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Book Review: 'Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories'

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You would think that after 30 years playing Lieutenant Uhura, Star Trek‘s peerless communications officer, Nichelle Nichols would have learned a few things about, well, communication. Unfortunately, in her autobiography, Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and other memories (Putnam, $22.95), Nichols never seems to find the right channel: Throughout most of the book, her self-aggrandizing voice is disquietingly loud, while her wide-ranging anecdotes and memories never focus into anything clear.

Nichols certainly does not lack for subject matter. The array of historical notables that figure in her life is astonishing, from Al Capone, who once threatened to kill her father, to astronaut Sally Ride, whom Nichols helped to recruit into the space program. Along the way, Nichols, who began her career as a cabaret star in Chicago in the ’40s, was discovered by Duke Ellington, danced with Bob Fosse, had an affair with Sammy Davis Jr., and clashed with novelist James Baldwin.

But Nichols’ tone is so self-absorbed that every incident in her life is overplayed into an example of moral righteousness, and every confrontation results in a validation of her talent. Her dancing is so accomplished, she reduces a bigot to tears. Her teeth are so perfect, toothpaste companies complain. When she disagrees with the producer of a musical, she smugly decides to follow her own direction: ”[The show] closed in a matter of days,” she recalls, ”although … my reviews were spectacular.”

When Nichols finally gets around to discussing Star Trek, she makes some intriguing revelations, such as the origin of the name Uhura (it was the title of the book she was reading when she went in for her audition) and what kept her on the show after the first season (a personal plea from Martin Luther King Jr., a fan of the show).

She also honestly dissects her involved and complex affair with the often selfish Gene Roddenberry, Trek‘s legendary creator. And she is most unguarded when discussing Captain Jerk himself, William Shatner, vividly describing his petty insecurities on the set. ”I can’t say with certainty that I would refuse another chance to beam aboard the Enterprise … ” she concludes. ”However, as for Bill personally, I say, with some regret and much hurt, ‘This communication channel is now closed. Uhura out.”’

In the end, however, such moments can’t overcome the book’s overall droning tone and lack of perspective, and they simply stand out as the few intelligible moments amid a mostly static-filled transmission. C