‘Star Trek’ Boldly Went Where Too Few Have Followed

Sept. 8 marked the 50th anniversary of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Original Series’ television release. Spanning seven TV series and 13 feature films, Star Trek has seen plenty of history and made some of its own, advancing social dialogue on race and gender, areas in which Hollywood has struggled to keep up both on and offscreen.

Star Trek was produced by Desilu Productions, a company founded by Hollywood icons Lucille Ball and her then-husband Desi Arnaz of I Love Lucy. Ball was Desilu’s sole owner — and the first woman to independently run a major film studio — by the time Roddenberry came calling.

Ball’s level of influence in Hollywood was unprecedented for women at the time and uncommon since. She supported Roddenberry’s ideas when they were met with resistance from other industry powerhouses, taking “The Cage” — Star Trek’s original pilot — to NBC when CBS rejected it. When NBC dismissed it in turn, she pushed the network to consider a second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” which was ultimately accepted.

Even after NBC ordered a season, Desilu’s own board of directors voted almost unanimously to drop Star Trek and focus on its other projects, including Bruce Geller’s Mission: Impossible. Since Ball’s was the final word, however, production continued. Her position and involvement are notable not only because they mark an important historical first, but also because even half a century later, women have made only incremental progress toward equal representation in the entertainment industry, especially at higher levels.

Today, women hold only a handful of executive positions at major American studios, individually re-breaking the film industry’s resilient glass ceiling. The numbers of women in creative leadership roles is similarly low. Only around 15 percent of screenplay writers are female, and according to a 2014 study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, 80 percent of that year’s films had no female writers at all, while 78 percent lacked female editors and more than 90 percent lacked female cinematographers. Women also lag behind their male counterparts in their representation on screen, playing only 12 percent of protagonist roles in top-grossing films and being overall far less likely to have consequential speaking parts than men.

The film industry has acknowledged and publicly attempted to improve on these issues — and others faced by people of color — for decades, with minimal results. While there are several likely reasons for this, the impact of hiring bias is undeniable. According to the same study, when film projects include more women in positions of authority, women’s employment at all other levels of production tends to jump considerably, which wouldn’t be the case were there simply a shortage of qualified women and people of color interested in pursuing film careers.

While television in the 1960s was typically far less racially inclusive than it is today, minority representation at higher levels within the industry was virtually nonexistent. Despite this, Star Trek: The Original Series boasted a remarkably diverse cast for the day, including two major characters who in particular defied prominent racial stereotypes — Nyota Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Hikaru Sulu (George Takei).

That Takei’s character was given the role of a trusted, high-ranking officer on a military starship is especially poignant given that Takei himself spent part of his early childhood in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. Sulu’s character challenged perceptions of Asian Americans, including the popular media portrayal of Asians as devious outsiders with poor communication skills. Sulu, by contrast, is a competent, charismatic helmsman eventually given command of his own ship, the U.S.S. Excelsior.

Playing the part of a highly qualified communications officer on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise, Nichols was one of the first African Americans on American television in a non-menial role. Nichols was an inspiration to countless individuals, including Whoopi Goldberg, who later starred in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Goldberg once recalled how ecstatic she was when she first saw Uhura on Star Trek as a child, famously exclaiming, “I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, … there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”

Decades before Mae Jemison, the first female African American astronaut — and another prominent Black woman inspired by Uhura — went to space in 1992, Nichols played an educated, high-ranking Black woman in a position of authority aboard a starship, not only good at her job, but able to competently perform a number of other tasks on the bridge when needed. Her role was revolutionary even before 1968, when she kissed a white man on national television in the show’s third season.

Though popularly cited as such, the kiss between Uhura and Captain Kirk (William Shatner) was not the first interracial kiss on film, having in fact been preceded by very few in both Britain and the U.S. Regardless, it was still highly controversial and might not have aired at all. At Roddenberry’s and Shatner’s insistence, NBC eventually ordered two versions of the scene: one in which the kiss took place and one in which it didn’t. Having successfully shot the former, Nichols and Shatner deliberately botched every shot of the latter, including one accepted by the director until it was discovered too late during a review of the footage that Shatner had his eyes absurdly crossed, rendering the clip unusable.

It should be noted that in the episode in question, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” the kiss is depicted as nonconsensual, as both parties are being compelled by members of a race of telekinetic aliens encountered on one of the Enterprise’s many adventures. While the lack of consent opens its own uncomfortable can of worms, it may have served to lessen the scandal, particularly in the eyes of a Southern ’60s audience, by removing any passion from the scene while still making a statement. Science fiction provided a vehicle for such a message, allowing the show’s creators to distance their proposition from an intolerant social present while positioning themselves firmly behind a future in which the question of consent could be of greater concern than race in matters of sexual contact.

The industry has come a long way in 50 years. 21st century reboot films have given both Uhura and Sulu romantic opportunities that would have been societally off-limits in the ’60s, even for Star Trek. The 2009 movie Star Trek depicts Uhura’s (played by Zoë Saldana) involvement with Spock (Zachary Quinto), beginning at the Starfleet Academy. The drama in their relationship stems not from race but from Spock’s initial fear that as Uhura’s former teacher, his assigning her to the Enterprise will appear improper. In the 2016 movie Star Trek Beyond, Sulu (John Cho) has a husband and child. Original series actor Takei, a married gay man and outspoken LGBTQ rights activist objected, but Simon Pegg, who played Scotty in later films and co-wrote Star Trek Beyond defended the decision.

“It’s unfortunate that the screen version of the most inclusive, tolerant universe in science fiction hasn’t featured an LGBT character until now,” he said in a statement. “We could have introduced a new gay character, but he or she would have been primarily defined by their sexuality, seen as the ‘gay character,’ rather than simply for who they are, and isn’t that tokenism?”

Although the issue of tokenism might have been avoided with the careful introduction of a nuanced character, reliance on token roles to give the impression of diversity remains a legitimate concern. The relative lack of representative diversity in industries like Hollywood serves as a stark reminder of the work yet to be done, but the increasingly positive reception of characters like Uhura and Sulu stands as testament to just how far we’ve come.