Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Star Trek’s black guest stars, 1966-1967

by Rob - February 9th, 2014.
Filed under: Star Trek, Writing.

Apropos of yesterday’s discussion of mentioning race in fiction, I have a complete set of the first season scripts of the original Star Trek, and decided to have a look to see if the major speaking parts played by black guest performers in the filmed episodes were specified in the scripts as to be played by black actors.

These episodes were produced in the United States in 1966 and 1967, so a note on terminology. According to Wikipedia:

Negro superseded colored as the most polite word for African Americans at a time when black was considered more offensive. This word was accepted as normal, including by people classified as Negroes, until the late 1960s, after the later African-American Civil Rights Movement. One well-known example is the identification by Martin Luther King, Jr. of his own race as “Negro” in his famous speech of 1963, “I Have a Dream”.

Below are the four relevant episodes from the first season, in the order in which they were produced (my thanks to Trek Core for the wonderful screen captures; click them for larger versions):

Of course, the role identified in the script for “The Man Trap” as “Uhura’s Crewman” had to be played by a black actor (who could manage a line in Swahili!); the actor chosen was Vince Howard. The script says (speaking of the creature’s previous guise as crewman Green):

“GREEN – Green changing to Negro crewman”

And a quarter-page later, of Uhura:

“HER POV – At the closed Botany Section doorways is a tall, magnetically handsome man. He is dressed in ship’s uniform. He is Negro.”

What’s a tad surprising is that those words — “He is Negro” — constitute the act-ending cliffhanger, and are immediately followed by “FADE OUT. / END OF ACT TWO”. Since all acts but the last end with jeopardy, the script is allowing the viewer to connect the dots here: Uhura’s been targeted and is in trouble because of the appearance of the salt-vampire creature in the guise of a “handsome Negro.”

In “The Galileo Seven,” Boma (played by Don Marshall in the part that won him his subsequent starring role on Land of the Giants) is described in the script as “BOMA, a strong Negro.”

For “Court Martial” (the very next episode produced after “The Galileo Seven”), in which Kirk’s superior is played by the wonderful black Canadian actor Percy Rodriguez, the script clearly says “STONE – A NEGRO, whose bearing marks him as a man accustomed to command”.

(In the initial Captain’s log as scripted, Kirk calls him “portmaster” and “Senior Captain,” not “Commodore,” the term actually used on air; the ending credit for Rodriguez retains the term “Portmaster Stone” never heard on air. Oh, and the odd title for his office chart, “Star Ship Status” (rather than “Starship Status”) is verbatim from the script.)

As I wrote on my blog when Rodriguez passed away in 2007, “It’s hard to overstate the impact in 1967 of having Captain Kirk’s superior officer be a black man, and the absolute authority and dignity Rodriguez brought to the part was perfect.”

The most problematic is the role of Charlene Masters in “The Alternative Factor.” In that episode a black woman stands in for Scotty in engineering — and she’s clearly a scientist, not an engineer (blue uniform not red).

Much has been written about the fact that the part was originally to be larger and to be a love interest for Lazarus, and it has been repeatedly suggested (and also repeatedly denied) that the part was trimmed so much (leaving the end product with a guest star doing lines Jimmy Doohan could have done in his sleep) because Joe D’Agosta, the casting director, had cast a black woman (Janet MacLachien) in the love-interest role and the studio or network got antsy about a romance between a black (human) woman and a white (alien) man.

In any event, the script simply introduces her as “LIEUTENANT CHARLENE MASTERS, an attractive chemoscientist” (why she’s called “chemoscientist” rather than “chemist” is the least of this script’s problems); nothing in the script specifies her ethnicity. She’s also been demoted by the time the episode goes to air; she’s wearing an ensign’s uniform, with no sleeve braid, not a lieutenant’s, as specified in the script.

Aside: I don’t have the second-season scripts, so can’t comment on how the part of Nobel Prize-winning cyberneticist Richard Daystrom was described in “The Ultimate Computer” (brilliantly portrayed by William Marshall).

But it’s interesting to note that the character of Leah Brahms in Star Trek: The Next Generation was originally written as Navid Daystrom, and was to be the granddaughter or great-granddaughter of Richard Daystrom: a black woman as the love interest for the (blind) black man, Geordi La Forge.

But the script didn’t say she was black, and the NextGen casting people didn’t recognize the import of the name Daystrom, and so cast a white woman (Susan Gibney), giving Geordi an interracial romance — but doing an African-American actress out of what turned out to be a recurring role.

(On the other hand, if her last name is Brahms, I suppose that means she could be the great-to-the-nth granddaughter of Flint!)

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