Why Star Trek Beyond is Making a Mistake with Sulu’s Sexuality

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Everything Simon Pegg and the filmmakers wish to avoid is happening, and the blame is laid squarely at their feet.

It hasn’t been a great year for Star Trek.  Despite the iconic sci-fi franchise celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the upcoming film, Star Trek Beyond has been on the pop culture radar for all the wrong reasons.

First, the franchise lost a bit of polish a couple of years ago when JJ Abrams bolted the franchise reboot and turned his attention to the Star Wars universe.  Unlike the two films Abrams helmed for the Gene Roddenberry series, Abrams’s The Force Awakens broke nearly ever domestic box-office record.  It was also universally loved and praised, something Abrams’s last Star Trek film, Star Trek into Darkness, failed to do.

Then in December 2015 the first trailer for Beyond hit the web and reactions were swift and universally negative.  The trailer depicted a film that was all style (bad style in my opinion) and no substance.  The running joke was that director Justin Lin, of Fast & Furious fame, twisted his film into Fast Trek and Furious, mashing the irreverence of the F&F franchise into a beloved sci-fi series that had consistently broached topics of racism, tolerance, pacifism, and other cultural lightning rods.  Star Trek and its fans have prided themselves in having a sci-fi universe focused on drama, provocative topics, and storyline.  The action was always viewed as complementary and secondary, something the reboot of the series has been accused of moving away from and making the new films action first, substance second.

Star Trek BeyondThe biggest blow that the Star Trek family faced this past year was the tragic death of actor Anton Yelchin, known for his portrayal of Pavel Chekov in the Star Trek reboot series.  He died on June 19 after being pinned between a brick mailbox pillar and a security fence after his car, a 2015 Jeep Cherokee, rolled down his driveway at his Studio City home.  His death has loomed over the cast as they’ve been making the rounds promoting Star Trek Beyond’s upcoming release.

The Announcement

This past week, star John Cho, who portrays Hikaru Sulu in the reboot film series, told Australia’s Herald Sun that the character is revealed to be gay.  The announcement itself was significant but not earth shattering.  Star Trek has always been a socially minded science-fiction series that utilized allegory to tackle issues like the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War.  However, what has transpired since Cho’s announcement to the press has created a public relations nightmare.  The latest string of disastrous PR should only cast further doubt on whether those involved with the Star Trek reboots are steering it into a giant asteroid of self-destruction.

It turns out that George Takei, the celebrated actor who portrayed Sulu in the original television series and the first six original Star Trek films, did not support the decision to make Sulu gay in the alternate timeline reboot.  Takei’s disappointment was especially noteworthy given that he is openly gay and an outspoken advocate for the LGBT community.

George Takei’s Objection

Takei’s reasoning behind his objections and disappointment is that he wished to honor Gene Roddenberry by remaining faithful to his original character and intent for helmsman SuluTakei spoke to the Hollywood Reporter about his own conversations with Roddenberry about exploring the topic of sexuality.  “He was a strong support of LGBT equality,” Takei recalled, “but he said he [had] been pushing the envelope and walking a very tight rope – and if he pushed too hard, the show would not be on the air.”  Takei 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.  Unfortunately, it’s a twisting of Gene’s creation, to which he put in so much thought. I think it’s really unfortunate.”

that the idea came from Pegg 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 that Takei would be overjoyed at the development.  It sounds like they never figured out how to resolve the fact that Takei was not overjoyed by their creative decision.

Simon Pegg’s Defense

After several days of Takei’s disappointment dominating the conversation, Simon Pegg, the British actor who currently portrays Montgomery “Scotty” Scott and co-wrote Star Trek Beyond, offered his own defense in the decision to have Sulu be gay in the newest film.  Pegg stated he “respectfully disagrees” with Takei and offered his own defense of making Sulu and not a new character gay, stating “a new gay character would ultimately be known as the ‘gay character,’ and asked if that is ‘tokenism.’

The Guardian reported Pegg explaining, “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.”

Why I Am Team Takei

Disclaimer: I should mention that I am actually not a Star Trek fan.  I do not have any malice or hatred toward it.  I just do not emotionally connect to the series.  I grew up a diehard Star Wars fan.  And yet, I may be one of the few people who is not a fan of the Star Trek universe who has seen every episode of the original series, every episode of the Next Generation series, and has seen every Star Trek film.  How might you ask can someone not be a fan and yet invest that much time consuming Star Trek?  Well, I grew up in a family of Trekkies, and in a time when a household only had one television and only a few working channels …. well, let’s just say it was a choice between watching Star Trek or reading a book (guess you know how I feel about reading).

Star Trek BeyondI give that background to highlight that when this announcement about Sulu and Takei started hitting the media, I paid little mind to it, because I really didn’t care and had no bone in this fight.  However, upon reading Simon Pegg’s defense, I got very irritated and angry at him and subsequently found myself aligning more and more with George Takei’s position.  Again, it’s not that Takei’s argument is infallible or absolute.  Although George’s sentiments were noble and without malice, his argument was nevertheless subjective and speculative.  No one can really argue on behalf of Roddenberry as to whether or not he’d be honored, horrified, or care in the least bit if Sulu’s sexual orientation was modified.  No, my support for Takei stems from the moronic and insensitive position that I believe Simon Pegg takes in his defense.

Deception?

Pegg and the filmmakers approached George about the choice prior or during production.  So why are we only hearing about it now?  Takei first learned of Sulu’s recent same-sex leanings last year when Cho called him to reveal the big news.  Takei failed to convince him to make a new character gay and leave Sulu alone. “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.)  Then a few months ago 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.

It must have been a shock for him when he received an email from Cho one month ago inquiring how he should handle the media promotion for Beyond and the questions surrounding his character being gay.  “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.”

Pegg and the filmmakers had to know that this choice was going to go public as long as Pegg and the filmmakers remained steadfast in their decision to make Sulu gay in Beyond.  Did they mislead Takei about their intentions?  And if Pegg and Lin originally wanted to honor Takei by making Sulu gay, what they’ve done since learning of George’s objections has been anything but honoring to the 79-year-old actor.

Tokenism?

I have an especially hard time understating Pegg’s argument of “tokenism” and how making Sulu gay avoids that problem?  A large part of Simon Pegg’s defense in not creating a new character that is gay is that it’d be interpreted the writers were doing it just to be PC and therefore a new character that was gay would marginalize them.

Star Trek BeyondDoes anyone else find Pegg’s logic as laughably absurd as I do?  The fundamental premise of his logic is that any new, original character that is gay will be interpreted as agenda-driven and not an organic development.  The character will stand out because of their sexuality and thus be viewed as a “token” gay character.  If that argument held true, that would prevent any show or film series ever adding a new character that was gay because it was be interpreted as agenda driven and not organic.  I especially take offense that Pegg and Lin think so little of film lovers and moviegoers that any new character would automatically be judged primarily because of their sexuality.  For a move designed to be progressive, Pegg and Lin demonstrate very backwards thinking.

And yet, how does changing an original character’s sexual orientation not reek of anything except agenda driven?  Did Pegg and Lin really believe that having Sulu gay in the next Star Trek film wouldn’t stand out and make the issue of sexuality be the prominent topic of discussion?  I recommend people read J. Bryan Lowder’s piece over at slate.com.

Hierarchy

Again, I don’t think Takei’s argument is canonical truth.  Many fans are supportive of Pegg and his justification.  George Takei is a celebrated family member of the Star Trek universe, but he is not bigger than Star Trek.  George is, however, bigger than Simon Pegg and Justin Lin and Doug Jung when it comes to the Star Trek family and the Star Trek universe.  And they would have been wise and respectful if they had changed course and found a different way to honor Roddenberry and celebrate a LGBT character in Star Trek Beyond.  Simply put, George’s history with Star Trek and his life story should have been given greater consideration.

There is a reason both Pegg and Lin wished to honor George.  His own life experience and career in Hollywood has experienced significant insensitivity, racism, marginalization, and stigmatization.  He was an Asian-American actor on television at a time when America was involved in its third war/conflict with an Asian country for the third consecutive decade.  His ethnicity and sexuality both created difficulties and challenges as an actor in Hollywood.  And yet, he was defending Gene Roddenberry’s original vision.  It was incredibly bold and forward-thinking for Roddenberry to have as Asian character as a regular television character in the late 60s.  I can certainly understand the allegiance Takei may feel toward Roddenberry.

This All Could Have Been Avoided

Star Trek BeyondPegg and Lin could have honored Takei by not going against his wishes.  They could have celebrated the man by heeding his reservations and not have Sulu portrayed as a gay man in the upcoming film.  Pegg could have written a new character, an integral character, that was gay.  Better yet, he could have written several characters that are gay and not draw attention to one, singular character.  Or he could have approached a different existing character, such as Pegg’s own Montgomery Scott.  If Pegg was so insistent to use an original character, why not alter the character that he himself is portraying, “Scotty?”  I find the absence of logic in that with Pegg to be perplexing.

Star Trek BeyondOh well, what’s done is done.  The damage has been done, and the back and forth continues to draw attention away from the upcoming film and the 50th anniversary celebration of Star Trek.  One of original reasons Pegg and Lin made the choice to change Sulu in the first place was to honor Gene Roddenberry.  The best way they can now honor him is to not make a sh***y Star Trek movie.  I guess we’ll soon find out if they also failed in that task.

Star Trek Beyond opens July 22, 2016.

 

 

1 COMMENT

  1. Well, except pegg’s reasoning is at least somewhat based on truth. Often times, gay characters can come off as forced, or, as he puts it “the gay character”, and what’s wrong with having an agenda? If their goal is to make LGBT characters more acceptable in movies and television, why is it bad that they take steps to achieve that? I think it was just easier for them to rewrite an existing character, than shoehorn in someone else, who also happens to be gay. No matter what you think of the situation, I think it’s safe to say we agree that everyone’s heart is in the right place, and no harm was intended by Simon, no matter if he is ignorant on the subject or not.

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