Dont Klingon to the past, George Takei. A gay Sulu is right for Star Trek 2016 | Ryan Gilbey

The actor who first played Sulu is wrong to criticise Simon Peggs re-imagining of a much-loved character. Star Trek Beyond is a reboot for our times

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Much the same goes for the journey into deep space, as Simon Pegg discovered last week. After starring in JJ Abramss thrilling, rebooted Star Trek films, which successfully revived the ailing franchise, Pegg was hired to co-write the third instalment, Star Trek Beyond, as well as reprising his role as Scotty. In the new pictures first bout of publicity it emerged that Sulu, the character played in the original television series and films by George Takei, and in the 21st-century iteration by John Cho, has boldly gone where plenty of men have gone before. Hes gay.

Disappointment at Sulus outing came not from hardened homophobes, who were presumably too busy perfecting the art of walking upright, but from a most unexpected commentator: Takei, a much-loved LGBT icon and activist, who called the decision unfortunate. It was, he argued, wrong to retro-fit Sulus sexuality when it hadnt been specified by Star Treks creator, Gene Roddenberry. Im delighted that theres a gay character, Takei said. Unfortunately, its a twisting of Genes creation, to which he put in so much thought.

Pegg responded sensitively but persuasively: Hes right, it is unfortunate; its unfortunate that the screen version of the most inclusive, tolerant universe in science fiction hasnt 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 isnt that tokenism?

Pegg was right to make sexuality a facet of an existing character since the audience [has] a pre-existing opinion of [him] as a human being, unaffected by any prejudice. Their sexual orientation is just one of many personal aspects, not the defining characteristic.

It was precisely this thinking that led JK Rowling to only reveal that the Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore was gay once she had published the last book in the Harry Potter series and even then, she made the admission casually at a public event rather than in the books themselves. (When a fan said she cant see him that way, Rowling responded: Maybe because gay people just look like people?) And its why the makers of the excellent stop-motion animation ParaNorman held back details of one characters sexuality until the final scenes, slipping the detail out in passing so that it rightly came across as no big deal.

There is always a tension in sexual identity between being accepted as normal and insisting on difference. Theres no manual for handling it in fiction. But if there were, Peggs approach would deserve a special mention. It is the nearest equivalent to the manner in which most heterosexual people will experience LGBT lifestyles: regardless of how strongly some might insist otherwise, they will already know people who are gay, bisexual or transgender. They may be friends with them, related to them, or work alongside them. They just might not know it yet.

Where Takei has erred, it seems, is in misunderstanding a modern phenomenon the movie reboot, which by its very nature starts again from scratch.

He may well be interpreting the reinvention of Sulu as an act of hostility, as though the filmmakers are overwriting his old Sulu with their sparkling new one. But the two can exist side by side. One doesnt cancel out the other the TV episodes havent been removed from syndication, and you can still see the many Star Trek movies Takei was in. (Although, as Pegg pointed out in his late-1990s TV series Spaced, you might want to avoid the odd-numbered ones.) The newer Star Treks are like cover versions that introduce unexpected flavours. They no more tamper with Roddenberrys vision than Talking Heads herky-jerky post-punk spin on Take Me to the River diminishes Al Greens jubilant original.

Takei, who came out in 2005 at the age of 68, is a marvellous ambassador for equality. However, a person who has found openness and acceptance in his own life but who imposes restrictions on the means by which others do so in theirs can easily risk looking ungracious. It would be better for all concerned if he didnt cling on or Klingon to the past.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jul/10/george-takei-gay-sulu-star-trek

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