A true icon and legend to generations of fans, actor, singer, dancer and activist Nichelle Nichols left this plane of existence on July 30, 2022. Nichols, of course, was best known for her portrayal of Lt. Nyota Uhura in all three seasons of Star Trek: The Original Series, the short-lived 1973 animated series, plus six feature films featuring the original show’s crew members.
Uhura’s station on the bridge of the Enterprise as communications officer was a breakthrough in American television for both women and African-Americans. A woman, let alone a woman of color, had never been situated in such a high-ranking position before, one of several ways in which Star Trek and Nichols broke new ground.
When Nichols decided to leave after the first season after getting an offer to do a Broadway play, she was convinced to stay on the show by no less than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, she recalled King saying, “For the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful, people who can sing, dance, and can go to space, who are professors, lawyers … If you leave, that door can be closed.”
Nichols did stay, and while Star Trek perhaps remained the crowning professional achievement of her life, she continued to act, sing, write and appear at conventions well into her later years. She also worked with NASA on a successful program to recruit minorities and women into the space program.
Uhura was undeniably an inspiration to millions and a beloved fixture in Star Trek lore. But the character was underused on The Original Series, often relegated to simply opening the hailing frequencies, occasionally screaming, and often reporting on communications failures. On the rare occasions she did get to do something more, her presence and grace was like a beam of pure light on a show that already lit up the imagination every week. Here are 10 examples of Uhura getting that chance to shine, and we’ll treasure them forever as her wonderful spirit heads into the undiscovered country.
“Charlie X” (Season 1, Episode 2)
While Uhura did get some brief business of her own in the first broadcast episode (“The Man Trap”), with a monstrous shapeshifter appearing to her as a member of her own nation, she got a chance to really stand out in this classic episode about a teenage boy who is unable to handle both his developing emotions and his massive reality-warping powers.
In one memorable sequence, Spock and Uhura entertain crew members in the recreation room, with Uhura singing along as Spock plays his Vulcan lute. Not only did the scene let Nichols show off her singing voice, but it established the respectful, playful – and slightly flirty – relationship between Uhura and Spock that was later developed as a full-blown romance in the Star Trek reboot movies.
“The Squire of Gothos” (Season 1, Episode 17)
Uhura doesn’t get a whole lot to do in this episode – in which a petulant superbeing toys with the crew of the Enterprise until his parents show up and scold him – but it at least gets her off the bridge for a few minutes. At one point, Trelane (William Campbell) transports the entire bridge crew down to his castle on the planet Gothos, where he gives Uhura the ability to play the harpsichord so that Trelane can dance with a female yeoman.
Uhura seems to actually having this newfound ability – cementing the character’s longstanding relationship with music – but she’s all business once Kirk (briefly) gets the upper hand on Trelane and manages to get the crew back to the ship.
“The Changeling” (Season 2, Episode 3)
When the psychopathic space probe Nomad comes aboard the Enterprise (a plot later reused in Star Trek: The Motion Picture), it hears Uhura singing and does not understand it, so it zaps her brain looking for information – wiping her memory and reverting her mind back to that of a child.
Since her mind has been erased, Uhura’s only memory is of speaking Swahili – and a linguist was reportedly brought to the set to write a few lines in the language for Nichols to say. She is shown recovering slowly in Sickbay, and we’re happy to report that she’s back to college level by the end of the episode – and apparently back to normal in time for the next episode and her big role there.
“Mirror, Mirror” (Season 2, Episode 4)
Regarded as one of the very best episodes of The Original Series, “Mirror, Mirror” finds Kirk, Scott, Uhura, and McCoy trapped in an alternate universe where the Federation is a savage tyranny and Starfleet officers move up in ran through brutality, genocide, assassination, and torture.
Uhura gets lots to do in this episode: she’s involved throughout with the plans to get back to “our” universe, she seduces and then spurns Sulu – on the bridge, no less – in an attempt to distract him at a crucial moment, and even gets a brief fight scene of her own against the “Captain’s Woman” (yeah, we know). As with other episodes that get her out of that damn chair, it’s great to see this trained officer in action.
“The Trouble with Tribbles” (Season 2, Episode 15)
Uhura had perhaps her biggest role ever in this classic episode about a species of furry little animals that breed like crazy and overrun the Enterprise. It is actually the communications officer who brings the first tribble on board the ship: she and Chekov are enjoying a little shore leave in a space station bar when she is presented with one by a traveling salesman who wants to promote his wares.
Uhura’s little pet subsequently begins to breed, and what happens from there is the basis of one of Trek’s most popular and iconic segments. Uhura is involved throughout, and in her foray to the space station, we actually get to see her act like a woman and a human being – not just a futuristic switchboard operator.
“The Gamesters of Triskelion” (Season 2, Episode 16)
Another (somewhat inexplicably) popular episode, this one finds Kirk, Uhura, and Chekov captured by a group of disembodied aliens called the Providers, who stage gladiatorial contests among various humanoid “Thralls” on their planet as a way to amuse themselves. Our three Starfleet officers of course resist their confinement and training, although they must eventually fight for their lives.
This one found Uhura again in the heart of the action, although both she and Chekov get to do considerably less fighting than good old Kirk (we wonder if Shatner counted the fight scenes). Uhura also must fend off an attempted rape by another Thrall, which fortunately occurs offscreen and which she is able to successfully beat back.
“The Tholian Web” (Season 3, Episode 9)
One of the better third season episodes finds Kirk trapped aboard a starship that has slipped into an interdimensional void, while the Enterprise must fend off an attack from an aggressive race called the Tholians as they wait for Kirk to re-emerge.
Not a lot of Uhura in this one besides her usual duties, but there is one striking scene late in the episode in which we see her in her quarters for the first time in civilian clothing – in this case, a long, flowing gown and ceremonial necklace. Nichols told author David Gerrold in his book The World of Star Trek that this was one of her favorite episodes: “I enjoyed anything that I was able to get out of uniform.”
“Plato’s Stepchildren” (Season 3, Episode 10)
It’s widely regarded as one of the worst Star Trek episodes, yet it contains a moment that stands tall in the history of television. A small band of depraved aliens with vast mental powers, who embrace classical Greek culture, submit Kirk and Spock to various forms of humiliation in order to keep Dr. McCoy from leaving after he saves their leader’s life.
At one point, Uhura and Nurse Chapel are transported down for further entertainment, resulting in a scene in which Kirk and Uhura kiss. The kiss is mentally imposed upon them by the aliens, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was one of the first kisses between a Black person and a white person on television (it was thought to be the first for some time, but that is not in fact the case; it was also not the first interracial kiss, as long stated, since other shows, even Star Trek itself, had featured kisses between whites and people of Asian or Latino ancestry).
In any case, it was almost certainly the first kiss of its kind (between Black and white) on American network television, a brave move indeed during the turbulent late ‘60s and a moment in which Nichelle Nichols played an essential part.
“The Lorelei Signal” (The Animated Series, Season 1, Episode 4)
Although Uhura was supposed to be fourth in command of the Enterprise, after Kirk, Spock, and Scotty, she was never shown doing so in the live-action show (indeed, Sulu and recurring redshirt Lt. Leslie even got to sit in the chair, but not Uhura!). That changed, however, in this animated series episode, in which a race of beautiful alien women lures the male members of the Enterprise crew to their planet, in order to drain their life force.
With the entire male crew incapacitated by the alien women, Uhura assumes command of the ship for the first time in its televised history as she and Nurse Chapel search for a way to free the men. According to Andy Mangels’ Star Trek: The Animated Series, Nichols reportedly exclaimed during the script’s table read, “What, you’re kidding? I actually get to run the Enterprise? Really?” Long overdue, madam.
“Once Upon a Planet” (The Animated Series, Season 1, Episode 9)
The animated series returns to the “amusement park” planet from the classic TOS entry “Shore Leave,” in which anything you desire can be made real for your entertainment. This time, however, the planet’s alien caretaker has died, and the planet’s massive computer is running things – and not doing a good job of it.
Uhura gets kidnapped by the computer at one point, and it’s up to her to try and talk some sense into it, albeit unsuccessfully. Not a great episode overall, but hey! It gets Nyota off the bridge again.
Star Trek: The Motion Pictures
In keeping with the TV series, Nichelle Nichols didn’t get a whole lot to do in the first three Star Trek feature films (she was even insultingly left behind as the others took off to save Spock in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock). But things got a little better in the back three of the original cast’s six films.
In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, she and Chekov must go on a mission to covertly board an aircraft carrier parked in San Francisco (and also called Enterprise) and borrow some energy from its nuclear reactor to recharge their stolen Klingon ship. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier finds Uhura – Nichelle Nichols not giving a shit and still bringing it in her mid-50s – doing a fan dance to distract some local morons on a backwater planet. That makes Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – Nichols’ final appearance as Uhura – a bit of a letdown, since she’s back at mostly communications, although she has a generally more primary presence on the bridge (and is at the awkward dinner with the Klingons).
Safe travels, dear lady, as you reach the final frontier.