Where No Man Has Gone Before

This year, Star Trek will turn 50, and I’ve loved the show since the days when I used to stay up at night and watch midnight Voyager reruns on TV. It’s been a part of my life for a long time now, and to me it represents a kind of optimism for the future where humanity has reached a point of accepting understanding. I love pretty much all of it – the campiness of The Original Series (TOS), the dry humanity of Next Generation, the character development of Voyager (as the first Trek I saw I’m still very fond of it, in spite of its flaws) and the boldness of Deep Space 9. Oh, and Enterprise too. This may be controversial, but I even like the reboot movies. They have their problems, but to me they represent a good balance of fanservice and updating the Trek concept to match modern trends and tastes.

I imagine most people will have heard the news by now, but here’s a crash course for those that missed it: It’s been announced that in the upcoming Star Trek Beyond, the character of Sulu will be shown as being married to a man. This marks the first time in the show’s 50 year history that a character has been openly gay1Okay, I know someone will say this so I’m going to get it out of the way. I’m not counting Lieutenant Hawk here because there’s no reference to it in the film itself. He was later revealed to have a male trill partner in the licensed novels, but that’s so far removed that I don’t think it really counts., and it’s sparked a discussion on multiple fronts about how appropriate it is.

Sulu was chosen as a homage of sorts to his original actor George Takei, a well-known gay rights activist. Takei has, however, spoken out against the change:

“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’.”

The movie’s writer, super-nerd Simon Pegg, responded:

“He’s right, it is unfortunate – it’s unfortunate that the screen version of the most inclusive, tolerant universe in science fiction hasn’t featured an LGBT character until now.

“We could have introduced a new gay character, but he or she would have been primarily defined by their sexuality, seen as the ‘gay character’, rather than simply for who they are, and isn’t that tokenism?”

This leads me to what made me want to write this in the first place. I actually can’t take sides here2Though, as a side note, I hate Pegg’s argument that making a character who’s gay is instantly tokenism. It’s part of a wider problem of straight white guys staring minorities in the eye and saying “Perhaps YOU are the real bigot” with a straight face. This has been relegated to a footnote because I’m absolutely, 100% certain that Simon Pegg doesn’t have a homophobic or remotely bigoted bone in his body, but the phrasing hereĀ irks me., I agree with both of them.

Takei is absolutely right. The whole idea of retrofitting a character to make them gay makes me uncomfortable in a way I find it hard to accurately describe, but it’s a bit like campaigning for equality for 50 years only for the Wizard of Oz to wave his hands and go “actually, the gay character was inside you the whole time!”. It’s cheap. It reduces sexuality to something so flimsy that it can be arbitrarily assigned to an existing character so long as they’ve not explicitly stated that they’re straight. And that’s the other thing, there’s always the worry that something so obviously arbitrary could be taken away just as easily as it’s added.

Not to mention that this has some frankly bizarre knock-on effects to the original character as played by Takei. Was Sulu gay in the original series? Was his daughter, seen in Star Trek Generations, adopted? Created genetically using future technology? Maybe the events of Nero travelling back through time in 2009’s Star Trek had the bizarre butterfly effect of making Sulu like men instead?

Takei is right. The ideal scenario here is that they introduce a new character, who happens to be gay. A well developed character that can stand alone as a person and mesh with the existing group to bring some much needed sexual diversity into the franchise.

Which leads me to why Simon Pegg is also absolutely right. That is never going to happen. Star Trek, in particular the TOS characters that the reboot series revolves around, has been around for 50 years. Kirk and Spock are household names, and “Beam me up, Scotty!” was a meme before memes were memes. You simply can’t create a new character and insert them into a group that’s been loved so intensely for so long. This leaves Star Trek with two options:

  1. Wait until we get another live action series with an entirely new cast of characters, and make one of them gay. Hope that the character proves popular, that the show makes enough of an impact on the series to be warmly regarded by the existing fans and that it lasts longer than Enterprise did.
  2. Retrofit an existing core character.

1 won’t happen for a while, and there’s no guarantee it will even work. 2 is cheap, certainly, but it forces the issue – you can’t have the TOS Enterprise crew without Sulu, and if Sulu is gay now then we have a permanent, immovable point of diversity in the series.

Maybe, then, as much as I agree with Takei and want to share his optimism, making Sulu gay is the right thing to do. So much of the media we consume is, at heart, extremely old. Star Trek debuted in 1966. The Avengers were first published in 1963, James Bond first came to the cinema in 1962, Superman is from 1938. Hell, Sherlock Holmes has three major modern franchises and he’s from 1881.

The characters are heavily rooted in a time when white, straight male characters were even more commonplace than they are now. They still carry the status quo of the time and it will take years, perhaps decades, for new characters to rise to fill their shoes and become the Bonds, Iron Mans and Supermans of tomorrow. That’s why Takei’s logic is important, we have to push for new gay characters so that in 50 years a gay action hero will be as accepted and celebrated as James Bond is now. But 50 years is too long. I don’t want five decades of queer children growing up without role models, without feeling normal. I don’t want to be 80 by the time I see a gay lead in a Hollywood blockbuster. So perhaps we also need people like Simon Pegg forcing the issue, making sure that change happens sooner even if it means being cheap about it.

The final thing I have to say here is that I obviously don’t speak for all gay people. I know people who are thrilled to be represented, I know people who want Sulu to shove his big gay normality down people’s throats until the homophobes and the people who resist change just accept it. I also know people who feel that even showing Sulu in a gay marriage may not be subtle enough, and that it just emphases that being gay is something abnormal that has to be a Big Deal. Diversity is a complicated, nuanced issue. But Christ, I’ve already gone on long enough.

   [ + ]

1. Okay, I know someone will say this so I’m going to get it out of the way. I’m not counting Lieutenant Hawk here because there’s no reference to it in the film itself. He was later revealed to have a male trill partner in the licensed novels, but that’s so far removed that I don’t think it really counts.
2. Though, as a side note, I hate Pegg’s argument that making a character who’s gay is instantly tokenism. It’s part of a wider problem of straight white guys staring minorities in the eye and saying “Perhaps YOU are the real bigot” with a straight face. This has been relegated to a footnote because I’m absolutely, 100% certain that Simon Pegg doesn’t have a homophobic or remotely bigoted bone in his body, but the phrasing hereĀ irks me.