous miniskirt worn by all female officers on the Enterprise to her tendency to be the first one to scream in any given circumstance. Perhaps this is why the newest Trek incarnation, Strange New Worlds, has consciously given Celia Rose Gooding so much to do in her version of a cadet Uhura.
Star Trek was first and foremost about the dynamics of the Big Three, Captain Kirk, Commander Spock, and Doctor McCoy. Their banter and interactions were, indeed, a delightful aspect of the show. But since my youth, I’ve always loved the obscure or second-string figures, so deep down, I was most interested in the less-emphasized members of the main cast: Scotty, Sulu, Chekov, and, of course, Uhura. As a voracious collector of Star Trek tie-in novels, I especially sought out those rare few that might feature Uhura on the cover, anxious to get any additional glimpse I could into her backstory.
The thing was, while there might sometimes have been tension among the actors, anyone watching those early seasons of The Original Series could tell that those junior officers loved spending time together. And often, you could see that Uhura was one of the chief reasons. Notwithstanding her poise and professionalism, the Uhura moments that stick out the most to me are the times she was off-duty. There’s her shore leave with Pavel Chekov in which she excitedly acquires the first of the eponymous fuzzy alien pets in “The Trouble with Tribbles.” There’s the moment in “The Conscience of the King” when she agrees to sing for Lieutenant Riley to spare him from terminal boredom. There’s her hilarious participation in the drama the Enterprise crew staged to escape from the androids in “I, Mudd.”
That didn’t mean she couldn’t be fierce. Star Trek gave Nichols some opportunities to demonstrate her abilities as a Starfleet officer. She could switch stations to helm, navigation, or science as the need arose, and in “Who Mourns for Adonais?” she was able to rewire a subspace bypass circuit. In Star Trek III, she held off Starfleet long enough for Kirk to take back the old Enterprise in an effort to save Spock and McCoy. But perhaps her most memorable moments came in “Mirror, Mirror,” when she took on the persona of her violent alternate universe counterpart, playing cat-and-mouse with a villainous version of her friend Sulu.
While I wish the show had provided more occasion for Nichelle Nichols to showcase her talents, and I wish we had been able to learn more about Nyota Uhura all those decades ago, I’m not entirely discontent with what we got. There was, indeed, something irresistibly tantalizing about the glimpses we did get, combined with Nichols’s performances within the Trek ensemble. They achieved what we hope for from great fiction (especially great science fiction)—they suggested a greater world, a world full of people united by common purpose beyond their differences without erasing those differences. “Heard melodies are sweet,” John Keats once wrote, “but those unheard / Are sweeter.”
Each sweet melody we heard from Uhura’s mouth—whether “Beyond Antares” or “Oh, On the Starship Enterprise”—implied countless hours at the end of the workday that we never got to see but could certainly imagine. On the bridge, she was the communications officer, perhaps a thankless job, but one that couldn’t have been more appropriate to the significance of her image on 1960s television screen, an emblem of connection across boundaries that might have seemed insurmountable. On the best days, she was an explorer, visiting strange new worlds with her comrades, helping draw beings from radically different cultures together. In hard times, she could take matters into her own hands, fighting and fixing and mixing it up with the boys. But at the end of her shift, Nichols made sure we knew that there was more to her, that Uhura, whose name means “freedom,” had the boundless activity of one who could enjoy the good things of the universe and invite others to do the same.
When Christians look at Christ’s actions in his own day, we see him enjoying hospitality when it is offered to him and extending hospitality to those around him, however different they may be. In this regard, Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura bears a resemblance: she was a generous person, a hospitable person, one who extended the hand of fellowship to those around her. In another of her most memorable moments, at the end of the episode “Bread and Circuses,” Uhura recognizes something all of her crewmates have missed. After surviving on a world like our own except with Rome still in power, Spock dismisses one religious cult on the planet, a group of sun-worshipers, only to be corrected by Uhura:
Spock: I wish we could’ve examined that belief of his more closely. It seems illogical for a sun worshiper to develop a philosophy of total brotherhood. Sun worship is usually a primitive superstition religion.
Uhura: I’m afraid you have it all wrong, Mister Spock, all of you. I’ve been monitoring some of their old-style radio waves, the empire spokesman trying to ridicule their religion. But he couldn’t. Don’t you understand? It’s not the sun up in the sky. It’s the Son of God.
Kirk: Caesar—and Christ. They had them both. And the word is spreading… only now.
McCoy: A philosophy of total love and total brotherhood.
I do not wish to claim more for a fictional character than what is warranted. The Christian faith is, of course, a religion with content and doctrine, often derided as superstition. But it remains at its best, at its most unanswerable, when we live it out with beauty and winsome communication, with generosity and hospitality—in short, when we look like Uhura.