Kick-Ass Women of SciFi & Fantasy: Lieutenant Nyota Uhura

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Sulu: “I’ll protect you, fair maiden.”
Uhura: “Sorry, neither.”

Let’s set the time machine for 1966. Gene Rodenberry’s iconic original series, Star Trek, airs for the first time featuring a 23rd Century Starfleet crew of black, white, female, male, Asian, Russian, Scottish, and alien members. Why was that such a big deal? Did I mention it was 1966, and that to have a woman, let alone a black woman, on T.V. with a cast of mostly white males was unheard of? Of course this decade would later be remembered for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership of the modern American Civil Rights Movement, as well as social strides in feminism. Rodenberry’s black woman of rank, Lt. Uhura, was a beacon of hope on both fronts.

As the ship’s communications officer, Uhura was fluent in many alien languages, scientifically astute, and proficient in the technical aspects of her station.  Because of her diverse talents, Uhura was also useful in the field, bravely accompanying the captain to strange, new planets in exploratory landing parties. Male officers, like Kirk and Spock, would ask her on numerous occasions for assistance with navigation, running the main science station, and even commanding the helm, just as they would any other competent officer. In other words, Uhura was treated like an equal. Gasp!

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Uhura: “I’m connecting the bypass circuit now, sir. It should take another half hour.”
Spock: “I can think of no one better equipped to handle it, Ms. Uhura. Please proceed.”

But my absolute favorite Uhura moment comes from “The Naked Time,” when Sulu, infected with the Psi2000 virus, tells Uhura “I’ll protect you, fair maiden.”

Facepalm.

Uhura replies, “Sorry, neither.”

What’s that?

Uhura

Uhura apologizes. She couldn’t hear you over the sound of how awesome she is.

Despite her inherent kick-assery , early on in the series Uhura’s role was being overshadowed by Kirk and Spock commanding the majority of story lines. One of Uhura’s most well-known quotes on the show was “Hailing frequencies open, sir.” After seeing the phrase so often repeated in the script, Nichelle Nichols said: “If I have to open hailing frequencies one more time, I’ll smash this goddamn console!”

It began to eat at her so much that she contemplated leaving the show, until a little known Trekkie by the name Martin Luther King Jr. convinced her to stay. Nichols said he encouraged her using these words: “I am the biggest Trekkie on the planet, and I am lieutenant Uhura’s most ardent fan.” King understood well the impact a black woman in a position of power on television could and would have.

In the episode “The Savage Curtain,”  Uhura was introduced to Abraham Lincoln. (Yeah, this kind of shit happens on Star Trek. Suspend your disbelief!) Upon meeting her he says, “What a charming negress,” and then realizes he may have offended her with his choice of words. “Oh, forgive me, my dear,” he says, “I know that in my time some used that term as a description of property.”

Uhura replies as always, with brilliance and eloquence: “But why should I object to that term, sir? You see, in our century we’ve learned not to fear words.”

Oh, Gene Rodenberry, thank you. For your imagined world was so much more peaceful, educated, and understanding than your real world at the time, or even the world now.

Of course, never being satisfied with pushing on the world what it should have readily accepted, Star Trek also chose to show the first interracial kiss between a white man and a black woman on a fictional American television program. The episode featured sadistic aliens, who had taken control of Kirk and Uhura, inflicting psychological torture by forcing them to kiss. After southern T.V. stations threatened not to air the episode, NBC wavered on their decision. In the end, did they go through with it?

You bet your ass they did.

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Okay so why is this all such a big deal? Why is Uhura a kick-ass woman of SciFi, and Nichols one of racial and gender equality?  If you think no one was paying attention, if you think no one was inspired, ask a little girl named Whoopi Goldberg what her reaction was to seeing Lt. Uhura on the bridge of The Enterprise for the first time.

Whoopi Goldberg asked Rodenberry for her role on Star Trek: The Next Generation. By the time it aired in 1987, she was already a well-known movie star on the big screen. The conversation between Rodenberry and Goldberg went like this:

“You’re a big screen star, why do you want to be on a little screen, why do you want to be in Star Trek?
“Well, it’s all Nichelle Nichols’s fault.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well when I was nine years old Star Trek came on. I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mom, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be, and I want to be on Star Trek.”

Rodenberry wrote Goldberg the role of Guinan, a wise and caring listener. But that’s a post for another day.

Today, J.J. Abrams’s vision of Star Trek has Zoe Saldana’s Uhura taking an even more active role on the team. She is seen here clearly intimidating the captain:

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“I sure hope you know what you’re doing, captain.” Her legacy continues.

Gene Rodenberry’s original vision was far ahead of its time, and we’re glad it was. Without doubt, every Scifi show or movie I write about from this point forward will have been influenced in part by Star Trek. Uhura sets the precedent for strong female characters in Science Fiction roles. Her charisma, and Rodenberry’s bravery to boldly go on television where no one had gone before, allowed gender and racial equality to fly, not crawl, into the future.

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