In less than two weeks, Star Trek Beyond will hit theaters with a bombshell: the long-running sci-fi franchise’s first openly gay character.
As it happens, it’s someone who longtime fans already know and love: Helmsman Hikaru Sulu, the character played by George Takei in the original 1960’s television series and, later, in seven Star Trek movies.
Even more surprising, there is one person who is decidedly unhappy about this development: Takei himself.
In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Takei, who is openly gay, said: “Unfortunately, it’s a twisting of (Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s) creation, to which he put in so much thought. I think it’s really unfortunate.”
According to Takei, Roddenberry was “a strong supporter of LGBT equality.” But the actor was not out of the closet when the series was made. Takei, who came out publicly in a 2005 interview with Frontiers magazine, has since become a major LGBTQ icon and activist, serving as a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign and attracting 9 million followers to his humane and often hilarious Facebook feed. In 2008, Takei and his husband, Brad Altman, were among the first same-sex couples to apply for a marriage license in California.
Although Takei describes himself as “delighted” that there’s a gay character in the new movie, he says he just doesn’t think it should be Sulu, a character whom he insists Roddenberry fleshed out fully – and who was always straight.
To some viewers of Star Trek, there’s plenty of wiggle room. To be sure, Sulu was never a romantic lead. Although he was revealed to have a daughter (played by Jacqueline Kim) in the 1994 film Star Trek: Generations, that’s far from definitive.
And there are scenes from the original series that lend themselves to speculation. In the 1967 episode “Mirror, Mirror,” some of the crew of the Enterprise encounter their evil twins in a parallel universe. There, Sulu, who is captain of the ship, makes an aggressive pass at Uhuru. In the logic of that episode, predatory heterosexuality would be the opposite of what the real Sulu would have done.
According to Takei, he lobbied Star Trek Beyond director Justin Lin not to make Sulu gay in the film, which was co-written by Doug Yung and Simon Pegg, who also plays Scotty. But the filmmakers went ahead with the twist, which is revealed in a scene that shows Sulu with a husband and daughter.
Following Takei’s criticism, the filmmakers and stars of Star Trek Beyond rushed to defend the decision. Pegg released a statement saying that he loved Takei, but on this matter “must respectfully disagree with him.” He added that the filmmakers “loved the idea (of a gay Star Trek character) being someone we already knew because the audience have a pre-existing opinion of that character as a human being, unaffected by any prejudice.”
John Cho, who plays Sulu in the new film, said in an interview that he liked the approach that was taken, “which was not to make a big thing out it, which is where I hope we are going as a species, to not politicize one’s personal orientations.”
Zachary Quinto, the openly gay actor who plays Spock, told an interviewer that he was “disappointed by the fact that George was disappointed.”
“I get it that he has had his own personal journey and has his own personal relationship with this character,” Quinto said. “But … 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.”