The character Nichelle Nichols played on the original Star Trek series and subsequent films has been a part of American life for longer than I’ve been alive. During the time between her first appearance in the episode “The Man Trap,” which aired on September 8, 1966, and her last official duty in a Starfleet uniform in the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), Communications Officer Lieutenant Uhura of U.S.S. Enterprise would become the most recognized female archetype in the history of space exploration. It’s hard to imagine that after only one season of playing the now iconic character, Nichols actually considered quitting the show because she felt Uhura didn’t have enough to do. “I thought she was a glorified telephone operator in space,” she once said, before she was famously convinced to continue doing the show by none other than Dr. Martin Luther King himself. “Dr. King was a big fan of the show,” Nichols told me. “He felt it was important that children of all races see an African American female appearing on television as an equal.”
Over the last 46 years, Nichols has watched Lieutenant Uhura transcend the real-life boundaries of her race and gender, as the country’s social attitudes eventually evolved around her. The following decades would see “Communications Officer Lieutenant Uhura” become “Commander Uhura,” while Nichols herself would become the only actress on television to be simultaneously cited as an inspiration for both her peers in the science fiction community and actual female astronauts. Though, when asked what her single favorite moment in the life of Commander Nyota Uhura is, Nichols just smiled and without a moment’s pause said, “It would have to be that kiss.”
At 10pm on Friday, November 22, 1968 (Stardate: 354108.1511839709), NBC aired the tenth episode of Star Trek‘s final season – an episode that featured what is often cited as American television’s first scripted interracial kiss. In the episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” Lieutenant Uhura and Captain Kirk (William Shatner) are forced to share a kiss against their wills, for the entertainment of an alien telepathic race. At last weekend’s Dragon*Con event in Atlanta, I got to interview Nichols about that famous history-making kiss.
Geek Of Doom: Can you describe what shooting that scene was like?
Nichelle Nichols: To be honest, the day I read the script, I thought nothing of it. I’m from an interracial family so I just thought, “Finally, a romance!” I think the kiss was originally written for Spock, but Bill [Shatner] insisted that if anyone was going to get to kiss me, it was going to be him, so they changed it. Bill was joking with me about it up until the camera started rolling. We ran through the scene, then he kissed me. Immediately afterward the director [David Alexander] yelled, “Cut!” and nervously came over to talk to Bill. What was strange was, he was talking real sneaky, like he was telling Bill a secret or something, but I was standing right there! The director didn’t care he just continued to talk out of the side of his mouth as if I couldn’t hear him. He said, “Why did you just kiss her?” Bill said, [Nichelle does a hilarious William Shatner impression] “The. Script……It. Says. To Kiss Her……So. I Kissed. Her.” The director continued to talk to Bill about it some more. He said, “But you really kissed her.” Finally, I became frustrated and told them I’d be in my dressing room and they could come get me when they work it out.
[I’d like to note right here that although Miss Nichols was making light of the conversation between Shatner and Alexander, at the moment she told this part of the story I began trying to imagine actually watching being talked about, as if something about me was wrong and physical contact with that something was to be veiled and not to be televised. This only gets worse as we continue.]
GoD: So at this point, everyone on the set was aware of the significance of what you were filming?
Nichelle Nichols: We were always aware of it. But the set went from being lighthearted and fun to absolutely tense from that moment until we wrapped. When I came out of my dressing room, two suits showed up from NBC. They kept talking to the director. We’re running into overtime by now. Remember, this is the last scene that was shot in the episode and we’d already been there a while. Finally Gene [Roddenberry, Star Trek creator] showed up. He told us to shoot two versions: one with the kiss and one without it. The whole time, Bill is still being silly and pretending to have to take the kiss shot over and over again. He’d say, “I didn’t feel right about that one. Let’s do it again.” Meanwhile, the NBC guys keep talking to the director about how the station affiliates in the South might react, which just made us all the more tense. Finally, we get to the take with no kiss. We ran through all of the dialogue and Bill suddenly turns me toward the camera. He then picks his head up and makes a silly face into the camera. Nobody knows what he’s done, except maybe the cameraman. The director calls it a wrap and we’re done for the day.
GoD: So you only did one take of the kiss-less version?
Nichelle Nichols: No. We did a few takes. But Bill kept acting ridiculous through them and in that final shot, he crossed his eyes. But it wasn’t until we saw the dailies that any of us knew what he’d done.
GoD: So Shatner sabotaged the kiss-less takes on purpose?
Nichelle Nichols: I believe he did. Yes. And the NBC suits were forced to let us air the kiss.
GoD: As our language becomes more and more sterile and our kids digest abridged versions of history, does that kiss become even more significant the further we get away from that time and place?
Nichelle Nichols: I don’t know that it becomes more significant. But it does frame it in a much harsher light. I will say, I’ve been asked about that kiss [more] now than I’ve ever been.
Seven months after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, “Plato’s Stepchildren” aired. By all accounts, the majority of the viewer’s reaction was positive. No one in the cast received hate mail. No one in the South demanded companies to pull their advertising from the network. The seas never boiled and the sky didn’t fall either. Instead, a piece of relevant television was made that for a brief moment challenged a ten o’ clock Friday night audience to move forward as a culture.
On this 46th Anniversary of the Star Trek mythos, I’m proud to be commenting on one of many moments that made the Star Trek universe great. Sure, sometimes it was just good campy fun. But when at its best, Star Trek held a mirror to its own audience, while at the same time, showing us who we could be.