Uhura Wears Red

Nyota Uhura, Nichelle NicholsIt occurred to me recently that Lieutenant Uhura, the Enterprise’s communications officer, portrayed by the formidable Nichelle Nichols, wears a red uniform. This may not be immediately surprising. Lots of people wear red uniforms in the Original Series. All the nameless “redshirt” security guards, yes, but also the entire engineering department, which naturally raises the question: Which is Uhura? Not security, clearly, which leaves engineering.

This realization struck me because fans seem to have conflated “communications” with linguistics at some point after the original series, largely due to the 1985 novel Uhura’s Song by Janet Kagan. In actual episodes, though, she’s not presented as a linguist but an expert in the sophisticated technology required for the Enterprise’s communications, including long-range with Starfleet, intraship coordination, and interfacing with alien ships’ technologies. She doesn’t pull out a dictionary, she crawls under her station to reconnect wires. She’s in the engineering department, not the humanities.

A few examples: In “Who Mourns for Adonais?”, she pops under her station to “rig up a subspace bypass circuit,” identified as “very delicate work.” Spock comments that no one else is more qualified to do it and leaves her alone. Spock. Spock doesn’t think he himself could do a better job on that circuit. (Nichelle Nichols has also commented that she saw Uhura’s relationship with Spock as one of a student and mentor). Another one, easy to miss, is tossed in at the beginning of “The Gamesters of Triskelion.” The initial goal, before they were waylaid by the gamesters, was a maintenance check on an automated communications outpost, so Uhura is tapped for the landing party.

Uhura and Spock in Who Mourns for Adonais

Uhura is shown speaking Swahili on multiple occasions, it seems to be her first language, and that may be part of the reason her character is nudged that way later. However, it’s generally presented as character backstory and part of an effort to show people of all nationalities on the Enterprise, not connected to her professional qualifications. Think about it: With a universal translator, why would they need a linguist on the bridge? On the ship as a backup, certainly, but not on the bridge.

This matters, not because linguists are dumb — it’s just as valid as any other profession and super interesting! — but because Uhura is not a linguist, yet is continually pushed in that direction, a more “feminine” direction. It matters because we still have so few representations of women in STEM fields, let alone women of color, and one representation makes all the difference. Before 1985, Uhura was a symbol drawing women into NASA and the STEM fields at large, and she deserves a little recognition!

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20 responses to “Uhura Wears Red

  1. Worth noting that in one of the movies (was it Star Trek VI?) she doesn’t know Klingon; she and the other officers have to consult a dictionary to kobble together broken Klingon sentences. She indeed is not a linguist, but the new movies have “reimagined” a lot of things.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Quite so! I don’t object to the reimagining as such, it’s reasonable for a communications person to be interested in languages and also reasonable that the universal translator won’t always be there (even assuming it’s as infallible as it looks). But there’s a real-world difference in perception here.

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  2. I’ve heard that she was 4th in the line of command for the Starship. One of the top officers and an engineer, sure. It was a groundbreaking role.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’d buy that. Plus, like the rest of the bridge crew, she’s shown taking pretty much any other bridge position if necessary.

      Liked by 2 people

      • That definitely seems like part of officer training in Starfleet, if I remember right… learning all of the bridge functions.

        I’ve mostly watched Next Gen, and recently enough that I feel like I remember Riker doing this the most. He was always read to jump on the helm and pilot the ship when it inevitably exploded in a shower of sparks, or to take over tactical when needed. I also seem to remember it being Troi at the helm when the Enterprise D crashed in Generations… but she was the newest officer 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        • Any commisioned line officer must be able to assume command of a ship base, or fort, thus many militaries cross train. In modern navies, officers in line for command stand watch and are thus watch qualified. When standing watch officers are in command, and the number of hours they stand are logged. This is one consideration for promotions, both brevet and permanent. Bridge crew are usually watch qualified as they are most likely to command a ship in event of emergency.
          Medical and engineering officers are often not included in this. Star Trek acknowledges this by having a command course, which is mandatory for bridge officers and voluntary for medical and ship’s counselors. Troi attends and passes this, receiving promotion to full commander in Season Six. Two seasons prior she inherits command during an accident, and without this training she is lost. It is not clear how she ranks in the chain of command, but she is the senior officer on the bridge, taking Ensign Ro’s advice.
          This is one of the ambiguities of the series. While usually not likely to command, any commissioned officer is theoretically in the chain of command. This is because all officers are trained in one thing, illustrated by this principle. You can’t know everything, make it your business to know your people and have them fill in what you don’t know. This is what she does when she takes Ensign Ro’s advice.
          Summing things up, bridge officers are cross trained, to prepare them for command, emergency and permanent, and do so by seniority. Any non-line officers(medical, counselor, engineering) would most likely rank after the last bridge officer, also in terms of seniority.

          Liked by 4 people

  3. I’m fully behind your assessment that Uhura has a technical background, not only in the engineering of the communications systems, but in the science of communication technology (the math that makes things work.)

    Great post!

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  4. I never thought about this in quite this way before. But I have always felt Uhura didn’t get the chops she deserved from fans. This all makes good sense! She was always a critical part of the crew, and valued for her skills. She must have been from engineering! : ) Also that link is pure gold!

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  5. Reblogged this on Things Matter and commented:

    Monthly Star Trek column is up!

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  6. Your analysis is spot on. She is definitely a techie, what my dad referred to when reminiscing about WWII as a “radio man.” Wow, how many barriers did that one character challenge? Thank you, Uhura.

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  7. I always sort of knew this, as a little girl, watching the show. It was my understanding that the Coomunications console was “hers”, and she ran the whole thing. It never occurred to me that she was a linguist either. (Part of me knew Swahili speaking didn’t have anything to do with her job. )

    But Thank you, thank you, thank you for clearing this up! It’s time Uhura got her props. She was one of my icons when I was growing up, and still inspires me today.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The reason for this ambiguity might have a little something to do with network revisions to Gene Rodenberry’s original script. Initiall, he had planned for her to be First Officer, Spock’s role, this was rejected.
    When the series premieres, we see her manning the communications console (essentially a futuristic telephone operator) , a post more palatable for 60’s audiences. As the series progresses, hints are dropped that this is a technical specialization. In the movies, this is hinted at again when she mentions being late for an Academy lecture in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
    Communications seems to be its own career track, as we never see her report to Cmmdr. Scott. Real life militaries also have their own comm techs, and Star Trek is an analog for ‘wet navies.’ Further evidence is by the fact that in the old series gold denoted command and helm, blue was science and medical, red was for security, communications and engineering. In Star Trek: TNG, security and engineering swap colors with command/helm and security takes over communications functions where they still have the same colors. Two separate yet secondary functions, thus they have the same colors and when merged have the same color.
    Suffice it to say, Communications is likely it’s own department and career track, requiring its specialists to operate , maintain and repair sophisticated, delicate and advanced hardware.

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