Here’s the final part of my interview with the amazing Nichelle Nichols. There’s plenty of new insights, including how she learned to operate her communications panel and the origin of her character’s name. If you missed it, please check out the first half (FutureDude Visits the Home of Michelle Nichols) where we discuss Gene Roddenberry and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
At the home of Nichelle Nichols…
FutureDude: There were two very special Uhura moments that impacted me when I was child that I want to share with you.
In the first, they had to remove the navigator and you took over for him. I believe this happened twice in “The Man Trap” and “Balance of Terror” — where you took over physical control of the ship. I thought that was really, really cool.
Nichelle Nichols: Yes, that was fun.
I also remember an episode of the Star Trek cartoon where all of the male crewmembers were under the influence of female aliens who were trying to suck the life out of them. You took command and completely saved the day.
I loved that.
I needed you to know about those moments, and how much they impacted kids like me. Thank you for sticking it out!
Thank you! It warms my heart.
It mattered. You are a key element of Star Trek and, honestly, Star Trek has changed the fabric of our civilization.
In keeping with what you just said, Dr. King would occasionally call me and say “Good work! I see you stayed on.” He told me that when he went home and told his wife and kids about the NAACP event and his kids screamed “Daddy! You met Lieutenant Uhura?!” (laughs)
They were thinking now he had finally accomplished something!
Those were almost exactly the words he said. “I’m somebody in my household finally.”
On that note, I wonder what it would have been like to have seen Star Trek first run — the sets, costumes, visual effects. What impression that must have made on people? I saw it reruns. It couldn’t have been the same as seeing it air for the first time. It was very forward. So what was it like for you the first time you put on the uniform or walked on the set.
The uniform never bothered me because it was futuristic. Yet, it also reflected the time. Mini-skirts were walking down the street every day. Mine was just from tomorrow. So it wasn’t very different from what I wore as the latest styles at the time. It was a futuristic version of what we already were doing.
It was very comfortable. Actually they were a lot more comfortable than the costumes in the movies, especially the first movie. The other movies they changed even more.
To me, after the first film, the uniforms became much more militaristic.
Exactly! Gene had less control at that point. He had deliberately designed everything as a civilian space program. I really regretted that change of direction in the films.
I know I am in the minority on this, but the first movie really impacted me the most — because it was the first time I felt like I could really see the future. Obviously the original series had a limited budget, but it was amazing what Gene did with it.
Yes, it was amazing! We’re talking about practically NO MONEY!
Exactly. So to me, to see Star Trek with such a huge budget, I just marveled at it. Another thing: I always wanted to see Earth. So, to get to see our world in the 23rd Century blew my mind.
I thought that was neat, too.
So, what was it like for you to use the instruments on the Enterprise?
I was telling somebody just yesterday that a funny thing happened to me in one of the episodes. A director had set up a scene and wanted me to turn in to the captain and deliver my lines. Then he was doing my close up. From the time I began on the show, I had decided how my instruments worked. What button operated what and how to contact various parts of the ship — like engineering, for example.
So, you came up with that?
Yes, I decided where everything was on my console and how it worked. I knew how to turn on the view screen and everything else. Anyway, this director wanted me to turn and give my line, then turn back and call Scotty. So I just gave my line and hit the button at the same time. I had it all memorized that well. He was amazed.
The truth is he was more concerned that I looked sexy than about how I gave my line. But, I was the communications officer on a starship, not a pinup girl! (laughs)
But you were beautiful, regardless.
Exactly. It was already sexy, Plus, I was on duty! The director wasn’t happy, but I just did my job anyway.
That is a funny story.
Another great story is the origin of the name “Uhura.” I was having lunch with Gene one day after a costume fitting before we were really in serious production on the series. I always took a book with me to stay focused before auditions.
He asked me what was the big book I had at my audition. It was called Uhuru by Robert Ruark. It was a treatise on Africa. It was a bestseller at the time. It was just out. Once he got a hold of that book, he really got into it. He said my character was from the “United States of Africa” and went on and on about her origins.
And that is how “Uhuru” became “Uhura.”
Yes, a celebration of African freedom in the form of an amazing woman. We can thank Gene for that as well.
So, when you think about the future 50 years or a hundred years from now, what do you imagine it to be. I mean, based upon the realities of today?
With the demise of the Space Shuttle — which was my baby, you know? I recruited the first minorities and female astronauts for the Shuttle program; so, that is was my baby. It was my program, and they had no right to shut it down without my okay! (laughs) And they know that now. All the way to the White House, actually. I recently had an audience with President Obama, and I let him know of my displeasure!
But I am delighted to see that the new projects are planning to go further out into the Solar System. I have to wonder that if this next phase succeeds, can the Starship Enterprise be that far behind? I think we have such a thirst for knowledge and all that vastness out there is ours to explore. We are incrementally advancing to when we will eventually be out there.
If we think we can do these things, we can do them. We are finding our future. That is magic. That is beautiful.
It really is.
That’s why what you are doing is so important. There will be young minds looking at what you are doing with FutureDude and your original stories and they will be seeing themselves and their future for the first time.
What you are doing is more than science fiction. It is science possibility.
Thank you, Nichelle for your time and your continued commitment to the future. You are a very important inspiration to me and to the entire world.