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.
Fan Responses to the Abram’s Uhura-Spock Relationship
The backlash, which degenerates into sexual puns and character demoralization at an alarmingly fast rate, does in fact discuss that in order for them to have a relationship, fraternization rules must be very relaxed. While Reddit user mermanmurdoch suggests that it’s hard to believe that the relationship would be allowed at all unless Spock, as a Vulcan, is being shown favoritism (which in mermanmurdoch’s mind is racist), user moonred14 suggests that not only are the rules unknown to fans, but that “if such rules existed they’d be based on human customs and social behavior and it would therefore be racist for Starfleet to want to arbitrarily apply them on other races.”
The fan dissatisfaction comments end for this thread when moonred14 points out that Roddenberry had intended to evolve a relationship between Spock and Uhura, this is a break off from the original canon, and there is “no need to use some complicate [sic] conspiracy theories alas 9/11 to ‘understand’ why these characters are an item.” Despite such assertions from fans like moonred14, other threads pick up the canon arguments over Spock’s canon-required sexuality and relationships with discussions of Nurse Chapel, the Pon Farr, Scotty’s claim on Uhura, and actor Zachary Quinto’s sexual orientation disabling him from acting the relationship.
Leonard Nimoy and Nichelle Nichols in Star Trek TOS “Plato’s Stepchildren”
All of this discussion happens even with Nichols’ statement that Uhura’s relationship with Spock may have been one of the deepest ones on the ship that Spock had in the series. Again, to Tyson she says of her character: “She could tease Spock … did you ever wonder why Uhura was the only one that Spock even deigned to try to teach much less teach to play the Vulcan Lyre, an impossible instrument even for Vulcans to play?” While the groundwork to show mutual intellectual respect cannot be determined as causation of an intended relationship, Nichols does say in an interview where she answered fan questions that Spock and Uhura always had a connection:
It was the early 60’s, so you couldn’t do what you can do now, but if you will remember, Uhura related to Spock. When she saw the captain lost in space out there in her mirror, it was Spock who consoled her when she went screaming out of her room. When Spock needed an expert to help save the ship, you remember that Uhura put something together and related back to him the famous words, “I don’t know if I can do this. I’m afraid.” And Uhura was the only one who could do a spoof on Spock. Remember the song (in “Charlie X”)? Those were hints, as far as I’m concerned. (Nichols)
Of course, Nichols’ comments have hardly given pause to the arguments against the relationship in regard to canon, especially since in DVD film commentary, Abrams readily admits that he took a gutsy move to break from Star Trek canon so blatantly (Star).
Within this argument over canon, the discussion of the propriety of the relationship based on Spock’s racial distinction bears strong similarity to the racial arguments made against black–white relationships. Commentary thrives around making Spock 100 percent Vulcan, therefore 100 percent tying him to the biological and cultural influences of the Vulcan race and incapable of a relationship with Uhura.
Examples abound in the Reddit threads, largely detailing Vulcan sexuality. Reddit user ItsAConsipiracy suggests that Spock is canonically “too embarrassed about his sexuality, which only comes out every seven years and then drives him insane”, so having “new Spock screw Uhura”, departs from canon to make Spock “just another popular kid” who is “arrogant and outspoken”. Other users discuss Pon Farr and Vulcan mating rituals at length. One particularly scathing comment against the Spock–Uhura relationship comes from Reddit user obryn, who says, “Apparently in the new universe, Spock gets the Pon Farr every 15 minutes.” The commentary is such that if it comes to talk about the Abrams version and Spock, the conversation devolves into internet pouting over departure from the original series and Spock’s complete Vulcan identity. The largest argument against the relationship stands on the incompatibility of Human and Vulcan.
However, the original series deals directly with the issue of Spock as half human. According to Bernard, in the original series “we find out that [Spock’s] childhood was fraught with prejudice: ‘neither Human nor Vulcan,’ his human mother (Jane Wyatt) explains. Spock is a ‘half-breed.’ We also find out that Spock’s father, Sarek (Mark Lenard), is unhappy with his son’s enlistment in the mostly human Federation of Planets” (209). Whitfield also notes that “while Spock is classified as a Vulcan, he is in reality neither Vulcan nor Terran. He is biologically, emotionally, and even intellectually a half-breed” (227). So, while his customs may come mainly from being raised on Vulcan, there is always turmoil between the Vulcan half of Spock and his Human half. Leonard Nimoy found the mixed-species factor to be a reason Spock’s character is so interesting: “the turmoil and conflict within, as half-Human and half-Vulcan, he is continually at war within himself” (Whitfield 226).
Zoe Saldana and Zachary Quinto in Star Trek: Beyond (2016)
Rethinking Race in Abram’s Reboot
Abrams tackles Spock’s internal conflict head on in the new film, Star Trek: Beyond (2016). We watch Spock bullied while at school because of his mixed race, his father’s commentary that he should strive to be completely Vulcan, his mother’s quiet encouragement for Spock to discover who he is outside of expectations, and the elders’ commentary on his achieving “so much despite [his] disadvantage”, his “human mother” (Star). When Spock’s mother dies, we watch him privately experience and express a moment of true grief, one that only Uhura gets to share as his companion and comforter. When Spock releases his human side and nearly murders Kirk, his father steps in to talk to him about being a “child of two worlds”, amending his previous desire for his son to be 100 percent Vulcan.
In the movie commentary, Abrams says of the scene between Sarek and Spock, “The movie is secretly about Spock, the idea that how do you reconcile being half Vulcan and half Human, and in that moment even his father is saying I feel still and it’s okay, which allows him to give in. His partnering up with Kirk allows him to more completely embrace being Vulcan and not deny that emotion.” Through these scenes, viewers are meant to go on this journey with Spock to better understand what it means to be mixed race and have interracial relationships.
There may always be disputes over canon and reboots with their reinterpretation of facts, but there is something good to be said for Abrams’ desire to keep examining and pushing against cultural norms and expectations. Whether for the modified Spock–Uhura relationship or against it, the commentary on the theatrical decision has proven the need for continued discussion on interracial relationships. For until we can look at these relationships outside of the stereotypes of race, gender, and cultural expectations, we cannot claim to be a post-racial society that has evolved from the need to put different races in segregated boxes. Such a disconnected view of intercultural relations completely disallows for flux in individual identity, mixed identity, and cultural fluidity.