Arts blog: ‘Uhura is not far off being Bridget Jones in space’

Zoe Saldana as Uhura and Zachary Quinto as Spock in the new Star Trek film. Picture: Contributed
Zoe Saldana as Uhura and Zachary Quinto as Spock in the new Star Trek film. Picture: Contributed
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SEXISM lets down the new Star Trek movie according to trekkie Andrea Mullaney, while David Pollock previews a Cuillins psychogeography project.

THE Starship Enterprise is on a dangerous secret mission after an attack on Earth. Captain Kirk and Commander Spock put aside their different perspectives on how to deal with the enemy, as well as an earlier disagreement about the Prime Directive, so that they can bring him to justice like the Starfleet heroes they are. And Lieutenant Uhura, well, she’s decided this is the time that she and Spock should have a relationship talk about his commitment issues.

After all, when he was risking his life to save an entire civilisation while she was in tears on the Bridge, did he once think about “Us”? Why, he can’t even express his emotions, as if he’s a Vulcan or something! And he probably forgot their anniversary! He’s the worst boyfriend ever!

As the latest film in the rebooted franchise, Star Trek Into Darkness, hits cinemas, there will be plenty of fans – like, er, me – picking over continuity errors like the warp speed or the backstory of Benedict Cumberbatch’s villain. But if you can overlook all that – and by you, I mean me – it’s a tremendously enjoyable movie. With just one exception: Whiny Girlfriend Uhura.

One of the previous film’s reinventions was to pair up Spock and Uhura, now played by Zoe Saldana (pictured above). It’s certainly a departure from canon, but as the series now takes place in an alternate reality, why not? But Spock has a lot of other things going on, including his issues with Kirk, a number of action scenes and dealing with the destruction of his planet. Uhura is literally All About Spock in every scene she appears in, making her come across as clingy, unprofessional – the woman’s supposed to be an experienced officer who speaks umpteen languages – and dreary.

There’s an oft-told story about how Martin Luther King Jr told Nichelle Nichols, the original Uhura, that “for the first time, we’re seen as we should be seen … you have an equal role” – referring, of course, to her race. But despite many jokes over the years about her role as ship’s secretary, Uhura also represented a woman at the heart of the action, with expertise not just in communications but engineering and navigation. It wasn’t just black viewers who thought of her as a role model and in her later work for NASA, Nichols recruited astronauts like Sally Ride.

Yet though the original Star Trek series was ground-breaking in many ways, it had its share of sexist moments. The stinker episode Turnabout Intruder, for instance – the last before it was cancelled – featured a demented ex-girlfriend who takes over Kirk’s body because “your world of starship captains doesn’t admit women”.

And later spin-offs continued to play up the sexuality of its female characters, from Star Trek: The Motion Picture’s Ilia to Voyager’s Seven Of Nine in her skintight catsuit.

But Seven was a brusque genius; Voyager also had a driven female captain, Janeway, and a brilliant chief engineer, B’Elanna Torres. In Deep Space Nine, Kira Nerys was defined by her military skills and religious faith, not her relationships, while Dax had hundreds of years of experience as both men and women (don’t ask). In the later films, Kirk was dumped by Dr Gillian Taylor, who chose her career over him, while Picard took guidance from Whoopi Goldberg’s Guinan, warp engineer Lily Sloane and community leader Anij. And all of these characters were more than just “the girlfriend” but part of the crew, or guests with an agenda of their own.

That’s why it’s such a step back that in this film, Uhura’s story entirely revolves around Spock: what he really feels about her, whether he’s in danger and whether he thinks her bum looks big in this uniform. She’s not far off being Bridget Jones In Space. The other female character, Carol Marcus, has more to do, but still strips down to her underwear for no reason other than titillation. Needless to say, the two women don’t have a conversation, so the film fails the Bechdel Test.

The rest of the movie is great. But next time, I wish that JJ Abrams and Co would give one of the franchise’s iconic characters a chance to save the world too.

‘The landscape here is incredibly scarred. It’s a challenge’

This weekend, one of the most enticing arts events happening in Scotland will probably go entirely unnoticed by the majority of even the country’s most cultured audiences. More than five hours’ drive from the Central Belt, on the Isle of Skye, Panorama launches the artist Alec Finlay’s Còmhlan Bheanntan / A Company of Mountains, an exercise in placemaking and psychogeography which takes the form of an online blog singling out 14 mountainous locations on the island and detailing their significance in a historical or contemporary context.

The plan is that each blog, when live, can be absorbed either remotely or downloaded standing in the precise spot which inspired it. In the meantime, this launch event will feature Edinburgh musicians Wounded Knee and 7VWWVW’s (pronounced ‘mammal’… turn it upside-down) paying tribute to late mountaineer and broadcaster Tom Weir. The artist Ilana Halperin, curator Andrew Patrizio and archaeologist Karen Holmberg (the latter via phone from New York) will also present a “performance lecture” on geology and art entitled Hand Held Lava. Walking events include Finlay’s “poetic journey” to High Pasture Cave, featuring poet Meg Bateman, artist Caroline Dear and singer/artist Hannah Tuulikki.

“Alec was very interested in the mountain ranges here,” says Emma Nicolson, director of Atlas, a “venueless” Skye-based arts organisation – and in this case commissioning agency – which formed from the closure of arts centre An Tuireann.

“He was interested in the idea that a lot of people who travel to the island or even live on the island don’t actually climb the mountains, but that they’re very present and they really dominate our view on a good day, and in the history and mythology which surrounds them.”

“The show’s sited at the Sligachan Hotel, which is the only thing left at the foot of the Cuillins, it’s famous with climbers and walkers who visit Skye,” she continues. “So the event’s being held on the edge of what’s almost a wilderness area, which no installation or symposium elsewhere would be able to recreate. It will be a visceral, elemental experience for anyone who visits.”

For many of we Scots born or raised, it might also be a shameful reminder that a lack of cultural exploration amongst the Highlands and Islands’ scene reflects a lack of physical exploration amidst the stunning corners of our own country. “The landscape here is scarred with its fairly recent history of the Clearances,” says Nicolson, “and many people don’t see that until they visit, it really opens their eyes to what can come across as a wild, empty area.” She laughs. “It’s hard work trying to present contemporary art up here. It’s a challenge, but it’s a worthwhile one because it’s such an amazing place.”

l Panorama is at the Sligachan Hotel and various locations around the Isle of Skye, Saturday 18 and Sunday 19 May. www.atlasarts.org.uk