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.”
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.