Nichelle Nichols' New NASA Documentary Is as Unflinching as It Is Romantic

Nichelle Nichols and the Space Shuttle Enterprise featured in photoshopped promotional art for Woman in Motion
Nichelle Nichols, the role that shot her to the stars, and the shuttle program she helped inspire to a more diverse field of NASA candidates than ever before.
Image: Paramount

Early on in the new documentary Woman in Motion, Star Trek legend Nichelle Nichols discusses the idea of the blurred lines between the fantastical and the real in her job as Lieutenant Uhura, a character in equal parts history-making and yet also held back by the harsh realities of the era her character was made in. The documentary itself, going far beyond that 23rd century future and all the way back into our own history, is a similar adventure.

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Directed by The Highwaymen’s Todd Thompson—and now coming to Paramount+ after a limited theatrical debut earlier this year—Woman in Motion: Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek and the Remaking of NASA showcases a fascinating balancing act. It finds itself walking a fine line between a sanitized retelling of Nichelle Nichols’ turn from sci-fi TV gamechanger to one of the most important supporters of NASA’s diversification of the astronaut training programs of the ’70s and ’80s, with the unflinching reality of the discrimination and racism people of color faced making inroads into fields dominated by white men—whether it was the bright lights of Hollywood or the stars above in the U.S. space program.

It’s a throughline pulled together by drawing upon Nichols’ charisma and strength as a performer and orator. She’s a constant presence across archival interviews, excerpts from her self-narrated autobiography, and new material the actress shot for the documentary—as well as contributions from NASA officials and Star Trek stars like George Takei and Walter Koenig. The documentary’s tone switch between uplifting romance and harsh setbacks and roadblocks Nichols faced in her career can, at times, feel almost like whiplash. But it’s a tonal swerve deployed effectively, and perhaps necessarily. Woman in Motion is a loving celebration of not just her work on-screen and as an activist for the space program, but also a reminder of the struggles she endured, and that people of color and minorities still endure in the spaces she worked in to this day.

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Image: Paramount

Despite being shot through with clips from the series and stars from multiple generations of the long-running franchise, Star Trek is not of the most tantamount interests to the doc, and rightfully so. A potted history of Nichols’ early career and her time on the original Star Trek takes up the first third of the film’s roughly 90-minute runtime, giving plenty of focus to her post-Trek career after being recruited to help broaden NASA’s outreach into minority groups as the space program expanded recruitment efforts. But as relatively brief a focus as Star Trek is, it sets a tone carried throughout. Classic stories told time and time before are retold here, from Uhura and Kirk’s infamous “Plato’s Children” kiss, to Nichols’ frustration at being repeatedly given the line “Opening hailing frequencies” and little else, to happier memories, like the encounter with Martin Luther King that encouraged her to stay with the program in the face of mounting frustration.

But likewise, that frustration is not hidden away from the viewer—we’re reminded that for all the forward-thinking Star Trek had in placing a Black woman in a fundamental, vital position in its main cast, Nichols still had to face the reality of being a woman of color on a TV program in the 1960s, her role increasingly diminished as the series went on. A thankfully brief montage of male interviewees commenting on Uhura’s status as a sex symbol as part of that process feels like an unintentional metacommentary too. But again, a reminder that the way women were viewed and talked about in Star Trek’s heyday still persists in the present feels, intentionality aside, like a reminder of the documentary’s ultimate goal to cut through the romanticized nostalgia it indulges in with a vision of the reality behind it.

That tonal break makes Woman in Motion’s true focus on Nichols’ time with NASA as a board member of the National Space Institute and ultimately a vital campaigner for bolstering recruitment to the 1977 batch of astronaut trainees hit effectively hard. Her victories are presented as gleeful highs; being able to enter a male, white-dominated space and effectively remind peers who looked down as her as a simple celebrity publicity stunt that her ability to outreach with women and people of color gave her an advantage NASA and the military lacked due to historic, systemic discrimination of candidates outside of the white male norm. But the doc equally points to the frustrations she felt both being undermined by the people she was trying to help at NASA, and in facing distrust in the communities she provided outreach to—themselves keenly aware of Nichols’ position as a useful PR tool to leverage untrusting groups in what was still ultimately a white-dominated field.

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Image: Paramount

It’s this tempering of the joys Nichols faced in succeeding—after being given just four months to do the job, her 1977 recruitment drive gave NASA a candidate pool more diverse than it had ever seen before—and the impact her inspiration had compared to the hard road she faced getting there that makes those joys feel earned rather than romantic for romanticism’s sake. But it also makes the emotional lows of the documentary land equally effectively. The fact that Nichols grew to love the groundbreaking candidates her work resulted in is contrasted with a truly gutwrenching recollection of the 1986 Challenger disaster, in which all seven crew members aboard the shuttle were killed after the craft broke apart just 73 seconds after liftoff. Nichols’ recruitment drive had gotten three of those crewmembers into the program: Ellison Onizuka, Ronald McNair, and Judith Resnik, the latter of whom Nichols had grown to know personally as well.

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It’s heartbreaking, but necessary for the audience to see, as Woman in Motion goes on to reflect on the inspiration Nichols still provides to this day, and ultimately what makes the documentary itself compelling viewing for Star Trek diehards and space enthusiasts alike. It would’ve been very easy for a documentary such as this to sugarcoat both Nichols’ time on Star Trek and her time at the NSI and with NASA, to end with the success of her recruitment drive. But in balancing the rightful celebration of her achievements (on and off-screen) with harsh, emotional reminders of the cost and struggles she faced, it instead feels like a celebration of her legacy that is truly earned, and respectful of the actress’ impact on the lives of so many, Star Trek fans or not.

Woman in Motion: Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek and the Remaking of NASA begins streaming on Paramount+ on June 2.

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James is a News Editor at io9, where you can find him delivering your morning spoilers, writing about superheroes, and having many feelings about Star Wars. He wants pictures. Pictures of Spider-Man!

DISCUSSION

jstimson
jstimson

I grew up watching TOS, and I always was enchanted when Uhura was on the screen. She deserved to have so much more than she was given. At STLV in 2019 I got a photo op with her, and this is a prized possession of mine. I told her just before the picture was taken that even Klingons love Uhura, and she started to laugh joyfully.