An iconic scene from Star Trek 50 years ago changed the way Americans view interracial relationships, critics claim, but if it wasn’t for William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols purposely messing up it may not have aired in its entirity.
The sci-fi show included footage of characters locking lips on November 22, 1968, and the gesture helped move the country and the world into a greater acceptance of the US Supreme Court declaring interracial marriage legal the year before.
Despite taking the bold move to film the scene, showrunners later grew concerned about the reaction from Southern television stations and opted to obscure the action with the back of Nichols’ head.
But she said Nichols said in her book, Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories, that she and Shatner deliberately flubbed lines to force the original take to be used.
50 years ago – one year after US Supreme Court declared interracial marriage legal – Star Trek featured an interracial kiss
Nichols said she and Shatner deliberately flubbed lines to force show makers to use the version that showed their lips touch
‘Setting Star Trek three hundred years in the future allowed (Roddenberry) to focus on the social issues of the 1960s without being direct or obvious,’ Shatner said in his book
Now it’s believed the Plato’s Stepchildren episode that helped move us into current times.
Speaking about the kiss between Captain James T. Kirk and Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, national television critic for National Public Radio Eric Deggans said the action made the nation feel like it wasn’t ‘such a big deal’.
‘The characters themselves were not freaking out because a black woman was kissing a white man … In this utopian-like future, we solved this issue. We’re beyond it. That was a wonderful message to send,’ Deggans said.
Although it wasn’t a romance scene between where the white captain and black communications officer went in for a peck, it’s believed the notion helped ease viewers into the idea during a time where civil rights was still very much a struggle.
In fact, the episode’s smooch stemmed from aliens forcing the pair to kiss.
Dressed as ancient Greeks that torture the crew with their telekinetic powers, the aliens force the two USS Enterprise crew members to pucker up.
Captain James T. Kirk, played by Shatner (right) and Lieutenant Nyota Uhura was played by Nichols (left)
Despite concerns from executives, Plato’s Stepchildren aired without blowback. In fact, it got the most ‘fan mail that Paramount had ever gotten on Star Trek for one episode,’ Nichols said in a 2010 interview with the Archive of American Television.
Officials at Paramount, the show’s producer, ‘were just simply amazed and people have talked about it ever since,’ said Nichols.
While inside the show things were buzzing, the episode passed by the general public and the TV industry at that time almost without comment, said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor of television and popular culture.
‘It neither got the backlash one might have expected nor did it open the doors for lots more shows to do this,’ Thompson said. ‘The shot heard around the world started the American Revolution. The kiss heard around the world eventually did … but not immediately.’
In 1967, the year before Plato’s Stepchildren aired, the Supreme Court struck down nationwide laws that made marriage illegal between blacks and whites, between whites and Native Americans, Filipinos, Asians and, in some states, ‘all non-whites’.
Only 3 percent of newlyweds were intermarried that year. In 2015, 17 percent of newlyweds – or at least 1 in 6 of newly-married people – were intermarried, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of US Census Bureau data.
Most television – outside of the news – was escapist fare and not willing to deal with the raucous atmosphere in the 1960s, Thompson said.
‘It was so hard for television in the 60s to talk about the 1960s,’ he said. ‘That kiss and that episode of Star Trek is an example of how every now and again television in that period tried to kick the door open to those kinds of representations.’
Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek’s creator, and his team had more leeway because he was writing about the future and not current life, experts said.
‘Setting Star Trek three hundred years in the future allowed (Roddenberry) to focus on the social issues of the 1960s without being direct or obvious,’ Shatner said in his book Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man.
A later episode entitled Let That Be Your Last Battlefield highlighted the folly of racism by showing a generations-long battle between two people from the same planet who thought each other to be subhuman – one was black-skinned on the left side and white on the right, while the other was the opposite.
Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek’s creator, and his team had more leeway because he was writing about the future and not current life, experts said
Throughout the ensuing decades, interracial relationships with black and white actors became more prevalent on television, spanning multiple genres. From comedies like The Jeffersons and Happy Endings, to dramas such as Parenthood, Six Feet Under and Dynasty, and back to sci-fi with the short-lived Firefly.
The trend is still not without its detractors. In 2013, a Cheerios commercial featuring an interracial couple and their daughter drew thousands of racist comments online.
Historians have noted that interracial kisses between blacks and whites happened on British television during live plays as early as 1959, and on subsequent soap operas like Emergency Ward 10.
In the US, interethnic kisses happened on I Love Lucy between the Cuban Desi Arnaz and the white Lucille Ball in the 1950s and even on Star Trek in 1967 with Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban kissing Madlyn Rhue in the Space Seed episode.
Other shows like Adventures in Paradise and I Spy featured kisses between white male actors and Asian actresses, and Sammy Davis Jr. kissed Nancy Sinatra on the cheek on a December 1967 episode of her televised special Movin’ with Nancy.
Whether another kiss came first doesn’t really matter.
‘For whatever reason, that one between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura seems to be the one that is marked as the milestone,’ Thompson said.
It stands out because it had a profound effect on viewers, Nichols said in 2010.
‘The first thing people want to talk about is the first interracial kiss and what it did for them. And they thought of the world differently, they thought of people differently,’ she said.