Though Lt. Uhura was fourth in command of the Enterprise, she never took command of the ship on Star Trek: The Original Series
As fourth in command of the USS Enterprise and Senior Communications Officer, Lt. Uhura (played by Nichelle Nichols) should have been in command multiple times throughout The Original Series as Kirk and Spock often ended up on the surface of a Class-M planet either fighting for their lives or exploring the surface. Yet in TOS, Uhura never took command, even when most of the crew was on a mission. Several times, a less obvious character took command of the bridge, including various one-shot characters who never got developed.
Even though Lt. Uhura was one of the most influential characters on TOS and inspired generations of people – including future Trek actors Whoopi Goldberg and Tim Russ along with several NASA astronauts – she often got short-changed when it came to command. In various episodes, she took over for Sulu and Spock at the helm and science station respectively plus repaired her own communications station, so she was clearly a skilled officer. Yet she never got to have command of the bridge until The Animated Series.
Was it a combination of a gender double standard and racism that kept Uhura from getting to take command? Had TOS continued on, would Uhura have been able to take command more easily? Was part of the reason Uhura got to take command in TAS because it was produced years later and for a different audience?
Lt. Uhura couldn’t take command, nor could Number One or Sulu
Although Uhura being a woman of color probably did impact her chances of taking command of the bridge during missions, her gender by itself may have also played a role in this. Gene Roddenberry and others have spoken about how Majel Barratt’s role as Number One in the original pilot “The Cage” was a point of contention with the test audience and producers which led to writing Number One out of the second pilot then giving most of her character traits to Spock, the new second-in-command who is male. It is also important to note that while Lt. Uhura is a prominent member of the crew, she is one of the few women who regularly appeared on the show, meaning that almost everyone in the chain of command was male and often Caucasian as well.
A prime example of this comes from the episode “Catspaw” where DeSalle takes command of the bridge. DeSalle had previously had minor roles in “The Squire of Gothos” and “This Side of Paradise” as part of the away teams in different divisions. In “Catspaw” he is identified as Assistant Chief Engineer and is placed in charge when Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down to search for Sulu and Scotty. This leaves only Chekov and Uhura of the main recurring cast on the bridge.
It is interesting to note that DeSalle and Chekov do not seem to get along as when DeSalle tells Chekov to rescan the area he also implies he might need to help Chekov recalibrate the sensors. Chekov retorts he is capable of doing that. Compare that to how DeSalle is much more respectful of Uhura, never once implying the same level of disdain for her as Chekov. There could be two in-universe explanations for this – either DeSalle considers Uhura more capable or DeSalle respects Uhura more because he may need to hand over command to her next.
This situation also highlights a subtle hint towards the role of gender in command. Throughout TOS several male characters of color are seen in powers of position. “Court Martial” has Commander Stone, Doctor M’Benga had roles in “A Private Little War” and “That Which Survives” (before becoming a main cast member in Strange New Worlds), Lieutenant Boma in “The Galileo Seven”, and more. Women of color were featured throughout TOS as Yeomen, Lieutenants, scientists, and more, but none of them were given command of a starship. The TOS finale even hinges on this as “Turnabout Intruder” is based around Dr. Janice Lester (who is white) whos is so resentful that even though she is a talented scientist she is barred from captaincy based on her gender. And that’s why she switches bodies with Kirk.
Lt. Uhura takes command in Star Trek: The Animated Series
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Animated Series which gave Uhura one of her best episodes and let her command the ship in the episode “The Lorelei Signal”. In this episode, a group of female aliens abduct several members of the crew to drain their life force. Uhura takes command then with Christine Chapel and an all-female security detail storms the planet, phasers ready. Uhura and her team defeat the aliens, save Kirk and company, and send a message to Starfleet to help the aliens so that they no longer need to depend on the life forces of male humanoids to survive.
TAS gives Uhura many vital scenes in many episodes, giving her a more active role where she got to do more than say “hailing frequencies open.” As Nichelle Nichols discussed in interviews, she got tired of that being her main contribution to episodes of TOS. Uhura did everything from talking down computers, to using an early version of the holodeck, to joking with her fellow crew members, giving Uhura more personality and agency than ever before in TAS.
Did the animated medium give the writers more opportunities since it was written in the 1970s compared to the live action medium in the 1960s? Was the show less scrutinized than its predecessor based on the former’s popularity and fan response? What do you think?