Nichelle Nichols co-produced a film promoting the Air and Space Museum.
As fans continue to celebrate the life and career of the late Nichelle Nichols, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC has posted a decades-old promotional short film starring the actor who first played Uhura in Star Trek.
The Smithsonian co-produced the short with Nichols’ own company, Women in Motion, Inc., which she formed to recruit women and people of color for NASA’s astronaut corps. In the three-minute film, a grade school student named Lishia—who (surely not coincidentally) shares her name with Nichelle Nichols’ own mother, Lishia Mae Nichols—is touring the museum, presumably during a school field trip.
In the Rocketry and Spaceflight Gallery, where the 11-foot Enterprise model used in the original Star Trek series hung during the 1980s, Lishia is shocked and delighted to see Uhura “beam down,” courtesy of a temporal distortion.
Lishia proceeds to lead Uhura on a tour of the museum. When she asks Uhura, “Can girls ever really be like you? Can they really tour galaxies like you do?,” Uhura sings her a song of reassurance, challenge, and inspiration.
When someone (her teacher?) calls Lishia away, Uhura signals Scotty to beam her back to her own time.
Uhura’s visit to the Air and Space Museum encourages reaching for the future
Writing for the Air and Space Museum, Dr. Margaret Weitekamp, who curates the Museum’s social and cultural history of spaceflight collection, dates the film to “the late 1970s.” It must have been produced during or shortly after the production of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), since Nichelle Nichols wears her duty uniform costume and uses a wrist communicator from that film.
It’s fun to ponder whether this short fits within Star Trek canon as a lost “landing party” adventure for Uhura. Granted, the only Enterprise we see is clearly the studio model in the museum, and the out-of-focus push-in on its starboard nacelle could suggest Lishia is daydreaming the entire encounter.
But the short starts with dialogue from Uhura that uses established Star Trek concepts and terminology. She materializes in the museum with the transporter shimmer and sound so familiar from the original series. She communicates with Scotty and Spock (alas, no vocal cameos from James Doohan or Leonard Nimoy). She sings, as we know she does aboard the Enterprise. And the short ends outside Lishia’s perspective, as Uhura prepares to beam up.
I’m especially taken with the arched eyebrow Uhura raises at Lishia when they meet. It reminds me of how Nichelle Nichols read for the role of Spock when she auditioned for Star Trek because the role of Uhura had not yet been created. As Ryan Britt writes in Phasers on Stun!, “in that moment, the souls of Spock and Uhura were joined forever” (page 58).
But putting these ponderings aside, the Air and Space Museum’s posting of this video on August 1, a mere two days after Nichelle Nichols’ death, is a wonderful gift to her fans.
It isn’t Nichols’ most compelling or dynamic performance as Uhura. Certainly, the song she sings isn’t as melodic as “Beyond Antares” (or even, Great Bird help us, “The Moon’s a Window to Heaven”).
But knowing Nichelle Nichols passionately used her celebrity to promote representation, inclusivity, and equality of opportunity in education and the sciences, we can conclude this short is one of her most committed and heartfelt performances as Uhura. Its encouraging message to reach for our dreams is at the core of Star Trek’s creed, and remains welcome today.