Nichelle Nichols’ death brings favorite Uhura moments to mind.
When news of Nichelle Nichols’ death on July 30 broke, I’m sure I wasn’t the only Star Trek fan who, amid feelings of sadness and warm wishes for her family and friends, started mentally replaying my favorite Uhura moments from Star Trek: The Original Series and its cast’s six feature films. I don’t intend to disparage Nichols’ work on The Animated Series, for which she voiced not only Lt. Uhura but also a host of other characters—but it’s her live-action work as the Enterprise’s chief communications officer that shines brightest in my memories.
Nichelle Nichols was an impressive trailblazer by any measure. She was, as we well know, a groundbreaking presence on 1960s network TV. As Whoopi Goldberg has famously recalled on several occasions, when she was a child and first saw Nichols on Star Trek, she shouted in glee, “There’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!” And as Nichols herself often related, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself urged her to stay on Star Trek because her depiction of a professional Black woman on the Enterprise bridge meant so much for not only African Americans but the nation as a whole.
She also, as the must-see documentary film Woman in Motion chronicles, played a pivotal role in diversifying NASA’s astronaut corps. Dismayed by the lack of women and people of color in the human space program, Nichols personally undertook a five-month recruitment tour in 1977 that helped change the face of America’s astronauts forever. “There is no other example of a celebrity so perfectly aligning the thing they are famous for with a real-world application,” writes Ryan Britt in his new book, Phasers on Stun! “It’s so on-the-nose that it can’t even be fictionalized” (page 120).
I hope it takes nothing away from my admiration for her real-world accomplishments to admit that, when I think about Nichelle Nichols, I’ll always think first of her in her most famous role. Here are five Uhura moments from Star Trek episodes and movies that stay with me the most.
Uhura flirts with Mr. Spock in “The Man Trap”
The Kelvin-timeline Trek films weren’t the franchise’s first projects to suggest romantic possibilities for Lt. Uhura and Mr. Spock. Early in the very first Star Trek episode ever aired, “The Man Trap,” viewers got to see some flirtatious fun—well, fun for Uhura, at least—between the two characters.
How ironic and unfortunate that Uhura’s complaints about the frequency with which she has to say the word “frequency” come so early in the series’ run! She never got too much time away from that communications console, for which reason Nichols had quit the show at the season’s end, before her fateful conversation with Dr. King.
It’s a lot of fun to see Uhura make Spock sweat and literally tug at his collar. Unfortunately, the clip above doesn’t include his—feigned?—uncomprehending reply to Uhura’s sweet talking: “Vulcan has no moon, Miss Uhura.” It also cuts her dead-on, deadpan retort: “I’m not surprised, Mister Spock.”
Before this scene is over, we’ll also get to see Nichols pivot from charm to shock. She chastises Spock for his apparent lack of concern when word arrives that Captain Kirk, “the closest thing [Spock has] to a friend,” could be dead. Nichols got to show a notable range of emotion in these few minutes. Would that Star Trek had given her more scenes like this one.