It’s the type of headline you can’t quite believe: “John Cho’s Sulu Confirmed as Gay, A First for the Star Trek Franchise.”
That can’t be right, can it? Not the part about John Cho’s Sulu being gay, apparently revealed to have a husband and daughter in Star Trek Beyond. That’s actually a perfectly well-intentioned tribute to George Takei, who was still in the closet when he played the original Sulu but has since become a staunch LGBT activist. No, the part that just seems wrong is that this will actually be the first ever gay Star Trek character. You mean to tell me that Gene Roddenberry’s glorified space utopia, with its mixed race cast and first ever interracial kiss in TV history, has never had a gay character in any of its many official iterations over the past 50 years?
Not even on Enterprise? Oh, come on! That aired from 2001-2005. That’s a post Will & Grace world, people. Bakula never at least walked by two same-sex background characters holding hands or something?
That sucks. That’s total b.s. That…
Was almost very different.
In 2013, the fantastic site LegendsRevealed.com looked into the long-standing urban legend that an early episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation was never filmed because it was going to introduce two gay characters.
To paraphrase Han Solo: It’s true. The censorship. The episode. All of it.
The episode, entitled “Blood and Fire,” was written by David Gerrold, an Original Series holdover most known for giving us “Trouble with Tribbles.” The storyline was an AIDS crisis allegory involving the Federation instituting a quarantine protocol mandating that any ship found to be infected with lethal creatures called Regulan bloodworms will be destroyed on sight. As Gerrold later recalled, here’s how the gay characters factored into things:
There were two characters who were not very important to the story, but they were the kind of background characters you need. At one point Riker says to one of them, “How long have you two been together?” That was it. The guy replies, “Since the Academy.” That’s it. That’s all you need to know about their relationship. If you were a kid, you’d think they were just good buddies. If you were an adult, you’d get it. But I turned in the script and that’s when the excrement hit the rotating blades of the electric air circulation device.
Interestingly, Star Trek Beyond is taking a similar non-sensationalist approach to its gay storyline, choosing to simply present Sulu’s extended family in a matter-of-fact manner which doesn’t warrant any kind of raised eyebrows from anyone (except for maybe Spock, but he can’t help that). The decision to go with that approach was made by Simon Pegg (who co-wrote the script) and Justin Lin (the director).
In the case of “Blood and Fire,” Gerrold was working on orders from granddaddy Roddenberry himself. As Gerrold told StarTrek.com, around the time Next Generation was first announced he appeared at a science fiction convention with Roddenberry, and noted the following exchange:
One fan asked, “Well, are you going to have gay crewmembers, because in the 60’s you had Black and Asian and Latino, etc.?” Gene said, “You know, you’re right. It’s time. We should.” I was sitting on the side, taking notes, of course. So there it was: Gene had said it in front of an audience of 3,000 people in November of 1986. I was a little bit surprised and delighted that Gene was willing to go there. We got back to L.A. and Gene said it again in a meeting, and somebody in that meeting – I won’t say who – said, “What, we’re going to have Lt. Tutti-Frutti?” Gene balled him out and said, “No, it’s time. And I promised the fans we’re going to have gay characters.”
That’s just super, but it’s 2016 and we’re talking about Sulu as the first gay Star Trek character. Weren’t we supposed to have two unnamed gay crew members back in the ’80s? What the heck happened to “Blood and Fire”?
That actually about sums it up. Because Next Generation was syndicated and thus did not have a set timeslot it could have actually aired in the afternoon in certain markets. Paramount wanted no part of that potential PR minefield, and “Blood and Fire” was sentenced to a place known as “Film that over our dead bodies!”
Ronald D. Moore later owned up to the fact that Star Trek dropped the ball on its handling of gay characters mostly because it was never a priority for any of the post-Roddenberry producers:
We’ve just failed at it. It’s not been something we’ve successfully done. At Star Trek we used to have all these stock answers for why we didn’t do it. The truth is it was not really a priority for any of us on the staff so it wasn’t really something that was strong on anybody’s radar. And then I think there’s a certain inertia that you’re not used to writing those characters into these dramas and then you just don’t. And somebody has to decide that it’s important before you do it and I think we’re still at the place where that’s not yet a common – yeah, we have to include this and this is an important thing to include in the shows. Sci fi for whatever reason is just sort of behind the curve on all this
Gerrold, who left Next Generation after its first season, didn’t give up on “Blood and Fire” though. He actually directed it in for the fan project Star Trek: Phase II in 2008.