Nichelle Nichols, the original Star Trek Lieutenant Uhura, is dead, of natural causes. She was 89 years old.
One by one the old stars are going out -- Bones, Scotty, Spock, and now Uhura. They live on now only in legend. May that legend shine forever.
I first encountered Star Trek in reruns; before then I'd been too busy with studies and politics -- which included applying the Civil Rights Act -- to notice anything as trivial as TV programs. I'd heard of Trek, of course -- everybody had: a well-written, really adult Science Fiction series that took on real, adult subjects -- but in the crush of graduate courses and actively supporting the cleaning out of the old Jim Crow laws, I just hadn't had time to go take a look at it until its first run was over and its fans were agitating to bring it back. I managed to see my first episode -- "The Mark of Gideon", about overpopulation -- during the summer, when classes had ended, and right from then I became a fan.
I saw right away that the ensemble cast fell into two general ranks: Kirk, Spock and McCoy, who got the majority of scenes and lines -- and Scott, Chekov, Sulu and Uhura, who at least got lines in every episode. Uhura, as the communications officer, mostly transmitted messages and served to connect scenes and characters, but she did it with a noticeable flair that always made even the most trivial of the messages important. Besides, the concept of a woman, and a Black one at that, being a Bridge Officer was new and notable then. In at least one episode she even took the conn, which put her in command of the entire ship, and none of the other characters acted as if this was at all unusual. The fact that she was also a stunning beauty, but seemed to ignore it when at work, added to the effect; this was a mature, egalitarian society, capable of taking on the whole galaxy.
The major appeal of Star Trek is that it was the first piece of public art in nearly two generations which showed us a future we could believe in, and would strive to reach.
That was enough to make us overlook the occasional lapses into cultural cliches. That famous first interracial kiss on TV happened during an otherwise forgettable episode called "Plato's Children" -- which I can only assume was written by someone who had suffered miserably through a Philosophy course in school, and ever afterward hated Plato. Kirk and Uhura were forced into that kiss by a band of telekinetic aliens, which rather lessened the impact, and Uhura's other lines mostly consisted of: "Captain, I'm so frightened." The guest stars got more pivotal roles in that one.
Nonetheless, that episode and that kiss did change the world. I recall that one of the storm of letters that came to the studio afterwards claimed: "I live in the South and I've always believed in separation of the races, but I can't believe that any red-blooded American boy would pass up a chance to kiss such a gorgeous creature as Lt. Uhura." The rest of the entertainment industry concurred, and there was no trouble about interracial kisses, or other relationships, thereafter.
In other episodes she had short but memorable scenes. In "I, Mudd" Uhura did a fine job of tricking the alien androids into thinking she wanted an android body for herself, thus distracting them from the officers' real escape plot. In "Mirror, Mirror" she did an equally fine job of distracting the alternate-universe Sulu from noticing Kirk's escape plot. In "Gamesters of Triskelion" she acquitted herself well in arena-combat with alien gladiators. In two or three episodes she climbed into the guts of the ship and did competent engineering work. In others she showed off, if briefly, her fine singing voice. Not just the script-writers but Nichelle Nichols herself made Uhura into a fully-rounded character and an important member of the crew. This was a vital feature in Star Trek's effect on society at large.
After the show ended, Nichols also made promotional films for NASA, encouraging young women and Blacks to join the space program, which encouraged Sally Ride and Guy Bluford to do exactly that. She continued to be an activist for social equality and for the space program all her life, through more movies and celebrity events, until slowed down by advancing age. She became a spokesman for NASA and an advocate for STEM studies in the schools, She became the first Black American to put hr handprints in front of Hollywood's Graumann's Chinese Theatre. And all of it was rooted in that first iconic role in Star Trek, which launched so much more than its first producers could have imagined.
Rest in glory, Lieutenant Uhura.