In May 1965, wearing a light pink Chanel jumpsuit, Nichelle Nichols walked into the Desilu offices and transformed Spock into a Black woman. The character of Uhura—a character Nichols would make world-famous in Star Trek—didn’t exist yet. Series creator Gene Roddenberry had a vague idea for a new character, but because Uhura hadn’t yet been written, Nichols remembered that “they handed me a script and apologized, saying the part I would be playing would be a communications officer.” Director Joseph Sargent said the script pages were “probably close” to what her yet-to-be-created character might be like. But, somewhat hilariously, these pages were early dialogue for Mr. Spock. The idea that Spock was a male character wasn’t made clear at first, so Nichols innocently wondered, “What’s she like?” And at that moment, the souls of Spock and Uhura were joined forever.
In this interesting period of ideation, could Nichols have replaced Leonard Nimoy as a Black female Spock? Probably not. And yet, Nichols said at least one person present asked that somebody “phone the contracts department” to see if Nimoy had put pen to paper. It’s hard to really believe that Roddenberry would have fired Nimoy, but over the years, Nichols, Sargent, Roddenberry, and others have repeated the story of her audition with very little variation, making a solid case that at least one person (probably Sargent) was taken with the idea that Spock as a Black woman might have worked. Like the character of Spock, Uhura typifies the ideals of Star Trek, even when the historical truths of those ideals fall short of how we remember them. And, among Trek icons, Nichols’ journey was unique not just in its symbolism, but because of her frustrations with a role that never truly lived up to its potential.
More than any character in the entire Star Trek pantheon, Uhura is unique because everything was created by the actress, including the character’s name. During her audition, Nichols had a book tucked under her arm: the 1962 novel Uhuru, by Robert Ruark—a fictionalized account of the Mau Mau uprisings against landowners in Kenya during the 1950s. In Swahili, the word “Uhuru”means “freedom.” Once it was settled that Nichols would play the new communications officer, Roddenberry suggested taking the name Sulu away from Mr. Sulu, but Nichols insisted that “Uhuru” be Uhura. Pundits and historians love to talk about how Nichols and William Shatner participated in the first kiss between a Black person and a white person on American network television in the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren.” But as much as this episode is celebrated, you really have to wonder if people have watched it recently. In the story, Kirk and Uhura are forced to kiss by hedonist telekinetic “gods.” Any way you slice it, a Black woman being forced to kiss a white man isn’t exactly progress.
What’s far more progressive and interesting about Uhura is the way she casually introduced the Swahili language into the homes of millions of Americans who’d probably never heard it. In the first episode of Star Trek ever aired—“The Man Trap”— Uhura speaks Swahili, never mind that she’s talking to a shape-shifting alien salt vampire in disguise. Jim Kirk’s backstory had him born in Iowa, but Uhura was from the future-facing United States of Africa. Kirk was a throwback white male hero archetype, while Uhura, like Spock, wasn’t an archetype at all. For American TV, she was something new.
It may not seem like Uhura is an outsider in the context of Star Trek, but her patchwork backstory suggests that Spock and Uhura have more in common than we might assume. In other words, the connection between Spock and Uhura wasn’t just the result of random pages thrown at a young actress. The characters themselves were both iconoclasts and specialists who were excellent at navigating the esoterica of their respective jobs: Spock as the science officer, and Uhura as a language and communications expert. In the first season of Star Trek, it’s clear that Uhura and Spock have a relationship that exists outside of what we see on the screen. As Nichols developed the character with Roddenberry, she decided that “Spock was my mentor,” and that Spock “inspired [Uhura] mentally and professionally.” In the 2022 series Strange New Worlds, Celia Rose Gooding’s newest Uhura has already expanded upon this idea. In the brand new episode, “Children of the Comet,” we see Ethan Peck’s new Spock connect with her as a fellow outsider and encourage her to stay in Starfleet. Also, like in The Original Series, the new show gives us a moment of musical harmony between Uhura and Spock. In the 1966 episode “Charlie X,” Spock plays a Vulcan harp while Uhura sings. In 2022, we see Spock and Uhura sing together to pacify an alien intelligence that communicates through music. These days, with Strange New Worlds, we’re seeing the retroactive beginning of their relationship, which by the time of The Original Series means Uhura is on good enough terms with Spock that she can tease him publicly.
In fact, other than Kirk and Bones, Uhura is the only character in The Original Series who openly fucks with Spock and gets away with it. In “The Man Trap,” she shamelessly flirts with Spock, saying, “Tell me how your planet Vulcan looks on a lazy evening when the moon is full.” When Spock says, “Vulcan has no moon,” Uhura quips, “I’m not surprised.” In “Charlie X,” during that jam session, she sings a song implying that Spock is like a hot version of Satan. In both instances, Spock takes it because he clearly thinks she’s great.
The on-screen connections between Uhura and Spock were mirrored in what Nichols believed was the way Spock was coded as the other. Basically, other than an awkward comment from a space-version of Abraham Lincoln (Lee Bergere) in “The Savage Curtain,” Uhura is not the victim of racism on screen. But Spock is. A lot. Nichols felt that most of the Original Series episodes that dealt with racism directly were the stories written for Spock. “Star Trek explored storylines concerning his mixed heritage,” Nichols recalled. “[Roddenberry] might have made exactly the same points in writing the same stories with Spock being the human child of a Black parent and a white parent living in the sixties.”
As a Black woman in 1965, Nichols had good reason to roll her eyes at the thought of becoming a TV actor. In 1964, blatant racism had prevented her last guest spot on a TV series from ever airing. Sure, she’d been paid, but nobody had seen her. Over a year before her fateful meeting at Desilu, Nichols had been cast in what would become the final episode of the 1963–1964 military drama The Lieutenant, co-starring with Don Marshall, Gary Lockwood, and Dennis Hopper. The story focused on the racial conflicts between Corporal Devlin (Hopper) and Private Cameron (Marshall), with Lockwood’s titular Lieutenant William Tiberius Rice acting as the de-facto moderator. Nichols played Norma, Cameron’s girlfriend, who consoles him about the racism he faces within the Marines. The Lieutenant was created and produced by Roddenberry, and when NBC and the Pentagon opposed airing an episode about racism in the armed forces, he called the NAACP for an assist. NBC pulled the plug, and the Marines said they’d stop cooperating with the production of the show. “My problem was not the Marine Corps; it was NBC, who turned down [the episode] flat,” Roddenberry said. “I went to the NAACP, and they lowered the boom on NBC.” It didn’t really work. The entire series was canceled, and Roddenberry was righteously furious.
“He was certainly trying to get back at them for what they did to him on The Lieutenant,” Star Trek writer Judy Burns tells me. “But I don’t think he was out to make a giant statement [with Star Trek] to begin with. I don’t think he thought about changing the planet or changing racial considerations—although I do think he understood it. And that’s one of the reasons he hired George [Takei] and Nichelle. I think he understood the ramifications. But I also think he was just trying to get a show on the air.”
Like Uhura, the character of Mr. Sulu was barely “a sketch” when Roddenberry offered the role to George Takei. By the time his agent encouraged him to audition for Roddenberry, Takei had already enjoyed an extensive career in TV and film. But right at the start, Takei saw what Nichols saw: a loosely sketched character that he could utterly create, and one that also would give him a steady job. For actors of color in the 1960s, roles bigger than guest spots were just not that common. Pervasive racism in casting remains crushingly prevalent in Hollywood today, but there’s no question that it was much worse in 1965. So when Roddenberry told Takei that the part of Sulu wasn’t completely defined, Takei wasn’t offended—he was pumped. “This producer [Roddenberry] was sheepishly apologizing for the best opportunity I had yet come across. . . as sketched already, this character was a breakthrough role for Asian Americans,” he said.
During the filming of “The Naked Time,” Takei pushed back on explicitly depicting Sulu as having exclusively Japanese interests. When the writer of “The Naked Time,” John D. F. Black, initially wrote the script, his idea was that Sulu would lose his mind and run around the ship swinging a Samurai sword. Takei liked the idea, and Sulu famously runs around the Enterprise shirtless, swinging a sword. But in the final episode, it’s not a Samurai sword—it’s a fencing foil, a change we owe to Takei. “Sulu is a twenty-third-century guy. He would see his heritage as much broader and larger than just ethnically confined,” he explained in 2020 in an interview with Wil Wheaton. “I didn’t play Samurai as a kid. I played Robin Hood.” Sulu, as conceived by Takei, was a futuristic swashbuckler, endearing himself to everyone in those famous sword-swinging scenes. Spock, in a rare backhanded joke, refers to Sulu as “D’Artagnan,” adding to the myriad layers of multicultural references. When I asked Takei why Sulu didn’t go shirtless more often in Star Trek, he laughed and said, “I don’t know, but I think we all know people wanted to see more of it.”
Although Roddenberry is lauded for casting Nichols and Takei in the roles of Uhura and Sulu, his first attempt at Star Trek—1964’s rejected pilot episode, “The Cage”— wasn’t populated by any people of color, even as background characters. Infamously, NBC didn’t like that first-draft version of Star Trek, and miraculously, Roddenberry (along with Desilu Studios) was given another chance. And yet, if “The Cage” had been accepted, and that whitebread Star Trek had been picked up for a series run, would Roddenberry have still thought to bring on a more diverse cast? His motivations for pushing for representation seem laudable enough; after all, Roddenberry pushed for diversity on The Lieutenant. But it’s still more than a little odd that the first filmed pilot of Star Trek (“The Cage”) wasn’t remotely progressive in terms of diversity. And even by the second pilot (“Where No Man Has Gone Before”), Uhura’s not there yet, and Sulu is oddly not the guy flying the ship; instead, he’s a physicist and seems more like a consultant for Spock than a starship pilot. In terms of filming order, Uhura doesn’t appear until the third episode of Star Trek produced, “The Corbomite Maneuver,” an episode that nobody thinks of as the real pilot episode to the ‘60s Star Trek, but totally should. If you’re confused, it’s understandable. “The Corbomite Maneuver” aired tenth and is still considered the tenth episode of the classic show.
“The Corbomite Maneuver” is also the first episode with Bones (DeForest Kelley), and the third attempt at codifying the actual cast of the series. Uhura appears for the first time in this episode, wearing yellow instead of the red dress with which we’d come to associate her. We tend to think of Star Trek: The Original Series as repping for diversity right out of the gate, but the truth is, the progressive notion of the Vulcan philosophy “infinite diversity in infinite combinations”seems to be a bit retroactive, and, perhaps borne of necessity. Accurately, Star Trek is often lauded for presenting a multiracial crew working together in a distant future without any signs of racism. And yet, there are no documents in the series bible indicating that the original Star Trek would have a political philosophy of racial and gender diversity.
An early bible for the series describes it as “action-adventure” in which characters visit worlds with a “similar social evolution as our own.” On the business side, the progressive political philosophy was not a stated goal of Star Trek, but it was a result. By 1968, two years after the show was on the air, Roddenberry’s more forward-thinking version of the series had taken shape, at least in the interviews he gave. “Intolerance in the twenty-third century? Improbable!” he said in 1968. “If man survives that long, he will have learned to take delight in the essential differences between men and between cultures… this is part of the optimism we built into Star Trek.” Roddenberry was clearly serious about what he believed, but he wasn’t consistent. In fact, the first Black actor who worked on Star Trek—Lloyd Haynes, who played Lieutenant Alden in the second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”—was fired by Roddenberry, who said he was “bored” with the character. Eventually, Roddenberry replaced Alden with Nichols. Some of the Trek faithful have deified Roddenberry as a great progressive ideologue pushing for diversity and representation in Star Trek, and breaking boundaries as a result. They’re not wrong. Roddenberry clearly cared about these things, but it didn’t always come from an ideologically pure place, as Nichols revealed in 1994, when she made it clear that she and Roddenberry had had an affair before she was cast in Star Trek. In both TV Guide and in her memoir, Nichols recalled that “[the] relationship was long over before Star Trek.” But something else Nichols makes clear is that she was in control of Gene Roddenberry, not the other way around.
There are many ways to look at Roddenberry. Was “the Great Bird of the Galaxy” an early social justice crusader who just happened to be a TV producer? Was he a half-assed humanist sci-fi philosopher? Like many pivotal historical figures, Roddenberry can’t be defined by just one trait. His creation of the idealistic United Federation of Planets sometimes feels as important as the signing of the Declaration of Independence. As an American, I’m thankful that George Washington existed, but I’m also aware that George Washington wasn’t the greatest person. Roddenberry wasn’t as bad as all that, but you can see where this is going. He was the founding father of the science fiction country of dreams called Star Trek. In creating Star Trek, Roddenberry unwittingly created a new art form, one spanning several types of media that will likely last for at least a hundred years. He was also a deeply flawed and sometimes problematic human being. But when it came to building the humanitarian ethics of Star Trek’s progressive future, Roddenberry wasn’t the only founding father of Trek. If Roddenberry is the George Washington in the saga of Star Trek’s early days, then the Alexander Hamilton is another Gene— Gene L. Coon.
“Gene Coon had more to do with the infusion of life into Star Trek than any other single person,” Shatner said in 1991, shortly after Roddenberry’s death. Shatner isn’t alone in his praise for the Other Gene. Influential Star Trek writer and script editor Dorothy Fontana called Coon “half of Star Trek’s Genes.” Russell Bates, Coon’s protegé and a writer for Star Trek: The Animated Series, said, “Coon was like Nikola Tesla. He wasn’t interested in credit.”
Like Roddenberry, Coon was an ex-cop and an ex-pilot who had turned to TV writing. Both men shared liberal-leaning views and desperately wanted to distance themselves from their racist fathers. When Roddenberry hired Coon as the show’s new story editor, he became the equivalent of what we would today call a showrunner. Coon was a fast writer and rewriter; like the Beatles playing all-night shows in Hamburg, totally high on pills, some of Coon’s speed at the typewriter was the result of taking speed. Ande Richardson, Coon’s secretary, recalled buying “jars of amphetamines” for her boss. According to her, Coon would stay up all night writing, and she would go out all night dancing. Richardson has been called “the real Uhura” insofar as she was a Black woman who worked on Star Trek. Before her gig with Coon, she had worked with both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., and said that “working with Gene [Coon] was as normal as working with them.” In 2016, she commented that she put Coon in the same category as Malcolm X and MLK. But not Roddenberry. In 1969, Richardson attended the wedding of Roddenberry and Majel Barrett (“the First Lady of Star Trek”), but maintained that Coon “was my heart.” Richardson encouraged Coon to attend Black Panther rallies, too, which she and others credit with the development of Star Trek’s moral and ethical tone. “We would talk about politics. . . and then I would see all of that in Star Trek,” she said. The so-called noble purpose of Star Trek can be attributed to Roddenberry as the creator, but for most of the people who were there, the execution of that purpose came from Coon.
In the twenty-sixth episode of Star Trek’s first season, “Errand of Mercy,” Coon created the Klingons and promptly turned the story into an antiwar parable. If you’ve never seen Star Trek before and you’re watching the classic shows in order, getting to “Errand of Mercy” will blow your mind. The war with the Klingons is coming. You can feel that the show is about to change. And then. . . the episode isn’t about turning Star Trek into Star Wars, because “Errand of Mercy” is all about aliens telling us to stop blowing each other up with ray guns—or, in this case, Kirk and Spock’s homemade bombs.
The strength of “Errand of Mercy” and several of Coon’s other episodes is a flourish reminiscent of The Day the Earth Stood Still. You look at the movie poster for The Day the Earth Stood Still, and you think it’s about a flying saucer and an invading robot coming to destroy the world à la War of the Worlds. But the movie is really about an alien demanding that Earth disarm, or else. (Appropriately, the 2022 series premiere of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds literally opens with Captain Pike watching The Day the Earth Stood Still, which he calls “a classic.”)
Essentially, the number one rule of Star Trek is that the good guys out there boldly going are not racist colonizers. Starfleet doesn’t displace alien cultures in favor of humanity’s bold expansion. If it’s not appropriate and the time isn’t right, Starfleet avoids first contact with aliens and lets the planet evolve at its own pace. It’s called the Prime Directive, and it was invented by Coon. Basically, Coon invented a rule for the United Federation of Planets that was the opposite of colonial racism. If the Prime Directive existed in real life, would Indigenous peoples globally still have their land? Would the transatlantic slave trade or apartheid have been prevented altogether?
“What made the show compelling was the metaphors,” Takei told me in 2016. “We dealt with the Civil Rights movement while it was happening in the ’60s. There were some obvious ones. People with faces with black on one side, and white on the other.” Takei refers to the third-season episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” (co-written by Coon under the pen name Lee Cronin), in which the crew meets two aliens from the planet Cheron—Lokai (Lou Antonio) and Bele (Frank Gorshin)—each with faces like the ones Takei describes. Although the crew is baffled at first, Commissioner Bele reveals that he is from the population of Cherons who are “black on the right side,” while Lokai is descended from an “inferior breed” of people who are “white on the right side.” This sounds silly, and it mostly is. But the heart of classic Star Trek is very much in the right place here. Spock, the victim of racism both veiled and obvious, makes the case that it doesn’t matter what colors appear on either side of anyone’s face: “The obvious visual evidence, Commissioner, is that he is of the same breed as yourself.” This isn’t to say that the episode pushes for any “color blindness,” because the Enterprise crew largely sympathizes with Lokai, the renegade from an oppressed racial group. Even in this simplistic allegory, Star Trek points out that there are oppressors and victims.
In “Balance of Terror,” the crew learns that their deadly enemies, the Romulans, look exactly like Vulcans. One crew member, Lieutenant Stiles (Paul Comi), whose ancestors fought in a war against the Romulans a hundred years before, immediately suggests that Spock is a spy for the Romulans because he has pointed ears. Before the racism boils over into paranoia, Kirk grabs Stiles’ chair, spins him around, and shouts, “Leave any bigotry in your quarters. There’s no room for it on the bridge.” In “Space Seed,” Spock notes that “insufficient facts always invite danger.” Time and time again, Star Trek presents an information gap—what we would call fake news—as the source of racism, war, and death. In “Day of the Dove,” Chekov is convinced he suffered a family atrocity that never occurred—the death of a brother that Sulu points out never existed. In Coon’s “Devil in the Dark,” Federation miners are determined to kill a Horta before it kills them, all before Spock learns that the Horta is a mother protecting her unborn baby Hortas. Unlike on our own planet, Spock can “mind-meld” with other people and life forms, which in the case of the mother Horta means that he cries out (“PAIN!”), experiencing her anguish as though it were happening to him.
“There are so many people in pain, in real life. And they are living lives of quiet desperation,” Walter Koenig, who famously played the young Russian navigator Mr. Chekov, tells me over the phone. “So that anger can boil to the top, and they’re looking for avenues to express it. We’re not genetically predetermined to hate, but as a consequence of circumstances, angry people can embrace [the] culture of hate and misinformation, and then you’ve got people breaking windows and storming the Capitol.”
If someone had never seen an episode of Star Trek before, having them watch only “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” or “Day of the Dove” could convince them that this show was just a series of heavy-handed old-timey after-school specials written by white people on drugs. Which, through a certain microscope, is exactly what ’60s Star Trek was. But the power of classic Trek’s diversity politics can be easily misunderstood if you try to pick out one great episode. For Takei, it’s all about metaphors, but Walter Koenig thinks the representation itself was more impactful than specific plotlines. “I think more than any story that we told, it was more about those seven faces on the bridge,” Koenig tells me. “A Japanese American. An African American. The Russian, there, while the Iron Curtain was in place. Some stories we told were just action stories. Some had something to say about humanity. But the fact that we saw those faces every week—I think that was settled into our consciousness simply by the fact that we saw them.”
But because it was a network television show, Star Trek made a lot of compromises to keep going. If a script was going to be shortened, or a scene cut, the first characters to lose lines or moments were always Sulu, Chekov, and Uhura. “We were the moveable furniture,” Koenig said. Nichols recalled that while the studio was giving “lip service” to the idea of racial equality, people of color were still not given equal time on the show. Other Black characters appeared only in a handful of episodes, like a second doctor who works on the Enterprise, Dr. M’Benga, played by Booker Bradshaw in just two episodes: “A Private Little War” and “That Which Survives.” Seemingly, M’Benga is not only as good as Bones but in many ways better. In the 2022 series Strange New Worlds, M’Benga is now played by Babs Olusanmokun as a series regular. But why wasn’t M’Benga in more episodes of The Original Series? M’Benga isn’t killed off or anything. Booker Bradshaw simply wasn’t featured as much as other actors who weren’t Black.
Contrary to popular myth, racist viewers did not mount a letter-writing campaign to remove Nichols from the show. Instead, the racism came from within—from, as Nichols wrote, “the studio’s front office,” which perceived that white audiences weren’t ready to see more of Uhura. The paper trail, though, reflects the simple fact that viewers liked her more than the studio or the network.
In “The Naked Time,” when Sulu is running around with his shirt off, he grabs Uhura and says, “I’ll protect you, fair maiden!” Without missing a beat, Uhura says, “Sorry, neither!” She’s neither fair nor is she a virginal maiden. It’s a line that you can almost miss the first time you hear it, but it’s suggestive of the larger potential of underused characters on the classic Star Trek, and Uhura in particular. “Sorry, neither” is the real Uhura talking—the unheard Uhura, the Uhura who had better storylines written for her that we never got to see because of pervasive racism and fear. Women are not automatically “fair,” and they’re not automatically good people because of patriarchal standards. It’s one line from an iconic character who pushes back against systematic white supremacy. The word “fair” also reinforces oppressive standards of beauty derived from racist viewpoints. Uhura’s rejection of the label “fair maiden” rejects systematic racism and entrenched sexism, too. By the end of the first season in early 1967, fed up with prewritten scripts, harassment, and open racism, Nichols didn’t just think about quitting Star Trek—she quit outright. Roddenberry begged her not to leave, but she was done. The night after her resignation from Star Trek, Nichols attended “an important NAACP fundraising event.” At one point, she was asked to do a meet-and-greet with someone who was a self-professed Star Trek fan. That fan turned out to be Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
When King met Nichols, he said that he and his daughters “adored” Uhura and that they watched the show “faithfully.” Nichols then gave him the bad news that she had quit. King told her that she couldn’t and begged her to reconsider. “Remember, you are not important there in spite of your color,” he said. “You are important there because of your color.” A week later, Nichols returned to Star Trek.
Did Martin Luther King Jr. really love Star Trek as much as Nichols, Roddenberry, and the rest of us have been told? When it comes to projecting optimism about the future and anti-racist attitudes, the Trek franchise is a full-time PR machine for itself, which occasionally means the uglier bits of that progress are overlooked.
“Uhura’s role in hindsight reads like tokenism, technically,” writer and scholar Syreeta McFadden tells me. McFadden is a contemporary critic known for her writing on race and pop culture and is perhaps most famous for her essay “Teaching the Camera to See My Skin,” in which she elucidates the racist history of film technology. Specifically, the notion that Kodak and other film companies calibrated their film to favor white skin. Interestingly, Nichols notes that in the early days of Trek conventions, she’d occasionally meet a fan who had only ever seen the show on black-and-white TV, and thus was unaware that she was Black.
“She and the others were set pieces. Sure, it was groundbreaking, but it was kitschy groundbreaking,” McFadden explains. “What matters more is the timing. Coming at the end of the Civil Rights movement in the ’60s, having that visibility was big. I’m not sure MLK believed Star Trek was a great show, but compared to what was out there, it was the only thing on mainstream TV that was friendly to representing different races and gender identities.”
The classic Star Trek will always have a tenuous place in the history of racism and pop culture. On the one hand, it was light years ahead of its time. On the other hand, there are dudes painted half-white, and half-black, and the messaging is ham-fisted and sometimes racist. Star Trek was considered feminist at the time it was made, but the “strong” roles for women that Roddenberry promised are few and far between.
What Star Trek was in the ’60s and what it came to represent aren’t the same. Was it a progressive anti-racist show conceived by a visionary humanist? Or was it a populist action-adventure show that conveniently had a moral and political conscience? As Uhura might say, the answer is clearly: Sorry, neither! When it comes to diversity and representation, the holistic intention of the original Star Trek is hard to pinpoint, partly because we’ll always be looking at it from the perspective of improvement. Competing intentions show the history of Trek’s early representation as filled with contradictions. But then again, Scotty needed contradictory elements to power the Enterprise, too. Without matter and antimatter banging against each other, the Enterprise would never fly.
Adapted from the book PHASERS ON STUN! by Ryan Britt, to be published on 5/31/2022 by Plume, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Ryan Britt.
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