If you love something as much as I loved the original Star Trek TV series, you remember all the little things, like Kirk’s middle name (Tiberius) and Spock’s human mother’s name (Amanda Grayson). That is a given for most Trekkies, but there are also the big moments, the ones that helped define Star Trek as a seminal experience for many members of my generation.
One such event was the kiss – when usually all business communications officer Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) locked lips with skirt-chasing Captain James Kirk (William Shatner). To say that this earth shaking moment was groundbreaking is an understatement – it changed the course of TV history and affected fans and non-fans alike.
Nichols talks about the the kiss in a humorous and humble way now, but in truth it was a juggernaut in how it changed the perceptions of what could happen on television. TV’s “first interracial” kiss had ramifications way beyond the scene and two actors participating in it.
As a young kid watching the show, I had some idea about the importance of it. The context of the kiss was very clear – aliens “forced” Uhura and Kirk to kiss. This was not a kiss of passion but one of imposition, yet the fact that a black woman and a white man had kissed on television had an impact nevertheless. In my mind I saw this as nothing unusual and saw nothing wrong with such a kiss, but it also became clear later on that it did not denigrate either character. Both Uhura and Kirk moved on after this moment and went back to the professional relationship they always had.
I think Uhura as played by Nichols conveyed very important messages to boys and girls alike. For the girls, she proved to be an excellent role model. While Nichols was (and still is) an extremely beautiful woman, her Uhura never allows that to get in her way. Her role on the ship is obviously indispensable, and she goes about her duties with a no nonsense approach. It is very telling that besides that one forced kiss, womanizer Kirk never tries anything with her – even he knew that she was off limits.
For the boys watching the show it was crucial to see that a woman could be strong, independent, and yet still beautiful. The fact that every male on the ship treated Uhura with the utmost respect and dignity made it clear to us that this was the way things should be.
These days after movie sequels, other Trek TV series, and the new films directed by JJ Abrams, it is easy to dismiss the original series. Yes, the special effects were anything but, and the sets were obviously a little too much cardboard and Styrofoam, but the most important thing about Star Trek was never those things. There is a distinct and deep humanity shown, a future time when there is respect for all people (and aliens). It depicted a future we can all aspire to even now – one that showed we not only survived our own stupidity but thrived in a world where everyone found a way to get along.
I still love that the diverse cast (including green-blooded Mr. Spock) of characters retained their allegiance to their distinct and special heritages while swearing allegiance to a greater good and the mission at hand. During the 1960s when we had Fall Out Shelters in our schools and still believed that nuclear war could happen in an instant, the future shown to us on Star Trek appealed to us intimately. We could actually work things out; after all, Chekhov (Russian) and Sulu (Chinese) were on board and getting along with Americans like Kirk and Bones.
Unfortunately, there was a negative reaction to “the kiss” by the usual suspects. Nichols recalls that children in the South were told not to watch the show anymore, and she got hate mail and producers became nervous and started cutting her lines. Nichols actually considered quitting the show but had an encounter of the most fortuitous kind – she met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He praised her work saying that she played “the first non-stereotypical role portrayed by a black woman in television history.” Because of this meeting, Uhura stayed on board and remained a vital character on the show until the series ended.
Nichols went on to work for NASA, helping to recruit women and African-Americans. She remains to this day an eloquent spokesperson for the TV series and the space agency. As I see her and hear her speaking now, I only lament that this woman hasn’t been in more TV shows and films in order for us to enjoy more of her work.
Still Nichol’s portrayal of Uhura in the original Star Trek TV series remains for all to see, and this legacy stands the test of time. Her groundbreaking role opened the door for many more to follow, and “the kiss” remains something visceral in our memories, a signifying moment that for most of us meant things never would be the same. Nichols certainly embodies the concept of the original series – boldly going where no woman had gone before.
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