Mr. Sulu, Set a New Course

Like any nerd I LOVE Star Trek.  And like any progressive liberal I’m glad the LGBTQ community is being represented more and more on in our mainstream arts.  So I was really glad to hear that in the latest Star Trek movie one of the main characters would be portrayed in a same-sex relationship.  I was even more thrilled to learn that it would be Sulu.  The role was originated by George Takei, an out and proud actor who is a very prominent advocate in the struggle for equality for the LGBTQ community.  To me it was a way to honor both the diversity that’s always on display in the Star Trek universe and a very specific way to honor the gay actor who originated the role.  So I was taken aback when Mr. Takei expressed his disagreement with the decision to make the Sulu character homosexual.

I wasn’t the only one, and his comments sparked some back and forth discussion about the change and if was a good way to honor Roddenberry and Takei.  Takei later clarified his comments that while he was glad to finally see the LGBTQ community represented in Star Trek, something long overdue considering the setting is hundreds of years in the future, he felt it wasn’t a proper way to honor Roddenberry and his creation.  He preferred a new character to be created, to leave the original characters as they were, and he was under the impression that his request would be honored.  He was taken aback that his feelings were not honored and everything was communicated poorly back to him.  That is understandable.  Just as I understand the impetus to respect Roddenberry’s original vision and characterization.  But his characterization was limited by the times that the original series aired.  I firmly believe, and Takei seems to confirm, that Roddenberry would have made one of the main characters gay.  But we as a nation just were not ready for it.

Star Trek was ground breaking in it’s progressiveness, airing during a time when the most popular shows were westerns.  Roddenberry even pitched the show to the network as a “wagon train to the stars” and when the initial pilot was deemed to cerebral out went the contemplative Capt. Christopher Pike, replaced with the more swashbuckling Capt. James T. Kirk.  If you’ve ever wondered why there is almost always a fist-fight in the original series it’s because the network demanded more action and fisticuffs were a common way to settle an argument in the old west as portrayed on television during that era.  Star Trek, like most art, was a prisoner of the times it aired in.  There was only so much Roddenberry could accomplish during that time period.  The envelope could only be pushed so far.

Adding a new character would not have been the same as changing one of the originals, and Mr. Sulu was the right character for the change.  This is because while Roddenberry created Star Trek and came up with the character of Sulu, it was Takei that brought him to life.  I don’t know if there is a point where Sulu belongs to Takei more than Roddenberry, but without Takei the character of Sulu is just words on a page.  The scene of Sulu I remember most was in Star Trek IV – The Voyage Home.  He was piloting a helicopter, a flying machine that was ancient history to him, cool as a cucumber, lowering the polymer walls of the tank to contain the whales into the cargo bay of the Klingon ship they had procured in the previous movie and taken back in time to the 20th century.  As he was flipping some switches the windshield wipers went off, and the expression of surprise on his face carried so much more than mere surprise.  There was no way to describe that in the script other than “act surprised” but the look on Takei’s face conveyed the sense that here was a man who’s cool was momentarily broken.  The facial expression, the timing of the comedic pause, it was Takei that brought that few seconds of scene to life.

We nerds are fiercely protective of our cultural properties, having been regularly portrayed in the media as either the awkward wimp who is systemically bullied and never has a girlfriend (see Urkel, Screech, etc.) or as the mad scientist bent on exacting revenge on society for slighting him (Buddy from the Incredibles springs to mind). Sometimes we can be overzealous in our feelings of ownership when we and our ideals are portrayed in a positive light and obsessive about our cultural icons.  That may be why Leonard Nimoy had to write two books, the first, I am NOT Spock, and the second, I AM Spock.  By including LGBTQ characters in our media, we honor the character, the growth, the evolution of our culture.  And sometimes we have to go back and rewrite the past to correct something we got wrong or simply were not ready for.  We picked Sulu to honor the man that brought him to life.  A man who could not come out publicly himself until 2005, almost ten years after he last played the role of Sulu in the official Star Trek franchise.  We may have forced it upon him, and I’m sorry for that.  But I’m not sorry Sulu is now gay.  There are LGBTQ nerds out there that can now look to the screen and see someone they can identify with.  And not some recent character tacked on to make a political and cultural point of inclusiveness but someone who has been integral to the canon from the beginning.  We may have been jerks about.  We are not known for our social skills.  But sometimes you have to be a jerk to stand up for what’s right, to make amends for something that until recently was unthinkable.  Even if it means being a jerk to someone whom we hold in such high regard.

Posted in Life, Media, Society