Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

When Star Trek co-star John Cho announced today that the franchise’s next installment, Beyond, would reveal that his character Hikaru Sulu was gay, he noted that the move was intended in part as a tribute to George Takei. The actor, who’s been openly gay since 2005, and who spent decades playing the iconic helmsman on TV and film, has long been an advocate for LGBT rights. According to The Hollywood Reporter, that includes at least one instance in which a young, still-closeted Takei asked Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry about adding gay representation to the landmark series. (Roddenberry was reportedly sympathetic, but said it wasn’t the right time, citing the damage Star Trek’s ratings had taken after Southern stations refused to show the series’ celebrated first interracial kiss.)

But as it turns out, there’s a difference between Takei speaking out for gay rights and gay inclusion in Star Trek, and the actor wanting a character he spent decades of his life playing to suddenly undergo a change to his sexuality. That’s what Cho learned when he excitedly approached Takei with the planned change last year, apparently taken aback when the veteran actor expressing his displeasure at the news. “I told him, ‘Be imaginative and create a character who has a history of being gay,’” Takei told the Reporter. “‘Rather than Sulu, who had been straight all this time, suddenly being revealed as being closeted.’”

Takei’s concerns stem both from worries that the revelation would turn his own portrayal of Sulu (who, thanks to the convoluted time travel shenanigans of the new Star Trek movies, both is, and is not, the same person as Cho’s) as a heterosexual man into one of someone hiding his sexuality—issues the actor struggled with for years in his own personal life—and from its changes to Roddenberry’s original conception of the character. “This movie is going to be coming out on the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, the 50th anniversary of paying tribute to Gene Roddenberry, the man whose vision it was carried us through half a century,” he reportedly told Beyond director Justin Lin. “Honor him and create a new character. I urged them. He left me feeling that that was going to happen.”

Canonically, the series rarely discussed Sulu’s sexual orientation. The closest the TV shows or movies come is the appearance of his daughter in Star Trek Generations. (For the record, Cho’s Sulu is happily married with a daughter of his own.) As to Roddenberry’s legacy, he’s long remained a controversial figure in the franchise, for his willingness to claim and define the shape of Star Trek’s futuristic world in the face of other writers trying to exert some measure of control. (Star Trek: The Next Generation is only considered to have hit its stride after Roddenberry stepped away from an active role after its deeply uneven first season.)

But Takei remains loyal to Roddenberry’s vision. ““I’m delighted that there’s a gay character,” he told the Reporter. “Unfortunately, it’s a twisting of Gene’s creation, to which he put in so much thought. I think it’s really unfortunate.” That being said, he also expressed little reluctance to support and continue to be a part of the franchise that’s defined so much of his career. Referring to Bryan Fuller’s upcoming Star Trek TV series, he said, “Leonard Nimoy made two cameo appearances [in Star Trek films]. There’s no reason why an ancient, wise Admiral Sulu can’t appear, or maybe an alien creature who sounds like me. That should be fun.”

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