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Television

'Star Trek' and the Evolution of "The Kiss" Controversy

Chelsea Adams
Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Kirk (William Shatner in Star Trek's first interracial kiss.

From its first interracial kiss on TV in 1968 to the interspecies relationship in the reboot, Star Trek wants viewers to understand what it means to be mixed race and have interracial relationships.

Fan Responses to the Abram’s Uhura-Spock Relationship


The largest argument against the relationship stands on the incompatibility of Human and Vulcan.
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.

Works Cited

Bernardi, Daniel. “’Star Trek’ in the 1960s: Liberal–Humanism and the Production of Race.” Science Fiction Studies 24.2 (Jul 1997): 209–25. Print.

“A Conversation with Nichelle Nichols.” By Neil deGrasse Tyson. StarTalk Radio. Curved Light Productions. New York, 11 Jul. 2011. Web. 1 Sept. 2016.

kyoshia. “If they had to give Spock a love interest in the new movies, why not Nurse Chapel?” Reddit. 19 Jun. 2013. Web. 1 Sept. 2016.

Nichols, Nichelle. Interview by Rufus. T. Firefly. “Interview: Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols On Uhura’s Groundbreaking Kiss With Captain Kirk.” Geeks of Doom. 8 Sept. 2012. Web. 1 Sept. 2016.

—. “Nichols Answers Fan Questions.” Star Trek. CBS Entertainment. 18 Oct. 2010. Web. 1 Sept. 2016.

O’Boogie, Dr. Winston. “Did Star Trek really show TV’s first interracial kiss?” The Agony Booth. 22 Nov. 2015. Web. 1 Sept. 2016.

PinkPortrait. “Can we talk about the Uhura/Spock relationship for a minute?” Reddit. 26 Mar. 2013. Web. 1 Sept. 2016.

“Plato’s Stepchildren.” Star Trek: The Original Series. CBS Studios Inc. 22 Nov 1968. DVD.

Pounds, Michael C. Race in Space: The Representation of Ethnicity in Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Maryland: The Scarecrow Press Inc, 1999. Print.

themightyheptagon. “[Star Trek] The REAL reason that Spock and Uhura become a couple in the new moview. [SPOILERS].” Reddit. 16 Mar. 2015. Web. 1 Sept. 2016.

Star Trek. Dir. J.J. Abrams. Perf. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana. Paramount Pictures, 2009. Film.

Whitfield, Stephen E. The Making of Star Trek. 1992. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994. Print.

Chelsea Adams received her BA in English from BYU, where she first kindled her interest in racial studies in literature and media. From there, she continued pursuing her interest in racial studies as she attained her MA in English at Weber State University, writing her thesis on blues music and representation of the blues artist in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. She has presented research focusing on racial representation in works such as Pratchett’s Discworld series at various conferences, taught English courses with a race studies focus, and continues to study and write about the narrative of race in literature and media. She is currently a graduate student pursuing her PhD in English at UNLV, where she teaches composition and focuses her studies on how authors portray the image of the black artist, the blues, and jazz music in literature.

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