Earlier this week we saw the anniversary of the first white/black interracial kiss on television. The white Captain Kirk, played by William Shatner shocked audiences when he kissed the black Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) in a Star Trek episode broadcast in 1968. The two were under the influence of alien mind control, probably because the writers weren’t about to cause riots by writing the two into a long term relationship and the actors were instructed not to actually kiss by the producers. But they went and did it anyway, deliberately ruining the non-kissing shots, forcing the real thing to be used, placing Kirk and Uhura into the annals of television history.
Uhura’s very presence in Star Trek was a milestone in television history in itself. As a commissioned communications officer aboard a space ship, the casting of an African American actress in the role was a major breakthrough. At a time when black Americans were segregated and discriminated against en masse, Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry presented a black woman on the bridge of the most advanced ship in the fleet, furthermore it was her job! Future Star Trek actress Whoopi Goldberg cites Nichols’ presence as her inspiration saying that it was the first time she had seen a black woman on television cast in a non-menial role. Likewise Uhura served as the inspiration for a number of African American female astronauts.
While Uhura’s cultural impact cannot be overstated, her character’s role was somewhat less overwhelming. As the series focused on predominantly on protagonists Kirk, Spock and Doctor McCoy, the supporting cast were relegated to the supporting roles of pushing buttons when asked. So bored of her continuous, ‘hailing frequencies open,’ role Nichols actually planned to quit after season one until Martin Luther King Jr famously asked her to stay. Although she did so, Uhura’s character was not developed in any particular fashion; in fact she barely appears in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
Uhura was recast as Zoe Saldana for J.J Abram’s recent reimagining; Star Trek (2009). Her role as communications officer is expanded to include a flair for languages which allows Uhura to graduate as top of her class. Unfortunately, despite it being almost fifty years later, her character is actually less developed than her earlier incarnation. While Saldana undoubtedly gets more screen time than Nichol’s, this Uhura’s role is once again limited, though this time to that of Spock’s girlfriend. Although she has moments where her language skills come in useful, these are few and far between and by the sequel Star Trek: Into Darkness Uhura has almost no lines that do not relate to Spock’s character development. She could be taken out of the equation altogether and replaced with the computer from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home that repeatedly asks him, ‘how do you feel?’ for all the personality she displays. Surprisingly the remakes actually make a step backwards in her development, an achievement in itself considering she was a blank slate in this regard to begin with.
How then has Kirk fared through the years? Captain James Tiberius Kirk is a cultural icon. Pretty much everyone has an idea of who he is regardless of how much or how little Star Trek they have actually watched. The prevailing image of Captain Kirk is one of a space faring maverick who punches his way through the galaxy, sleeping with whatever green skinned woman he comes across before zipping over to the next unsuspecting planet. Repeat ad infinitum. Add to this the unmistakable mannerisms of William Shatner and you have a popular portrait of Captain Kirk.
It isn’t an entirely undeserved picture. Star Trek, despite its breakthrough casting and storylines, was a show of the 60’s and as such demanded a heroic alpha male hero to beat up the bad guys and kiss the beautiful women. Give the 60s Star Trek: The Next Generation with Picard’s long expositions on the Prime Directive and it wouldn’t have made it past the pilot, something which Star Trek with its female first officer and multi cultural cast barely managed in the first place. Yet the non Trekkies among you might be surprised to learn that far from the loose cannon he is thought to have been, Kirk was actually a stabilising influence in the galaxy. He spends his captain’s career visiting planets in the wake of other captains and having to undo the damage they inevitably cause by playing God to technologically inferior cultures or taking a swing at overpowered aliens who have enslaved a race.
Mostly, however, the series develops the friendship between Kirk and his alien first officer Spock (who does not have a girlfriend). Kirk and Spock’s relationship developed to the point where fanfiction writers started pairing them together in what was one of the earliest, if not the first homosexual pairing in science fiction. When confronted with this Roddenberry shrugged and said, ‘well duh!’ Spock and Kirk were meant to demonstrate a pure, Greek type love without physicality as the emphasis is on their deep, emotional attachment. It is this attachment that prompts Kirk to steal the Enterprise, sabotage another vessel, assault a number of fellow officers and disobey orders in Star Trek III, transforming himself from dutiful Starfleet officer to the disobedient rogue the public recognise today.
Star Trek (2009) saw Chris Pine cast in the role of Kirk with an all new and far more tragic back-story. On the surface new Kirk is not all that different to Shatner’s portrayal. He’s still rebellious, a womaniser and of course; brilliant. Yet Pine’s Kirk is more a caricature of popular opinion of Kirk than a reimagining. These three points; women, punching and brilliance are the central tenants of his character, much to the detriment of anything else. Without the longevity of a television series, naturally there are many aspects of characterisation that have to be condensed. But in doing so all sense of subtlety is lost and the later writers involved in Star Trek were not known for their subtlety to begin with. At one point Kirk is shown in bed with two women for no other reason other than look! He still likes women! And how else could writers show him to be an attractive character? He punches his way out of situations, this time because he’s a rebel without a cause *swoon* and of course he’s simply so brilliant that the writers jump him from student cadet to captain of the flagship because gradual promotion and a chain of command in a military organisation are for other people. And Trekkies everywhere sobbed.
Kirk’s relationship with Spock is also condensed, but is still shown to be just as unbreakable, which is problematic given that it simply has not been given the necessary time to develop. The films clock in at 260 minutes, but for 128 of those minutes they hated each other. Spock’s dying words in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan are the poignant; ‘I have been, and always shall be, your friend,’ leaving Kirk bereft and unresponsive for the remaining film and the introduction of the sequel. Into Darkness reverses the scene with Kirk’s death, though with considerably less poignancy. Kirk uses his dying moments to ask Spock, ‘and why did I save your life?’ ‘Is it because we’re friends?’ Spock replies with all the delivery of a pre-school child learning that fire is bad because it’s hot.
And it doesn’t look like things are going to get better for the Kirk legacy. Shatner’s Kirk was at least a human character. He has flaws, flaws which he acknowledges. He has suffered, suffering which he draws strength from and refuses to let go of because it fires him. He develops into something of a tragic character, unable to cope with retirement after having lived such an adventurous, heroic life. When he eventually dies in Star Trek: Generations it is saving billions of lives, but as he predicts in Star Trek V; very much alone without his friends around him.
Pine’s Kirk on the other hand is almost perfect. Any flaws he has are whitewashed into positives. Yes he’s a womaniser but he’s just so darned cheeky, yes he gets into fights but he’s just so cool for it. Even with a far more tragic back story; this Kirk is unaffected by tragedy. The death of his mentor temporarily fuels his righteous anger rather than cause lasting emotional pain. He does not draw strength from his friends; instead they draw strength from him. The former would suggest weakness in him. And he certainly cannot die. His death in Into Darkness lasted all of two minutes and any impact it might have on him is diminished by the Doctor’s announcement that he was ‘barely dead’. So we can expect Kirk to go on saving the galaxy with a combination of luck and his inherent brilliance, but without any actually meaningfully developed relationships because he relies on himself and he will never learn from mistakes because he frankly cannot make them.