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Gay 'Star Trek' Character Provokes Polarizing Response

"Star Trek" has been rocked by perhaps it's biggest controversy since the character of Spock was temporarily killed off nearly 35 ago.
Image: John Cho and Zoe Saldana in "Star Trek Beyond"
John Cho and Zoe Saldana in "Star Trek Beyond."Paramount Pictures

The world of "Star Trek" has been rocked by perhaps its biggest controversy since the character of Spock was temporarily killed off nearly 35 years ago. The makers of the latest cinematic installment -- "Star Trek: Beyond" -- have revealed that the iconic character of Lt. Hikaru Sulu (played by John Cho) will be portrayed as gay.

This news has provoked a polarizing reaction -- with some arguing that the move is a victory for advocates of more inclusivity and representation of the LGBT community in mainstream cinema, and others decrying yet another example of what they consider to be politically correct overreach.

Perhaps surprisingly, George Takei -- who originated the Sulu character and played him on television and film for 25 years, has slammed the idea. Takei, who came out publicly as gay in 2005 and has been an outspoken proponent of LGBT rights for decades, told the Hollywood Reporter that while he is "delighted that there’s a gay character," the alteration of Sulu's sexual identity is a "twisting of ['Star Trek' creator Gene Roddenberry's] creation, to which he put in so much thought. I think it’s really unfortunate.”

Related: George Takei Says Portraying Sulu as Gay Is a 'Twisting' of 'Star Trek' Character

Roddenberry made a groundbreaking case for diversity with his casting choices for the original "Star Trek" series back in the 1960s, making a conscious choice to write non-stereotypical roles for an African-American (Lt. Uhura), a Russian (Chekov) and, in Sulu's case, an Asian-American. But there was no appetite at that time to broach the then-taboo subject of LGBT relationships. Simon Pegg, who stars as Scotty in "Star Trek: Beyond" and co-wrote the screenplay, has made the argument that this is precisely why the modern production wanted to take Sulu in a different direction.

“I have huge love and respect for George Takei, his heart, courage and humor are an inspiration,” Pegg wrote in a recent statement to The Guardian. “However, with regards to his thoughts on our Sulu, I must respectfully disagree with him. 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."

And actor Zachary Quinto, who is openly gay and has portrayed Spock in the last three "Star Trek" films, including this one, has said he is "disappointed by the fact that George was disappointed."

Image: John Cho and Zoe Saldana in "Star Trek Beyond"
John Cho and Zoe Saldana in "Star Trek Beyond."Paramount Pictures

“I get it that he has had his own personal journey and has his own personal relationship with this character,” Quinto said in an interview with PEDESTRIAN.TV. “But ... as we established in the first ‘Star Trek’ film in 2009, we’ve created an alternate universe. My hope is that eventually George can be strengthened by the enormously positive response from especially young people, who are heartened by and inspired by this really tasteful and beautiful portrayal of something that I think is gaining acceptance and inclusion in our societies across the world, and should be.”

Some sci-fans have clearly been itching for this kind of plot development in the genre. When some viewers detected some suppressed sexual tension between John Boyega's Finn and Oscar Isaac's Poe in last year's blockbuster "Star Wars" film "The Force Awakens," they started crafting their own gay friendly fan art and parody videos depicting a full-blown romance featuring the characters. And while that film's director J.J. Abrams hasn't gone into specifics, he did promise that for the first time openly LGBT characters will make an appearance in the rebooted "Star Wars" universe.

Meanwhile, this summer, openly gay "Independence Day: Resurrection" director Roland Emmerich tweaked the portrayal of an eccentric scientist (played by Brent Spiner) from the original 1996 film to now be a part of a LGBT couple, although some have criticized that film for heavily sanitizing the romantic aspect of their relationship. The same charge was also levied against the Oscar-nominated 2014 film "The Imitation Game," which some critics felt downplayed its protagonist's sexual orientation to a detrimental degree.

Still, these moves appear to be a part of a growing conscious attempt on Hollywood's part to make an effort to acknowledge and embrace a community that they have either denigrated or ignored for several decades. While in recent years there has been widespread coverage of the gender and racial gap when it comes to quality roles in Hollywood, many have overlooked the fact that the LGBT community has historically fared even worse.

According to a GLAAD study released in May, in the 126 major Hollywood releases last year there were only 22 characters who identified as LGBT. And even worse, the few that did appear were overwhelmingly white men and were more often than not portrayed in an insensitive or unflattering light.

"Hollywood's films lag far behind any other form of media when it comes to portrayals of LGBT characters," said Sarah Kate Ellis, GLAAD’s president and CEO, in a statement at the time. "Too often, the few LGBT characters that make it to the big screen are the target of a punchline or token characters. The film industry must embrace new and inclusive stories if it wants to remain competitive and relevant."

Related: 'Star Trek' Returns to TVs in 2017 - But Only in Streaming Form

But, if the backlash to the all-female "Ghostbusters" or the retroactive outing of "Harry Potter"'s Dumbledore is any indication, using a beloved franchise as a forum for what some allege is social engineering can be a risk. Sometimes the perception that a film is little more than a Trojan Horse for a political agenda can potentially overshadow the commercial appeal of a would-be blockbuster.

Lynne Marie Rosenberg, a veteran actor who curates Cast and Loose -- a Tumblr page that features real-life, offensive and culturally insensitive casting notices -- understands why sometimes reboots don't sit well with audiences, but she also thinks the significance of someone coming out -- even if they are a fictional character, shouldn't be downplayed.

"It's a natural human reaction to be scared of change, even if its something as pedestrian as changing your favorite character from the '70s, '80s or '90s," she told told NBC News on Monday. "[But] it's important because media has the potential to the do the most good, as our country's most ubiquitous export, and currently it's doing the most harm."

While Rosenberg believes that the "entertainment industry is still largely controlled by older white men," the re-imagining of the Sulu character is a significant sign of the growing economic clout of audiences hungry for diversity, and it's in keeping with the "Star Trek" franchise's progressive-minded roots.

"If [Gene Roddenberry] had been here now this is exactly what he would have been doing," she said. "I think we're a culture of image at this point, and for a very, very long time we've only seen pictures of a very specific community. [Audiences] are starting to say, 'I know there are different pictures out there.' You can decide that all you want to see are more white men, or I can see something new."