One of television’s most controversial moments almost happened very differently. In the Star Trek episode in “Plato’s Step-children”, the crew encounters a race of sadistic, telepathic aliens that based their society on Ancient Greek ideals. Their leader was dying and they send a distress call, that is intercepted by the Enterprise. Requiring the aid of Dr. McCoy they request that the doctor stay behind, and would allow the ship and the rest of her crew to leave. Kirk refuses, and they aliens use their powers to humiliate Kirk, and force him and Spock to act like court jesters, even torturing Spock to the point he feels emotion. They even used their powers to bring LT. Nyota Uhura, and Nurse Christine Chapel down from the Enterprise to continue their pleasure.
It was in this moment when the Platonians force Kirk and Uhura to kiss and force Spock and Christine to do the same. Today this would be nothing , simply a guy kissing a girl. However, in 1967, when the episode aired, it was a huge area of consternation as Kirk was played by a white man, and Uhura was played by an African-American woman. In fact, TV Historians note that it was the first interracial kiss in television history.
The original script called for Spock to be the one to kiss Uhura, however, Nichelle Nichols, who played the character in the original series, recalled in Star Trek: “Where No One Has Gone Before: A History in Pictures,
“My understanding is Bill Shatner took one look at the scene and said, ‘No you will not! If anyone’s going to be part of the first interracial kiss in television history, it’s going to be me!’ So they rewrote it.”
This scene gave the network censors a lot of concern that networks in the deep south would pull the episode. In the 1960’s interracial romantic relationships were highly taboo. For example During the first two seasons of the TV series Batman starring Adam West, when Julie Newmar played Catwoman, there was a huge amount of romantic tension between them. However, when Newmar had scheduling conflicts and they replaced her with African American actress Eartha Kitt, the romance between Batman and Catwoman was non existent, and Batman’s amorous feelings were transferred to Yvonne Craig’s Barbara Gordon/Batgirl.
Because of the taboo nature of the kiss, the executives at NBC asked that the producers of Star Trek to reshoot the scene in question without it. However, according to most sources, Shatner and Nichols were so determined to include the scene that they intentionally flubbed the reshoots. This gave the producers no choice but to go with the scene in question. Thanks to the work of the cast and crew of Star Trek, television history was made as they shared one of the earliest interracial kisses on television.
The character almost didn’t even make it that far. Nichols almost left the series and was persuaded to reconsider thanks to one of the most unlikely sources, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As NPR recalled in “Zoe Saldana Climbed Into Lt. Uhura’s Chair, Reluctantly” that looked at the reluctance of Nichelle Nichols and her successor Zoe Saldana to take the role,
“He told me that Star Trek was one of the only shows that he and his wife Coretta would allow their little children to watch. And I thanked him and I told him I was leaving the show. All the sudden the smile came off his face. And he said, ‘don’t you understand for the first time, we’re seen as we should be seen. You don’t have a black role. You have an equal role.’”
While it is true that her rank was subordinate to not only Captain Kirk, but Scotty, Uhura had one of the most substantial roles on television for an African American at that time. As it was noted in “12 Trailblazing Women Who Forever Changed The Television Landscape” a special article that appeared on the web page for the retro digital television channel MeTV in celebration of International Women’s Day,
“Nichols was one of the first black actresses in a prominent role on primetime TV. But instead of portraying a maid or a slave, she played communications officer Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek, breaking the typecast for black actresses onscreen. The role …influenced actresses like Whoopi Goldberg.”
More importantly to Rodenberry, having an African-American woman serving side by side with white men as an officer on the bridge of the star-ship. As Dwayne Day noted in “Star Trek as a Cultural Phenomenon” for the US Centennial of Flight Commission that examined all the milestones in flight in reality and pop-culture,
“The multi-ethnic nature of the bridge crew as well as its positive message that humanity would survive and thrive among the stars is often credited by writers, fans, and historians for the show’s broad appeal. As many fans later explained, Star Trek presented a positive image of the future at a time when the news was filled with stories of racism, social strife, and war. When many people wondered if the world would emerge intact from the Cold War, Star Trek depicted many different races working peacefully together several hundred years into the future. At its most basic level, Star Trek had a simple humanistic message: humanity will be okay.”
Through this simple message, Uhura broke more barriers then just that of an interracial kiss. Not only was she a valued member of the crew, she had a good friendship with the white male members of the crew, including Captain Kirk who hailed from the upper Midwest of the United States, and Dr. Leonard McCoy who hailed from the Deep South.
Audiences got the feeling that Uhura perhaps had meals with them or would grab a drink after the shift was over. Not only was she treated like a person, but they clearly respected her skills and it was because of who she was and her skills that the rest of the crew valued her as a member of the Enterprise, not her skin color. For example, Scotty resists her romantic advances in Star Trek V, not because of her skin color, but because Scotty is such a gentlemen, and he knows his friend and colleague is in a vulnerable state and doesn’t wish to take advantage of her and do something they would both regret.
She in turn deeply respected her crewmembers. When the crew of the Enterprise was under threat of slavery to the aliens in “Plato’s Step-children”, Kirk asks what she is thinking,
“I’m thinking. I’m thinking of all the times on the Enterprise when I was scared to death and I would see you so busy at your command, and I would hear your voice from all parts of the ship, and my fears would fade. And now they’re making me tremble, but I’m not afraid. I am not… afraid.”
As for Spock, in the episode “The Man Trap” Uhura was bored on the job and tried to flirt with the Vulcan. Spock pointed out to her that there were errors in the frequencies of her last sub-space log. She told him she was going to cry if she heard the word “frequency” one more time, which baffled the Vulcan. When she told him she was trying to make conversation, Spock was still befuddled, saying it was illogical for a communications officer to resent a word that was necessary to her job, to which she said,
“No, you have an answer. I’m an illogical woman, who’s beginning to feel too much a part of that communications console. Why don’t you tell me I’m an attractive young lady, or ask me if I’ve ever been in love? Tell me how your planet Vulcan looks on a lazy evening when the moon is full.”
Spock didn’t pick up on the hint and simply gave her the fact that Vulcan had no moon. It was from this, that writers of the newer films could extrapolate that perhaps in an instance like Vulcan being destroyed Uhura, especially if she were romantically involved with Spock, would want to try and comfort him, and Spock, every dedicated to duty and logic would urge her to continue to perform to the best of her ability.
Later in the original series, we see that she was comfortable enough with the Vulcan to perform a song in which she playfully teased him in the episode “Charlie X”.
“Oh, on the Starship Enterprise, there’s someone who’s in Satan’s guise, Whose devil’s ears and devil’s eyes could rip your heart from you! At first his look could hypnotize, and then his touch would barbarize. His alien love could victimize… and rip your heart from you! And that’s why, female astronauts, oh very female astronauts. Wait terrified and overwrought. To find what he will do. Oh girls in space, be wary, be wary, be wary! Girls in space, be wary! We know not what he’ll do.”
We hear her say in her song the very words that Kirk and McCoy would use to insult and get arise out of Spock, but here, it’s almost playful. With Uhura she’s painting him as a tempter, and enjoying every minute of it, knowing that deep down Spock likes it too. As Nichols said in an interview with Star Trek.com in regards to the newly formed romance between Spock and Uhura in the newer Star Trek films,
“Now, go back to my participation in Star Trek as Uhura and Leonard (Nimoy) as Spock. There was always a connection between Uhura and Spock. It was the early 60’s, so you couldn’t do what you can do now, but if you will remember, Uhura related to Spock. When she saw the captain lost in space out there in her mirror, it was Spock who consoled her when she went screaming out of her room. When Spock needed an expert to help save the ship, you remember that Uhura put something together and related back to him the famous words, “I don’t know if I can do this. I’m afraid.” And Uhura was the only one who could do a spoof on Spock. Remember the song (in “Charlie X”)? Those were the hints, as far as I’m concerned.”
In return, Spock seemed to admire her, though he may not admit it out loud. This was brought to the forefront in the episode “Is There In Truth No Beauty”, when Kollos, of a race known as the Medusans, mind melded with Spock, it brought out a more emotional side, and nearly drove him insane. Upon melding, Spock greeted his crewmembers, saying,
“This is delightful. I know you. All of you. James Kirk, Captain and friend for many years. And Leonard McCoy, also of long acquaintance. And Uhura, whose name means freedom. “She walks in beauty, like the night.”
Between her role as a member of the crew, and her solid friendships with the rest of the crew, and the admiration of her beauty that the Vulcan suppressed, it is no wonder she was seen as such an inspiration. She showed them a world not that could be, but one that it always should be. As Mary P. Taylor notes,
“Lieutenant Uhura was a television first on a show that had a lot of firsts, and she was a role model not so much for what she said or did, but for the fact that she was there, doing an important job on an important ship. She was a black woman in a position of authority on a military vessel, and she helped round out a multi-racial, multi ethnic, and multi-species crew. Although Uhura’s dialogue all too often was limited to opening hailing frequencies she was present on the bridge, on camera and visible. She was a capable officer who knew her job. She was a graduate of Starfleet Academy, and she demonstrated her capabilities not only in her own position but by staffing other bridge positions in crises.”
As actor LeVar Burton who played Chief Engineer Geordi LaForge of the USS Enterprise D on Star Trek: The Next Generation noted in an interview with Forbes,
“I started watching Star Trek in the 60s. I’m a big fan of Gene’s vision. It’s very inspiring, Gene’s vision of the future. Growing up Black in America, seeing, having Nichelle Nichols there, seeing that when the future comes, there’s a place for me. That was really important. I think people forget how important it is to see oneself represented in the popular culture growing up. Star Trek was a real positive portrayal of people of color in the future. I was really drawn to it…Nichelle certainly paved the way for all of us people of color in the Star Trek universe. She was the first. She is the grande dame. I love Nichelle.”
In a pinch, she proved to be quite capable at fending for herself, as was the case in the episode “Mirror, Mirror” when she, along with Kirk, McCoy, and Scotty were stranded in a mirror universe were the members of the crew were cruel tyrants. First she was able to not only repel the advances of that universe’s Sulu, but later distracts him from any alarms in the engine room to alert him to Scotty’s activities. Once the alarm ends, she goes back to being disinterested, pulls a knife on him when he tries to attack her and leaves the bridge. Later when a young lieutenant named Marlena Moreua pulls a phaser on them and threatens to kill them if they don’t take her with, Uhura is able to quickly disarm her.
She was also the crew member to offer more emotional insights to a problem, perhaps more so then McCoy. This was the case when the ship was overrun by Tribbles in the classic episode “Trouble with Tribbles”. Both McCoy and Spock saw them as nuisances as they depleted the crew’s resources, Spock, even saying that they gave nothing in return, reducing the Tribbles to parasites. Uhura however, said,
“Oh, but they do give us something, Mr. Spock. They give us love. Well, Cyrano Jones says that a tribble is the only love that money can buy.”
Much like Spock, Uhura was only known by one name, leaving and to wonder if the name in question as her first name or last name. Initially, the African female communications officer had been named “Sulu”, however, Desilu Producer Herb Solow pointed out to Gene Rodenberry that this sounded too much like “Zulu” and it could work against his plan to have a diverse crew. The name was kept and saved for George Takai’s character, while a new name was given to the female communications officer, Uhura, derived from the Swahili name “Uhuru” which means “Freedom” in Swahili.
Fans wouldn’t even get a solid answer as to whether or not Uhura was her first or last name until it was revealed in the 2009 reboot that her first name was “Nyota” which means “Star”. She had been often given this and other names in none canon books, but “Nyota” was the one approved by Gene Roddenberry himself for authorized source books. Thus, translated into English, her name means “Free Star”. A perfect name for a communications officer on a starship, that promotes among other things, freedom and peace.
At first glance, her role on the ship seems almost pointless. Every ship needs a captain and first officer, and an engineer is needed to keep the ship afloat. Other Star Trek shows and movies show how disastrous it might be if they do not have a doctor on board. On the Enterprise B on Star Trek Generations, for example, Captain John Harriman had to ruefully inform Kirk that they would not have a doctor on board until a few days, a regretful state when they had a ship full of refugees who desperately needed medical help. Later, in the series Star Trek: Voyager, the medical officer died when the ship was heavily damaged, causing them to become reliant on an Emergency Medical Hologram or EMH, who was mainly supposed to assist the chief medical officer. None of the other shows have an officer who specializes in the communications department.
However, a communications officer on a vessel serves a very necessary role. Looking at real life naval vessels, according to the US Navy’s website, a Communications Officer, or COMMO, must,
“The COMMO runs the Communications Department which sends and receives messages to and from other ships, aircraft and shore facilities via various sophisticated electronic equipment including computers, satellites, cryptographic devices, and high power transmitters and receivers.”
Due to her place on the bridge as the ship’s communication officer she is the one to begin opening channels and speaking with the alien races before they meet the captain. She is the one listening to everything over the course of the mission, even learning bits and pieces about the culture as she uses her skills as a linguist to decipher what the inhabitants might be saying. In fact in the Star Trek episode “Bread and Circuses” it was Uhura who was able to make a keen inside into the residents of the planet that Kirk and Spock missed. Spock felt it odd that these people claimed to worship a “sun god” as it was a primitive and superstitious form of worship, at least in comparison to the Roman pantheon that the ruling class of that world worshiped. Uhura interrupted their conversation, saying,
“I’m afraid you have it all wrong, Mr. Spock. All of you…I’ve been monitoring old style radio waves, heard them talk about this? Don’t you understand? Not the sun in the sky… the Son, the Son of God!”
Further, she also helps maintain communications between all levels of the ship. Scotty can’t tell Kirk that he can’t perform his impossible order without her aid. Kirk can’t decide to defy orders from Starfleet while resting in his quarters if Uhura doesn’t relay them to him first. As MarineInsight notes in an article about the times it is important for a ship’s deck to communicate with engineering,
“Moreover, everyone from the maritime industry know the fact that there is always a cold war between the engine and deck officers on every ship. It is often seen that officers and crew from each of the departments would try to prove that the ship cannot run without them; though everyone deep down knows that in order to allow the ship to sail efficiently none of the departments can do without each other and it’s all about teamwork on board…One of the most common and important operations wherein the deck and engine departments come together is the ship’s maneuvering. However, in order to ensure utmost safety of the ship, it is important that officers and crew members from each department shun their ego and maintain healthy communication not only during emergency situations but throughout all important ship operations.”
Lt. Uhura is the one who maintains this healthy communication for the Enterprise. The newer films show that as the chief communications officer on the ship,that there is an entire team of officers whose sole responsibility is relaying messages through but all levels and divisions of the ship. They also relay messages back to Starfleet and to other ships in space. It is then Uhura’s job to sift through the messages, and relay only the most important to the captain.
Further, when the ship is in distress she is the one to send out the signal. Much like the Engineers on the real life Titanic were the ones to do everything in their power to keep the ship afloat as long as they could, it was communications officer Jack Phillips who sent out the distress signal, asking or help for the dying vessel. He and Harold Bide stayed at their station until the power to the wireless radio had gone off, and Captain Smith had to urge them to leave the ship. When you are thousands of miles from home in a vessel, and you are running out of time, a dedicated communications officer is key to insuring that help arrives.
She is also the one who monitors and tracks the crew on their away missions. Scotty would be powerless to beam Kirk, Spock and Bones back from a hostile world without her aid. In “City on the Edge of Forever”, she actually accompanies Kirk and Spock to the Guardian of Forever and is the one to inform them that they have lost contact with the Enterprise, one of the fist hints that the time line has been changed.
Other times this caused some amusing moments with the crew. In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Sulu and Chekov were lost hiking in the mountains. Their shore leave was canceled due to a crisis brewing on the planet of galactic peace, the two were reluctant to admit that they could not get back to the predesignated coordinates, pretending that they were stranded in a blizzard.
Uhura informed them,
“My visual says …sunny skies and seventy degrees…Don’t worry, fellas. Your secret’s safe with me. I’ll send the shuttlecraft to pick you up.”
Among her other tasks as ships communications officer is to translate alien messages into English. Whether it’s an alien ship, or a space probe she is the one to tell Kirk what the new species that have come in contact with is trying to say. This was an area of controversy not only with fans but Nichelle Nichols when it came to translating Klingon in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The movie depicted her as being unable to speak the language, yet considering the Klingons were the enemy of the federation, it would have been necessary for someone to translate their language.
In the real world during World War II, both sides emoloyed the use of linguist to translate German into English and vice versa. This led the Allies to commissioning Navajo Windtalkers to help create codes that could not be cracked. As the CIA website says on the topic of the Windtalkers,
“In the heat of battle, it is of the utmost importance that messages are delivered and received as quickly as possible. It is even more crucial that these messages are encoded so the enemy does not know about plans in advance.”
Even nowadays the military employs the use of translators in countries in the Middle East to help communicate between them and the people the country. The role of a translator is crucial as if one word mistranslated it could mean life or death for the mission. A simple greeting could quickly become a horrible insult, if the linguist doesn’t know what they are doing.
Thus her message to the Klingons when they ask where their ship is from, where they are heading and what they are carrying ends up being “we are condemning food and supplies to the prison colony Rure Penthe.” It’s a comedic moment, one that gets a laugh out of the Klingon on the other end who is tired and presumably drunk, but feels out of character. To the credit of the newer movies, they establish that her field of study at the academy was xenolingusitcs, or alien languages, thus making her able to speak the Klingon language and decipher a hyperspace message from them.
Spock in the new timeline even says of her skills to Captain Christopher Pike when the nearly run into a trap,
“And Lieutenant Uhura is unmatched in xenolinguistics, we would be wise to accept her conclusion.”
She is also skilled in other tasks on the bridge. In the episode “The Naked Time” when Sulu and the ship’s helmsman are affected by a mind altering disease that reduces their inhibitions and Sulu is AWOL, and the helmsman begins showing the same symptoms, Spock relieves the helmsman of duty, and Uhura quickly takes the controls of the ship until another replacement can be brought up. Later, as she progressed in her career, she became skilled in operating the transporter , thus allowing her to assist Scotty. Later in Star Trek III: the Search for Spock, she was able to help get her crewmates back on the Enterprise to save Spock and McCoy, by signing up for the worst time of duty. She, like the rest of the crew new it was a risk, but to save their friends it was more than worth it. As part of Kirk’s plan, she took what some defined as the dullest duty at Old City Station, a relatively quiet hub, and during that hub’s late night shift, in order to allow Kirk and her friends to commander the ship.
This also meant she had to contend with the obnoxious lieutenant, known only in the script as “Mr. Adventure”. It is in this moment when she shows in the smallest way possible how indispensable she was to the crew. No matter what situation will arise, she can adapt quickly and help the crew get to where they need to go. When Kirk and the guys came into the station, the lieutenant was surprised, but it was Uhura who quickly handled the situation, telling him when he asks if she will do anything about it as there are no orders in place, and wonders if she lost all sense of reality,
“I am not going to do anything about it, but you’re going to sit in the closet…This isn’t reality. …This is fantasy. You wanted adventure? How’s this? The old adrenalin going? Good boy. Now get in the closet…Go on! Go On!…I’ll have ‘Mister Adventure’ eating out of my hand, sir. And I’ll see all of you at the rendezvous. Oh, and Admiral, …all my hopes.”
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TV SHOW: Pevney, Joseph “City on the Edge of Forever” William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle, Nichols, John Harmon, Hal Baylor, David L. Ross, John Winston, Bartell La Rue, and Joan Collins. Harlan Ellison (Writer). Original Aridate: April 6,1967. Desilu Productions/Paramount Television.
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TV SHOW: Senensky, Ralph “Bread and Circuses” Star Trek. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, William Smithers, Logan Ramsey, Ian Wolfe, Rhodes Reason, Lois Jewell, Max Kleven, and Bart La Rue. Gene L. Coon, and John Kneubuhl (Writers). Original Airdate: March 15, 1968. Desilu Productions/Paramount Television.
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1967 Paramount Pictures/CBS Studios/Desilu Productions.