How No Man Has Loved Before: On Sulu’s Sexuality in Star Trek Beyond

I was born 25 years after Gene Roddenberry’s groundbreaking series first aired, but that quarter of a century couldn’t stop the beloved starship Enterprise from earning yet another devoted fan. Or from Star Trek setting my impossibly high expectations for sci-fi television. This is probably why when the reboot was announced back in April of 2006, I was both eager and terrified. The pluses: Uhura, Bones, Sulu, Scotty—all of my favorites were coming back. Everything I loved as a kid could be new again. And like many “reboots” that feature dedicated followings, there was a particular burden of responsibility placed on director J.J. Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman to do right by Roddenbery. Unfortunately, “don’t fuck with the original” wasn’t written into their contracts.

I feared any potential lack of loyalty, and as fans learned, part of that fear was justified. Abrams did flub major character and thematic aspects in the franchise reboot’s first two installments, some of which he discussed after Into Darkness. From the choice to prioritize action sequences and VFX over social messages, to the unforgivable character assassination of Khan, to its smatterings of female objectification and even an offensive re-design of female officer’s uniforms, I was left feeling lukewarm about the third entry in the Kelvin timeline, Star Trek: Beyond. Then last week John Cho announced that Beyond was going to reveal Sulu as gay. For as progressive as the Star Trek universe had always been, it still lacked LGBTQ visibility. Until now. Thanks to Beyond, Roddenberry’s vision—a future of infinite diversity in infinite combinations—was complete.

That glow lasted about an hour. Not soon after the news broke, The Hollywood Reporter released an interview with George Takei, actor, LGBT activist and original Hikaru Sulu. In it the actor expresses extreme disappointment in the character’s new, “unfortunate” “same-sex leanings.” But why would Takei, a gay man and fierce advocate for diversity and visibility in Hollywood, be disappointed? It was pretty simple, actually: Takei felt like Beyond writer and star Simon Pegg, as well as director Justin Lin, had stepped on Roddenberry’s toes. Sulu was written as straight, according to Takei, and that creative choice should have been respected.

Fuming and fraught over the clash between old and reboot, I spent the day the news broke feeling defeated. How could this great thing have gone so horribly wrong? My answer came when I realized the entire debacle was based on the premise of respecting “legacy.” But what that legacy was remained unclear. Was it the legacy of artistic intent, or the legacy of progress? Did you have to give up one to respect the other? Most importantly, what did Roddenberry devotees actually believe his Star Trek legacy was?

It’s easy to understand where Takei is coming from: Roddenberry offered the actor an opportunity and level of support no one else dared at that particular time. Out of that grew a real and justifiable sense of respect and protection for Roddenberry’s carefully crafted creative choices. The actor, who suggested that the filmmakers should create a new gay character instead of retconning Sulu as gay, believed it was of the utmost importance to respect Roddenberry’s conceptualization of the character. Frankly, it’s a desire to honor Roddenberry that I think many of his fans share.

And while Roddenberry’s universe has never included an LGBTQ character before now, that THR interview reports that the showrunner was open to it—just not at the time. According to Takei, Roddenberry chose not to make any of his leads queer because he was also tackling gender, nationality and racial issues during one of the most turbulent social justice eras in America’s history. The visionary was imagining a future that included all of us, in a present where many of us didn’t have basic or equal rights. The resulting pushback from the network and viewers alike made things difficult. So, in order to win the culture war and tell his boundary-stretching story, he chose his battles based on their ability to test limits without taking the show off the air. Of course, he could have had his own queer character in the works if he wanted, designed and developed just like his straight ones.

The full article first appeared in Paste Magazine on July 15, 2016.

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