We’ve lost another member of the original Star Trek crew. Nichelle Nichols died in her sleep over the weekend at the age of 89.
It’s impossible to overstate what a huge influence Nichols was, initially just by her presence on the bridge of the Enterprise as an officer working alongside the white folks (and the aliens) at the height of Civil Rights unrest — a role so important that no less a personage than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. his own self convinced her to stick with the role when she thought about leaving the show to join a Broadway play.
After Trek, she leveraged her status as a Trek actor to recruit more women and people of color to NASA. Growing up seeing her on the Enterprise was a huge inspiration for so many, from Whoopi Goldberg to Dr. Mae Jemison.
She brought a tremendous dignity to the role of Uhura, who came across as an amazing person even though the part was (as was typical for supporting TV roles in the 1960s) pretty underwritten.
And every time she went to conventions — from the first Trek conventions in the early 1970s all the way to her farewell tour in 2019 — she was always friendly, always outgoing, always happy to see everyone who came to see her.
Usually when people remember Uhura’s great moments onscreen they mention “Sorry, neither” in “The Naked Time” or her serenading Spock in “Charlie X” or confronting “Mr. Adventure” in The Search for Spock. But my favorite bit of hers is in “Space Seed.” From my rewatch of the episode on Tor.com in 2015: “Khan orders Uhura to operate the viewscreen so they can see Kirk being tortured. She refuses, so Joaquin drags her forcibly to the console. She still refuses, so Joaquin belts her. She still refuses so Joaquin moves to belt her again, and she stands up to show that it won’t work a second time either. … The look on Uhura’s face after the first slap is priceless, and just Nichols’s eyes alone tell you that the strike had the opposite of the desired effect.”
One of my favorite stories I heard Nichols tell at a convention was at Shore Leave one year. The night before Jemison was going to go into space — the first woman of color to do so — Nichols called Cape Canaveral to wish her well. But the people at Canaveral kept transferring her around to other people because everyone there wanted to nerd out and talk to Lieutenant Uhura. (I worked that anecdote into my story “What You Can Become Tomorrow” in Three Time Travelers Walk Into…, with Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician, telling that story to her husband.)
She was an inspiration, she was a joy, she was amazing. The world was a better place because she was in it and it’s a lesser place without her.
Rest in peace, great lady.