s”Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before”.
We’ve probably all heard these famous words at some point in our lives. They are iconic. Best read by the one and only Leonard Nimoy (Mr Spock), if you ask me. Star Trek is one of the most enduring sci-fi franchises of all time. Beginning with the original series in the mid-1960s, it has seen six different television shows, (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager etc.) and ten feature films. Far from exhausted, it was rebooted in 2009, with three recent films starring Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto. There have been comic books and novels too. It’s safe to say that in 1966 when Gene Roddenberry’s creation was first presented to the American public, one of the most beloved and far-reaching fictional worlds of all time was born. More than fifty years later, nerds like me are still going to comic and science fiction conventions dressed as Roddenberry’s legendary characters.
Star Trek serves its’ purpose as entertainment without doubt. It is, however, extremely interesting on a historical level. As a student of American history, I am fascinated by it. Popular Culture is always of historical importance – it can tell us many things about the world and its’ people at any given time. This is particularly true in American history. Star Trek: The Original Series aired from 1966 to 1969, during one of the most interesting, tumultuous decades America had yet experienced. During the 1960s, the U.S. was engaged in the Cold War with her Communist foes, the Soviet Union and her allies. Some of the most dangerous incidents of the Cold War – the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U2 Spy Plane Incident, the B-59 Submarine incident – occurred during this decade, as America tried to prevent the spread of Communist ideology in various parts of the world. The Soviet Union and China were America’s biggest enemies, throughout this period of history. It is interesting, then, that at the helm of the U.S.S. Enterprise, we find a Russian – Pavel Chekov. His colleague, Hikaru Sulu, is Asian – also an interesting choice of ethnicity for a character aboard what is essentially an American ship (the Federation may not be American but let’s face it, as an American made and aired show it is portrayed that way). Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek‘s creator) did not specify what nationality Sulu was; only that he was Asian. At the same time as Cold War worries were playing out on both the domestic and international stages, the U.S. experienced turmoil at home in the form of the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement. African Americans and women fought for equal rights and liberties they did not have at the start of the 1960s. It is also interesting, then, that the U.S.S. Enterprise should have a black woman manning her communications system on the bridge. Lieutenant Nyota Uhura is a point of historical brilliance and inspiration to me. Her character represents a watershed in African American history, and the actress who plays her will forever remain a heroine for doing so.
(Pavel Andreievich Chekov and Hikaru Sulu at the controls of the U.S.S. Enterprise)
If you are ever stuck for something to read, I thoroughly recommend Nichelle Nichols’ biography (Beyond Uhura). Most people know this lady as Lieutenant Uhura, but she had a very colorful life before she ever encountered a Star Trek script. Her grandfather (Samuel) was the son of a plantation owner, who also owned four hundred slaves. Her grandmother (Lydia) was born to a family of ex-slaves. The two married, and were disowned by Samuel’s wealthy family because of Lydia’s heritage. Nichols grew up in a racially integrated family, which she says was shaped over three generations by the “same so-called futuristic concepts of racial equality” that Gene Roddenberry put forward in Star Trek (Beyond Uhura, p. 14). In the 1960s, racial equality certainly would have seemed futuristic in the U.S. Though her family might have been racially integrated, and happy that way, it would be a long time before her country caught up. It was in the 1960s that the U.S. instituted desegregation – before they did so, African Americans were forced to use separate public facilities to their white fellow countrymen. Nichols’ career was initially in music and theater, but when Gene Roddenberry approached her and asked her to play Uhura on the original series, it was certainly out of the ordinary.
(Nichelle Nichols was a talented singer and dancer before Star Trek)
In case you don’t know who Uhura is, I’ll nerd it up for you. ‘The Great Communicator’ (The Star Trek Book), she is the chief communications officer on the U.S.S. Enterprise. A talented linguist, she is responsible for interacting with new species and is therefore very important to the Enterprise’s mission. Uhura is technologically proficient, and can carry out complex repairs on the communications system, and is capable of manning different stations on the bridge when the need arises. Uhura was the first black character in an American TV drama who did not need to be black. In most TV shows of the time, black actors were restricted to playing slaves, servants, housemaids and criminals. Uhura could have been played by anyone, and the fact that she was black made her a strong role model. She appeared on TV every week, performing what was clearly a high powered job, in a position that in any other show would have been filled by a man, or at the very least, a white woman. At Gene Roddenberry’s funeral, Whoopi Goldberg said that she had seen in Lieutenant Uhura “the only vision of Black people in the future” (Beyond Uhura, p. 13). Nichelle Nichols did encounter racist behaviour – not from her co-actors, but from the superiors at the network which aired Star Trek. They even withheld her fan mail. Half-way through season one, she wanted to leave, and none other than Martin Luther King told her that she had to stay, because she was an inspiration to African Americans.
(Martin Luther King convinced Nichelle Nichols to stay on Star Trek)
Of all the characters on Star Trek, Uhura is, in my opinion, the one who most fulfilled the mission of the Enterprise – she truly went where no-one like her had gone before. The first African American in such a role, she was also the first black character on US TV to be seen sharing an interracial kiss with a white man – in season three (Plato’s Stepchildren), she and Captain Kirk kissed – a very big deal for TV in the 1960s. It would have to be Kirk. Interestingly (and also infuriatingly), as the kiss was filmed, NBC executives stood on the sidelines, trying to make sure that Nichols and William Shatner (Kirk) didn’t actually kiss – they wanted to use clever camera angles to make it look like it had happened, but prevent the real thing. Nichols was, once again, a victim of what she called “simply and clearly racism standing in the door… in suits” (Set Phasers to Stun, p. 128). I admire Martin Luther King for realizing the importance of Nichelle Nichols’ role on Star Trek, but I admire Nichols more for sticking it out on the show. Nichols says that after this episode, Star Trek received one of the largest batches of fan mail ever. She later became the first African American to place her hand prints in front of Hollywood’s famous Chinese Theater.
(Lieutenant Uhura and Captain Kirk share the first interracial kiss on US television in the 1960s)
Nichelle Nichols’ career was truly groundbreaking. Not only was she a pioneer for African Americans, but also for another group fighting for equal rights in the 1960s – women. Her incredible strength of will and huge personality shine through her character on screen, but she is also wonderful herself. She says in her auto-biography that she “never accepted the prevailing notion that girls were supposed to stay close to home and learn to cook and clean. It was so unfair – it made me furious” (Beyond Uhura, p. 31). Though Uhura is a bit of a frustrating paradox, in that her purpose on Star Trek was largely to decorate the bridge, she still fared much better than most female supporting characters on television in the 1960s, 1970s and even the 1980s. I personally think that the way she brought sass, self-confidence and independence to her character makes her attractive for more than just the figure hugging, dangerously short uniform she is so famous for wearing in the Original Series. Off screen, Nichelle Nichols must be commended and admired for her work in continuing to advance the causes of both African Americans and women. She is particularly proud of her work with NASA.
Working on a project with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Nichols used her fame to help boost recruits from minority groups. The project was a major success. Apparently I am not the only person to be incredibly inspired by Lieutenant Uhura. Nichols was responsible for the recruitment of Dr. Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut, and U.S. Air Force Colonel Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut. Then the mold was really broken when Dr Mae C Jemison joined NASA, as their first African-American, female astronaut. Dr Jemison was, reportedly, a huge Star Trek fan. I can only imagine what it’s like for a huge Star Trek fan to actually go into space.
(Dr Mae Jemison, NASA’s first African-American, female astronaut)
Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, was an idealist. He wrote into all of his characters a message about humankind’s power to shape its future. He chose Uhura to embody humankind’s greatest values, and his vision of racial integration, equality and world harmony in Star Trek stems from his dream of the future, in which “humankind’s propensity for hatred and intolerance” would be nothing more than a memory (Beyond Uhura, p. 15). Sadly, this “propensity for hatred and intolerance” is still much more than just a memory, but it’s people like Nichelle Nichols that stand up to such unsavoury behavior. I cannot imagine what it is like to go to work every day and know that your boss is going to do everything he can to make sure you are subjugated and separate from those who you long to be equal with. I’m glad that I don’t know what that is like. I’m also in awe of those who, like Nichelle, didn’t let it stop them, and indeed, managed to do much good in the face of it. She trailblazed her way through the 1960s and 1970s, drawing attention to the plight of those fighting for the simple principles that her country was founded on – freedom and equality. I had the honour of meeting this lady in May this year, and she made me laugh so hard I wished I had my inhaler. She has retained her sass (when someone asked her if she still sang, she responded indignantly, “of course I still sing!” and burst into song, and then slapped someone for making too much noise whilst she was trying to talk to me), and remains a beautiful, shining example of all that is strong and good in this broken world. In Star Trek, Uhura was born in Africa. Her name in her native Swahili means ‘freedom’. I can think of no better name for her.