Six o’clock had come and gone when the suits from head office beamed on to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. It was the late summer of 1968 and two executives from NBC had been called to the massive sound-stage at Desilu Studios Hollywood (today Paramount Studios) that served as HQ for Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek.
They’d been summoned by David Alexander, director of the season three Star Trek episode Plato’s Stepchildren after the final shot of the day. Alexander had a question which was, he felt, above his pay grade. Would William Shatner’s Captain Kirk be allowed to kiss Nichelle Nichols’s Lieutenant Uhura? “There are two suits, they’ve got dark glasses and million-dollar suits,” recalled Nichols decades later. Her snog with Shatner had, by then, achieved history book status as the first interracial kiss in television history.
This claim was far from true – Shatner himself had kissed France Nuyen, a French actress of Asian origin back in 1958 (it was a clip from the Broadway production of The World of Suzie Wong). And it wasn’t even the first interracial kiss in Star Trek. A year earlier George Takei’s Sulu had kissed Uhura’s neck and, that same year, Kirk had enjoyed a smooch with Barbara Luna’s Lt Marlena Moreau. Nevertheless, Kirk and Uhura’s snog was the first interracial kiss that anyone noticed.
Nichols’s death at age 89 has prompted tributes and reflections on the importance of Star Trek as a progressive force in Sixties television and of her taboo-shattering portrayal as a black woman in a position of power (as Communications Officer, Uhura was fourth-in-command of the Enterprise). Much of that legacy is bound up in Plato’s Stepchildren and the kiss with Shatner – filmed six times on Captain Kirk’s insistence.
The kiss, one of them at any rate, made the final cut and the episode aired in November 1968. Executives at NBC were braced for a backlash, especially in the South – they had expressed similar concern earlier that year over a moment in a Petula Clark special in which she touched Harry Belafonte’s arm. The response was, in fact, largely positive (The BBC had meanwhile banned the episode outright – not for the kiss but on the basis that it concerned the “unpleasant subjects of madness, torture, sadism and disease”).
“We received one of the largest batches of fan mail ever, all of it very positive, with many addressed to me from girls wondering how it felt to kiss Captain Kirk, and many to him from guys wondering the same thing about me,” said Nichols. “However, almost no one found the kiss offensive.”
Across the decades, however, Plato’s Stepchildren came to be regarded as a giant leap for American television. At the height of the Civil Rights moment, Star Trek was pointing the way to a brighter tomorrow. And yet the tongue-tangle almost didn’t make it to screen. The kiss was in the script, which was why Shatner had leaned in and planted his gob on Nichols’s lips. But the director, Alexander, had panicked and called Shatner over for a confab (with Nichols standing there like a glorified prop).
Alexander demanded to know what Shatner thought he was doing. The actor replied that he was performing the scene as written. At this, Alexander turned corpse-white and called in the executives. They in turn got hold of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry – who immediately contacted senior executives at NBC (they told him to use his judgement) and then headed down to the set.
He asked Nichols how she felt about the situation. “It’s up to you Gene,” she recalled saying. “Gene said, “shoot it both ways”. The coats [executives] turn around and leave. Bill [Shatner] said, let’s do the kiss first.”
Roddenberry shot the kiss first. He then filmed an alternate take in which Kirk resisted the instructions that the aliens had planted in his head. Shatner, to his credit, was determined to break the taboo around interracial kissing. And so he made sure the kiss-free footage was unusable. Scrunching up his face, going “full Shatner”, he yelled. “I! WON'T! KISS! YOU! I! WON'T! KISS! YOU!” He was boldly going where no ham had gone before.
“The only alternative was to cut out the scene altogether, but that was impossible to do without ruining the entire episode,” said Nichols. Finally, the guys in charge relented: “To hell with it. Let’s go with the kiss.” I guess they figured we were going to be cancelled in a few months anyway. And so the kiss stayed.”
In 2022, Plato’s Stepchildren might be regarded as “problematic” for reasons unrelated to race. In the episode, the crew of the Enterprise have their brains hacked by diminutive aliens. The aliens have acquired the power of telekinesis and, with the Greek Gods as role models, manipulate mortals for their amusement.
Part of their fun involves making Kirk and Uhura kiss. And the kissing is essentially forced on Uhura by Kirk: it isn’t consensual. Today that might set klaxons blaring. At the time, though, it was regarded as a get-out by NBC. Uhura wasn’t voluntarily touching lips with Kirk.
It wasn’t pre-ordained that Kirk and Uhura would be the ones to kiss. The unspoken plan had always been for Spock and Uhura to lock lips. Their special connection was hinted at all the way back in season one when Uhura playfully sings as Spock plinks a Vulcan lyre. In another episode, when Uhura runs screaming out of her room, it is Spock who consoles her.
Although she enjoyed her time on the series, Nichols had decided to move on long before its cancellation that same year. At a party one evening, the actresses confided this to a fan of the show. Martin Luther King, a devoted Trekkie long before it was cool, was aghast. “He said, “You cannot leave. Do you understand? It has been heavenly ordained. This is God’s gift… for you. You have changed the face of television forever.’”