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March 30, 2007
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"People who don't look like us see us for the first time as we should be seen, as equals." When Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura) wanted to leave Star Trek after the first season, she got a little nudge from a big fan.
posted by anotherpanacea (47 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
She also has the dubious honor of being the first African-American woman to air kiss a white guy on television. (Ugh, Shatnerlips.)
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:22 AM on March 30, 2007


Martin Luther King was a Trekkie?! I love it.

Now some Photoshop genius needs to create fake stills from MLK's lost guest appearance on Star Trek.
posted by LarryC at 7:28 AM on March 30, 2007


Very Cool.
posted by chunking express at 7:29 AM on March 30, 2007


I liked that she was the ship's communications officer, not just another yeo(wo)man. But hoo boy, did she ever do great things for that red velour minidress! I'd stand a dog watch in Crypto with her any...time...at...all.
posted by pax digita at 7:30 AM on March 30, 2007


I love the story, but I've heard it a million times before, including from Nichols herself in person. When I saw the FPP, I thought someone had somehow unearthed home video footage of the actual meeting between Nichols and King, which sadly does not appear to be the case.

Incidentally, my other favorite Nichelle Nichols anecdote is about the little black girl, circa 1966 or 1967, who saw Uhura and went running to her mother, happily shouting, "Mama, mama! There's a colored lady on TV and she's not a maid!"

That girl, of course, was Whoopi Goldberg.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:34 AM on March 30, 2007 [5 favorites]


She's often given pretty short shrift, but a) given that this was the 60s and she was both black AND female, I'd say she had a lot of power and b) ISTR she did order people around in an episode or two.
posted by DU at 7:34 AM on March 30, 2007


what a great speech!
posted by parmanparman at 7:37 AM on March 30, 2007


I remember reading that the network liked the idea for Star Trek but suggested to Roddenberry something to the effect of, "could we make it all American, white and male? And lose the guy with the ears?"
posted by octothorpe at 7:41 AM on March 30, 2007


Very cool story.
posted by danb at 7:43 AM on March 30, 2007


For whatever reason, Nichelle Nichols' 'Uhura' always struck me as the most human character in the original series. I like various other characters. For Uhura, I hold a warmer feeling. And, pardon me, it has nothing to do with her curves, being as I only go for males.

I've never heard this story before, nor the one about Whoopi. Thanks very much for posting this.
posted by Goofyy at 7:50 AM on March 30, 2007


For whatever reason, Nichelle Nichols' 'Uhura' always struck me as the most human character in the original series.

I think it may be because she didn't really have a stereotype to play to, just quietly against. Spock was Logical Guy, Chekov was Russian Guy, bones was Intense Doctor Guy. Uhura wasn't playing Sassy Black Woman, so she was left playing, well, Uhura. Just a dignified, confident woman (if occasionally prone to vaseline-lens swooning for plot purposes).

Sulu likewise, I think; he wasn't playing Inscrutible Asian Guy or anything like that, so it was mostly just Sulu. Except when he took his shirt off, when it was Hellooooo Sulu.
posted by cortex at 7:58 AM on March 30, 2007 [5 favorites]


Re: "I'd say she had a lot of power and b) ISTR she did order people around in an episode or two."

And nowhere more so than in the "Mirror, Mirror" episode where she distracted Helmsman Sulu's evil doppelganger with some remarkable teasing come-on, only to whip a dagger out of a holster positioned high on her thigh (*eep*) once the purpose of the distraction had been achieved, and slash it across his face as a warning.

(Excuse me, I have to go towel off now.)
posted by Mike D at 8:10 AM on March 30, 2007


It's a little known fact that Walter Koenig also considered leaving the show after the first season. But then one day a short mustachioed man walked up to him and said, "Shut up your mouth! What gives with you? You must stay on show! You are showing children that we are not just two dimensional characters! Is deal?"

That short mustachioed man? Boris Badenov.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:17 AM on March 30, 2007 [10 favorites]


A canadian jew as an american Captain, a gay asian flying that thing and a black person on da phone ... that's science fiction!
posted by homodigitalis at 8:31 AM on March 30, 2007 [2 favorites]


Sulu likewise, I think; he wasn't playing Inscrutible Asian Guy or anything like that, so it was mostly just Sulu.

There was an interview with George Takei in one of the Star Trek DVDs, where he was talking about how some of that that was a conscious decision on his part.

In the episode "The Naked Time," when he goes nuts and starts running around with a sword, he was originally supposed to have a katana -- crazy Asian guy running around with crazy Asian sword. So he pointed out to the producers that as a kid growing up in America, he'd always watched stuff like The Three Musketeers a lot more than samurai movies; could he instead use a fencing foil?

The producers were like, "Do you actually know how to fence?" and he said, "Of course! It's one of my favorite hobbies!" so they agreed.

He then had a week to start learning how to fence.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:32 AM on March 30, 2007 [2 favorites]


I remember reading that the network liked the idea for Star Trek but suggested to Roddenberry something to the effect of, "could we make it all American, white and male? And lose the guy with the ears?"

As Roddenberry told it, the network told him he could either keep the guy with the ears or the female first officer.
posted by EarBucket at 8:34 AM on March 30, 2007


She's often given pretty short shrift

DU: Agreed. I think Pax Digita pretty much said it all with, "hoo boy, did she ever do great things for that red velour minidress!"
posted by honest knave at 8:52 AM on March 30, 2007


I bet her shoulders were killing her by the second season. With Kirk always grabbing the chicks by the shoulders like they were a periscopes or something.
posted by tkchrist at 8:58 AM on March 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


Actually, I recall that the 60's were better for black females actresses than the 70's. The ubiquitous "black woman judge" became a cliche on TV; sort of like they were tossing such actresses these 3-second cameos to make up for the lack of dignified roles elsewhere.

Re: Uhura ... I've heard that story many times as well and -- though I don't doubt that MLK Jr. was a fan -- I have trouble imaging anyone with a gig like that thinking of "quitting". I'm a bit dubious, but it's a nice story.
posted by RavinDave at 9:12 AM on March 30, 2007


tkchrist: that's the surprising thing about MLK's comment, although I suppose it's the nature of the television industry. Looking back at the show (which I only know from reruns), it seems very far from a model of gender equality, because (per my comment above), it relies on an sexual objectification of women, though at the time it must have felt like a great advancement.

Hmm. I suppose that even a token equality would, at the time, have seemed priceless, but Ohura was also depicted with skill, competence, and power, as has been noted.
posted by honest knave at 9:14 AM on March 30, 2007


I'd read a brief reminiscence of Nichols' that echoes my own at the idea of women (and minorities) in officer roles; I'd forgotten about Majel Barrett playing "Number One" (no actual name given, apparently) in the pilot episode "The Cage" which got wrapped up in the two-parter about Capt. Christopher Pike.

Barrett is said to have been cast as Number One in part because of her romantic involvement with Roddenberry. The mere idea of having an otherwise unknown woman, in a leading role, with a position authority, because she was his girlfriend, is said to have infuriated NBC network executives who insisted that Roddenberry give the role to a man.
posted by pax digita at 9:24 AM on March 30, 2007


"Mama, mama! There's a colored lady on TV and she's not a maid!"

But she IS the receptionist. I always thought that was a little short of progressive.

I was watching reruns as a kid in the early 80s. Maybe black women hadn't gotten even as far as the bottom role in the front office when Trek aired.
posted by damehex at 9:41 AM on March 30, 2007


uhura: she knew her place.
posted by quonsar at 10:05 AM on March 30, 2007


RavinDave: "I have trouble imaging anyone with a gig like that thinking of "quitting". I'm a bit dubious, but it's a nice story."

"Gig like that"? You mean low ratings, low advertising revenues, and pre-emption by Jack Benny specials? I agree, why would anyone leave?
posted by Plutor at 10:29 AM on March 30, 2007


If you just came from playing "Ruana" on Tarzan, I imagine you'd be hesitant to leave, Plutor.
posted by RavinDave at 10:32 AM on March 30, 2007


I always understood that the original Star Trek didn't really become popular/profitable until after it went into syndication. Otherwise it would've gone on a hell of a lot longer than 3 seasons, I'd imagine.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:34 AM on March 30, 2007


RavinDave: "If you just came from playing "Ruana" on Tarzan, I imagine you'd be hesitant to leave, Plutor."

Not if by "leave" you meant leave TV altogether and return to stage theater, which, according to her description of the situation (in the video) was her intent.
posted by Plutor at 10:43 AM on March 30, 2007


This was in mental_floss a few months ago, in an article called "TV Shows that (Actually) Changed the World" or something.
posted by nathancaswell at 11:09 AM on March 30, 2007


is there any truth the claim that roddenberry was plowing nichols too?
posted by keswick at 11:13 AM on March 30, 2007


I'm Saving Myself for Nichelle Nichols.

"A canadian jew as an american Captain, a gay asian flying that thing and a black person on da phone ... that's science fiction!"

Shame it's gonna take us another, what, 300 years to get there?
posted by klangklangston at 11:15 AM on March 30, 2007


Now some Photoshop genius needs to create fake stills from MLK's lost guest appearance on Star Trek.

"I have a dream that one day little human boys and little human girls will one day join hands with little Klingon boys and little Klingon girls..."

(I kind of wonder if Chekhov had a similar, if subtler, impact. After all, in 1966 the Russians were still THE RUSSIANS, and on Star Trek, here was a Rooski shown as a trusted ally. Wonder if that planted a seed, or maybe people just assumed that the US had won the cold war by that point. at any rate, it's interesting).
posted by jonmc at 11:15 AM on March 30, 2007


I think Nichols said in her autobiography that Rodenburry and her had an affair at some point in time. Though people say all sorts of shit in their autobiographies. I also might have read that on WikiPedia, which means its probably not true -- unless you want it to be.
posted by chunking express at 11:19 AM on March 30, 2007


I had heard the story before, but it was great to see her tell it. Choked me up a little, actually.
posted by languagehat at 11:23 AM on March 30, 2007


Re: Uhura ... I've heard that story many times as well and -- though I don't doubt that MLK Jr. was a fan -- I have trouble imaging anyone with a gig like that thinking of "quitting". I'm a bit dubious, but it's a nice story.

unlike the rest of the cast, nichols wasn't on contract. her daily pay was not too bad, but it was a crappy way the show kept her down. from what i read, nichols was ready to quit when she discovered that the show was withholding her fan mail. her conversation with MLK was shortly afterwards.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 11:50 AM on March 30, 2007


"ISTR she did order people around in an episode or two."

In one of the animated episodes, "The Lorelei Signal," she actually takes command of the Enterprise, with Chapel as her second, when all the male crew are incapacitated and unable to function. She then leads an all-female landing party down to the planet where Kirk, Spock and team are in the clutches of the female rulers of the planet, and commence to kick ass and rescue the men - with phaser fire and everything.

Totally badass. I thought that was just awesome, at 8 years old in 1973. :)

Note that had there been no women on board the Enterprise, the ship would have been lost at this planet and never heard from again. This not-so-subtle message was not lost on me even at that age.

According to the linked Wikipedia article, Ms. Nichols calls this her favorite Trek episode.
posted by zoogleplex at 12:00 PM on March 30, 2007


Another interesting and ironic bit of trivia: Nichelle's brother, Thomas Nichols, was a member of the Heaven's Gate cult that committed suicide en masse in order to take a trip on a Star Trek style spaceship.
posted by jonp72 at 12:08 PM on March 30, 2007


I'm amazed she lasted as long as she did, wearing that red uniform.
posted by bardic at 3:24 PM on March 30, 2007


I had quite the crush on her, back in the day. Along with Diana Rigg, of course.
posted by tommasz at 3:33 PM on March 30, 2007


It's a little known fact that Walter Koenig also considered leaving the show after the first season.

Ha! He wasn't even hired until the second season (Amok Time). No Trek points for miss lynnster.

Maybe black women hadn't gotten even as far as the bottom role in the front office when Trek aired.

I am pretty sure that they had, in fact. Hollywood was pretty liberal, even in those days, and drew from a pretty diverse urban population. But the networks knew what Middle America would accept in terms of roles. Really, it wasn't until a decade later that things began to diversify for actors of color.

is there any truth the claim that roddenberry was plowing nichols too?

If you're at all familiar with the (now voluminous) documentation of the making of TOS, Roddenberry was responsible for laying pipe all over the studio lot. Majel when he was still with his first wife, Nichols while he was openly dating Majel, and even some secretary according to Shatner. Shagadelic, baby.
posted by dhartung at 4:12 PM on March 30, 2007


>It's a little known fact that Walter Koenig also considered leaving the show after the first season.

Ha! He wasn't even hired until the second season (Amok Time). No Trek points for miss lynnster.


Nonsense! If what you say is true, he couldn't possibly have considered leaving the show until after the first season. QED.
posted by cortex at 4:17 PM on March 30, 2007


But she IS the receptionist. I always thought that was a little short of progressive.

I double dare you to go up to a naval comms officer and call them a receptionist. I'll even help you pick up teeth afterwards.
posted by Sparx at 4:57 PM on March 30, 2007


dhartung... wasn't going for "Trek points." Did you actually READ my comment?
posted by miss lynnster at 5:25 PM on March 30, 2007


They gave her a reasonable number of things to do in which she shows initiative. Apart from the above-mentioned unforgettable scene in "Mirror Mirror", there's also the bit in "I, Mudd" where she convinces the androids that she's betraying the crew because she wants to be made immortal.

And I like the fact that her race is never mentioned, except, as far as I can remember, by an atavistic alien ("The Squire of Gothos") and something pretending to be Abraham Lincoln in the third season stinker "The Savage Curtain".
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:59 PM on March 30, 2007


Uhura has a great line in "The Naked Time" that plays off her skin color. Sulu (as described by Greg Nog above) is swashbuckling around the ship with his fencing foil. He grabs Uhura, saying, "I'll protect you, fair maiden!" She replies, "Sorry, neither," and asserts herself right out of his grasp.
posted by drdanger at 6:31 PM on March 30, 2007 [2 favorites]


I think Nichols was denied a hotel room in Salt Lake City, while Mormons still considered blacks to have the 'Mark of Cain.'

'Star Trek' was definitely ahead of its time.
posted by toma at 9:01 PM on March 30, 2007


Oh, miss lynnster, you're no fun after all.

A small side point: the remake of Battlestar Galactica was criticized by some fans for having Dee Dualla as communications officer and the only person of color (with lines) in CIC, that is, "another Uhura". There are women pilots on that show, of course, and numerous smaller roles for blacks, but even with Grace Park in a major role it's surprising that the original BSG did a bit better (with two black officers as regulars).

Also interesting, considering BSG's overall quality, is that somewhat like Trek, it imagines that racial lines do not as a practical matter exist. I don't want to say this is unrealistic, but it's interesting that it's never been brought up although I'm not up to date on S3. The miniseries kiss between Dee and Billy could be seen as a recapitulation of the Uhura-Kirk kiss, a way to seize that high ground and say "we're just getting started". Generally Trek, especially TNG in certain respects but starting with TOS, was seen as creating an idealized future for humanity, with Roddenberry's insistence on unflawed characters representing hope leading to at times hopeless choices for the writers.
posted by dhartung at 2:02 AM on March 31, 2007


Oh okay, you were kidding. See... hard to tell sometimes with all of these people floating around the world.
posted by miss lynnster at 9:50 AM on March 31, 2007


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