As Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura, Nichelle Nichols (RIP) Starred in “TV’s First Interracial Kiss” in 1968

The orig­i­nal Star Trek ran for only three sea­sons, but in that short time it had, to put it mild­ly, an out­sized cul­tur­al impact. That part­ly had to do with the series hav­ing aired in the late nine­teen-six­ties, an era when a host of long-stand­ing norms in Amer­i­can soci­ety (as well as in oth­er soci­eties across the world) seemed to have come up for re-nego­ti­a­tion. Through its sci­ence-fic­tion­al premis­es and twen­ty-third-cen­tu­ry set­ting, Star Trek could deal with the present in ways that would have been dif­fi­cult for oth­er, osten­si­bly more real­is­tic pro­grams.

In “Pla­to’s Stepchil­dren,” an episode from 1968, sev­er­al mem­bers of the Enter­prise’s crew find them­selves cap­tive on a plan­et of tele­ki­net­ic, ancient-Greece-wor­ship­ping sadists. It was there that Star Trek staged one of its most mem­o­rable moments, a kiss between William Shat­ner’s Cap­tain Kirk and the late Nichelle Nichols’ Lieu­tenant Uhu­ra. It aris­es not out of a rela­tion­ship that has devel­oped organ­i­cal­ly between the char­ac­ters, but out of com­pul­sion by the pow­ers of their “Pla­ton­ian” cap­tors, who force the humans to per­form for their enter­tain­ment.

Despite that nar­ra­tive loop­hole, the scene nev­er­the­less wor­ried the man­age­ment at NBC. They imag­ined that, giv­en that Shat­ner was white and Nichols black, to show them kiss­ing would pro­voke a neg­a­tive reac­tion among view­ers in parts of the coun­try his­tor­i­cal­ly hos­tile to the idea of roman­tic rela­tions between those races. Ensur­ing that the scene made it to the air as writ­ten (Nichols lat­er remem­bered in her auto­bi­og­ra­phy) neces­si­tat­ed such tac­tics as sab­o­tag­ing the alter­nate takes shot with­out the kiss: “Bill shook me and hissed men­ac­ing­ly in his best ham-fist­ed Kirkian stac­ca­to deliv­ery, ‘I! WON’T! KISS! YOU! I! WON’T! KISS! YOU!’ ”

The Kirk-Uhu­ra kiss did occa­sion a great many respons­es, prac­ti­cal­ly all of them pos­i­tive. That Nichols and Shat­ner — not to men­tion Star Trek cre­ator Gene Rod­den­ber­ry, and all their oth­er col­lab­o­ra­tors – pulled it off in the right way at the right moment is evi­denced by its being remem­bered more than 50 years lat­er as “TV’s First Inter­ra­cial Kiss.” In fact there had been inter­ra­cial kiss­es on tele­vi­sion for at least a decade (one, on a 1958 Ed Sul­li­van Show, involved Shat­ner him­self), but none had made quite such a con­vinc­ing state­ment, even to skep­tics. “I am total­ly opposed to the mix­ing of the races,” as Nichols remem­bered one view­er writ­ing in. “How­ev­er, any time a red-blood­ed Amer­i­can boy like Cap­tain Kirk gets a beau­ti­ful dame in his arms that looks like Uhu­ra, he ain’t gonna fight it.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

Nichelle Nichols Explains How Mar­tin Luther King Con­vinced Her to Stay on Star Trek

Star Trek‘s Nichelle Nichols Cre­ates a Short Film for NASA to Recruit New Astro­nauts (1977)

Watch the First-Ever Kiss on Film Between Two Black Actors, Just Hon­ored by the Library of Con­gress (1898)

Watch Edith+Eddie, an Intense, Oscar-Nom­i­nat­ed Short Film About America’s Old­est Inter­ra­cial New­ly­weds

William Shat­ner in Tears After Becom­ing the Old­est Per­son in Space: ‘I’m So Filled with Emo­tion … I Hope I Nev­er Recov­er from This”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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