Sulu, To Queer or Not to Queer?

(Left) “Sulu promotional image” Paramount pictures 2016.
(Right) “Classic Sulu,” George Takei, OTS, 1960’s.

A little late in the game but I thought I would throw my hat into the ring on the issue.

There has been some contention surrounding making a prominent character, Hikaru Sulu first portrayed by icon George Takei and then later John Cho in the reboot films, was made officially gay  in the most recent film incarnation, Star Trek:Beyond.

This has caused varying reactions within and without the Trek fan community, all informed in their reactions from various backgrounds, and in their relationships to either the character or the franchise as a whole.

This article shall examine some of those various vocal contentions out there.

  1. Canon Purist Position (as I call it):

This position, as with many canon traditionalists, is critical of either subtle or not so subtle changes made to a character from the original material. In the case of Sulu, the argument is that Sulu being gay somehow fundamentally compromises his original depiction as a symbolic figure of multiculturalism (in this case as ambiguous Asian representation).

In Star Trek Beyond, according to writer Simon Pegg and director Justin Lin, the change was made as an homage nod to George Takei.

Takei was not nodding back, as in an article in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, George Takei was disproving of making Sulu canonically gay (even if it was in an Alternate Universe), stating: “…Unfortunately, it’s a twisting of Gene’s creation, to which he put in so much thought.” Takei had been trying to talk to the filmmakers into creating a new character instead of using a canonically straight character, with unfortunately little success.

  1. Living up To the Promise Position (as I call it).

This position lies in the contention that Trek as a whole has been sorely lacking in prominent queer representations, particularly human ones, and has not lived up to its promise of all-inclusive equality and discourse on the human condition that premises the foundation of the ideology of Trek at its core.  Certainly there has been some representations here and there, but they were usually isolated to a handful of episodes throughout the franchise’s decades long tenure, and mostly to aliens.

The pro position claims that having Sulu being gay, despite the objections from Takei and others, at least gives something towards those Trekkers looking for themselves in Star Trek without devolving into a few isolated appearances or venturing down the tricky slope into Tokenisim. Pegg claims he chose not to create a new character in an article from The Guardian, outside of the nod to Takei, is because he was afraid it would be seen precisely as a token. Particularly as this is the third film of the new universe series (and one of the excuses he uses to explain having a canonically gay character that wasn’t in the original).

These are perhaps the most prevalent positions in the debate over Beyond’s Sulu in bare bones.

So the question then: Who is right?

Much like with many other contentious debates, there is no clear right or wrong side in this issue.

Of Traditionalists end, which has the highest support of the two in the general reaction mishmash floating online do have a point: the Star Trek Franchise does need its own new character, which is something that the fanbase has been asking for a long, long, LONG time.

The new movie franchise was all about a fresh new start with an AU concept that does allow for things like new prominent characters of whatever identity to come to the fore, and if they are written well, then there is no excuse for not having one already.

There is even a perfect spot such a character could take up that was never really filled until Tasha Yar came along in ST:TNG ,that was never filled in TOS (at least not steadily), the Security Chief. There is no Security Chief in the latest films either,and with the crew a bit more settled, thus provides a perfect spot to put in a prominent character, a place for optimum re-appearance possibilities without treading the dangerous ground of one off the token.

The “fresh take” that the latest three films promise does cling a little too hard to what came before it in some aspects  -cough! Into Darkenss, cough!-  such as maintaining the main character lineup without introducing new long term faces to the main crew,  this has hindered more then helped, at least in regards to some of Pegg’s intentions.

Though to be fair, introducing a new character would have worked better if they were introduced within the first or even second film certainly, but if written smart there is definitely a spot there for a new character provided they continued as a regular throughout later films.

As for whether it compromises Sulu’s character…well not much really, at least in my opinion.

Takei’s Sulu was a Swordsman, a Botanist, a friend to others, and had a great personality. He was a family man with a daughter, had excellent command ability, and did well as an et al Asian culture figurehead for the times, especially with so few positive representations during the period he first appeared.

Cho’s Sulu is a Swordsman, a Botanist, has personality, is a family man with a daughter, has excellent command ability, and retains his ability to be a multicultural symbol representing Asian culture. Being suddenly gay doesn’t take away any of the fundamental core qualities of Sulu and what makes him important to Star Trek as a whole, with the only difference perhaps being that Sulu now relate to even more identities in Asian culture, and presents one of the few prominent Asian Queer characters to ever grace mainstream Western Cinema, especailly tied to such a prominat franchise juggernaut as the Star Trek franchise, just as original Sulu did for television with Asian culture in the 60’s.

As a plot point in and of itself outside of Old vs New Sulu contention, it actually aided in small way to providing an added emotional connection between one of the crew to the “giant show globe in space” during the climax and didn’t override the main story. In fact, the gay reference is very subdued and brief, and Sulu doesn’t even mention the word “Husband’ at all, or display any other sort of overt intimacy with his significant other except an embrace.

In the end, Sulu being gay doesn’t detract from what made Sulu who he is and why we love him. But at the same time, the Star Trek Franchise as a whole does need more inclusion. This could be better facilitated with a new character that is given development outside of just their queer identity, with well written parts, great acting and preferably a human character (to avoid the “othering” argument of science fiction).

Fortunately with the upcoming show Star Trek: Discovery this coming May, it has been stated that Brian Fuller, one of the creators along side Alex Kurtzman, was particularly concerned with making sure there was better representations within the cast, including queer representations, and there has been press releases that have stated there will be a prominent Gay character. Hopefully the show will meet with expectations in a way that the attempts with Sulu in the films  were not as able to reach and the Star Trek Franchsise, finally, can keep its promise of equality.

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