In 1966, a historic moment on television occurred when actress Nichelle Nichols made her debut on Star Trek’s original TV, playing the role of Nyota Uhura — a brilliant linguist, translator, and cryptographer as the U.S.S. Enterprise’s communications officer. This wasn’t just a role or even a role of a lifetime. In this moment, Nicols’ groundbreaking work forever shifted how African American women are portrayed onscreen.
Nyota Uhura wasn’t anyone’s maid or nanny. She wasn’t disregarded by other characters or hiding in the shadows. She was the representation of self-confidence, intelligent, full of life and multitalented, who continued to shock the world with the first interracial kiss on national TV that matched wits and with the Enterprise crew, who viewed her as a problem solver dealing with the complexities of space and delegation.
Uhura’s legacy would continue in 2009, 2013 and 2016 with actress Zoe Saldaña in the Star Trek feature films Star Trek, Star Trek into Darkness, and Star Trek Beyond.
Now over 50 years after Uhura and Star Trek’s debut, Paramount+ is picking up Uhura’s legacy with Star Trek: Strange New Worlds with a fresh new perspective, now played by 22-year-old Broadway actor Celia Rose Gooding.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds tells the story of the USS Enterprise crew before James T. Kirk (William Shatner) took command; a whole new generation is being introduced to a younger Uhura who is just as smart as before but unsure about her place in Starfleet and in the world.
In celebration of this new frontier, The Koalition spoke to Gooding about taking on the iconic role while putting her own spin on the character, the legacy of Uhura, the show’s destiny vs fate theme and more.
“We all know her. She was popularized as a Lieutenant, as an Officer with the role of Command, and to have an opportunity to play her as a Cadet, as someone who was still figuring out if Starfleet is the path for her, means so much to me. I feel like we’re finally having an opportunity to humanize this character in a way we didn’t have an opportunity to be humanized in the 60s at the time, because of the socio-political climate of the 60s for black women in entertainment.”
“I am incredibly honored to really show a side of a Uhura that hasn’t really been showcased before, to show her being a little insecure and a little weary of her of her place with Starfleet and also her worth to Starfleet. It’s an incredible opportunity as an actor to know her future but to play a character who is just taking it day by day and really absorbing the world around her. So, to play a character who is beloved and iconic but to show her at her beginning stages is an incredible opportunity.”
Bridging the gap between the original Star Trek series and Strange New Worlds, one of the most memorable moments from the original show is in the second episode “Children of the Comet” when Gooding shows off her musical talent when she is seen strolling around an alien comet singing. This moment is a direct tribute to Uhura’s iconic 1960s singing scene in the Enterprise’s rec room.
While this could have been a throwaway scene, In Strange New Worlds, Uhura’s vocal talent is an important plot to the episode as her ability saves an entire civilization from antihalation. This combination offers a blend of linguistic and musical skills no other crewmember can achieve or even replicate. She earns not just the respect of Captain Pike but calms the nervous uncertainty brewing within herself.
“I think having a theater background, for many reasons, is incredibly integral to this character. Seeing, as Nichelle was a stage and screen performer. She has a dance background. She has a singing background, and she has albums out. So, to be someone who has a similar background to Nichelle Nichols was incredibly important for this character. It may seem very minor, but it’s incredibly important to me.”
“Having a crew of people who are really esteemed in their positions [from] commanding officers and [to] have people who have roles of incredible importance supporting her, cheering her on and really verbalizing to her ‘hey we’d be incredibly lucky to have you as a part of our crew’ sparks [something] within her and it gives that sort of permission to keep going. It’s really a testament to Nichelle’s path as Uhura. She was someone who was not super sure about the role of Uhura in the original series and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was someone who reached out to her and [said], ‘You need to keep going for the representation, for my daughters and for my children.’ That conversation was something that inspired Nichelle to keep going and to have a sort of ode to that in the second episode is an incredible testament to Nichelle’s history but also Uhura’s history as a character.”
What also makes Strange New Worlds refreshing is rotating the crew that sees members tackle various jobs and problems allowing Cadet Uhura to step away from the Enterprise bridge’s communications console to learn new skills. For Uhura, this means joining landing party missions and other tasks.
“Star Trek is a franchise of very high stakes and a lot of life-or-death situations. We get to see a touch of it in the second episode of her saving the lives of the people on this planet, but we will also see her in love in the first season of the show. Since we touch on a lot of different genres, we get to see her really in the forefront. We also get to see her taking roles of ensemble work and seeing her really work together with her team instead of making sense of the mission around her by herself.”
“We see her working with Spock and working with Una, La’an, Ortega, Benga and Chapel. We see her really collaborating with the entire cast in the future and I’m really excited for fans to get to see how she collaborates and what her specific role as a part of the bridge crew [looks like]. I’m excited for fans to see sort of where she fits within this Star Trek family.”
To learn more about Gooding’s connection to Nichelle and her becoming Uhura, check out our full interview in the video above.