In the summer of 1968, George Takei attended a pool party at the Hollywood Hills home of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. The actor, then 31 and famous for his role as Hikaru Sulu, helmsman of the USS Enterprise, swam up to his boss and “had a conversation with him, a very private one. I was still closeted, so I did not want to come out to him.”
Nevertheless, Takei — who announced he was gay in 2005 — was fully attuned to the gay equality conversation gaining momentum at the time. He felt it was a topic worth exploring on the socially minded science-fiction series, which had previously tackled issues like the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War through keenly observed allegory.
But the show had recently seen its lowest ratings ever, with an episode featuring TV’s first interracial kiss between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura, which NBC affiliates in the South refused to air. While sympathetic to his star’s pitch, Roddenberry felt he was in no position to take those kinds of risks.
“He was a strong supporter of LGBT equality,” recalls Takei, now 79. “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.” Alas, the show was canceled the following season anyway.
But Star Trek has lived long and prospered for studio home Paramount, spawning six TV series and 13 feature films. True to its title, the latest big-screen outing, Star Trek Beyond, has gone where none have gone before: Star John Cho — who assumes the Sulu mantle for the third time in the reboots — has told Australia’s Herald Sun that the character is revealed to be gay.
The idea came from Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty in the new films and penned the Beyond screenplay, and director Justin Lin, both of whom wanted to pay homage to Takei’s legacy as both a sci-fi icon and beloved LGBT activist.
And so a scene was written into the new film, very matter-of-fact, in which Sulu is pictured with a male spouse raising their infant child. Pegg and Lin assumed, reasonably, that Takei would be overjoyed at the development — a manifestation of that conversation with Roddenberry in his swimming pool so many years ago.
Except Takei wasn’t overjoyed. He had never asked for Sulu to be gay. In fact, he’d much prefer that he stay straight. “I’m delighted that there’s a gay character,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Unfortunately, it’s a twisting of Gene’s creation, to which he put in so much thought. I think it’s really unfortunate.”
Takei explains that Roddenberry was exhaustive in conceiving his Star Trek characters. (The name Sulu, for example, was based on the Sulu Sea off the coast of the Philippines, so as to render his Asian nationality indeterminate.) And Roddenberry had always envisioned Sulu as heterosexual.
Proving that is not so simple a matter, however. Sulu never had an onscreen love interest during Star Trek‘s initial three-season run. He did mention a daughter, Demora, who appeared in 1994’s Star Trek Generations, the seventh film in the series (she was played by Jacqueline Kim).
But the only reference to how Demora was conceived appears in a secondary canonical source: the 1995 Star Trek novel The Captain’s Daughter. “It was, to put it crudely, a one-night stand with a glamazon,” Takei explains. “A very athletic, powerful and stunningly gorgeous woman. That’s Demora’s mother.”
Takei first learned of Sulu’s recent same-sex leanings last year, when Cho called him to reveal the big news. Takei tried to convince him to make a new character gay instead. “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.'” (Takei had enough negative experiences inside the Hollywood closet, he says, and strongly feels a character who came of age in the 23rd century would never find his way inside one.)
His timeline logic, however, is enough to befuddle even the most diehard of Trek enthusiasts, as the rebooted trilogy takes place before the action of the original series. In other words, assuming canon orthodoxy, this storyline suggest Sulu would have had to have first been gay and married, only to then go into the closet years later.
Not long after Cho’s bombshell call came another, this one from Lin, again informing him that Sulu was indeed to be gay in Star Trek Beyond. Takei remained steadfastly opposed to the decision.
“I said, ‘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. Honor him and create a new character. I urged them. He left me feeling that that was going to happen,” Takei says.
After that, all was quiet from Beyond until a few months ago, when Takei received an email from Pegg “praising me for my advocacy for the LGBT movement and for my pride in Star Trek,” he says. “And I thought to myself, ‘How wonderful! It’s a fan letter from Simon Pegg. Justin had talked to him!'” Takei was certain the creative team had rethought their decision to make Sulu gay.
That is until one month ago, when he received an email from Cho informing him that the actor was about to embark on an international media tour for Beyond. Cho said it was bound to come out that his character was gay, and “what should he do?” A disappointed Takei told Cho to go about his promotional duties, but that he was “not going to change” his mind on the matter.
“I really tried to work with these people when at long last the issue of gay equality was going to be addressed,” Takei says. “I thought after that conversation with Justin that was going to happen. Months later, when I got that email from Simon Pegg, I was kind of confused. He thinks I’m a great guy? Wonderful. But what was the point of that letter? I interpreted that as my words having been heard.”
Takei for his part is hoping to take Sulu in new directions as well, potentially on CBS’ upcoming Star Trek series, slated to premiere in January and co-run by Alex Kurtzman and Bryan Fuller, who is openly gay.
“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,” Takei says, then lets out his famous, basso profundo laugh.