In at least one of Star Trek‘s universes–the one controlled by J.J. Abrams, helmsman Sulu has been (or will be) revealed as gay, with a husband and child. Apparently, this was meant as a tribute to George Takei, portrayer of Sulu Prime. However, Mr. Takei’s emotions about this seem mixed:
“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.
My feelings are mixed too. Pegg’s response, that this Sulu is an alternate timeline Sulu whose history we know less about, is fair enough. In the Spock-with-a-beard universe, Sulu has an enormous scar, is compared with a Gestapo agent, and sexually harasses Uhura in Roger Ailes-esque fashion. So sure. There can be more than one Sulu and more than one demeanor and orientation for him. And while Gene Roddenberry’s vision is worthy of respect, but it’s hardly sacrosanct. Some deviations, particularly those coming from Nicholas Meyer and Ronald D. Moore, added greatly to the series.
Yet I’d be the last to tell George Takei how he ought to feel, and I think he has a point that doing this kind of reveal with Sulu is, in a way, bringing him out of the closet. And since Mr. Takei lived with the pain of the closet for decades, this, well, I’ll let him say it:
Takei first learned of Sulu’s recent same-sex leanings last year, when Cho called him to reveal the big news. Takei tried to convince him to make a new character gay instead. “I told him, ‘Be imaginative and create a character who has a history of being gay, rather than Sulu, who had been straight all this time, suddenly being revealed as being closeted.'” (Takei had enough negative experiences inside the Hollywood closet, he says, and strongly feels a character who came of age in the 23rd century would never find his way inside one.)
To this concern I’d add that Sulu in the rebooted film series hasn’t had much of a role. I remember him doing a bit of swordplay in the first one. My record of not watching Star Trek Into Darkness remains unbroken, but since nothing I’ve read goes on about the amazing Sulu arc, I’m assuming not much was done there either. If all they’re going to do in Beyond is show him in a quick shot with his husband and kid before sending him off for two hours of “Aye, Captain” and explosions, I’m not sure they’ve accomplished much by making Sulu gay. Firsts in Star Trek that mattered, the first captain of color in DS9, the first female captain in Voyager, carried great weight. Even the first interracial kiss, forced though it was on the protagonists, had some dramatic purpose to it to go with its cultural significance. And science fiction and fantasy television is no stranger to gay characters, so Trek doesn’t deserve credit for a first here. But they could try for something better and more lasting. If Star Trek wants to advance LGBT characters in science fiction, they might try presenting an LGBT character who’s integral to the story and who doesn’t end up dying or watching his or her partner die just to serve as a plot point. That would be fresh, new, and different, and would be a more fitting tribute to George Takei.
Somehow, I don’t think Star Trek Beyond will go that route, but we’ll see.