Star Trek changed the television landscape as many knew it when it debuted in 1966. Despite a relatively short run (1966-1969), the series won viewers’ hearts and established itself as a generational favorite. Within it, the series’ cast members are each remembered as legends, but in the groundbreaking series, few pushed as many boundaries as Nichelle Nichols. With Nichols’ passing today at 89 years old, television lost a generational talent. She was more than that though. As Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, she broke ground not just on television, but in life. She inspired generations and showed everyone they too could reach for the stars.
Nichols was born in Chicago and quickly discovered her passion for the arts. The New York Times writes in tribute, “She was a ballet dancer as a child and had a singing voice with a naturally wide range– more than four octaves.” Before she finished high school, she landed her first professional work. This led to bandleader Duke Ellington discovering her. Before long, she joined his orchestra as a dancer and later understudied Diahann Carroll in the musical “No Strings.” Nichols would appear once again with Carroll in Otto Preminger’s 1959 film Porgy and Bess. The musical marked Nichols’ feature film debut in an uncredited role.
Her television debut came just a few years later in a 1963 episode of The Lieutenant. A sign of things to come, Gene Roddenberry is billed as the creator of the single-season military drama. Nichols appeared in a handful of shows during this time, most notably Peyton Place. However, it wasn’t long until she would land the role which defined the rest of her career: Lieutenant Nyota Uhura.
Star Trek made Nichols one of (if not the first) Black woman to play a leading role in a network television series. As such, she broke ground for women of color on television. In her hands, Uhura emerged as far more than the maids and servants of previous generations. The New York Times continues: “Uhura was an officer and a highly educated and well-trained technician who maintained a business-like demeanor while performing her high-minded duties.” Throughout its run, Star Trek continued pushing boundaries. In a third season episode entitled “Plato’s Stepchildren,” Uhura shared a kiss with Captain Kirk (William Shatner). The moment is widely acknowledged to be the first interracial kiss shown on US television.
In a story Nichols often told, it becomes beautifully apparent just how much power Star Trek held in United States culture immediately. The LA Times recounts, “When she contemplated leaving the show for a Broadway play after its first season, she was dissuaded by none other than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.” The article quotes King, “The world sees us for the first time as we should be seen… If you leave, that door can be closed. Your role is not a Black role and not a female role — he can fill it with anything, including an alien.” Nichols of course chose to remain with the show for its full run.
It hardly needs to be stated just how Star Trek eclipsed its three-season run. Almost sixty years since its debut, the show inspired countless television remakes and almost as many movies. Even now, it inspires a television universe on Paramount+. However, the importance of Star Trek (and Nichol’s contributions) is best summed up by the New York Times:
In 1977, Ms. Nichols began an association with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) contracting as a representative and speaker to help recruit female and minority candidates for space flight training; the following year’s class of astronaut candidates was the first to include women and members of minority groups.
NASA released a statement in 2012 acknowledging her contributions to space exploration efforts. It is thanks to Nichelle Nichols that generations of candidates were inspired to pursue a career in aeronautics, “Among them: Ronald McNair, Frederick Gregory, Judith Resnick, the first American woman in space Sally Ride and current NASA administrator Charlie Bolden.”
Nichols continued working on-screen after Star Trek. While many of these works directly connect to her importance within the science fiction community, she wasn’t afraid to stretch her acting muscles. Many might remember her work on the iconic animated series Gargoyles. She even ventured over to the soap opera world with a four-episode arc on The Young and the Restless. A look over her IMDB page shows Nichols with acting credits as recent as 2021.
It’s easy to dismiss a discussion of screen work in favor of these vital contributions to society. Television feels trivial in the shadow of such gigantic issues. However, Nichelle Nichols and the ground she broke demonstrates how important on-screen representation can be. It cannot be discounted how powerful it is to see someone who looks like you on-screen. Generations of scientists were inspired by Lieutenant Uhura — and with that Nichelle Nichols. When thinking about it that way, Star Trek is more than just another sci-fi series and Nichols is more than just an actor. She changed the course of the world as we know it.