More mining from the notebooks. July 23, 2016. Posted Monday, September 12.
Last movie I saw before going into the hospital for my back surgery was Star Trek: Beyond. Which I liked a lot. But I didn’t get a chance to write up my review before the operation took the stuffing out of me for the next six weeks. I’m working on it now and should have it up by tomorrow. Meanwhile, here’s a post I planned as an aside to the review.
“You can fly this thing, right?”: With Ensign Chekov (Anton Yelchin, left) looking on nervously, Captain Jim Kirk (Chris Pine, center) is about to ask helmsman Lt. Hirkau Sulu (John Cho) a foolish question, in Star Trek: Beyond.
I don’t care that in Star Trek: Beyond they’ve made Sulu gay (or allowed him to come out). I mean I don’t care as in there’s not much in the fact to care about. It had no emotional impact for me. It’s done almost as an afterthought, perfunctorily and sentimentally, with no effect on the plot and without adding to Sulu as a character except to tell us that, in this timeline, Sulu’s a good family man. George Takei cares. He doesn’t like it. Reportedly, Sulu’s sexual reorientation was done as a tribute to Takei, but he took it as a practically an insult, not to himself, but to Sulu and, more importantly, to Gene Roddenberry.
The original TV series was cancelled in the middle of its third season, apparently, as I recall, to Roddenberry and his production crew and cast’s surprise despite the show’s plunging ratings. Roddenberry had plans in motion not just for the rest of the season but for future seasons (There were scripts already written. Many of them were rewritten for the cartoon series.) and one of those plans was to expand Sulu’s role and make him along with Uhura and Chekhov more of a second set of leads. For Sulu, that was going to mean including love affairs. Heterosexual love affairs (at least on his part), of course, because that’s all the times would have allowed and the censors stood for. But that would have still been groundbreaking. An Asian-American actor as the romantic hero of a television series. And think about it. It’s unlikely his leading ladies would have been white, but they could have been green or blue and so played by white actresses.
Takei and Roddenberry discussed all this---they also discussed the possibility of introducing a gay character but it wasn’t going to be Sulu. Roddenberry felt the show was already too far out on the limb in dealing with racial and social issues. They’d done several episodes that were critical of the Cold War and by extension the war in Vietnam. And sexist as the show often was, it was a given that in the 23rd Century women are scientists, lawyers, and doctors without anyone thinking anything of it. They’re even captains of starships, although as far as we see only of Romulan ones. The episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” took on segregation and Civil Rights, focusing on the absurdity of human beings dividing themselves according to skin color. Then there was Kirk and Uhura’s kiss.---and Takei was looking forward to having more to do beside say “Aye, aye, Captain” and pretend pressing this button instead of that button mattered to where the Enterprise went next. He was looking forward to playing that character. And that character happened to be straight the way Hamlet happens to be the prince of Denmark. As far as Takei is concerned, it’s intrinsic to who Sulu is.
Maybe he also thinks making Sulu gay adds way too much subtext to the scene in the classic TV series episode “Mirror, Mirror” in which the mirror-universe’s leering, fencing-scarred Sulu makes a play for our universe's Uhura.
But it is the case that Takei feels that making Sulu gay as a gesture is not as progressive or inclusive as creating a new LGBT character who’s a well-rounded and fully-developed human being---remember, looking back on Wrath of Kahn, what human means in the Star Trek universe---in his or her own right with his or her own role to play as a member of the Enterprise’s crew.
Like I said, I don’t care that Star Trek: Beyond’s Sulu is gay or, for all we know from the little we’re given, bi- or pan- or trans-, because we’re not given reason to care about it. What I care about that he’s been given more to do. Not enough more. But a lot more than he had to do in the previous movie in the new series, Star Trek: Into Darkness. In Into Darkness, it’s practically the case that if you blink, you might miss him. A real waste of Sulu and of John Cho, who plays him. In Star Trek: Beyond, Sulu’s definitely much more of a presence and factors much more importantly in the plot. We get to see that he is in fact on his way to becoming the action-adventure hero Roddenberry and Takei envisioned. Which is how it should be, and not just because Roddenberry and Takei wanted it that way. After all, Sulu is the one who’s on the command track. He’s on his way to being a starship captain. That’s in fact how we last see him in the original set of movies based on the original TV series, as captain of the Excelsior, arriving in the nick of time to help save the day in a Kirk-esque wily way at the end of The Undiscovered Country. And we should see that’s where he’s headed in these movies when we’re meeting him still early in his Starfleet career. We should see the talent, the intelligence, the leadership, the toughness, and the drive. We should see that in any command situation where Spock isn’t there for Kirk to turn to, he turns to Sulu.
And in Star Trek: Beyond we do get to see it. That’s the real tribute to Takei, letting us see that side of Sulu Takei himself didn’t get a real chance to show in the TV show and only briefly in the movies, most particularly in The Undiscovered Country but most amusingly in The Voyage Home when we find out that Sulu knows how to fly a 20th Century helicopter and our first thought upon seeing him in the cockpit is, Of course he knows.
Star Trek: Beyond includes a scene that I took as an allusion to that scene in The Voyage Home. Sulu’s at the helm of the grounded wreck of an old starship the crew of the Enterprise has had to commandeer and Scotty’s jury-rigged to fly again in order to escape from the space pirates that had been holding them prisoner and just before take-off Kirk asks Sulu if he’s sure he can fly the thing?
The moment’s undercut a bit because director Justin Lin has Cho say in words what he expresses more succinctly, effectively, and eloquently with a look. It’s all in that look. The full-fledged Sulu. The Sulu Roddenberry and Takei wanted. The Sulu we always suspected he was. Hikaru Sulu, action-adventure hero. Captain Hikaru Sulu, future starship commander.