Star Trek: Why William Shatner & Nichelle Nichols Weren't In J.J. Abrams' Reboot

After a seven-year absence on the big screen following the release of "Star Trek: Nemesis" in 2002, the franchise returned to the feature film world in a big way with the release of "Star Trek" in 2009, director J.J. Abrams' reboot of the story featuring the original characters from the classic 1966 NBC-TV series.

The point of Abrams' film was to reintroduce the Enterprise's classic crew in their early years, including James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), and Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana), characters originally played by William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Nichelle Nichols, respectively. With some pivotal scenes in the "Star Trek" reboot taking place decades into the future, Nimoy starred in a key role as an older version of his character, who was dubbed Spock Prime.

Naturally, with Nimoy's high-profile turn in Abrams' "Star Trek" film, Shatner became vocal about not being included in the cast, claiming he wasn't even offered a cameo in the reboot. In a 2008 interview with AMC-TV's Sci-Fi Scanner Blog, Abrams explained why Shatner wasn't in the film. "It was very tricky. We actually had written a scene with him in it that was a flashback kind of thing, but the truth is, it didn't quite feel right," Abrams revealed. "The bigger thing was that he was very vocal that he didn't want to do a cameo. We tried desperately to put him in the movie, but he was making it very clear that he wanted the movie to focus on him significantly, which, frankly, he deserves."

Abrams says a cameo was tricky because Shatner's Kirk already died in Star Trek timeline

J.J. Abrams' pointed out to Sci-Fi Scanner that one of the biggest obstacles to bringing William Shatner back for the reboot film stemmed from his loyalty to the "Star Trek" canon. Unlike Nimoy's future version of Spock, Shatner's older version of James T. Kirk wouldn't work in the new "Star Trek" film because Kirk died in 1994's "Star Trek Generations." The scene in the film where Kirk perishes essentially serves as a passing of the torch to "Star Trek: The Next Generation's" Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), as "The Next Generation" series became the focus of the "Star Trek" movie franchise at the time.

"The truth is, the story that we were telling required a certain adherence to the 'Trek' canon and consistency of storytelling," Abrams explained. "It's funny — a lot of the people who were proclaiming that he must be in this movie were the same people saying it must adhere to canon. Well, his character died on screen. Maybe a smarter group of filmmakers could have figured out how to resolve that."

As such, Kirk was solely played by Chris Pine in the 2009 film. Lamenting about the pivotal "Generations" story element that kept him out of the "Star Trek" reboot, Shatner said in 2011 that he would go back and demand a better death for Kirk if he could. In the film, Kirk died after being crushed in a bridge collapse as he and Picard battled the villainous Soran (Malcolm McDowell).

Abrams wanted Nichols in his Star Trek film, but not as 'a gimmick'

While J.J. Abrams was unable to come up with a solution to sensibly cast William Shatner in his "Star Trek" reboot, the filmmaker did examine ways to include Nichelle Nichols' version of Uhura. In 2008, Nichols told the convention crowd at the Supernova Pop Culture Expo in Perth, Australia (via Trek Movie), that she met with Abrams when his "Star Trek" film was in production.

"He was very excited ... like a young fan. He was like, 'I can't believe I am sitting here with Uhura,'" Nichols recalled at the convention. "And he said, 'You know, I would really like to find a valid reason for you to be in the movie.' And, of course, I became, 'Ooh! Wow! I would love it. But how?' And he says, 'That is the point, I don't want it to be a gimmick, I don't want to just be doing that to just do it.'"

Abrams seemed to have come up with a sensible way for Nichols to appear in the film, the actor recalled, but the timing of it wasn't on their side.

Abrams hoped to have Nichols play Uhura's mother or grandmother

At the same convention appearance, Nichelle Nichols explained that J.J. Abrams' quandary about working Uhura into the narrative of the 2009 reboot was that the core narrative of the film was about Spock — which thereby allowed the director to incorporate both Zachary Quinto's and Leonard Nimoy's iterations of the character. From there, Nichols recalled, Abrams suggested different ways of including her in the film as well.

"He was telling me about the young actress who got the part to play the young Uhura, the pre-Uhura, Zoe Saldaña — and he said, 'I think she could learn a lot from a lovely lady,' and he said, 'You know what I'd love? I'd love for you to play her mother!'" Nichols recalled. "And I said, 'You know what I'd really like? ... I'd like to play her grandmother!' And he said, 'You're too young to play her grandmother!' and I said, 'This is what grandmother's look like!'"

Unfortunately, a strike by the Writers Guild of America which ran from 2007 to 2008 was still in play when Abrams met with Nichols, interfering with his plan to work her into the script. As such, Abrams' plans for the actor's cameo had to be abandoned. 

Nichols still met with Saldaña as she prepared to play Uhura, however, and the impact of their encounter resonated deep with the actor. "Meeting Nichelle was truly a very special moment in my life," Saldaña wrote in an Instagram tribute shortly after Nichols' death on July 30, 2022. "Her energy was infectious every time I was in her presence. She convinced me in believing that anything was achievable, if you put your heart into it."