Analysis: The Tropes of Women of Color in Sci-Fi – Special – Nyota Uhura (Part 1)

Originally, my observations on Uhura’s character were to have been a part of the review of Star Trek (2009).  However, since these observations started to compile like a repair list for a battle-damaged carrier, I decided to go into more detail in its own post.

For this movie, I decided to look at the eight most important appearances of Uhura in this movie, because it is in these appearances that much is revealed, including why Orci, Kurtzmann, and Abrams decided to put her into a relationship with Spock.  The results aren’t pretty.

Scene One – Uhura is Introduced:

Yep, She's Lost That "Lovin' Feeling."

Uhura walks into the local town bar to have a good time with her Starfleet Comrades when Kirk shows up and begins trying to hit on her.  Immediately the innuendo starts flying off his tongue, and Uhura attempts to shut down the conversation by insulting him…twice.  When that does nothing but make Kirk parry the insults and he continues to [not get the hint], Uhura is saved by a number of stereotypical military jock-types.  The ensuing fight includes this maneuver:

Missing from Scene: The "Glomping" Sound Effect. See also: Ranma 1/2; Nadesico; Goldenboy; Love Hina; etc.

And I’m ready to bring the Wave Motion Gun out of mothballs.  Of course, this moment was to set the stage for the nearly-permanent character conflict between Uhura and Kirk – where Uhura was to be set up as the only female character that rejects Kirk’s advances despite his repeated attempts.  That, and the oddity of Uhura not ever telling Kirk her first name (more on this ridiculousness later).

Some Observations:

The important thing to remember about this particular scene is that the impact of this scene rests mainly on the viewer seeing Chris Pine and Zoe Saldana, but visualizing (in part) William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols.  As part and parcel with the William Shatner Backlash that I touch on in the main review, many of the parodies of the Captain Kirk character, from Tim Allen to Jim Carrey to Eddie Murphy often involve Bill Shatner’s Captain Kirk attempting to seduce some random woman.

Scene Two – Uhura’s Plot Contribution:

Apparently, Kirk has been asking Uhura her first name for 3 Years. He Could Have Just Checked the Student Manifest List and Gotten His Answer.

The scene sets us up with Uhura and Gaila (the Orion woman Kirk was in bed with) as Uhura is undressing out of her uniform to get ready for bed.  At the same time, she is telling Gaila about something strange that she observed at her duty station.

[Sidebar:  Movies like this one make a full mockery of The Bechdel Test, at least in theory.  It meets all of the surface requirements, but the scene is both superfluous and irrelevant to the overall story.  Take note that this is the only scene which features 2 female characters actually talking to each other in the entire film.  And it is in a scene that could have been found in a typical Teen Sex Comedy film.

Rapid Progress, Indeed.]

She deduces that her roommate brought another “man to sleep with” back to the room and she ends up confronting Kirk once more, taunting him that he is “going to fail.”  She throws his clothes at him and orders him to get out of their room.

Some Observations:

The conflict between Kirk and Uhura continues, and the audience is still supposed to be hung over from the imagery of Shatner and Nichols from the last scene.  Kirk is supposed to be portrayed as a first-class jerk, and because he “surreptitiously” peeked on Uhura getting undressed, this was supposed to set Kirk permanently against Uhura – and that Uhura would never (in a million light-years) be able to succumb to Kirk’s charms.

Scene 3 – Uhura and the Kobayashi Maru

From the Ron Moore School of Character Conflict: Have Junior Officers Talk Back to Senior and Commanding Officers for No Good Reason.

We start with Uhura giving us the Information Dump of the Kobayashi Maru – and it sounds suspiciously similar to the one written in The Wrath of Khan.  Kirk gives orders to the crew, and ignores Uhura’s objections.  When the simulation ends, Uhura is dumbfounded as to what happened, as is the test’s programmer, Commander Spock.

Some Observations:

Uhura’s behavior and body-language in this scene show just how unprofessional her character has become.  Note that this is the first time that we see Uhura in an actual work environment and she spends her time disparaging Kirk.  The key to understanding her lack of professionalism lies in the way that she addresses the commanding officer during the simulation.  Her comments to the ship’s captain were way out of line, and under any disciplined chain-of-command, Uhura would have been reprimanded for her behavior.

Whatever Jim Kirk’s actions and behavior towards Uhura may have been previous to this scene, keep in mind that they have taken place off-duty, off-hours, away from class.  It also strikes as being odd that if Kirk’s behavior had risen to the level of undue harassment that Uhura does not file a complaint with the Academy – or at the least remove herself from the simulation assignment.  This would not be impossible as we will find out later on.

Scene 3 – Part Two:

Why Does Uhura Care Whether Or Not Jim Kirk Beats the Kobayashi Maru? The Answer Comes Later.

The Starfleet Academy Commandant calls a general session and has Kirk brought forth to answer charges of improper tampering of the test.  Kirk wants to confront his accuser and he finds himself face-to-face with Commander Spock, the writer of the test.  They banter back-and-forth, and Spock fires a personal insult at him concerning his father.  The hearing is interrupted by a distress call being received from Vulcan and the students are all scrambled to ships for duty.

Some Observations:

Uhura gets no lines here, but we get her “I thought so” reaction (pictured above) when Spock charges Kirk with cheating.  Also note that Spock shows a rather crass moment of hypocrisy when he makes reference to George Kirk during the hearing.  Anyone who talks about Spock’s half-human side OR his human mother during discussions that have no relation to the subject at hand is to be derided, ignored, or beaten senseless.  But Spock does this to Kirk and he’s supposed to be seen as being right.

When you look at it, Jim Kirk lost his father trying to save his crew on the day he was born…literally moments after his birth.  He has been dealing with it for many years, and Spock brings it up in an effort to make Jim Kirk look pathetic in some way.  There has been little commentary on this moment as well.

Just more Shatner backlash here.  Move along.

Scene 4 – Uhura and Spock to the Enterprise:

The data rod is skipping again. See also: Lily Sloane - Star Trek: First Contact.

At the same time that McCoy is about give Kirk a favor, Uhura badgers Spock about why she was being assigned to the starship Farragut as opposed to Enterprise.  Spock mentions something about not wanting to show favoritism, but Uhura cuts him off.  He then makes some motions on the PADD he held and she is satisfied with the result.

Some Observations:

For the most part, I have an ambivalence about this scene.  I don’t know whether or not to feed this movie to the Felinian Predators or simply stomp this movie out using giant robots.  So far, Uhura’s interactions have been only with Kirk, Spock, and Gaila.  And the only scene in which she isn’t sassy or unprofessional is the one with Gaila.  This scene was supposed to have Uhura list her qualifications (for the benefit of the audience) as the justification for her to be assigned to Enterprise.  However, when broken down, her methods of gaining assignment aboard the ship are just as flimsy as the ones that McCoy used for Kirk.

It’s hard to lose faith in something that never seems to work, anyway.

Scene 5 – Kirk Confronts Uhura…Again:

Confronted by "Manos, The Hands of Fate," Uhura Becomes a Passive Voice From Here On Out.

Kirk wakes up in Sick Bay as he listens to Ensign Chekov explain the mission to the crew.  Kirk hears something that jogs his memory and he immediately runs to a communications/computer run where Uhura is stationed.  He asks her about the transmission she monitored (back in Scene 2) and if the ship was Romulan.  She answers yes, Kirk runs to the bridge to get the Captain, Christopher Pike, to stop the ship from flying into an ambush.

Scene 5, Part 2 – Uhura Begins to Disappear:

Uhura, Realizing How Little Her Contribution is Worth in This Movie.

Kirk makes it to the bridge with Uhura and McCoy in tow and he implores Captain Pike to stop the ship before it walks into a Romulan trap.  He explains his deductions and when Captain Pike demands how he learned of the Klingon attack, he simply turns to Uhura.  Uhura explains to Pike what she translated and that Kirk’s report was accurate.  Spock is forced to agree with the conclusion.

When the Lieutenant at the station admits to being deficient in understanding Romulan, Captain Pike orders Cadet Uhura to take over the station.  The ship arrives at Vulcan…and finds a graveyard of wrecked Starfleet ships – and the Romulans waiting for them.

Some Observations:

If you really want to understand why I have been completely underwhelmed by Star Trek (2009), this is the scene that ties it all down.  If you didn’t catch the plot point when Uhura was undressing for the benefit of “fan service” to the audience, you would have missed that this was the ONLY contribution that Uhura offers towards the mission – and for the entire movie.  Uhura’s own contributions to the film, which were minimal to begin with, drop down to being a passive voice…except in one arena.

Scene 6 – When You’re Being Distracted, You Miss the Target:

And Abrams Delivers a Poison Chalice. Long-suffering Uhura Fans Drink Heartily.

After Vulcan is Red-Matter Vacuumed into an artificial Black Hole, Spock finds himself having trouble coping.  When he leaves the bridge, Uhura follows him on to the turbolift and re-affirms her love for him, as well offering emotional support in his time of need.

Some Observations:

This scene is not necessarily a by-product of the Shatner Backlash, but the image once again we’re not supposed to have is of Saldana and Quinto but of Nichols and Nimoy.  This moment above also works as its own version of the Action Heroine Handwave, but for a woman of color, as it works to buttress the fact that her character has done nothing but provide us a scene in her underwear and sassed James Kirk (and Spock, for that matter).

Some of the criticism of this scene centered around the “inter-racial” dynamics of the actors involved.  That criticism is both invalid and false.

Some other criticism of this also centered around the fact that you have a Cadet/Student in an intimate relationship with an Instructor/MidGrade Officer.  That criticism, however unfair, is valid.  I realize that Starfleet is somewhat more relaxed in its policies regarding relationships, however, one should read the primer on Fraternization Policies of the US Armed Forces and understand why the criticism is valid.

But, even with that, my criticism of the relationship isn’t rooted in the above.  Instead, the Uhura-Spock relationship was supposed to be another peg in the overarching character conflict between Spock and Kirk.  Through this lens, Uhura’s seemingly personal stake in seeing Kirk fail at everything (including seducing Uhura) begins to make more sense.

Scene 7 – Did She Make a Wrong Choice?:

This marks the second time Uhura has watched Kirk getting beat up. This time, at the hands of her "boyfriend."

Kirk manages to find Ambassador Spock (from a different future) on the planet of Delta Vega.  Together, they run into Commander Montgomery Scott at a Federation Outpost.  Spock feeds him the final piece of a puzzle for Transwarp Beaming, and Kirk and Scott beam aboard Enterprise even as the ship is at high warp speed.  Spock has the two men captured and Kirk provokes Spock into attacking him.  When Spock realizes that Kirk is right about the situation, he relieves himself of duty and Kirk assumes command.  Uhura wonders if it is for the best:

Since Spock can't choke Kirk, it is left to Uhura to sass him. I'm reaching for the Ispano Guymelef right now.

Some Observations:

And, it is at the exact point in the movie where I have officially washed my hands of Uhura.  There’s character conflict (like Scene 1&2), there’s intentional disrespect (Scene 3), and then there is the realization that no one seems to understand what the Starblazers is going on (Scene 7).  Spock had no plan of action – and apparently had no intention whatsoever of contacting any Starfleet Admiral to request further instructions.  Uhura’s pronouncement to Kirk after he takes the chair may be valid, but is unfortunately colored by the situation itself.  One cannot be sure if this is because she has doubts about his abilities to command or because he managed to humiliate her partner on three different occasions.

Scene 8 – All Mysteries Resolved:

What's That Look For? Especially During a Life-or-Death Mission?

Sulu and Chekov develop a plan to make Enterprise invisible to the Romulan sensors as the ship attacks Earth.  Kirk develops a rescue plan and he and Spock prepare to beam over to the Romulan ship to destroy it and rescue Captain Pike.  Before they leave, Uhura gives Spock a goodbye kiss, and Spock calls her by her first name, Niyota.

Some Observations:

If you needed any confirmation that the Uhura-Spock relationship was nothing more than an extended character conflict story between Kirk and Spock, this was the scene that proves it.  All you have to do is look at how Abrams directed Saldana in this scene, and then listen to the dialogue between Pine and Quinto after she leaves.  It was supposed to be a slightly humorous moment, but it falls flat.

This scene reminds me of something I read in the Star Trek: The Next Generation Nitpicker’s Guide regarding the Season 3 finale, “The Best of Both Worlds.”  Paraphrasing, “The Borg are on their way to destroy the Earth and the most important thing on the new officer’s mind is how to take the First Officer’s position away from Riker.”  The same thinking applies here:  Unicron is about to destroy Cybertron A Massive Romulan Ship is about to destroy the Earth, and the only thing that Uhura is worried about is whether Kirk is being put in his place by Spock.

The First Conclusion:

This covers the eight most important appearances by the Uhura character as played by Zoe Saldana in the movie, as well as some of my initial observations of those appearances.  I will give some final thoughts in the next (and last) part of the series.

This entry was posted in Movie Haterade, Support Analysis, Women of Color and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Analysis: The Tropes of Women of Color in Sci-Fi – Special – Nyota Uhura (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Analysis: The Tropes of Women of Color in Sci-Fi – Special – Nyota Uhura (Part 2) | Loose Cannon

  2. Thanks for that awesome posting. It saved MUCH time 🙂

  3. Nao85 says:

    white feminism

Say What You Mean - And Mean What You Say

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