Saturday August 06, 2022
Nichelle Nichols (1932-2022)
Here’s a story about the influence of Nichelle Nichols’ Lt. Uhura character.
After the first season of “Star Trek,” she was thinking of quitting because there often wasn’t much to the role beyond “Hailing frequencies open, Captain.” Apparently she’d already submitted her resignation to creator Gene Roddenberry, who told her to think it over. During that thinking-it-over period, she attended a NAACP fundraiser, where she was told someone wanted to meet her:
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Turns out he was a fan. “Star Trek” was one of the few shows he and Coretta let the kids watch. Per Nichols’ New York Times obit:
“He said, ‘We admire you greatly, you know,’” Ms. Nichols said, and she thanked him and told him that she was about to leave the show. “He said, ‘You cannot. You cannot.’”
Dr. King told her that her role as a dignified, authoritative figure in a popular show was too important to the cause of civil rights for her to forgo. As Ms. Nichols recalled it, he said, “For the first time, we will be seen on television the way we should be seen every day.”
On Monday morning, she returned to Roddenberry’s office and told him what had happened.
“And I said, ‘If you still want me to stay, I’ll stay. I have to.’”
Such was her influence that when Roddenberry rebooted the series two decades later with Picard, Riker, et al., a major movie star said she wanted in. That’s why Whoopi Goldberg’s Guinan began showing up in the second season. “Nichelle was the first Black person I’d ever seen who made it to the future … the one beacon that said, ‘Yes, we’ll be there,’” Goldberg said this week, in tribute.
Lt. Uhura was the main woman on the show, wasn’t she? I’d never really thought about that before. Roddenberry’s original conception was even more progressive, with a female second-in-command (Majel Barrett) in the pilot episode “The Cage,” but of course the network had notes. Basically: lose the woman and the guy with the ears. Roddenberry had to pick his battles and went with Spock. Of the other recurring female characters, Yeoman Rand was just first season, Nurse Chapel (Barrett again) only began with the second season, and both were kind of lovelorn—the former making eyes at Kirk, the latter making plomeek soup for Spock. Lt. Uhura had a job.
What else did we know about Uhura? She liked to sing. She could speak Swahili. She liked small furry things. Sometimes she was frightened. I remember reading, decades ago, fan supposition that she had a thing for Kirk, or Kirk for her, since in the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren,” the Platonians chose Chapel for Spock, knowing their history, but why Uhura for Kirk unless something was there? Sure. Or maybe because there was nothing there? “Trek” fans have long claimed this was the first interracial kiss on television, though there’s plenty of evidence of predecessors, but I’m pretty sure it was the first interracial kiss between TV series regulars. Anyway there’s a better argument that it was Sulu, rather than Kirk, who had a thing for Uhura. Cf., “Fair maiden” in “Naked Time” and rapacious ways in “Mirror Mirror.”
An even better argument: We all had a thing for her. I sure did. I had a poster of Lt. Uhura on my wall as a kid. This was in the mid-1970s when I watched “Star Trek” on reruns at 6 PM on Channel 11 (MetroMedia Television), at first haphazardly, then regularly, and then I fell hard: memorizing titles, their production order, their air dates. And up Uhura went, next to Cheryl Ladd. Even with that, it wasn’t until I was an adult and saw some TOS episodes again that I realized how absolutely freaking gorgeous she was. Just stunning. I look at photos today and I’m still stunned.
Shame I didn’t see her in more stuff, but onscreen roles were skimpy back then even for stunning Black women. She was hired by Duke Ellington as a dancer for his orchestra in the 1950s, and per IMDb, she was an uncredited dancer in the 1958 Otto Preminger “Porgy and Bess” movie. Pre-“Trek,” she played a mother preparing to send her kids to a newly integrated school in a 1964 TV movie, and was a guest star on an episode of Gene Roddenberry’s “The Lieutenant” TV series that went unaired because it was too controversial (read: mildly progressive). Mostly she was in the background: uncredited as a nurse on “Peyton Place,” uncredited in a 1966 Ann-Margret movie, a dice player in a 1966 James Garner movie. She also played “Ruana” in two episodes of the 1966 “Tarzan” TV series. Dare we? Probably not. Then she was in space. Then she was in the future.
After “Trek” there’s not much, either. She kept returning to Uhura: in the animated series, in the movies. She has 69 credits on IMDb and 16 of them are for Uhura, who finally got a first name, Nyota, in, I guess, “Star Trek VI”? Tim would know. Uhura also led to Nichols’ work with NASA, beginning in 1977, to help recruit women and people of color. The role she was ready to shed was the one she never did, and it made all the difference.