It’s with a heavy heart that it must be reported that another Star Trek legend is no longer with us. Nichelle Nichols, who pioneered the groundbreaking role of Lt. Nyota Uhura in the original Star Trek passed away at the age of 89.
Nichols had suffered earlier a “mild stroke” in 2015, had health issues related to her advanced age, and according to her son Kyle Johnson, she died due to natural causes. These recent years mark a somber occasion for Star Trek fans since she is the fifth member of the original series to pass away, joining Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, and Grace Lee Whitney.
One of the most distinguishing aspects of the original series back in the revolutionary 1960s was the presence of a Black woman on a starship bridge and the fact that Lt. Uhura was a senior officer. Although her role was limited in a supporting capacity, Nichols was able to inflect competence, elegance and a quiet nobility that resonated with fans of all colors and persuasions. Many instantly recognized how groundbreaking her role since she had a prominent presence on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise. One of the original viewers turned out to be Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who met Nichols at one point and encouraged her to remain with the show because she expressed her frustrations with her role and was contemplating leaving Star Trek.
It turned out to be fortunate that she remained because as years passed her status among fans and critics grew and grew. Not only that but by staying with Star Trek through its short three seasons she cemented her place in television history by partaking in the first interracial kiss to air on TV. That episode as we all know was “Plato’s Stepchildren” where she shared a passionate season with her co-star William Shatner. Even though in that scene she admitted to being attracted to Captain Kirk, in real life she, as well as other castmembers, didn’t think highly of Shatner. But they were able to resolve their issues in later life.
Her work in Star Trek didn’t end with the cancellation of the series. She provided voice work in the animated Star Trek: The Animated Series and reprised her role of Uhura in the first six Star Trek films. Even though the amount of screen time was limited in those endeavors, she had a strong presence with some memorable moments, the best one being her scene in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock where she has to contend with a conceited young officer who thinks her time has passed.
More importantly, her contribution to Star Trek led to her being involved with NASA in a special project to help recruit minorities and women. Notable results of that project were the recruiting Dr. Sally Ride and Guion Bluford, the first American female astronaut and the first African-American astronaut, respectively. On Sept. 17, 2015, she flew on a NASA mission via a modified jet to accompany the SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy) telescope.
Nichols also appeared in other TV shows and films like Heroes, Snow Dogs, Batman: The Animated Series, Gargoyles, Futurama and Are We There Yet?
Regardless of the amount of screen time she had when playing Lt. Uhura saying her famous line “Hailing frequencies open”, her contribution as a Star Trek legend to Star Trek and society is something that will resonate through the ages and the stars.