It has been a rollercoaster of a ride for the new “Star Trek Beyond” film in the past 24 hours, and it’s all regarding one throwaway four-second moment early on in the film.
In the scene, John Cho’s Sulu is shown embracing his daughter and long-term male partner as he arrives on a space station for some shore leave. It’s a casual and matter-of-fact moment of positive acceptance, something a section of Trek fandom has long been after. The choice to include the moment looked like a nod to the openly gay George Takei, and one of several moments in the film honoring the franchise for its 50th anniversary.
There’s just one problem – Takei doesn’t like it being in there. In a lengthy interview with THR, the actor and LGBT activist revealed the idea came from both writer/actor Simon Pegg and director Justin Lin and that he wasn’t happy with it as he never asked for Sulu to be gay:
“I’m delighted that there’s a gay character. Unfortunately, it’s a twisting of Gene’s creation, to which he put in so much thought. I think it’s really unfortunate… 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… I really tried to work with these people when at long last the issue of gay equality was going to be addressed.”
This is where things get interesting. The change of the character’s sexuality actually doesn’t contradict canon as Sulu was never shown in any of the previous TV series or films as having a romantic relationship of any kind – the character’s sexuality wasn’t set either way. He had a daughter, which is still shown here, but the only reference to her conception comes from a non-canon tie-in novel.
That means for the films it’s fair game for them to do a scene like this, and Sulu makes sense as four others (Kirk, Spock, Uhura, McCoy) have already had their sexualities defined in the new films, while making a Russian character like Chekov gay would immediately seem like a political statement – leaving only Scotty and Sulu.
“Star Trek” has long been under criticism, sometimes from the actors themselves and even its own creator Gene Roddenberry, for its lack of a regular LGBT character in a franchise that prides itself on diversity and acceptance. Pegg was aware of this and saw Takei’s interview. He has since responded to the quotes in an interview with The Guardian, saying:
“I have huge love and respect for George Takei, his heart, courage and humour are an inspiration. However, with regards to his thoughts on our Sulu, I must respectfully disagree with him. He’s right, it is unfortunate, it’s unfortunate that the screen version of the most inclusive, tolerant universe in science fiction hasn’t featured an LGBT character until now. We could have introduced a new gay character, but he or she would have been primarily defined by their sexuality, seen as the ‘gay character’, rather than simply for who they are, and isn’t that tokenism?
I don’t believe Gene Roddenberry’s decision to make the prime timeline’s Enterprise crew straight was an artistic one, more a necessity of the time. Trek rightly gets a lot of love for featuring the first interracial kiss on US television, but Plato’s Stepchildren was the lowest rated episode ever. The viewing audience weren’t open minded enough at the time and it must have forced Roddenberry to modulate his innovation. His mantra was always ‘infinite diversity in infinite combinations’. If he could have explored Sulu’s sexuality with George, he no doubt would have. Roddenberry was a visionary and a pioneer but we choose our battles carefully.”
Another person to weigh in is Zachary Quinto, the openly gay actor who plays Spock in the new films. Speaking with PedestrianTV he says:
“As a member of the LGBT community myself, I was disappointed by the fact that George was disappointed. I get it that he’s has had his own personal journey and has his own personal relationship with this character but, you know, as we established in the first Star Trek film in 2009, we’ve created an alternate universe. My hope is that eventually George can be strengthened by the enormously positive response from especially young people who are heartened by and inspired by this really tasteful and beautiful portrayal of something that I think is gaining acceptance and inclusion in our societies across the world, and should be.”
Takei famously tried to get Roddenberry at the time of the original series to tackle the issue of sexuality. As part of the same trade interview today above, Takei said of the show’s creator: “He was a strong supporter of LGBT equality, but he said he has been pushing the envelope and walking a very tight rope – and if he pushed too hard, the show would not be on the air.”
It’s unclear if Takei has seen the film at this point and what his reaction will be once he sees it in context. You’llbe able to make up your own mind when the movie opens July 22nd.