Friday, November 28, 2014

TV's First Interracial Kiss?

Still from "Plato's Stepchildren" (1968)
Last weekend, The Agony Booth posted an article which examined the familiar claim that William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols' kiss in the Star Trek episode "Plato's Stepchildren" was the first interracial kiss on television. There is a lot of worthwhile research to be found in the article, which I encourage you to read in full, but the author ultimately reaches this conclusion about the infamous scene between the Enterprise's captain and communication officer:
...short of watching hundreds of hours of TV programming produced prior to 1968, much of which isn't currently available to watch in any form, there’s no way to conclusively state that any of these kisses were truly 'the first.' But simply going by the list above, were Kirk and Uhura really TV’s first interracial kiss? Heck, no; it’s Emergency — Ward 10 all the way. I think even that episode of Sea Hunt is far more deserving of the title than Star Trek.
Unfortunately for Star Trek fans, Shatner and Nichols may have to settle for the qualified title of 'first black/white kiss on a scripted American TV drama,' which doesn't quite roll off the tongue. But this may be our answer for why the kiss, as brave and daring as it was, went almost completely unnoticed by the public for years: there were so many noteworthy kisses that came before it that by the time Star Trek shattered that particular taboo, it wasn't much of a taboo anymore. And I think recognizing that fact is far more important than bestowing a questionable accolade upon a TV show decades later.
In general, I find the author's argument here to be well-supported, and I think it's especially valuable to point out the difficulty of making claims about television firsts when so much of television history is unavailable. However, I do think it's worth pointing out a couple of Star Trek-related details that the author gets wrong. At one point, for example, they make the following claim:
As it turns out, the first references to Star Trek having 'TV’s first interracial kiss' don’t show up until the 1980s, and the mainstream media didn't take notice until the early 1990s, which was not-so-coincidentally about the same time Shatner and Nichols were putting out memoirs that talked about filming the episode.
This is actually a revised version of the passage, which originally stated, "the first references to Star Trek having 'TV’s first interracial kiss' don’t show up until the early 1990s." Eagle eyed readers at the TrekBBS* quickly pointed out that Alan Asherman's Star Trek Compendium (first published in January of 1981) described the scene as "the first interracial kiss on network television." Not long after those comments were made, the passage in question was updated.

However, even the updated version isn't entirely accurate. A brief search of newspapers from 1968 to the present (utilizing ProQuest) brings up a number of references to Star Trek depicting the first interracial kiss on TV in the mainstream media, the first of which predates Asherman's book by more than two years. The three pictured articles below are the oldest publications to show up in ProQuest when searching for "Star Trek" and "interracial kiss."
No Title (The Chicago Tribune, January 4, 1987)
"Nichelle Nichols zooms thru space on Star Trek II" (New Amsterdam News, June 19, 1982)
"A Visit to Star Trek's Movie Launch" (Boston Globe, December 10, 1978)
ProQuest also locates a dozen other articles from several mainstream publications from 1990-1992, which describe the moment as "television's first interracial kiss." All of these articles were printed at least a year before the publication of the relevant memoirs by William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols (Shatner's Star Trek Memories was published in October 1993; Nichols' Beyond Uhura was published in October 1994), which makes it hard to buy the claim that the mainstream media didn't take notice of the kiss and its alleged relevance until those memoirs came out.

That said, I think the author is absolutely right in their judgment that "TV's first interracial kiss" was a retroactive label applied to "Plato's Stepchildren," not one used at the time of the episode's first broadcast. Although a few ProQuest searches are far from definitive, the fact that the first two instances I've found where Star Trek is lauded for depicting the first interracial kiss on television appear in pieces promoting Star Trek--The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan leads me to wonder if this chestnut was generated by Paramount's publicity machine? Decades after the fact, it may be impossible to locate its origin (although I welcome comments below if somebody can find earlier instances of the claim, or knows more than I do).

Another claim made in the article is something I've addressed before, but it is worth briefly tackling again. The author writes:
There’s a long, documented history of skittish network executives and censors meddling in the creative affairs of TV shows, and pretty famously in the case of Star Trek, too.
For one obvious example, season one’s “The Alternative Factor” cast a black actress as a Starfleet officer who was originally supposed to have a romance with the episode’s white villain Lazarus. That aspect of the plot was mysteriously jettisoned at the last minute, leaving huge holes in the plot and lots of downtime to be filled by pointless shots of Lazarus wandering around a planet’s surface (and now you know the real reason why “The Alternative Factor” ended up so incoherent).
There actually isn't any evidence to support the theory that an NBC executive or a censor in standards and practices had the script to "The Alternative Factor" gutted at the last minute to eliminate a potential black/white romance. It's plausible, and others have suggested it before -- Alan Asherman speculated this may have happened in 1981's Star Trek Compendium, and Dave Eversole similarly speculated as such in an article about the script currently available at Orion Press -- but I've been looking for a memo or an interview actually confirming that speculation for years now, and have yet to locate one. Indeed, the closest piece of evidence I've found thus far, a Roddenberry story memo, suggests the romance was dropped because of similarities to "Space Seed," not because of any network or studio interference (and, again, I'm happy to be proven wrong here; if somebody has been able to turn up something that I haven't, I'd love to hear about it in the comments below).

*Author's note: I currently post on the Trek BBS under the username Harvey. Thanks to Trek BBS users Indysolo (for pointing out the passage from Alan Asherman's book, and sending me scans of the pages in question) and Ssosmcin (for noting that this language first appeared in the original, 1981 edition of the book).

Top image courtesy of Trek Core.


The Gene Roddenberry Star Trek Television Series Collection (1964-1969)

Star Trek Memories (William Shatner with Chris Kreski, 1993)

Beyond Uhura (Nichelle Nichols, 1994)

1 comment:

  1. First I ever saw. Never heard of Sea Hunt or certainly not Emergency — Ward 10 until this.