The Next Frontier: Tracing African-American “Star Trek” Characters

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'Star Trek Into Darkness' Premiere

Sean Gallup

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On Friday, Leonard Nimoy the man who gave life to one of the most iconic figures in science fiction, Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, passed away at 83 years old. His death triggered a day of mourning in the sci-fi fan world as fans of Star Trek both young and old, from all walks of life took to social media to talk about not only the man but the character that had touched so many lives. Because while Uhura and Sulu might have looked like us, Spock felt like one of us. And for “blerds,” urban geeks, and just “Trekkies” of color who in their daily life felt like the redshirt in the away team who you knew might not make it back to the ship, it was Spock who we identified with in some way or another. And it was through his character that many social issues were explored and continue to be explored. And it was the man Leonard Nimoy, whose life and sensibilities gave us Spock.

Mr. Spock, the first officer and science officer of the Federation Starship USS Enterprise was introduced to the world when Star Trek debuted in September 1966. The child of the unlikely marriage of an Earth female and Vulcan male, Spock was raised Vulcan and thus reared with the goal of suppressing his emotions and embracing logic as the ultimate goal in Vulcan life. This made him stoic and pragmatic, which was a sharp contrast to the bold, brash and passionate Captain Kirk played by William Shatner or the cynical Dr. McCoy played by Deforest Kelly. It also made him an outsider or the “minority” amongst the crew, because while there was the Asian character of Sulu and the Black character of Uhura, they were still humans, and Spock was the one who always the square peg trying to fit into the round hole. In many scenes, you could see the struggle Spock had navigating the social interactions and ways of perceiving things of his fellow crew as well as his constant vigil of keeping his emotions in check while others were free to express themselves. Spock was challenged and often chastised for his non-human reasoning during situations which often led to verbal assaults like Dr. McCoy’s, “You pointy eared, green blooded…” or Kirk’s who was his best friend question of, “Spock are you out of your Vulcan mind?” And while apologies would come after, to which Spock would dismiss and would remind his crew mates that he was indeed Vulcan and so had no feelings to hurt, he was indeed still human, as was evident by the perplexed look he would often give being reminded that he was still a child of two worlds not really belonging to either. A feeling that many minorities have felt trying to fit in and maybe even more so was the character’s kinship with those of mixed heritage who were probably eerily familiar with McCoy’s barb of “Half-breed” often thrown at Spock. Such was Spock’s cultural relevance that he was referenced in an article in Ebony magazine about people with biracial backgrounds being, “like Mr. Spock on Star Trek.” So even amongst Asian, Latino and black viewers who had characters that looked like them, for the most part Spock was who they more closely identified with as he was fighting the same internal struggles they were.

But would Spock have been such a cultural phenomenon without Leonard Nimoy? The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, one of Nimoy’s more famous quotes was how his “… folks came to US as immigrants, aliens and became citizens. I was born in Boston, a citizen, went to Hollywood and became an alien.” Spock was a symbol of what he indeed must have felt at times: isolated, different. While Spock was the role he was known for, he played a lot of roles and admittedly was typecast as the stereotypical bad guy because of his non-Anglo Saxon looks. And he brought all of this to the character. But Nimoy himself was very practical and challenged the illogical. In an interview with the Las Vegas Sun Walter Koenig (Chekov) recounted the story of when Nimoy found out Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) was being paid less than Koenig and Takei (Sulu). He had it addressed and corrected. Not because he was championing Civil Rights or Women’s Rights, just because it was illogical that Nichols was being paid less than others when she was doing the same work.

The character and legacy of Spock has endured in Star Trek lexicon as each iteration of the show has had their own Spock character, Star Trek: The Next Generation had Data and Worf. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had Odo, and Star Trek: Voyager had the Borg Expatriate 7 of 9 and the first black Vulcan Tuvok played by Tim Russ. Star Trek: Enterprise had the female Vulcan, T’Pol. Even today, Spock is still evolving and is still challenging social norms as in the Star Trek reboot by J.J. Abrams, Spock (Zachary Quinto) is in a relationship with the outspoken and tough as nails Uhura (Zoe Saldana).  So while Spock may live on, Leonard Nimoy is a loss that will be shared by many worlds.

African American Appearances On The Original Star Trek

Star Trek has taken its lump for not being as progressive as it could have been and for sometimes perpetuating racial stereotypes instead of challenging them, which was Gene Roddenberry’s wish. But in 1966, when the show first aired, it was still making a statement on race, class and giving African Americans roles where they were not typecast as pimps, hoes, or criminals. Many decisions were made based on this idea, including doing away with Spock’s original red makeup, which on camera made him look like a an African-American dark elf. There was also the decision to not cast any back actors as Klingons, even though, the Klingons were dark-skinned. But their hearts were in the right place. Over time, that has changed and now the Star Trek on-screen universe is rife with black characters like Captain Terrell (Paul Winfield) in the Wrath of Khan, Worf (Michael Dorn), Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton), Captain LaForge (Madge Sinclair) in The Next Generation series, and Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) in DS9, and many others. Here is a list of some of the African-American characters in the original series that led the way for their predecessors.

Nyota Uhura: (Nichelle Nichols) cast member of the original series and reprised her role in each film that featured the original crew. Her role as a communications officer on the bridge crew was so groundbreaking at the time that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked her to continue the role when she contemplated leaving it.

Richard Daystrom: (William Marshall) Daystrom was one of the most influential human scientists in the federation in the field of artificial intelligence and was responsible for the M-5 computer that could theoretically run a starship without the need for a crew in the episode “The Ultimate Computer.”

Lieutenant Boma: (Don Marshall) was part of the science team dispatched to study a four-star quasar when their ship went down. The team encountered a hostile species, and when one of the team was killed, Boma questioned Spock’s ability to command when he seemed more interested in the attacker’s weapon than the death of a crew member.

Commodore Stone, Portmaster of Starbase 11: (Percy Rodriguez) During a ion storm, the Enterprise was damaged and had to report to Starbase 11 for repairs and to report the loss of a crew member. Because of inconsistencies, Stone convened a Court Marshall to find out if Kirk had indeed killed the crewman.

Lieutenant Shea: (Carl Byrd) was part of the boarding party that met the Kevlan Expedition who tried to hijack the Enterprise.

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