This December, the late, forever great Nichelle Nichols would have turned ninety. Her passing this year took not only one of the original cast, but a trailblazer of television who helped usher in the very changes Trek embodied: a better future where anyone could be part of a multicultural team of beings who worked together to learn more about the universes they inhabited. Even in the more awkward moments of the franchise, she remained an icon, a woman of color millions respected and loved. As Uhura, Nichols paved the way for better representation in more recent iterations of TV, far beyond Star Trek itself. Even compared to her peers on The Original Series and later series as well, Uhura was one of the best written women of Trek, allowed to be multifaceted and vibrant while also overturning many stereotypes about Black women.
Uhura was present in most episodes of TOS and had a clear role that was vital when dealing with the many species they encountered throughout their five year mission as a communications officer. Even though The Undiscovered Country would show Uhura using printed books to cram for official peace negotiations with the Klingons, throughout TOS, Uhura often proved herself as a talented and vital member of the crew with a complex background. Uhura’s unique position as the only woman of color in the main crew meant that her scenes often carried more weight with audiences. Seeing her repairing her malfunctioning comm-station showed that she knew her technology inside and out, and later episodes where she was shown speaking Swahili also proved that she did not depend on the technology to translate for her, but was a polyglot who might have even been able to communicate sans comm station.
Nor was Uhura limited to intellectual or mechanical skills. In the classic episode “Mirror, Mirror” Uhura manipulates Mirror Sulu’s lecherous feelings towards her to distract him long enough that Scotty can use the transporter technology to get the regular crew back into their universe and the Mirror crew back to their own without raising suspicion. Uhura charms Sulu then smacks him nearly hard enough to unseat him, holding him at knife point as she exits the bridge. This scene is even more impressive as she expressed fear to Kirk earlier while the regular crew was formulating a plan to try to get back to their universe.
While the only other female leads in TOS, Nurse Chapel and Yeoman Rand, had most of their characterization focused only on their relationships with men – Spock and Kirk respectively – Uhura was seen with various interests, including music on various occasions. While music often led to Uhura being injured – such as when Charlie X stole her voice to silence her or when Nomad scanned her brain to understand her humming, then wiped her mind – she was fleshed out with interests that made her more complex. Even a quick scene in “The Trouble with Tribbles” showed more of her life outside of work, as she was shown going on shore leave as friends with Chekov, then becoming enchanted by the tribbles. While these may be considered stereotypically feminine interests, when combined with her more action intense scenes it proved that women of color could be written with more facets than many women of color are – even to this day – written. Yet it would take until the next Trek project for Uhura to really get the episode she deserved.
The Animated Series is often forgotten, but provides one of the best episodes for Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura in Trek, “The Lorelei Signal.” When an alien species kidnaps and drains the male crew members of their energy to sustain themselves, Uhura takes charge and assembles an all-women security team to join her and Nurse Chapel on the rescue mission to the planet. Uhura truly shines in this episode, taking charge and determined to save her male peers, phaser drawn as she beams down to the planet. When confronted by Theela, the leader of the planet, Uhura refuses to leave without her fellow crewmembers and stuns Theela before sending her security teams out to look for the male members of the crew. Uhura even threatens to destroy the temple where Theela and her followers are holding the men from the Enterprise unless Theela releases Kirk and the others. Uhura closes the episode by saying she will let Starfleet know about the situation so they can send an all-woman crew to help transport Theela and the others to another planet where their bodies can return to ‘normal’ and no longer need to drain the life force of male humanoids. Not only has Uhura saved several crew members and allowed Theela’s people to regain their lives, but according to the captain’s log in the prologue, multiple crews have vanished in the area for over one hundred and fifty years – Uhura has saved her own crew and solved the disappearance of thousands of her predecessors.
Even two of the most infamous scenes in Trek history highlight how Uhura was allowed to break the traditional roles for women of color in the entertainment industry, particularly older ones. The Undiscovered Country had Sybok, Spock’s half-brother, mentally manipulate the minds of the Enterprise crew, including influencing Uhura to act romantically towards Scotty. While the scene does feel uncomfortable because Sybok is mentally influencing Uhura, which adds a question of consent to the scene, and Scotty is clearly uncomfortable, the fact Uhura was seen with desires as an older woman is very important. Even today, Hollywood tends to underrepresent older women in romantic relationships or having romantic feelings, especially women of color. Uhura being seen with these desires is very important representation especially as a cultural icon millions grew up watching. The fan dance later in the same movie also allows Uhura to be seen as a desirable woman even though she is older. While women using their looks and sensuality instead of their intelligence or physical abilities to win is a problem in many movies throughout history, the fact that Uhura is allowed to be seen as desirable as an older woman of color makes the scene important representation.
The loss of Nichelle Nichols earlier this year meant that a true icon of television and Trek was gone forever; Uhura will live on in New projects like Strange New Worlds, but the loss of Nichols will still be felt as she left such an impact on the fans. Not only did Uhura provide much needed positive representation of women of color being vital members of the cast with multifaceted stories, she often had some of the best characterization of early women in Star Trek as she was allowed to combine her intelligence and romantic sides without one outweighing the other. Uhura was a true revolutionary of media and Nichelle Nichols will truly be missed.
Yeah, I get annoyed when people “joke” that Uhura was a glorified secretary. She’s a member of the command crew! She’s a Lieutenant! Anyone on the ship whose job involves communications answers to her!