Actor, activist, prolific meme-generator, and cultural icon George Takei graces Big Think with his presence today in this powerful five-minute clip. Takei explores Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s ambitious and progressive vision for the future: “Roddenberry felt that the Enterprise was a metaphor for starship Earth and the strength of this starship lay in its diversity.”
We also learn that Takei’s character, Sulu, represented a united Asia free of the many strifes Roddenberry witnessed during the 20th century. Takei tells us how the name “Sulu” came about; it’s an incredibly inspirational story.
Finally, Takei explains the now-glaring omission of gay and lesbian characters from Roddenberry’s progressive Enterprise. In short, it was the 1960s and the biracial kiss between Uhura and Kirk nearly sank the show. Roddenberry knew there were limits to what the public would tolerate and he couldn’t risk losing his platform for social commentary by testing them. Thankfully, as Takei notes, times have changed quite a bit since then in so many ways. And Star Trek and Gene Roddenberry are partly responsible.
George Takei: The creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, was a true visionary. The starship Enterprise was supposed to be soaring through space in the 23rd century. By that time the crew of Enterprise reflected the philosophy that Gene Roddenberry had.
Gene Roddenberry felt that the Enterprise was a metaphor for starship Earth and the strength of this starship lay in its diversity. People of many different backgrounds, many different cultures, many different experiences, many different ethnicities coming together and working in concert as a team boldly going where no one had gone before. And that was depicted in the makeup of the crew. African-American woman as the communications chief; the captain was a North American. The engineer was a European and my character, Sulu, was to represent Asia.
The problem he had was to find a name for this Asian character from the 23rd century because every Asian surname is nationally specific. Tanaka is Japanese. Wong is Chinese. Kim is Korea. And 20th century Asia was turbulent with warfare, colonization, rebellion and he didn't want to suggest that. He wanted to depict and suggest a much more enlightened society. And he wanted to find a name that suggested all of Asia, Pan Asia and that was a real dilemma for him. He had a map of Asia pinned on the wall and he was staring at it trying to get some inspiration for the Asian character. And he found off the coast of the Philippines the Sulu Sea. And he thought ah, the waters of a sea touch all shores, embracing all of Asia. And that's how my character came to have the name Sulu. And so that's the kind of vision he had projecting into the 23rd century.
However, I did very privately bring up the issue of gays and lesbians. And he was certainly, as a sophisticated man, mindful of that, but he said — in one episode we had a biracial kiss; Captain Kirk and Uhura had a kiss. That show was literally blacked out in the south. Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia didn't air that; our ratings plummeted. It was the lowest-rated episode that we had. And he said, "I'm treading a fine tight wire here. I'm dealing with issues of the time. I'm dealing with the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the Cold War and I need to be able to make that statement by staying on the air." He said, "If I dealt with that issue, I wouldn't be able to deal with any issue because I would be canceled." And I understood that because I was still closeted at that time. I talked to him as a liberal rather than as a gay man and I understood his position on that.
So that's the way Star Trek envisioned our future in the 23rd century, but I think we're getting closer to that utopian society that Gene Roddenberry visualized, much more rapidly than even the technology. We had this amazing technology on Star Trek. We had this device on our hip; walked all over the ship and whenever we wanted to talk to someone we would rip it off and start talking. Back in the '60s that was an astounding device. No wires attached to it? And now in the 21st century, early part of the 21st century, we not only talk to people, but all the things that we do there, send text messages, watch movies, listen to music; it's amazing the kind of progress that we're making, both technologically and societally.