Actor John Cho has announced that Hikaru Sulu, his character in the upcoming “Star Trek” movie, will be revealed to be gay.
The character was originally played by George Takei in the original “Star Trek” series (1966-69) and six movies. Cho has played Sulu in “Star Trek” (2009) and “Star Trek Into Darkness” (2013), both directed by JJ Abrams, and “Star Trek Beyond,” directed by Justin Lin, which will be released in the U.S. on July 22.
While promoting the movie in Australia, Cho told The Herald Sun that it will be mentioned that Sulu and his husband are raising a daughter.
“I liked the approach, 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,” said Cho.
He also said that the decision by Lin and screenwriter Simon Pegg, who also plays Scotty, to make Sulu gay was a nod to Takei, who came out publicly in 2005 and has become widely known as an advocate for LGBT rights. Takei and his longtime partner, Brad Altman, married in 2008.
However, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter published Thursday, Takei said that he had a problem with that decision because it is out of step with what the creator of “Star Trek,” the late Gene Roddenberry, would have wanted.
Takei said that when the show was still on the air and he was still closeted, he had approached Roddenberry about the possibility of introducing a gay character and was told that although the series had addressed topics like race relations and the Vietnam War, taking on LGBT issues would have crossed the line.
“He was a strong supporter of LGBT equality,” Takei said. “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.”
Nevertheless, Takei told The Hollywood Reporter that Roddenberry had always envisioned Sulu as heterosexual. “I’m delighted that there’s a gay character. Unfortunately, it’s a twisting of Gene’s creation, to which he put in so much thought. I think it’s really unfortunate.”
In the 1960s, “Star Trek” stood out because it had a multiracial cast, including Takei and Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura (played in the new movies by Zoe Saldana). According to Takei, Roddenberry named the USS Enterprise’s helmsman after the Sulu Sea off the coast of the Philippines to make the character pan-Asian instead of restricted to one nationality.
Takei said that when Cho told him last year about the big reveal, “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.'”
When he was contacted by Lin, Takei recalled, “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 … 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.”
Pegg said in a statement that he “respectfully disagrees” with Takei’s criticism. He told The Guardian on Friday, “I have huge love and respect for George Takei. His heart, courage and humor are an inspiration. However, with regard to his thoughts on our Sulu, I must respectfully disagree with him.”
Responding to Takei’s remarks, Pegg said, “He’s right, it is unfortunate. It’s unfortunate that the screen version of the most inclusive, tolerant universe in science fiction hasn’t featured an LGBT character until now. We could have introduced a new gay character, but he or she would have been primarily defined by their sexuality, seen as the ‘gay character,’ rather than simply for who they are, and isn’t that tokenism?”
Pegg said that he, Lin and co-screenwriter Doug Jung “loved” the idea of the gay character being someone already known, ensuring that the audience was already predisposed to like that person as an individual.
“Their sexual orientation is just one of many personal aspects, not the defining characteristic,” he added. “Also, the audience would infer that there has been an LGBT presence in the Trek universe from the beginning … that a gay hero isn’t something new or strange. It’s also important to note that at no point do we suggest that our Sulu was ever closeted. Why would he need to be? It’s just hasn’t come up before.”
Pegg explained that in the latest films, the characters from the original series exist in an alternate reality created when a villain from the future traveled back in time and changed history — and in this timeline, Sulu happens to be gay.
“I like this idea because it suggests that in a hypothetical multiverse, across an infinite matrix of alternate realities, we are all LGBT somewhere,” Pegg said. “Whatever dimension we inhabit, we all just want to be loved by those we love (and I love George Takei). I can’t speak for every reality but that must surely true of this one.”
Actor Zachary Quinto, who plays Spock, said in an interview with Pedestrian.TV, “As a member of the LGBT community myself, I was disappointed by the fact that George was disappointed. 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.”
Diversity in “Star Trek”
Takei’s Sulu never had an on-screen love interest, but there were indications that he was straight. In the episode “Mirror, Mirror,” which takes place in an alternate universe, Sulu openly flirts with Uhura.
During the original series’ three seasons, the other male characters — Capt. Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Scotty (James Doohan) and Chekov (Walter Koenig) — were involved with women. (“Star Trek” became known for an interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura, but in that episode they were being forced to do so by aliens with telekinetic powers; there was no romance involved.)
The 1994 movie “Star Trek: Generations” introduced Jacqueline Kim as Sulu’s daughter, Demora, the helmsman of a new Enterprise, but there was no mention of Sulu’s spouse or partner. A 1995 novel, “The Captain’s Daughter,” explained that Demora was the result of a one-night stand, but unlike the TV shows and movies, “Star Trek” novels are not considered “canon.”
The franchise has become increasingly diverse over the years, with the series “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” featuring an African American captain (played by Avery Brooks) and “Star Trek: Voyager” featuring a female captain (played by Kate Mulgrew), plus more women and people of color in major roles. Asian American cast members have included Patti Yasutake on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” Rosalind Chao on “Deep Space Nine,” Garrett Wang on “Voyager” and Linda Park on “Enterprise.”
However, many LGBT commentators have pointed out that the lack of gay characters over the last 50 years — in five TV series and 12 movies — contradicts “Star Trek’s” message of inclusion and tolerance.
An episode of the web series “Star Trek: Phase II” focused on Captain Kirk’s gay nephew, Peter, but this and other fan-produced shows are not officially sanctioned.
In a 2011 interview, Brannon Braga, a producer of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” in the late ’80s and early ’90s, acknowledged, “There was a constant back and forth about … how do we portray the spectrum of sexuality. There were people who felt very strongly that we should be showing casually, you know, just two guys together in the background … At the time the decision was made not to do that, and I think those same people would make a different decision now.”