Star Trek Beyond may be the third film in a blockbuster franchise based on several long-running television shows, but according to star John Cho, it’s still managed to find a way to make history in the Star Trek universe.
In an interview with Australia’s Herald Sun, Cho has revealed that the version of Sulu he plays in Star Trek Beyond — based on George Takei’s original character in Star Trek — is gay. That makes him the first openly gay character in Star Trek’s history.
Cho also said that Star Trek Beyond co-writer Simon Pegg (who also plays Scotty in the movie) and director Justin Lin intended for the character’s sexual orientation to be a nod to Takei, who came out in 2005 after decades of silence and has been a vocal activist for gay rights ever since.
"I liked the approach," said Cho of how Star Trek Beyond handles Sulu’s sexuality, "which was not to make a big thing out it. Which is where I hope we are going as a species, to not politicize one’s personal orientations."
But no matter how casual the inclusion of a gay crew member may be in the movie itself, the choice is a big one in terms of both the Star Trek canon — which has never before explicitly stated that a main crew member is anything but straight — and for sci-fi blockbusters in general, which still rarely include queer characters despite ostensibly taking place in worlds far removed from our Earth’s prejudices.
Brandon Nowalk’s wonderful and thorough article for the A.V. Club on the persistent straightness of sci-fi details exactly how big a deal an openly gay character is for Star Trek in particular, which has tried and failed to include one before:
A month before casting began on Star Trek: The Next Generation, [series creator Gene] Roddenberry admitted, "We should probably have a gay character on Star Trek." That didn’t happen. But at least there was a gay writer in the room, David Gerrold, who wrote a first-season script telling an AIDS allegory via a guest actor concerned about his sick boyfriend. It was scrapped. At the start of the fifth season, Roddenberry promised the series would finally get into queer stories, and there would be gay crewmen on the Enterprise. He died before realizing his vision, and 20 seasons of Star Trek later, we’re still waiting for someone to catch his baton. Time and again, space shows fail to represent the future their own producers believe in. According to TV, the future is feminist, racially diverse, and straight as an arrow.
Why are there no gay characters in Star Trek? After Trek writer Ronald D. Moore left the franchise, he put it bluntly: "There is no answer for it other than people in charge don’t want gay characters in Star Trek."
Fast-forward to 2016, when former Star Trek director J.J. Abrams — who still produces the movies while also working on the new Star Wars films — acknowledged that the infinite possibilities of science fiction could and absolutely should include varying sexualities. He even promised in February that we would eventually be seeing gay characters in the ever-expanding Star Wars universe.
Promises are nice and all, but action is better, and a nonchalantly gay Sulu on Star Trek is perhaps the first sign of a notable shift toward LGBTQ inclusion in sci-fi. Hopefully he’ll be just the first of many more characters like him to come.
Update: Takei has now responded to the decision, telling The Hollywood Reporter in no uncertain terms that he does not support it:
"I’m delighted that there’s a gay character. Unfortunately, it’s a twisting of Gene [Rodberry]’s creation, to which he put in so much thought. I think it’s really unfortunate."
Takei went on to say that while Cho, Pegg, and Lin consulted with him ahead of time, that he in turn pushed back against the idea that making Sulu gay could honor him when he and Rodberry had always viewed the character as heterosexual — and was disappointed when Pegg and Lin pushed ahead with the plan, regardless of his opposition.
Star Trek Beyond opens in US theaters on July 22.