Six o’clock had come and gone as the suits were beamed out of Control Center onto the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. It was late summer 1968, and two NBC executives had been called onto the massive soundstage at Desilu Studios Hollywood (now Paramount Studios), which served as the headquarters for Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek.
They had been summoned by David Alexander, the director of the third season Star Trek episode Plato’s Stepchildren, after the last take of the day. Alexander had a question that he felt was above his pay grade. Would William Shatner’s Captain Kirk Nichelle be allowed to kiss Nichols’ Lieutenant Uhura? “There’s two suits, they’ve got dark glasses and they’ve got million-dollar suits,” Nichols recalled decades later. Her kiss 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 descent, 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 on Star Trek. A year earlier George had kissed Takeis Sulu Uhura’s neck and that same year Kirk had met Barbara Lunas Lt. Marlena Moreau enjoyed a hickey. Still, Kirk and Uhura’s hickey was the first interracial kiss anyone noticed.
Nichols’ death at the age of 89 has prompted tributes and reflections on the importance of Star Trek as a progressive force on television in the 1960s and on her taboo-breaking 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 tied up in Plato’s Stepchildren and the Kiss with Shatner – filmed six times at Captain Kirk’s urging.
The kiss, at least one of them, made it into the final cut and the episode aired in November 1968. NBC executives were braced for a backlash, particularly in the South — they had expressed similar concerns earlier in the year over a moment in a Petula Clark Special in which she touched Harry Belafonte’s arm. In fact, the response was mostly positive (the BBC had since banned the episode entirely – not because of the kiss, but on the grounds that it dealt with the “unpleasant themes of insanity, torture, sadism and disease”).
“We’ve received one of the highest volumes of fan mail ever, all very positive, lots to me from girls wondering how it feels to kiss Captain Kirk and lots to him from men wondering the same thing about me ‘ he told Nichols. “However, almost nobody found the kiss offensive.”
However, over the decades, Plato’s Stepchildren has been seen as a giant leap for American television. At the height of the civil rights movement, Star Trek pointed the way to a better future. And yet the tangle of tongues almost didn’t make it onto the big screen. The kiss was scripted, so Shatner leaned forward and planted his mouth on Nichols’ lips. But the director, Alexander, had panicked and called Shatner in for an interview (with Nichols standing there like a glorified prop).
Alexander demanded to know what Shatner thought he was doing. The actor replied that he performed the scene as written. As a result, Alexander turned white and summoned the executives. They, in turn, reached out to Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry – who immediately contacted NBC executives (they told him to use his judgment) and then headed to the set.
He asked Nichols how she felt about the situation. “It’s up to you, Gene,” she recalled. “Gene said, ‘Shoot both ways’. The coats [executives] turn around and go. bill [Shatner] said let’s do the kiss first.”
Roddenberry shot the kiss first. He then filmed an alternate shot of Kirk defying the instructions the aliens had planted in his head. To his credit, Shatner was determined to break the taboo surrounding interracial kissing. And so he made sure the kiss-free footage was unusable. Grimacing, getting “full of Shatner,” he screamed. “ME! HABIT! KISS! YOU! ME! HABIT! KISS! YOU!” He boldly went where no ham had gone before.
“The only alternative was to cut the scene entirely, but that was impossible without ruining the entire episode,” Nichols said. Eventually those responsible gave in: “The hell with that. Let’s kiss.” I guess they thought we were going to be canceled in a few months anyway. And so the kiss stayed.”
In 2022, Plato’s stepchildren could be considered “problematic” for reasons unrelated to race. As a result, the crew of the Enterprise is brain hacked by tiny aliens. The aliens have acquired the power of telekinesis and, modeled after the Greek gods, manipulate mortals for their amusement.
Part of their fun is making Kirk and Uhura kiss. And the kissing is essentially forced on Uhura by Kirk: it’s not consensual. Today that could set off the sirens. However, at the time it was considered an exit by NBC. Uhura didn’t willingly touch Kirk’s lips.
It wasn’t predetermined that Kirk and Uhura would be the ones who would kiss. The unspoken plan had always been for Spock and Uhura to lock lips. Their special bond was hinted at in Season 1 when Uhura playfully sings while Spock swings a Vulcan lyre. In another episode, when Uhura runs out of her room screaming, it is Spock who comforts her.
Although she enjoyed her time on the series, Nichols had chosen to continue well before its cancellation that same year. The actresses confided this to a fan of the series one evening at a party. Martin Luther King, a devoted Trekkie long before it was cool, was horrified. “He said, ‘You can’t go. Do you understand? It is heavenly destined. This is God’s gift… to you. You changed the face of television forever.’”