Word arrived yesterday of a major change to the Star Trek universe: John Cho’s character Hikaru Sulu will be gay in the upcoming film, Star Trek Beyond. The news excited fans, eager to see a new progressive milestone for a franchise built atop social consciousness. Just as quickly though, things got complicated: George Takei, the actor who originated the role of Sulu, announced he wasn’t happy with the change.
"I think it’s really unfortunate." - George Takei
After the story broke yesterday, Takei noted to The Hollywood Reporter that while the change might have been a nod to his own sexuality, he felt that it was "a twisting of [Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s] creation, to which he put in so much thought. I think it’s really unfortunate."
Takei further explained that Star Trek’s creator had envisioned Sulu as a heterosexual character, and that he had put considerable thought into each one. When Cho called him to inform him of the decision, Takei was cautious: "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.'" He also urged Star Trek Beyond director Justin Lin to create a new character, rather than retcon an existing one. He thought that he had succeeded in convincing them, until the promotional tour for the film began to ramp up.
After Takei spoke to THR about his concerns, Star Trek Beyond screenwriter Simon Pegg noted to The Guardian that he "respectfully disagreed" with the actor over the decision:
"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 also took issue with the idea that Roddenberry would have opposed the idea, saying that he felt that the creator’s motivations likely stemmed out of the necessity to adhere to audience expectations: "Trek rightly gets a lot of love for featuring the first interracial kiss on US television, but Plato’s Stepchildren was the lowest rated episode ever."
Star Trek's legacy is being carefully examined
As Star Trek enters its fiftieth year, its legacy is being carefully examined: there’s the new film and television show on the horizon, but also the incredible social footprint it left behind. While Takei and Pegg might have their differences about how to best interpret Roddenberry’s intentions, the subject of any work of art is a moving target at best. The cultural landscape that the original Star Trek series existed in has changed drastically just a half century, and will continue to do so. The works that have built on Roddenberry’s legacy have certainly updated his vision in many ways in that time, including those in the new ‘Kelvin Universe’.
The 'Kelvin Universe' continuity, which encompasses J.J. Abrams' 2009 film Star Trek and 2013 film Star Trek Into Darkness, has already received a fair amount of criticism over the departures from the original show. Changing the sexual preference of one of the major characters isn't necessarily the most notable departure from the 1966 television show: Star Trek Into Darkness in particular diverged considerably from the utopian vision of humanity's future in space by depicting a weaponized Starfleet.
Ultimately though, the stories of major franchises - whether it’s Marvel Comics, Star Wars, Dungeons & Dragons, or Star Trek - are no longer subject to the vision of the creators. There will always be disagreements over the direction of such stories, but because they are developed by massive studios which are in turn influenced by persistent fan movements, a massive intellectual property is a reactive, impermanent project.