When the U.S. finally got around to signing same-sex marriage into law nationwide last year, it was a great moment for civil rights. The fight for equality will always be an uphill struggle so we choose our battles when and where we can. This fight can lead some to down winding roads, to unlikely places. For some it’s to the steps of congress, or for others, Star Trek message boards.
Star Trek Beyond came out on July 21st of this year, receiving mostly positive reviews. I would include myself among those who say it’s the best entry in the rebooted series. Although the success of the film has been great for the franchise, it has not been met without some controversy.
This little fiasco began around what is sadly still considered a hot-button issue for many. Having an issue with seeing other people happy is one. Another is with a brief scene, showing Sulu, (Portrayed by Jon Cho) his daughter, and most importantly for the controversy: his husband. It was a move in effect “outing” him as a gay character.
The various debates this sparked failed to escape the notice of George Takei, famous for his portrayal of the original Mr. Sulu as well as his work within the LGBT community. Most notably, serving as the spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign “Coming Out Project” as well as continuing to be vocal in his condemnation of bigotry wherever it presets itself. Mr Takei also produces PSA’s and takes to the stage regularly, publicly speaking out against intolerance.
Mr Takei sided with critics of the alteration, stating “I’m delighted that there’s a gay character,” but “Unfortunately, it’s a twisting of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s creation, into which he put so much thought. I think it’s really unfortunate.” He then appealed to director Justin Lin to “honor him and create a new character”.
Simon Pegg, co-writer of the film and actor portraying Chief Engineer Scotty responded in a statement to The Guardian that; as unfortunate as it is that there hasn’t been an openly gay character in the Star Trek universe, if they were to introduce one now without reason, they would be primarily defined by their sexuality. Being just “The gay character” to audiences.
Going on to say “Justin Lin, Doug Jung and I loved the idea of it being someone we already knew because the audience have a pre-existing opinion of that character as a human being, unaffected by any prejudice. Their sexual orientation is just one of many personal aspects, not the defining characteristic. Also, the audience would infer that there has been an LGBT presence in the Trek Universe from the beginning (at least in the Kelvin timeline), 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.”
On this issue, I’m afraid I side with Pegg. The scene in question is over almost as quickly as it began, though I would argue its importance nonetheless. Hikaru Sulu is one of the few bridge officers with much of an off-ship family life. Between Spock’s planet getting sucked into a black hole, Kirk’s space-frat-bro lifestyle, and Bones’ bitter divorce ramblings, I was glad to see what motivates Sulu to take the helm every day. Who he loves isn’t important, what matters is that he does like anyone else.
DS9 was particularly bold in it’s direction for the series. Although Marina Sirtis (Counselor Troi) had this to say about it; “The truth is that if Gene (Roddenberry) was alive- had been alive- DS9 would have never been made, because he absolutely said “no” to it when it was presented to him. He said ‘Star Trek is about exploring space, it’s not about a hotel in space.’ So, it would never have happened.” A statement generally agreed upon by the majority of Star Trek alumni.
To that I say this, Star Trek has always been about pushing boundaries. Examining the universe and ourselves at once. The original series is famous for the first on-screen interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura, not surprisingly the lowest rated episode of it’s time.
The changes in direction for the franchise since Roddenberry’s death in 1991 have only helped it evolve with the times. The occupation of the Bajoran people and their ongoing resistance against the Cardassian Union echo the holocaust of WWII and parallel the tenuous situation in the Gaza Strip. Never afraid to shine a light on an element of society we’d rather keep in the dark, Star Trek continues to push the boundary. Roddenberry’s legacy will continue to boldly go there.
These are social issues Gene may have not have originally intended to focus on, but they are important issues nonetheless. Art involves love and sacrifice, and in every iteration of Star Trek, it shows. Given a more modern audience, I’m sure he may have been able to. In the mean time we’ll just have to wait for the new series in January.