Star Trek was a groundbreaking show when it premiered in 1966. It transformed the science fiction genre on television and helped establish the nature of fandom as we know it today. One of the most groundbreaking aspects of the show was the racial diversity and equality depicted among the crew of the Star Ship Enterprise. Communications officer Lieutenant Uhura was a major figure of that diversity.
Portrayed by Nichelle Nichols in Star Trek: The Original Series, Uhura was an unprecedented, visible black character not in a subservient position. She was a confident, capable, and complex human being, at least for the time.
In the show itself, Uhura was among the senior officers on the bridge and managed internal and external communications for the entire ship. Although she was mostly seen at her station, Uhura did get chances to participate in the thrilling adventures that the Enterprise has become most famous for.
There’s much more to know about Lieutenant Uhura than the groundbreaking nature of her role in entertainment. Nichols and Uhura’s legacy can be seen in the real world and she continues to be one of Star Trek’s most popular characters.
Open hailing frequencies and prepare to receive these 15 Things You Didn’t Know About Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura.
15. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. CONVINCED NICHOLS TO STAY IN THE ROLE
Nichols endured a considerable amount of racist harassment for her part in Star Trek. Her role as a main character and vital bridge officer were still unprecedented in television at the time.
She also wanted to pursue a career more focused in Broadway, and was frustrated that her role rarely included anything doing or saying anything more than “hailing frequencies open, sir.” After her first year in the part, she had decided to leave the show.
The day after she told Roddenberry her decision, Nichols appeared at a NAACP fund-raiser and was told that a big fan wanted to meet her. That fan turned out to be Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
He told Nichols that he was a huge fan of the show, and that he and his wife would let their children would stay up late to watch it. When Nichols mentioned her plans to leave, Dr. King said “you can’t. You’re part of history.”
He told her that she was playing a vital role model for black children and young women across the country and for other children as well, who would see black people being treated as equals. Nichols was convinced and continued playing the role in TV and films for 25 years.
14. HER FIRST NAME WASN’T SPOKEN ONSCREEN UNTIL STAR TREK (2009)
Even with Nyota being canonized as Uhura’s first name, it was never mentioned or spoken on screen in any show or film where Nichols played the role. Nyota was first spoken as Uhura’s first name in a Star Trek film in 2009’s Star Trek.
The film actually makes a running gag out of Uhura’s first name, echoing the fan speculation going all the way back to the Original Series. James Kirk isn’t even a cadet at Star Fleet Academy when he first meets Uhura at a local bar. She deliberately gives “Uhura” as her only name. Years later, Uhura declines to tell him her first name again when she catches him fooling around with her roommate.
13. HER GREATEST FEAR IS GROWING OLD
Just about every main character in every Star Trek show has fallen victim to the alien of the week, suffering some horrible physical or mental injury to show the audience how strange and dangerous the adventure has become.
Some afflictions have been particularly haunting. In the episode “And the Children Shall Lead”, the usual Enterprise away team encounters the mysteriously orphaned children of the Starnes Expedition. Kirk brings them back on the ship and they eventually summon their spirit friend Gorgan. He urges them to take control of the ship and subdue the crew with their psychic powers.
12. NICHOLS WAS ROMANTICALLY INVOLVED WITH RODDENBERRY
Nichelle Nichols released an autobiography in 1994 titled Beyond Uhura, Star Trek and Other Memories. In it she officially reveals that she and Gene Roddenberry were romantically involved for several years in the early 1960s.
According to Nichols, the relationship ended well before production on Star Trek began. Roddenberry went on to marry Majel Hudec, who would become famous among Trekkies as Majel Barrett Roddenberry, who played Nurse Chapel and Lwaxana Troi.
Nichols and Roddenberry remained close personally and professionally. Even before being cast in Star Trek, Nichols had a guest starring role on one episode of a TV show that Roddenberry produced called The Lieutenant.
Roddenberry also wrote some supplemental Star Trek material that described Uhura’s character; “Quick and intelligent, she is a highly efficient officer… and expert in all ships systems relating to communications.”
11. HER NAME ROUGHLY MEANS “STAR FREEDOM” IN SWAHILI
Gene Roddenberry and Nichelle Nichols collaborated on the name for the bridge communications officer of the Enterprise. Nichols and several of the casting associates had each been reading a 1962 novel by American author Robert Ruark titled Uhuru. “Uhuru” is a Swahili word for “freedom.” Roddenberry decided on the slight feminine modification “Uhura” to be the character’s given name.
“Nyota” is another Swahili word that means “star.” Nichols reportedly thought the full name was perfect for the character. Nyota Uhura isn’t the only main series communications officer whose name means “star” in a native language, however. The Enterprise NX-01 includes Lieutenant Hoshi Sato, whose first name also means “star” in Japanese.
The subject and canonicity of Uhura’s first name was a longstanding mystery to Trekkies. Even Roddenberry himself reportedly didn’t decide what Uhura’s first name should be while the series was in production.
10. SHE HAS INSPIRED SEVERAL REAL LIFE BLACK FEMALE FIGURES
Nichelle Nichols’ unprecedented role as a competent, equal black woman on television inspired several famous black women after her. Whoopi Goldberg became another black actress on a Star Trek TV show, after having been directly inspired by seeing Uhura in the Original Series.
In an interview published in Star Trek Monthly issue 56, Goldberg described her reaction to seeing Uhura on screen for the first time. Apparently she went throughout her house shouting: “I just saw a black woman on television; and she ain’t no maid!”
Uhura also inspired Mae Jemison who became the first African-American woman in space. While on missions, Jemison would begin her shifts by communicating to Mission Control in Houston that “hailing frequencies were open.”
9. OTHER ACTRESSES WERE CONSIDERED FOR THE PART
When Gene Roddenberry started working on Star Trek for NBC, a different pilot episode with an almost completely different cast was filmed called “The Cage”. The second pilot and the series proper was mostly recast with the characters and actors we know today. Leonard Nimoy as Spock was one of the only actors and characters to carry over.
Uhura’s character was among the last of the mains to be cast, only a few weeks before production began on the episode “The Corbomite Maneuver”. Nichelle Nichols was heavily favored by Roddenberry for the part.
However, some of the other actresses considered included Ena Hartman, Mittie Lawrence, and Gloria Calomee. While Nichols ultimately got the part of Uhura, Hartman, Lawrence and Calomee all had guest appearances in the early episodes as Enterprise crew members.
8. SHE WAS POPULAR ON THE ENTERPRISE FOR HER SINGING VOICE
Nichols sang and danced in several theatrical productions in her early career, including Porgy and Bess. As production of Star Trek continued, Nichols got to flex her singing voice in a few different episodes.
In the episode “Charlie X”, Spock, Uhura, and several crew members find themselves off duty in the crew lounge. Spock is playing his Vulcan lyre when Uhura decides to join in with a song called “Oh, on the Star Ship Enterprise“. It’s made to be such an important personal trait to her that the titular Charlie of the episode psychically extinguishes her voice as part of his selfish lashing out.
The 1967 Writers Guide for Star Trek season 2 also specifically mentions Uhura’s popularity due to her singing; “She is something of a favorite in the Recreation Room during off-duty hours too, because she sings – old ballads as well as the newer space ballads.”
7. NICHOLS LOVED ANY TIME SHE GOT TO LEAVE THE BRIDGE
As crucial as Uhura is to the operation of the Enterprise, she rarely– if ever– gets to move around the ship or go on away missions like Kirk, Spock, and Bones. She is most frequently seen manning her station on the bridge and reporting on any communications within the ship or with parties outside the ship.
Nichols’ frustration at the limited logistics of her role has become a bit of a running gag. In at least one interview, when asked which episode of the Original Series was her favorite, she said “any time Uhura got off the bridge.”
Uhura’s adventures beyond the bridge of the Enterprise were still memorable, if few and far between. In “Mirror, Mirror”, Uhura was one of the main crew members, along with Kirk, Bones, and Scotty, to be switched with their evil counterparts in the mirrorverse.
6. SHE GOT A STINT IN THE CAPTAIN’S CHAIR IN THE ANIMATED SERIES
Star Trek: The Animated Series told the stories of additional missions undertaken by the USS Enterprise during its five year journey. Most of the series regulars contributed their same voices to the portrayals of the animated characters, including Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura.
Although she continued in her usual role as chief communications officer, Uhura got to take command of the Enterprise during a few desperate situations.
In the episode “The Lorelei Signal”, the male crew members of the Enterprise are incapacitated by a “siren song” sent out by the all-female inhabitants of the Taurean system. Uhura is forced to take command and lead an all-female rescue party to find Kirk, Spock and Bones.
5. SHE WORE A YELLOW COMMAND UNIFORM IN SOME EARLY EPISODES
The original Star Trek series set the precedent for Star Fleet uniform colors and their significance. Although different main series would reassign these colors, the Original Series’ designations are most famous.
Yellow uniforms are worn by executive officers and department chiefs, including Kirk. Blue uniforms are for science officers, including Bones and Spock, while red uniforms are for officers involved in operating and manning the ship.
As a communications officer, Uhura is most commonly seen in a red uniform. However, in her first two episodes on the show, “The Corbomite Maneuver” and “Mudd’s Women”, her uniform was yellow.
For some reason Uhura was transferred from the command division to the operations division. She evidently retained her position on the bridge and became one of Captain Kirk’s most relied upon officers.
4. NICHELLE NICHOLS AND WILLIAM SHATNER FORCED NBC TO INCLUDE THE KISS
Star Trek was already making waves in the late ’60s for challenging societal and racial norms in media and entertainment. One particular episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren”, challenged the norms arguably more than any other Star Trek episode.
Regardless of the twisted context of the scene, this episode showed the first ever kiss between a fictional white man and black woman on American television.
According to Nichols in her autobiography, the NBC executives were very nervous about Southern TV stations refusing to air the interracial kiss. So they asked the crew to film two versions of the scene, one showing the kiss and one without it.
Nichols and Shatner shot the kissing version, and then deliberately flubbed every take of the non-kissing version. Shatner even comically crossed his eyes during the kiss for one take. NBC’s only choice was to use the version that included the kiss or cut the scene from some versions altogether. Nichols wrote that they finally decided “to hell with it. Let’s go with the kiss.”
3. SHE WAS SUPPOSED TO HAVE CAMEOS IN LATER STAR TREK SHOWS
Most of the Original Series main cast members went on to reprise their roles in later Star Trek TV shows and in cross overs. Leonard Nimoy, Deforest Kelly, and James Doohan all guest starred as Spock, Bones, and Scotty in The Next Generation.
William Shatner, Walter Koeni,g and Doohan starred as Kirk, Chekov, and Scotty in Star Trek: Generations. George Takei even had a guest starring role in one episode of Star Trek Voyager, “Flashback”.
Nichelle Nichols was the only Original Series mainstay who didn’t make any such cameos or guest appearances, though she was supposed to play Uhura in Generations as one of the former senior staff touring the new Enterprise in the beginning of the film.
Also, in the original script for VOY: “Flashback”, Uhura was supposed to contact Captain Sulu of the Excelsior about the trial for Kirk and McCoy. It’s not clear why neither of those further appearances came to be.
2. HER FIRST NAME WAS REVEALED AS NYOTA IN THE BOOK STAR TREK II BIOGRAPHIES
Neither Sulu nor Uhura’s first names were ever mentioned in the show itself. A few different Star Trek expanded universe sources have offered differing accounts of what Uhura’s first name actually was. In the early 1970s it was suggested that Lieutenant Uhura’s first name was Penda, but this was never confirmed.
The Star Trek RPG published by FASA in the 1980s had its own supposition. According to its sources, Uhura’s first name was Samara. This was at least a source for a first name, but the RPG was stricken from canon by Paramount Pictures.
They had revised Star Trek’s canon policies following the debut of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Nyota, the official first name of Uhura, was first established in 1982 by William Rostler in his book Star Trek II: Biographies. This was in direct collaboration with Roddenberry and Nichols.
1. SHE APPEARS IN THE MMO STAR TREK ONLINE
Star Trek has forayed into video games with some success, and currently boasts the massively-multiplayer-online RPG Star Trek: Online. Players can rise through the ranks of iconic factions from the series and command their own crew and ship. In 2016, to participate in the commemoration of the franchise’s 50th anniversary, STO released the expansion pack called Agents of Yesterday.
Agents of Yesterday introduces classic 23rd century ships and characters in a new campaign centered on preserving the timeline from disastrous revisions. Some of the Original Series cast provide new voice work as their classic characters, including Walter Koenig as Temporal Agent Pavel Chekov.
Uhura makes brief appearances throughout the campaign at her communications post, although her dialogue is comprised of reused archival lines from the Original Series.
Are there any other tidbits you can share about Star Trek‘s pioneering communications officer Uhura? Let us know in the comments.
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