Nichelle Nichols and the Star Trek kiss story made TV history

Nichelle Nichols and the Star Trek kiss story made TV history

Nichelle Nichols and the Star Trek kiss story made TV history

Groundbreaking: Nichelle Nichols' Lieutenant Uhura kisses William Shatner's Captain Kirk - CBS via Getty Images

Groundbreaking: Nichelle Nichols’ Lieutenant Uhura kisses William Shatner’s Captain Kirk – CBS via Getty Images

It was after six when the suits from headquarters teleported to the deck of spaceship Enterprise. It was the late summer of 1968, and two NBC executives had been called to the huge soundstage of Hollywood’s Desilu Studios (now Paramount Studios) that served as the headquarters for Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek.

They had been summoned by David Alexander, director of the third season episode of Star Trek Plato’s Stepchildren after the last shoot of the day. Alexander had a question that, according to him, was above his salary grade. Could William Shatner’s Captain Kirk have kissed Nichelle Nichols’ Lieutenant Uhura? “There are two suits, they have dark glasses and million dollar suits,” recalled Nichols decades later. His kiss with Shatner had now achieved history book status as the first interracial kiss in television history.

This statement was far from true: Shatner himself had kissed France Nuyen, a French actress of Asian descent in 1958 (it was a clip from the Broadway production of Suzie Wong’s The World). It wasn’t even the first interracial kiss on Star Trek. A year earlier, George Takei’s Sulu had kissed Uhura’s neck, and that same year, Kirk had enjoyed a kiss with Barbara Luna’s Lieutenant Marlena Moreau. However, the kiss between Kirk and Uhura was the first interracial kiss anyone noticed.

Nichols’ death at the age of 89 has drawn tributes and reflections on the importance of Star Trek as a progressive force in 1960s television and its shocking portrayal as a black woman in a position of power (as a communications officer, Uhura was fourth in command of the Enterprise). Much of that legacy is tied to Plato’s stepchildren and the kiss with Shatner, shot six times at the insistence of Captain Kirk.

The kiss, at least one of them, did the final edit and the episode aired in November 1968. NBC executives were quick to react, especially in the south: they had expressed a similar concern earlier that year about a moment in a Petula Speciale Clark when he touched Harry Belafonte’s arm. The response, in fact, was largely positive (the BBC had meanwhile banned the episode outright – not for the kiss but because it concerned the “unpleasant topics of madness, torture, sadism and illness”).

“We got one of the biggest batches of fan mail ever, all very positive, with many addressed to me by girls wondering how it felt to kiss Captain Kirk, and many to him by guys wondering the same. what about me, “Nichols said. “However, hardly anyone found the kiss offensive.”

Over the decades, however, Plato’s stepchildren have been seen as a big step forward for American television. At the height of the civil rights moment, Star Trek was pointing the way to a brighter tomorrow. Yet the tangle of language has hardly reached the screen. The kiss was in the script, which is why Shatner walked over and planted his drop on Nichols’ lips. But the director, Alexander, had panicked and called Shatner for a confab (with Nichols standing there as a glorified prop).

Alexander asked to know what Shatner thought he was doing. The actor replied that he was acting out the scene as written. At this, Alexander turned white as a corpse and called the executives. They in turn got in touch with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who immediately contacted senior NBC executives (told him to use his judgment) and then headed to the set.

Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek - CBS via Getty Images

Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek – CBS via Getty Images

He asked Nichols how he felt about the situation. “It’s up to you Gene,” she remembered saying. “Gene said,” shoot both ways. “The coats [executives] turn around and walk away. Invoice [Shatner] he said, let’s kiss first.

Roddenberry first shot the kiss. He then filmed an alternate shot in which Kirk resisted the instructions the aliens had planted in his head. Shatner, to his credit, was determined to break the taboo on interracial kissing. And so he made sure the kissless footage was unusable. Wrinkling his face, becoming “full Shatner”, he yelled at him. “ME! NOT! KISS! YOU! ME! NOT! KISS! YOU!” He was boldly going where no ham had ever gone before.

“The only alternative was to cut the scene entirely, but it was impossible to do that without ruining the whole episode,” said Nichols. Finally, the guys in charge gave in: “To hell with it. Let’s go with the kiss. ”I guess they thought we’d be canceled in a few months anyway. And so the kiss stayed.

Pioneer: Nichols died at the age of 89 - Getty

Pioneer: Nichols died at the age of 89 – Getty

In 2022, Plato’s stepchildren could be considered “problematic” for reasons unrelated to race. In the episode, the Enterprise crew has their brains hacked by tiny aliens. Aliens have acquired the power of telekinesis and, with the Greek gods as role models, manipulate mortals for their amusement.

Part of their fun is getting Kirk and Uhura to kiss. And the kiss is essentially imposed on Uhura by Kirk: it’s not consensual. Today this could cause the horns to ring. At the time, however, NBC saw it as a way out. Uhura wasn’t deliberately touching her lips with Kirk.

It wasn’t foreordained that Kirk and Uhura would be the ones to kiss. The unspoken plan had always been for Spock and Uhura to close their lips. Their special bond has been hinted at since Season 1 when Uhura playfully sings while Spock plays a Vulcan lyre. In another episode, when Uhura runs screaming out of her room, it is Spock who comforts her.

Although she enjoyed the show, Nichols had decided to move on long before its cancellation in the 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 he got cool, was horrified. He “he said,“ You can’t leave. You understand? He was ordained from heaven. This is God’s gift … for you. You have changed the face of television forever ‘”.

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