So there’s an interesting debate going on about the new Star Trek movie, “Star Trek Beyond”. The movie’s writers and series original George Takei are disagreeing about how the Hikaru Sulu character is portrayed, and fans are clearly divided on it. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it myself, at first.
But I know now what’s made me so uncomfortable and why.
About the Original “Star Trek”
The original “Star Trek” series only ran for three seasons, but it was remarkably progressive on several front. The Lieutentant Nyota Uhara character, played by black actress Michelle Nichols, was not only the first black major character on a network series, but was part of the command crew on the Enterprise’s bridge – black, a woman, and fourth in command of the ship. When she was considering leaving the show, Dr. Martin Luther King told her that she had to stay, saying, “For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen.” The Uhura character was also part of the first interracial kiss on television, when she kissed Captain Kirk in the “Plato’s Bridge” episode.
So the show literally explored new frontiers. But sexual preference wasn’t one of them, and it was ultimately because “Plato’s Bridge” and the kiss were so poorly received; Roddenberry supported LGBTQ equality, but felt he had reached the line of what the American public was ready to accept from network television, as he discussed with George Takei (not openly gay until 2005) at the time.
The writers of “Star Trek Beyond”. in the name of diversity and as an homage to George Takei as “a sci-fi icon and beloved LGBT activist” have made Sulu’s character gay in this reboot of the original series. And George Takei’s reaction was unexpected:
“Except Takei wasn’t overjoyed. He had never asked for Sulu to be gay. In fact, he’d much prefer that he stay straight. “I’m delighted that there’s a gay character,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Unfortunately, it’s a twisting of Gene’s creation, to which he put in so much thought. I think it’s really unfortunate.”
Takei explains that Roddenberry was exhaustive in conceiving his Star Trek characters. (The name Sulu, for example, was based on the Sulu Sea off the coast of the Philippines, so as to render his Asian nationality indeterminate.) And Roddenberry had always envisioned Sulu as heterosexual.”
Takei wondered why a new character that was gay wasn’t introduced, instead of making his character gay, and after a discussion with John Cho (who plays Sulu in “Star Trek Beyond”) and director Justin Lin, and an email from Simon Pegg (one of the wo-writers and the actor protraying Head Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott) was under the impression that the creative team had decided to change course and take this route:
“‘I really tried to work with these people when at long last the issue of gay equality was going to be addressed,” Takei says. “I thought after that conversation with Justin that was going to happen. Months later, when I got that email from Simon Pegg, I was kind of confused. He thinks I’m a great guy? Wonderful. But what was the point of that letter? I interpreted that as my words having been heard.'”
Simon Pegg was so surprised by George Takei’s reaction to making Sulu gay in “Star Trek Beyond” that he felt moved to approach the media and express with his disagreement with Takei’s criticism. His points included:
- Concerns about tokenism
- Sulu’s sexual preference would be another aspect of a character of a that the audience already knows, not *the* defining aspect of a brand-new character
- Concerns about timeline issues – “…the audience would infer that there has been an LGBT presence in the Trek Universe from the beginning (at least in the Kelvin timeline), that a gay hero isn’t something new or strange. It’s also important to note that at no point do we suggest that our Sulu was ever closeted, why would he need to be? It’s just hasn’t come up before.”
- Since the Roddenberry’s decision not to explore sexual orientation in the original show was due to the time in history, and not an artistic one, it’s appropriate to do so now.
- The decision shows that there are LGBTQ people everywhere – through time and across timelines, and it sends a positive message.
The thing is, from what I’ve read of the way that George Takei responded to the decision, I don’t think that he disagrees with most of this. All media accounts indicate that he’s was happy to include a gay character in the movie. He just didn’t want it to be his character, who he played as heterosexual despite the fact that he’s a gay man, for a number of reasons besides the ones cited earlier:
- He doesn’t believe that a gay man in the 23rd century would ever be “closeted”, the way he was in the original series. The Hollywood reporter notes that this creates some timeline issues, and I don’t understand the reasoning – it apparently touches on issues of the reboot’s timing in relation to the original story’s, and I didn’t realize that there was an issue here. I thought that the reboot was simply a re-imagining of the original series? Maybe someone can explain this to me.
- He felt it would be better for the film’s gay character to have an acknowledged history of being gay.
- This year is the 50th anniversary of “Star Trek” and Takei feels that this movie should honour Roddenberry’s original vision
This debate, in the large sense, sounds familiar to me, and I don’t like it.
Thoughts on George Takei, Sulu, Acting and Being Heard
I’m an actress. Not recently – it’s been quite some time since I’ve been on the stage. And I never played a part for as fraction as long a time as George Takei did Sulu, so I can only imagine how he must have felt about that character after all the development, the rehearsing, and the hours of shooting. I got attached to my characters after playing them for only very short runs on a stage in front of a small audience. Sulu was the character that launched and drove George Takei’s career, that made him an internationally-known name – he’s played Sulu for long periods off-and-on for 50 years.
And then some straight people (admittedly it’s an assumption that John Cho and Simon Pegg are straight, but they are both married to women and nothing in the media suggests that they are gay) come along and tell Takei that they’d like to change something major about the character. As an homage, they say. They’d change an element of Sulu’s character that is very personal and life-defining for anyone, especially so for Takei given his personal life experience.
I would have said “I’d prefer that you didn’t,” as well. And it’s not as if George Takei wasn’t open to the idea of a gay character in the movie and didn’t offer some thoughts on what he, as an original cast member and a gay man, would prefer to see.
But the writers, who weren’t even born when the original “Star Trek” aired, decided that they knew better than George Takei about:
- The original “Star Trek” and Roddenberry’s vision
- George Takei’s discussions with Roddenberry about addressing issues around sexual preference on the show
- George Takei’s experience developing and playing the Sulu character
- George Takei’s experiences as both a closeted and openly gay actor in Hollywood over decades
They decided that the input of George Takei, who’s lived several types of experiences related to Sulu and his development and portrayal over 5 decades, wasn’t valuable given the narrative that they wanted to push (as straight people who weren’t involved with the original show at all) so they disregarded what Takei said.
And expected that he’d be honoured by it.
George Takei said himelf, “I interpreted that as my words having been heard,” but they obviously weren’t.
Members of the disability community, does any of this sound familiar?
And obviously George Takei might not feel these things about the whole business. These are just things that struck me, and made me think, “Well, all of that sounds very invalidating.” That’s through my filter – I don’t presume to know how George Takei feels, I can only speculate on how I’d feel in the situation, knowing that this sort of experience is a common one for disabled people – decisions about the things that are important to us get made without our input, and even when we’re asked we often end up feeling unheard.
Again, my filter – you might not see it this way, but if you’re not disabled then we’ve got some different life experiences, and I might not pick up on some things that you pick up on…
I love the original “Star Trek”, I’ve enjoyed this movie reboot of the story, I’m all for diversity on the big screen and I’m thrilled to see the “Star Trek” franchise continue to push the limits.
I’m just a little disappointed by how this particular issue played out. How about you?