In a new video for Big Think, George Takei, noted internet god and LGBT+ rights activist, explains why Star Trek, a show that embraced diversity, didn’t feature one gay character during its original run. The reason: audiences weren’t ready for it.
Takei, who describes the show’s creator Gene Roddenberry as a visionary, explains what he was told when he privately brought up the issue to Roddenberry and why a man who was so intent on diversity just couldn’t put a gay storyline into the show, even though he might have wanted to.
Here’s what happened when the show featured a kiss between William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols on an episode where the two face-battled while under the control of alience forces:
“That show was literally blacked out in the South — Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia didn’t air that; our ratings plummeted,” Takei continued. “It was the lowest-rated episode that we had. And [Roddenberry] 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.’”
That makes a lot of sense and, as Takei points out, Roddenberry tried his best to turn the Starship Enterprise into Starship Earth. Even if he couldn’t feature interracial love stories or introduce a gay character, Roddenberry was going to get as close to a diverse utopia on television as the times would allow.
Takei on how his character’s name was chosen for the show:
“The problem [Roddenberry] had was to find a name for this Asian character from the 23rd century because every Asian surname is nationally specific,” said Takei. “Tanaka is Japanese. Wong is Chinese. Kim is Korean. And 20th century Asia was turbulent with warfare, colonization, rebellion, and he didn’t want to suggest that.”
“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 the sea touch all shores, embracing all of Asia. And that’s how my character came to have the name Sulu.”
And an interview that Roddenberry did with The Humanist in 1991 points to exactly why he was so respected by Takei. Unlike many others, Roddenberry was willing to rethink his stances on gender and civil rights issues and discuss those thoughts publicly, regardless of their popularity.
From Roddenberry’s remarks in The Humanist:
In the early 1960s, I was much more a macho-type person. I was still accepting things from my childhood as necessary and part of reality — how men related to women, et cetera. My assistant, Susan Sackett, used to say to me, “You really put down women a lot for someone who is supposed to be thoughtful and liberal.” I began listening to her and agreeing that she was right in her perceptions.
My attitude toward homosexuality has changed. I came to the conclusion that I was wrong. I was never someone who hunted down “fags” as we used to call them on the street. I would, sometimes, say something anti-homosexual off the top of my head because it was thought, in those days, to be funny. I never really deeply believed those comments, but I gave the impression of being thoughtless in these areas. I have, over many years, changed my attitude about gay men and women.
Star Trek still hasn’t gotten its gay character, but perhaps we’ll get one if the show is ever rebooted again. After all, isn’t it time that people of all genders and sexual orientations got the chance to visit space?
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