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Saturday, July 9, 2016

Sulu to Be Gay in Star Trek Beyond

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Edited by Robert Beach

As we continue our drive towards the release of Star Trek Beyond, Paramount continues to worry over whether or not they’ll have another viable franchise beyond Transformers.  In addition to that, or possibly because of it, the people behind Star Trek Beyond are ramping up the build up to it, and their latest bid for audience attention in a summer that’s been notoriously lacking in it is announcing that Hikaru Sulu is gay in the new film.  The framing of the statement is a little strange, but that’s the big news, that Star Trek Beyond will feature a scene confirming original crewmember and helmsman Sulu is gay.  Apparently, this comes with a lot of fallout and lot to go over what this means.

Firstly, just as a long time queer Trek fan, I’m pleased they’ve finally got an out and proud crew member.  I’ve always maintained that Trek’s vaunted diversity was overstated, and the lack of any queer representation on any of the shows has been a major part of that.  Gene Roddenberry had initially wanted to feature a queer bridge member in The Next Generation but was met with resistance by the network that ended up seeping into all subsequent shows. 

The closest they ever came was in Deep Space 9 when Jadzia Dax was intimated to be pansexual but the show never really made a commitment to this.  If you’re unfamiliar with that era, Jadzia’s character was meant as a weird blend of two personalities, one of the women Jadzia and one of slug-like symbiote living inside her named Dax.  The episode Rejoined, from season 4, had Jadzia meeting up with a former wife of the symbiote and experiencing romantic attraction to her, but it only happened the once and negative reactions to it proved detrimental.  

For instance, Andrew Robinson played the character of Garak on Deep Space 9 to be bisexual, purposefully trying to show an attraction from him towards the Dr. Julian Bashir.  Unfortunately, after the dust-up over Jadzia’s scenes, the producers were unwilling to have Garak’s bisexuality extend to anything beyond vague hints and intimations and went on to write him a female love interest.

Outside of these two major exceptions, Star Trek has always been oppressively straight, which is honestly kind of a bizarre curiosity.  One of the hallmarks of the original series was being heavily plugged into the sexual liberation movement.  At the time, ideas like casual sex or interracial relations were considered at best unseemly and at worst illegal but James Kirk enjoyed both of those things on a weekly basis.  

What’s more, the idea of fans writing their romantic relationships between characters, a concept known as shipping, originated in modern fan culture with the ship of Kirk and Spock.  At the same time, however, ever since The Next Generation that kind of connection to the sexuality of any kind has slowly and unfortunately evaporated from the series. 

Which leads me to the reason I’m not as giddy about this particular announcement as some might think.  See, as fond as I am of Sulu being gay and Trek maybe taking a furtive step back into the realm of sexuality as another frontier to be explored, the announcement feels like it comes far too late.  

The age of featuring a gay character being some bold and subversive decision has pretty definitively come to an end, by this point in cultural history it honestly feels more shocking if you don’t have a queer character.  It is pretty great that Sulu is still framed as a take-charge bad ass and is a queer character of color, both of which are still pretty rare in LGBT representation, I just feel like it’s a small gesture all things considered. 

However, there is one part of the announcement I can sight as an unequivocal good: it’s a pretty definitive throwing down of the gauntlet compared to the two previous installments in this terrible reboot.  Seriously, the idea that Justin Lin and the other people working on Star Trek Beyond looked at the franchise and decided “let’s make this more diverse” is a great sign and a real twist from how straight, white, and mannish the reboot series has been. 

It’s no secret that I think 2009’s Star Trek is the most mediocre installment in the entire series and Star Trek Into Darkness was even worse, but a big problem with them overall was that they didn’t get any of the core principals of Star Trek, also that J.J. Abrams is a terrible storyteller.  

A big part of them not getting Trek started with the new films being grounded in the era the show had its most white male characters and then doubling down on this by whitewashing Khan in the second film.  Having Star Trek Beyond look at all that and decide on more diversity feels like a very pointed way to address the problems of the previous installments, which seems to be a big part of the overall point of this third installment.   

Like I said, for the most part, this feels like a long overdue assignment that’s not as big a move in the right direction as I’d like but it’s worth noting that it’s still a positive.  It’s an indicator of the film being on the right track more than anything else, a sign that the people in charge of this film are at least aware of one of the ideals Trek was always intended to stand for.  What's more, it is a step forward in how queer characters are realized on screen and a very welcome step forward at that.

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