Not all records by Star Trek actors are naff novelty items. Creation has just reissued Nichelle Nichols’ album Down To Earth and it’s a very fine collection of jazz, soul and R&B numbers. Nichols, you see, was a proper singer long before she donned a Starfleet uniform.
“I started my career in musical theatre,” she confirms, “which means I was a dancer, a singer, an actress, I built sets and I directed! And it’s just coincidental that the acting took off first.”
An early break for Nichols was a chance to tour with legendary band leader Duke Ellington.
“It was incredible. I was 14 and in a big musical in my home town, Chicago. And Mr Ellington came to see the show and asked to meet me. Two years later, he asked me to create a ballet for one of his suites and to perform it. I went with him for that US tour.”
Another significant pre- Trek event was Nichols’ first guest-starring TV role – on a show called The Lieutenant , written by one G Roddenberry. Then came Uhura... When Trek debuted in 1966, it didn’t take her long to realise that what she was participating in something really special...
“I realised the scripts were marvellous almost immediately. Above the average of anything that was on TV at the time, and probably since. That didn’t mean we realised it was going to be big. As a matter of fact, we were concerned for it because it was too good. Good stuff was getting cancelled all the time.”
But ten years after hanging up her communicator in the original series, Nichols had no qualms reprising her role as Uhura on the big screen. Indeed, she agrees with the received opinion that the even-numbered films are the best... “My favourites are II, IV and VI – in that order. Then people should skip VII and go to VIII, which I understand is very good.”
Throughout all her TV episodes and her six films, Uhura’s full name has never been given, and there’s still some debate over it. So can Nichols clear up the confusion once and for all?
“Uhura never had another name during the series. One of the fan writers suggested ‘Upenda’ – which means ‘peace’ in Swahili – and it sort of took hold. But when they were going to do the official history of Trek, the writer called Gene and asked him whether ‘Uhura’ was her first or last name. Gene said, ‘We always leaned towards it being her last name because it’s taken from the Swahili for freedom. So the writer said, ‘What about her first name? I’ve come up with one in Swahili.’ Gene said, ‘I can’t give you that permission because Nichelle and I named her together.’ So he called me and said, ‘I have a name and it’s Nyota.’ I said, ‘That’s quite beautiful. What does it mean?’ He said, ‘It means “star.”’ I said, ‘You can have my permission!’ So I have since said that her name is Nyota Upenda Uhura, which would mean ‘star of freedom and peace.’ I like that.”
In a rare non- Trek SF role, Nichols also appeared in the delightful sci-fi spoof The Adventures Of Captain Zoom In Outer Space ( SFX 12; B+).
“Oh, that was so much fun! At first I turned it down, but then my manager brought the script over and said, ‘I think you’d better read this.’ I just loved it. I couldn’t stop laughing.”
But in-between acting and convention appearances, Nichols is still keeping her musical hand in. “I’m remounting my one-woman show, Reflections, in which I become 12 legendary woman entertainers. It’s my reflection on the women I grew up respecting and who influenced my life.”
Take a listen to the CD of Down To Earth . You’ll be pleasantly surprised. But what does the lady think of the “singing” talents of her Trek co-stars?
“They’re entitled,” she says, tactfully.