Inclusivity is reason for the longevity of Star Trek franchise, say new movie's stars

John Cho (above) plays Sulu, who is revealed to be gay in Star Trek Beyond.
John Cho (above) plays Sulu, who is revealed to be gay in Star Trek Beyond.PHOTO: UNITED INTERNATIONAL PICTURES

But the director and cast of the new film believe its message of inclusivity is the reason for the longevity of the franchise

The space adventure Star Trek was ahead of its time in the 1960s, when it broke ground by featuring a multi-ethnic cast and the first scripted inter-racial kiss on American television.

As the franchise celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, it seems fitting that it is again making headlines for progressiveness.

The new movie, Star Trek Beyond, which opens in Singapore tomorrow, reveals that the character Sulu is gay.

But the revelation about Sulu - one of the intrepid crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, whose mission is to explore the galaxy - found an unlikely critic in George Takei, the actor and gay-rights activist who played the character in the original 1966 to 1969 series and came out as gay himself in 2005.

Star Trek taught me that family can go beyond blood - it's about shared experiences. And I think it's endured and thrived over the years because it's about a group of people with various backgrounds coming together through this shared journey into the unknown.

STAR TREK BEYOND DIRECTOR JUSTIN LIN on how the show left an indelible mark on him as the son of Taiwanese immigrants in the United States in the 1980s

"I'm delighted that there's a gay character," the 79-year-old told The Hollywood Reporter. "Unfortunately, it's a twisting of Gene's creation, to which he put in so much thought. I think it's really unfortunate."

Takei's negative reaction has, in turn, been slammed by other supporters of gay rights, including Star Trek Beyond director Justin Lin and stars John Cho, Simon Pegg, Zachary Quinto and Zoe Saldana, who defended the decision while speaking to The Straits Times in Los Angeles last week.

Pegg (Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, 2015), who co-wrote the script and plays officer Scotty, says: "It actually felt belated as an inclusion - I was slightly embarrassed that there wasn't already an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) presence because the reality is there would be thousands of LGBT people and aliens in the Star Trek universe."

Takei says he would have preferred it if the film - the 13th Star Trek movie since 1979 - had introduced a new gay character rather than change an existing one.

But Pegg, 46, argues: "We thought making it someone who already existed was a good way to make it feel like it was an existing part of the fabric, not like, 'Here comes a new LGBT character in 2016.'"

The new movie and Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) - the two other films in series producer J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot series - take place before the events of the original TV show.

Echoing comments made by Abrams, Pegg believes making an existing character gay is something the late Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry would have supported.

In the original TV series, he says, "Roddenberry didn't do it not because he didn't want to but because he couldn't - the networks wouldn't allow it and the public wouldn't have liked it. You had to pick your battles - he had the first inter-racial kiss and that wasn't that well received".

The famous 1968 episode saw the show's ratings plunge after featuring a smooch between Captain Kirk, who is white, and Lieutenant Uhura, who is black.

Pegg continues: "(Roddenberry) also put Russian and Japanese crew members in the executive crew so close to the end of World War II and in the middle of the Cold War - those were really progressive moves he made. So we just thought it was about time (there was a gay character)."

Cho, the 44-year-old Korean American who reprises his role as Sulu after Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, also reveals how much thought went into the brief scene where his character's sexuality is referenced.

He, along with the writers and the director, "discussed it ad infinitum" among themselves; he, Lin and Pegg also had conversations with Takei.

"I had three concerns about this. One was I thought maybe George would dislike it because he'd played a straight character and then come out of the closet and would think we might be seen as using that. But that wasn't true and it wasn't the way he took it," says Cho.

"Second, I was worried Asians might see it as a continuation of the feminisation of Asian men (on screen). I didn't see it that way, but thought we should think about that.

"And third, I was worried we might be inadvertently saying that since it's the same genetic Sulu in different timelines, we would be saying that sexual orientation is a choice," he explains, referring to the fact that the reboot films follow the same characters as the TV series, but in an alternate universe known as the Kelvin timeline.

"But it would all be in the way it was handled and I thought it was handled the right way. And as a result, I think people are taking it the way we intended, which is kind of a logical extension of the Roddenberry universe of inclusivity and a matter-of-fact way of saying, of course, there are gay people in space."

The director and cast believe Star Trek's message of inclusivity is the reason for the longevity of the franchise, which is powering ahead with a seventh TV series that will start production next year and, it was announced yesterday, a 14th film with Thor actor Chris Hemsworth playing the father of Captain Kirk (Chris Pine).

Director Lin, 44, says the show left an indelible mark on him as the son of Taiwanese immigrants newly arrived in the United States in the 1980s.

"It was a big part of my life growing up. My parents had this little fish-and-chips restaurant and after they closed at nine, we would watch it every night. I was nine years old and we had just immigrated and I remember feeling very alone - we were in a new country and there were only five of us.

"But Star Trek taught me that family can go beyond blood - it's about shared experiences. And I think it's endured and thrived over the years because it's about a group of people with various backgrounds coming together through this shared journey into the unknown."

"It has a message of universal peace and unity," adds Saldana, 38, whose character Uhura has an inter-species romance with the Vulcan officer Spock in the reboot.

"Star Trek represents hope - that no matter what happens, peace must prevail. It gave little kids growing up in Russia or Japan, or even the US, an idea that it could be achievable at a time when their parents were maybe telling them to not talk to somebody because of the colour of their skin or their religious or sexual orientation."

Pegg suggests the film could even be a parable for political crises such as the Brexit vote in Britain or the isolationism of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

"I think this film is about the fact that we're better together - it's about the collective against the separatists and how, if we pulled together instead of trying to pull into separate factions, we'd get a lot more done."

The Federation, the union of planets the Enterprise serves, "is about cooperation and harmony, and Krall's modus operandi is to promote isolationism", he says of the new villain in Star Trek Beyond played by Idris Elba.

"And this is a very apposite idea because we're in a situation now where the United Kingdom is recklessly pulling out of the European Union on a knee-jerk, ill-informed reaction and you've got Trump talking about building walls between the US and Mexico.

"And it's just so counter-intuitive to human endeavour."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2016, with the headline 'Star Trek sparks gay debate'. Print Edition | Subscribe