4/02/2014

Star Trek (1967) "The Alternative Factor" - Capt. Kirk (William Shatner), Lt. Masters (Janet MacLachlan)

One of the first interracial kisses on American television was on the Star Trek episode "Plato's Stepchildren."  But did you know the first interracial kiss* on Star Trek almost happened a year earlier? Find out why.

Star Trek
has a history of being progressive. From Roddenberry's Vulcan motto "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations," to his ethnically diverse main cast, the show constantly pushed boundaries. In the episode "The Alternative Factor" there was supposed to a torrid romance between Masters (who's black) and Lazarus (who's white). This would have predated the first interracial kiss in "Plato's Children" by a year and pushed boundaries. But, by all accounts, the relationship between the two characters was changed at the last minute. Could cutting that one thing have doomed the episode? And why was it cut in the first place?


In 1967 the Star Trek episode "The Alternative Factor" aired. It was written by Don Ingalls and the final teleplay by Gene L. Coon. The plot is that the Enterprise is orbiting a dead planet and the universe is rocked by a moment of "non-existence." Kirk, Spock and a security team beam down to the planet to find a man named Lazarus raving about a "thing" that he's hunting. Mysteriously, Lazrarus seems to change from sober to a raving lunatic and a bandage keeps appearing and disappearing off his head. In the end, it's discovered that he's switching places with an "anti-matter" version of himself and Kirk forces him into an eternal battle with himself. The episode is considered the worst of the first season because of gaping plot holes, poor science and terrible special effects. I've watched it and it's horrible. In the episode there's a black engineer named Charlene Masters that has a few scenes but isn't a big part of the show. But it wasn't always that way.

John Barrymore was cast as Lazarus and the role of chemoscientist Charlene Masters was given to Janet MacLachlan. MacLachlan was born in 1933 and the daughter of actress Samantha MacLachlan. She studied acting at the Harlem YMCA, the Herbert Berghoff Acting Studio, and the Little Theatre of Harlem and received a bachelor's degree in psychology from Hunter College in 1955. While primarily a stage actress, she got a few guest-starring roles on shows like The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. and The Fugitive. MacLachlan was more than capable of handling the role, but there was a problem. There was actually supposed to a torrid romance between Masters and Lazarus that led her to turn on the crew. This would have predated the interracial romance in "Plato's Children" by a year and pushed boundaries. But, by all accounts, the relationship between the two characters was changed at the last minute. Could cutting that one thing have doomed the episode? And why was it cut in the first place?

On Wednesday, November 16, 1966 filming of the bridge scenes began on Stage 9. Strangely MacLachlan, even though her role was changed to engineering, was handed a blue uniform (science division) instead of red (engineering). This was the first indication that changes to the script had happened quickly and chaotically. It happened so fast the wardrobe team sent the wrong uniform to the set. What forced such an abrupt change?

A memo from NBC’s Stan Robertson that morning was sent to producer Gene Coon saying, "This will confirm our telephone conversation of yesterday, in which I again voiced objections to this script which has as its premise another 'duplicate character.'... We have gone over this point many times in the past, Gene, and it appears as though we are only continuing to perpetuate the 'sameness' which has been one of the continuing criticisms of our series." The objection was that the story point about Masters and Lararus was too similar to the romance between Khan and McGivers in "Space Seed." While this is a valid point, why demand this change so quickly? Robertson had already approved the script and called it a "very fine story." What changed? The casting. The studio had found out that Masters was African-American and immediately wanted to stop it out of fear of a backlash. So, the script was changed. And this wasn't some minor change in character. This was a big one.

Here's a sample from the script of what terrified the network:
            She stares at him, a strange look in her eyes. He stares at her. Then. . . softly:

            LAZARUS
            Come here. . . Charlene. . .

            Slowly she moves toward him, stands before him. He reaches out, takes one of her hands.

            LAZARUS
            I have moved through eternity to find you.
            You know that, don't you?
            When we first saw each other...
            you must have felt it.

            CHARLENE
            I...I...you were like a wounded eagle...

            LAZARUS
            An eagle looks a long time for his mate...
            and once he finds her, he never leaves her.
            I have looked a long time...

            Now he starts to pull her close. She draws back for a moment, but his force, though gentle, is relentless.

            LAZARUS
            (continuing)
            You have no idea what it's like...
            eternity unrolling before you...
            and to be alone, through all time...
            and then I saw you...

            Hungrily, he sweeps her into his arms, kisses her hard, violently. For a moment she resists...and then she melts. Finally, he lets her go.

            LAZARUS
            (continuing)
            I knew it the moment I saw you.
            You belong to me. It is as inevitable
            as my struggle. You understand me?

            CHARLENE
            Yes... yes...

            LAZARUS
            Charlene... I can't be alone any more.
            When the Enterprise leaves here, I will stay.
            I want you to stay with me.

Pretty hot hunh? Very hot for any couple. But, for an interracial couple, it's insane. The South would have gone crazy! So, all references to their steamy romance were excised from the script. But it wasn't a minor story point in the episode. It demanded massive changes. The script became so complicated that director Gerd Oswald said, "it was even hard to interpret for some of us deeply involved with it."

For example, in the original script Masters causes a fire and steals Dilithium crystals. In the revised script Lazarus starts a fire to lure Masters away and steals the crystals. A minor change in theory but it creates huge plot holes. If they knew Lazarus was dangerous, why did the security team lose him? Why was he allowed to wander freely on the ship? If Masters was an engineer, why was she so easily bamboozled by the electrical fire? She acts like something like that had never happened before. It makes the crew of the Enterprise look like a bunch of morons.

There's another big change that the script caused. They lost their lead actor. The next day when filming began John Drew Barrymore, who was supposed to play Lazarus, didn't show up on set. It's been speculated that this was caused by his drug and alcohol problems, but there was something else. Apprently, he'd seen the script changes and wasn't happy. The next day Herb Solow wrote a memo that said Barrymore had refused to come in for filming because "the script changes had altered his character." What exactly did he mean by that? Did he realize the change had weakened his character? Did he realize that the interracial romance had been removed? We'll never know for sure, but something made him mad enough that he broke the rules of the Screen Actor's Guild. He ended up getting banned from working for six months, which is a lifetime to a working actor.

The sudden cast change had dramatic repercussions on the episode.The replacement actor, Robert Brown, was brought in at the last minute and barely had time to learn or rehearse his lines. The shoot became chaotic as changes to make-up and effects were happening on a daily basis.

In the end, the episode became a footnote in the history of Star Trek and the next year a kiss between Nichelle Nichols and William Shatner would make history. But think about it. The first interracial kiss was forced on two characters against their will. If "The Alternative Factor" had aired intact it would have been the first romantic interracial kiss. Could that have changed TV history? We'll never know.


Janet MacLachlan went on to have an illustrious career in film and television appearing in The Thirteenth Floor (1999), Wonder Woman (1977) and Alias (2002) before her death at 77. She won an Emmy for her 1981 performance in KCET's "Voices of Our People: In Celebration of Black Poetry." She also became grant committee chairman for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. So, in a way, MacLachlan did change television history. In 1968 she told Soul Magazine "There really hasn't been, say on television, a truthful honest black character on any show in a continuing role. 99 percent of the writers are white. And they don't really know. So what they are doing is writing white roles for black people. The only way to correct that is to have black writers." Star Trek changed all that and brought us the kiss that changed television history, but thanks to Janet, it might have changed one year earlier.

Portions of this article are from the book Inside Star Trek: The Real Story by  Herbert F. Solow and  Robert H. Justman.

Hat tip to Armchair Squid

*Note: It's been noted that the first romantic interracial kiss happened on Emergency – Ward 10 between John White and Joan Hooley in 1964 and a platonic kiss between Sammy Davis Jr. and Nancy Sinatra happened in 1967. One of many other examples include Robert Culp and France Nuyen sharing a kiss in a 1966 episode of I Spy.

Should the episode have been aired as it was? What do you think would have happened if the first interracial kiss had happened in "The Alternative Factor?" What are some other great moments in minority history that you can think of?

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9 comments:

Tony Laplume said...

Wow. I'd never heard about this.

Pat Dilloway said...

It's sad that almost 40 years later we still have these problems, like when a station in Oklahoma won't air "Cosmos" because it includes evolution. I'm reading "Redshirts" right now that references the bad writing of Star Trek episodes; this seems like a really good example of that.

Yolanda Renee said...

Pat is right - I thought an educated nation would be smarter - I'm sad, so very sad. It's not knowledge but propaganda that reaches the masses! I blame the non-news news society(no longer the facts - only what entertains, shocks, and amazes)! Talking heads with their heads up their a....

This would have been an amazing scene!

Armchair Squid said...

Nice work! I love it. Thanks for the shout out, too. The Barrymore wrinkle is very interesting.

Ava Quinn said...

Interesting idea you raise about having the first interracial kiss on tv be voluntary rather than forced. But that would never have happened. Sad to say, but that would have been too radical for those times.

Maurice Mitchell said...

Sadly it's too much to hope for Ava, but at least they tried! What could it have changed IF it had been allowed?

Joel Kirk said...

"Star Trek" having the supposed 'first interracial kiss' on television is highly inaccurate. There were various scripted kisses between white men and Asian women, yet they didn't get the scrutiny because of racial standards in America.


One example is the kiss between Robert Culp and France Nuyen in the "I Spy" episode 'The Tiger' which took place a year before the Star Trek episode 'Plato's Stepchildren.' Not too mention the kiss between William Shatner and Barbara Luna in the "Star Trek" episode 'Mirror, Mirror' which also aired before 'Plato's Stepchildren.'

Maurice Mitchell said...

Great points Joel! I updated the post to reflect that.

Joel Kirk said...

Tks, Maurice...;-)

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