Before we get started, let’s agree on one thing here: an openly gay main character on modern Star Trek is a great thing. It should have been included as part of Gene Roddenberry’s forward thinking, utopian vision for the 23rd century, but that was the 60’s and, well, the general message then was ‘straight people good, gay people bad’, so while Gene may have been fine getting an interracial kiss past the censors, having an openly gay man on the bridge? No chance. That was too extreme even for a far future where humanity was, apparently, an enlightened species exploring the stars. George Takei played Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu back then. He was a gay man, if not openly as he has been for some time. He would have understood the pressures and homophobia of that age, especially on television.
Why then, after years of using his profile to campaign for gay rights, would he this week turn around and complain that in Star Trek Beyond, the new Kelvin Timeline iteration of his character will be an openly gay man? Surely that runs against everything Takei has wanted all these years for Trek, everything he’s said all this time? As ever, it’s all a matter of perspective. Takei would be delighted a gay man is on the bridge of the Enterprise, if perhaps he wasn’t originally a straight man in the original continuity, and this is where for me Takei is right in his argument.
Said argument basically revolves around the fact that in the original continuity that Sulu wasn’t gay. We don’t exactly see him romping about with every female space alien in sight like Captain Kirk did in the 60’s, but by Generations in 1994 he has a daughter named Demora, and much of his family life has been fleshed out in subsequent non-canon tie in novels. Nowhere in continuity before has Sulu been gay. Simon Pegg recently hit back with a detailed blog response, after showing disappointment in Takei’s own disappointment, where he makes some very good points in contrast; he points out that in Roddenberry’s infinite diversity in infinite combinations vision of the future, there’s no reason why Sulu couldn’t have a daughter and be gay.
It happens now in many cases, be it a man realising his true sexuality after having a family, or gay male couples adopting young children. Wonderfully, same sex families are growing with a much more open LGBT trend and that’s to be celebrated as much as traditional family set ups, as long as the child is loved. By the 23rd century, gay men having daughters would surely be perfectly normalised in Federation society, at least one would hope. Pegg is right in making that point, and no evidence directly exists in canon that Demora was from a traditional family background, given so little was ever done with Takei’s Sulu on a personal level beyond giving him his own ship in The Undiscovered Country and endlessly talking up a sequel series poor George never got.
Where, for me, Pegg loses his argument is when he talks about how the Kelvin timeline has effectively reshaped all of time. He makes the point that when Nero’s intervention destroyed the USS Kelvin and created this new timeline in Star Trek, the ripple effect cascaded backwards as well as forwards to change not just time but the very nature of the universe and it’s characters. Nope Simon, sorry, not buying that. Even if admittedly with science-fiction you can make up time travel rules like this as you go along since it’s all make believe, canon exists for a good reason. Fans have a hard enough time resolving the fact we no longer follow the continuity of the original shows (which Bryan Fuller may soon change on TV), are they now expected to accept any changes before the Kelvin was destroyed can be made to fit a certain agenda? Does that mean all of Enterprise, which happened before Nero travelled back, is potentially different? Could Captain Archer now be black? Or perhaps Phlox be a Klingon?
When you look at it like that, saying Sulu could well be gay because of a time travel crisis that happened either slightly after or around the time he was born sounds not only far fetched, but insulting to the very rules of canon and how rebooting continuity can affect character. It’s the equivalent of the timeline change having made Kirk into a Picard-like Captain, very measured & cultured & serious – people would have cried foul immediately. “That’s not Kirk!” People would have said, and with good reason. You can’t just change the fundamental dynamics of a character because you want to make a sociological point. That’s why Takei is upset, I would imagine. It’s the right message using the wrong guy.
What’s even more sad is that said message has become lost under the squabbles about making Sulu gay, when we should be celebrating the fact we have the first openly LGBT character on the bridge of the Enterprise. That’s fantastic. It’s right and true and absolutely the kind of modern day societal truth Star Trek should be reflecting, in a way the Abrams films have missed out on for all their focus on escapist adventure and explosive action. Making this enormous character change to Sulu dilutes that message, makes the conversation about the wrong thing, and forces gay campaigners like George Takei to oddly seem regressive in their views to the point Simon Pegg, as the writer, has to go on record disagreeing with a man he clearly hugely admires, considers an icon of 20th century pop culture, and ultimately set out to try and honour.
That’s the saddest part. It could all have been avoided if they’d written a brand new character, a prominent character, and made his sexuality important to his development. Maybe we’ll get that in Star Trek 4. Here’s hoping. Do check out Anghus Houvouras’ recent article discussing the issue too!
Tony Black is a freelance film/TV writer & podcaster & would love you to follow him on Twitter.