Saturday, November 14, 2009

How Uhura Changed the World

The best thing in the world about Uhura isn’t that she’s better than any of the guys. It’s that she’s one of them. She fits in with the crew. She can wear a short skirt and still do her job. She can be beautiful and speak 3 different dialects of Romulan. The character of Uhura is a reminder that you don’t have to look like a man or behave like a man to be a strong woman...

That’s a message that I think all women/people could benefit from, and it's an ongoing argument in the world of film geeks regarding female characters of strength. But it doesn’t have to be one or the other, you can be both if you want to. Because as women, we are typically both. The same way that men are who they are and can do their jobs. No sense hiding our genders, just be comfortable with who you are and do your job. Uhura wears earrings, and some pretty rockin’ 60’s eyeliner, and nobody on the bridge seems to care. Because she’s an integral member of the crew and does her job well and that's all that matters. (It also seems that sexual harassment has been conquered in the future, so that's something we can all look forward to.)

Nichelle Nichols always played the character of Uhura as incredibly strong, so I don’t dare come out and say that Zoe Saldana plays her with more strength than her original creator. Most Trek fans know the character of Uhura was unprecedented in television history. As a bridge officer, she was a black woman in a position of authority, which was never seen before on television at that point in time.

Until Uhura, almost all black women appearing on television had done so as servants. When Nichols was tempted to leave the show because she felt her character lacked substance after the first season, she had a conversation with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that changed her mind. He urged her to stay, and she did. The character of Uhura grew and changed over the years, and I’m so grateful that she stayed on.

Because of Nichols’ role in Star Trek and her participation in a project designed to recruit minorities and females into the space program, NASA had their first female astronaut and their first African American astronaut. That’s one of the things I love most about Nichelle Nichols, she didn’t just leave everything up to inspiration…she got physically involved in making changes in the world that related directly to her role as Uhura.

WARNING: It gets pretty nerdy past this point, and also major film spoilers ensue. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

This may be slightly up for debate, but some people saw Sigourney Weaver’s character in, “Galaxy Quest” as a parody of Uhura. I think it was more so an original creation of the film’s writers and Weaver herself, because Uhura did far more in the series than repeat the computer. She translated, she spoke multiple languages, and there was skill involved in her work on the bridge intercepting and sending transmissions.

But I readily admit to being completely biased about the whole thing. I wasn’t there for the birth of Star Trek in 1966. So I can only tell you what’s true about the character for me, having first met her in 1986.

All I can tell you is that as a kid, I saw her as no different from any other members of the crew. She seemed authoritative, smart, and tough. She got sent on her own away team with Chekov in, “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” and participated just as much as anyone else in the film.

As kids, I sometimes think we have a better sense of the world as it is, not how people fear it is or want it to be. So it speaks volumes to me as an adult being able to look back on the history of Uhura and Nichols about just what Star Trek accomplished in the ongoing fight for racial equality. Through my four year old eyes, she was equal. That was that. That is that. This can be the power of film and television, to shape the next generation of adults and their perceptions about the world. But I digress.

All that aside, I want to talk about the re-emergence of Uhura in the newest Star Trek film. I saw it six times in the theater, I tried to pay special attention to Uhura specifically over the last two viewings.

Because after the first viewing, quite frankly, I was a little nervous about where they were taking her in the future films. My fear was that they were only using Uhura, setting her up for a “Dawson’s Creek” like storyline in later films and only using her as an object of tension between Kirk and Spock. I wasn’t thrilled with the underwear scene initially, but in all fairness and after I thought about it, they did cut the scene with compassion. No lingering on her body, no exploitative undergarments. It was no less than a bathing suit, so it honestly didn’t bother me at all. After all, Kirk was in his underwear in the same scene for the same duration of time.

It would have bothered me if they hadn’t given the character some of the key moments that they did. Uhura arguing with Spock when the fleet is preparing for launch, for example, made me happy. Even the first time when I saw the film and I didn’t yet understand the sub-text of that scene, I was glad to see Uhura being persistent. They’re allowing Uhura in that scene to be her own advocate, and I like seeing a self-confident character onscreen.

As the story revealed itself, and I started to understand that Spock and Uhura were in a long-term relationship, I was surprisingly fine with it. If you would’ve told me that storyline before I saw the film, I would’ve told you it was the worst idea ever. But somehow, it worked for both the characters.

It also gave me another layer to look for as I’ve gone back and seen the film again. Saldana works hard to show Uhura’s emotions without being captain obvious about it. It’s a real treat to see her interact with Spock for the first act of the film when you know what’s going on behind-the-scenes. There’s also something about the idea the opposing personalities of Spock and Uhura appealing to one another. They’re equally talented, but operating on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. The characters do complement each other in that way.

*pushes glasses up nose*

I also enjoyed the way Orci and Kurtzman wrote her rise to the bridge crew. She’s quite integral to the plot, thank goodness. If Uhura hadn’t been talented enough to intercept the transition that she did from the Klingons, the movie itself never would’ve happened. Kirk wouldn’t have known trouble was ahead; they wouldn’t have had their shields raised coming out of warp, and likely would’ve been toast with the rest of the fleet.

Thank you, Uhura.

I’m looking forward to what they have for her next, hopefully a little more responsibility next time. (I’d like to see her sent on an away team.) I hope Orci and Kurtzman are hired for the second script, because I’m comfortable with their respect and love for the characters. So I can trust that they won’t “Dawson’s Creek” her if they come on and continue where they left off with her development. Here’s to all that Uhura has been in film and television so far, and all that we nerds can hope she’ll continue to be!

I’m so glad to see her again, famous skirt and all. How about you?

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