Star Trek exploded on the television screen in the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. In the decade before the show began its run, America witnessed the overturning of segregation with Brown vs. Board of Education in the school system, but the South still held to its racist ways, creating so much red tape in the laws as to effectively eliminate black people from the white public sphere. Such actions started a string of protests to push for equality for all under the law.
Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in December of 1955; protestors staged sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, to fight for non-segregated lunch counters and public areas in 1960; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., on 28 August 1963, effectively spearheading nonviolent protests to push for change in the laws; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed in the wake of the Birmingham Civil Rights protest in 1963; and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed after the nonviolent protest in Selma—including Bloody Sunday. Yet despite of all these protests and reforms, blacks still remembered the discrimination and violence they faced throughout their history, and they were well aware of the reality that while the legislative victories were the gateway toward a better future, they were living in the present, which was still filled with an unhappy white majority who would find ways to discriminate against them.
In this period of high racial tensions, Star Trek aired in 1966 with what may be considered the most ethnically diverse cast for American television for its time, with an Asian American, African American, as well as alien races and whites of different cultures. Up to this point in the history of American television, the shows on air overwhelmingly featured all-white casts, with blacks and other minorities only featured in stereotypical roles, if they were featured at all. Maybe most importantly for the Civil Rights Movement, Star Trek featured an African American woman as head communications officer, fourth in command of the Starship Enterprise.
With the multi-cultural cast, Gene Roddenberry chose to take a global approach in his series, and he held his ground despite network pushback, knowing the importance of showing social progress on national television. He knew that while “Star Trek had to entertain or go off the air”, he felt that their unprecedented television format allowed them “to challenge and stimulate the audience” (Whitfield 112). As Roddenberry said, “Making Star Trek happen was a bone crusher, and unless it also ‘said something’ and we challenged our viewer to think and react, then it wasn’t worth all we had put into the show” (Whitfield 112).
Furthermore, Roddenberry had high hopes that given enough time, people would “learn that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life’s exciting variety, not something to fear. It’s a manifestation of the greatness that God, or whatever it is, gave us. This infinite variation and delight, this is part of the optimism ... built into Star Trek” (Whitfield 40). Roddenberry’s wish to make a difference was so prevalent in the show that it even caught the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura in the original series, explained to Neil deGrasse Tyson on his show StarTalk Radio, that when she met Dr. King at a party in Hollywood, he had nothing but praise for the show.
When she informed Dr. King that she was going to leave the show in pursuit of other, larger and more important roles, he insisted to her that the show was groundbreaking for Civil Rights and refused to let her quit. Nichols describes the encounter, saying:
My mouth just dropped. And he said, “You cannot leave. Do you understand? It has been heavenly ordained. This is God’s gift ... for you. You have changed the face of television forever because this is not a black role, it is not a female role, anyone can fill that role. It can be filled by a woman of any color, a man of any color. It can be filled by another Klingon or alien.” He said, “This is a unique role and a unique point in time that breathes the life of what we are marching for: equality. Beside, you’re fourth in command,” and I’m thinking nobody told me that, you know. He knows Star Trek is built on Air Force rankings. And he said, “You have no idea the esteem that we hold for you.”
And I’d start shivering and my mouth was quivering. “Beside Nichelle, you have no idea the power of television. This man has shown us in the 23rd Century what started now, this man has created a reality, and because it’s in the 23rd Century and you are the chief communications officer, fourth in command of a Starship going on a five year mission where no man or woman has gone before, it means that what we are doing today is just the beginning of where we’re going, just how far we’re going. You cannot leave. Besides, Star Trek is the only show that my wife Corretta and I allow our little children to stay up late and watch, and Nichelle, I can’t go back and tell them this, because you are their hero.”
The encounter so moved Nichols that she went to Roddenberry to see if she could still keep her job, and Roddenberry was happy to oblige. His reply to her was, “God bless Dr. Martin Luther King. Someone knows, realizes what I’m trying to achieve.” Yet while people like Dr. King applauded Roddenberry’s plan to make a difference, he would receive pushback from network television, which wanted to entertain and avoid offending their audience at all costs.
As Daniel Bernard has noted, writer, director, and producer John Meredyth Lucas admitted that the show’s science fiction status was the main reason they were able to push boundaries in a way other television shows were not. Lucas stated, they were “protected by the argument that, ‘Hey, we’re not talking about the problems of today, we’re dealing with a mythical time and place in the future’” despite the fact that they were lying to get the storylines past the network directors (216). However, this didn’t stop the top network decision makers from putting their foot down about scenes that they felt were simply too risky for their audiences.
A particularly good example of this network pushback came during the production of the 1968 Star Trek episode “Plato’s Stepchildren”. In this episode, Star Trek made racial history with what is often considered the first interracial kiss in American television history between Lieutenant Uhura and Captain Kirk. While there are several other viable candidates for first interracial kiss on television from various countries, the kiss in the season three episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” was radical for its time, and it almost didn’t air.
Indeed, in a 2012 interview, Nichols revealed that tensions were very high. First off, while they were shooting, William Shatner kissed her, and after the shot, the director came up to ask Shatner just what he thought he was doing, and then started furiously whispering with each other. Soon after, NBC sent over officials to discuss the scene, which led to Roddenberry asking directors to shoot the scene over, one shot with the kiss and one without. The only reason NBC aired the scene was because Shatner, in all alternate takes of the scene in “Plato’s Stepchildren”, was cross-eyed and goofy, disallowing the use of any other shot (Nichols). In the end, NBC allowed the original take of the scene, especially since the kiss was forced. As Nichols tells Tyson in her interview with him, “I didn’t kiss Bill Shatner. Bill Shatner kissed me, but actually, Uhura and Captain Kirk were forced, people had kinetic powers. That was the only way they could get it by back then.”
Nichols doesn’t remember much, if any, backlash from viewers, not even in the South. In fact, there were hardly any bad reviews in the papers, with maybe the worst being from Variety the day after the episode aired: “Late in the running of a rather bad show, William Shatner kisses Nichelle Nichols. Kisses aren’t new to tv, but bussing of a Negro doll by a white man is” (O’Boogie). Perhaps the reason for the lack of outrage is as Michael C. Pounds suggests: “One might say that to give in to their feelings means that they have to step out of their place, and act ‘out of their minds,’ under the total control of some other agency. These scenes illustrate and thereby reinforce the strong social / formal prohibitions against transracial, interethnic, interspecies romance” (153). Regardless of what the reason may be for the lack of public outrage, we do know from Nichols that Roddenberry had meant for the kiss in “Plato’s Stepchildren” to be between Spock and Uhura (although sources vary on who was originally supposed to have the kiss), and that given the connections that Spock and Uhura had throughout the original series, the prep work had been laid to play out an interspecies relationship.
It’s this prep work that Director J. J. Abrams supposedly capitalized on when deciding to have a relationship form between Uhura and Spock. In the 2009 reboot of the Star Trek film franchise, Abrams decided to put not just an interspecies relationship, but an interracial relationship front and center. With interracial marriages no longer an overt racial boundary and taboo in most of America, it would seem Abrams felt like the risk Roddenberry was unable to take was worth taking now.
Yet the pairing has stirred up controversy over a similar issue this time, but with the viewing public instead of producers: the interspecies relationship and its viability—an idea not far removed from the racial rhetoric of decades past, which argued against interracial entanglements. The frustrations with the interspecies relationship seem to highlight the ever-present concern of relationship propriety—whom we allow to sexually fraternize with each other.
The argument against the romantic affair between the two characters is twofold: that the relationship never existed in the Star Trek canon, and that Spock’s Vulcan biology makes it impossible for him to really love—or be in a relationship with—Uhura. To be fair, the discussion of canon hardly seems to be a debatable point; at no point in the original series or the films were Spock and Uhura in any romantic relationship. However, this hasn’t stopped Abrams from breaking canon, and as such hasn’t stopped fans from complaining about the break with canon, particularly in regard to Spock’s biology and cultural customs.
Reddit users in the Star Trek and Daystrom Institute (a giant database of all things Star Trek) subreddits have jumped on the train of proving the relationship invalid by statement of canon, the base of their argument being that Spock was already engaged on his home planet Vulcan and could not have a relationship with Uhura. However, trying to justify the relationship, Reddit user themightyheptagon suggested that with the destruction of Vulcan and supposedly Spock’s fiancé, Spock would be free to date whomever he liked.