Nichelle Nichols


Communications have ceased for Star Trek trailblazer Nichelle Nichols at the age of 89. Now the inaugural crew is down to George Takei, Walter Koenig, and… William… Shatner. Nichols was primarily a musical theatre actress early in her career, and her ties to Gene Roddenberry predated the Enterprise – she guest starred in his short-lived creation The Lieutenant, and the two had an affair until she twigged Roddenberry was also in cahoots with his future wife Majel Barrett. For Star Trek, she was cast as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, the trusty translator and communications officer whose surname was adapted from the Swahili word for freedom.

Uhura was groundbreaking as one of the earliest black woman characters in a TV show to be a strong and capable non-stereotype. The character could have easily been played by a white woman, or even a man, with little fundamental alteration. It was an importance Nichols herself wasn’t fully aware of until meeting Martin Luther King, Jr. Nichols planned to return to her main love, musical theatre, after season one of Star Trek (and if Uhura suddenly disappeared, it could just be blamed on the red outfit…). Dr. King persuaded her of Uhura’s social importance, and Nichols changed course and stayed on the ship. Dr. King was vindicated – through Uhura, Nichols inspired subsequent black actresses including Whoopi Goldberg, and even astronaut Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space.

Throughout the series, Nichols let her musical roots shine by occasionally singing while Spock played his Vulcan lyre. Her most groundbreaking moment of all came in a season three episode. It was so unprecedented and daring that all the obituaries made sure to mention it. Yes, in “Plato’s Stepchildren”, she kissed William Shatner. (joke shamelessly stolen from Futurama…)

After the original series ended, Nichols reprised Uhura in other Star Trek media. She was (alongside George Takei) originally going to be excluded from the animated series, but Leonard Nimoy put his foot down and refused to reprise Spock unless Nichols and Takei were also signed on. Uhura commanded the Enterprise in one cartoon episode, which Nichols lamented not being able to do in the original series. She was present in the first six movies, where she helped search for Spock and rescue humpback whales, and had a brief romantic fling with Scotty.

Nichols’s legacy was as sturdy outside Star Trek as within it. She formed Women in Motion in 1975, initially a music educational programme that transformed into woman/minority astronaut recruitment with the help of a NASA grant. A phenomenal success, Sally Ride and first African American in space Guion Bluford were among its recruits. Uhura was such a defining character for Nichols that she rarely had roles in non-Trek media, though did appear in blaxploitation film Truck Turner and superhero drama series Heroes. Given Uhura’s importance and inspiration, Nichols embraced her fame being so intertwined with one character, and was a regular at the convention circuit for many years.

In 2018 Nichols was diagnosed with dementia, and in recent years she was the centre of a conservatorship battle between her manager and son ala Casey Kasem. Given the real life Scooby Doo episode that was Kasem’s final weeks, at least her manager didn’t take her to outer space to avoid the family. The media attention meant Nichols seemed a likely Drop 40 debutante, but was picked with lower frequency than anticipated – her 21 teams were the same number as Bernard Cribbins, and hopefully an omen for Bill Cosby. Among the teams that beam up are Captain Hemlock’s Twenty, Gris Gris, several geekery theme teams, several women former theme teams, and a joker hit for A Submarine Torpedoes and Sinks The Love Boat. Who presumably isn’t Reptile’s gang rival.

Nichelle Nichols
28 December 1932 – 30 July 2022, aged 89
21 TEAMS (💀💀💀💀💀💀 6 POINTS, 🃏 (x1) 12 POINTS)