Six o’clock had come and gone as the suits from headquarters 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) which served as headquarters for Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek.
They had been summoned by David Alexander, director of the season three Star Trek episode Plato’s Stepchildren after the last shoot of the day. Alexander had a question that, he felt, was above his pay grade. Would William Shatner’s Captain Kirk be allowed to kiss Nichelle Nichols’ Lt. Uhura? “There are two suits, they have dark glasses and million-dollar suits,” Nichols recalled decades later. Her snog with Shatner had then achieved storybook 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 the same year Kirk had had a smooch with Barbara Luna’s Lt Marlena Moreau. Still, Kirk and Uhura’s snog was the first interracial kiss that anyone noticed.
Nichols’ death at the age of 89 has prompted tributes and reflections on the importance of Star Trek as a progressive force in Sixties television and on her taboo-shattering portrayal of a black woman in a position of power (as communications officer, Uhura was fourth in command of the Enterprise ). Much of this legacy is tied to Plato’s stepchild and the kiss with Shatner—filmed six times at Captain Kirk’s insistence.
The kiss, at least one of them, made it to 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 concerns earlier that year over a moment in a Petula Clark -special where she touched Harry Belafonte’s arm. Indeed, the response was largely positive (the BBC had meanwhile banned the episode outright – not for the kiss, but on the grounds that it dealt with the “unpleasant themes of madness, torture, sadism and disease”).
“We received some of the biggest fan mail ever, all very positive, with many addressed to me from girls wondering what it felt like to kiss Captain Kirk, and many to him from boys wondering the same about me,” Nichols said. “But almost no one found the kiss offensive.”
For decades, however, Plato’s Stepchild was seen as a giant leap for American television. At the height of the Civil Rights moment, Star Trek showed the way to a brighter tomorrow. And yet the tangle of tongues hardly appeared on screen. The kiss was in the script, which is why Shatner had leaned in and planted his gob on Nichols’ lips. But the director, Alexander, had panicked and called Shatner over for a confab (with Nichols standing there as a glorified prop).
Alexander demanded to know what Shatner thought he was doing. The actor replied that he performed the scene as written. At this, Alexander turned pale and called in the leaders. They, in turn, got hold of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry—who immediately contacted top executives at NBC (they told him to use his judgment) and then headed down to the set.
He asked Nichols how she felt about the situation. “It’s up to you Gene,” she remembered saying. “Gene said, ‘shoot it both ways.'” The capes [executives] turn and go. Bill [Shatner] said, let’s kiss first.”
Roddenberry fired the kiss first. He then filmed an alternate film in which Kirk resisted the instructions planted in his head by the aliens. Shatner, to his credit, was determined to break the taboo surrounding interracial kissing. And then he made sure the kiss-free footage was useless. He busted up his face, went “full Shatner,” he yelled. “I! DON’T! WANT! TO! KISS! YOU! I! DON’T! WANT! TO! KISS! YOU!” He boldly went where no ham had gone before.
“The only option was to cut the scene entirely, but that was impossible to do without ruining the whole episode,” Nichols said. Finally, the guys in charge gave in: “To hell with it. Let’s go with the kiss.” I guess they figured we were going to get canceled in a few months anyway. And so the kiss went.”
In 2022, Plato’s stepchildren may be seen as “problematic” for reasons unrelated to race. In the episode, the crew of the Enterprise gets their brains hacked by small aliens. The aliens have acquired the power of telekinesis and, modeled after the Greek gods, manipulate mortals for their amusement.
Part of their fun involves making Kirk and Uhura kiss. And the kiss is essentially forced on Uhura by Kirk: it’s not consensual. Today, it can set klaxons blaring. At the time, however, it was seen as an outing by NBC. Uhura didn’t voluntarily touch lips with Kirk.
It wasn’t predetermined 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 way back in season one when Uhura playfully sings while Spock strums a Vulcan lyre. In another episode, when Uhura runs screaming out of her room, it is Spock who comforts her.
Although she enjoyed her time on the series, Nichols had decided to move on long before it was canceled that year. At a party one night, the actresses confided this to a fan of the show. Martin Luther King, a devout Trekkie long before it was cool, was horrified. “He said, “You can’t leave. Do you understand? It has been heavenly ordained. This is God’s gift… to you. You’ve changed the face of television forever.'”