George Takei discusses why there weren't any gay characters in space in the 23rd century.

Space. The Final Frontier. Where sexuality is still an unfortunate taboo.

Before George Takei was the source of silly Internet memes, he was known for playing Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu on the original "Star Trek" series.

And "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry was an early champion of diversity and representation. As Takei explains in a recent interview with Big Think, Roddenberry considered the Starship Enterprise to be, "a metaphor for Starship Earth, and the strength of this starship lay in its diversity."

When it came to the show's Asian character, Takei says, Roddenberry didn't want him to be associated with any specific Asian country. He wanted Takei to represent multiple groups in an imagined, idealistic future that had evolved beyond earthly border disputes and superficial racial squabbles.


"The problem [Roddenberry] had was to find a name for this Asian character from the 23rd century because every Asian surname is nationally specific," Takei explains.


GIFset via Big Think.

And that's how Takei's character came to have the name Sulu.

"Star Trek" boldly went where no show had gone before ... but in 1966, it could still only go so far.

The show was undoubtedly progressive for its time. In addition to launching a long-running sci-fi franchise and the careers of several notable actors, "Star Trek" also gave us the first interracial kiss on television.

Captain Kirk (William Shatner) locked lips with Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) in "Plato's Stepchildren," an episode originally broadcast on November 22, 1968. And even that scene only made it to air because Shatner and Nichols purposely messed up the network-requested takes where their characters didn't kiss.

GIF from "Star Trek: The Original Series."

While that's an exciting hallmark to celebrate, and we can appreciate the significance of it today, some people weren't as receptive back then.

GIF via Big Think.

According to Takei, "Our ratings plummeted. It was the lowest-rated episode that we had."

That was just one of the factors that led to the show's cancellation later that year after three seasons on the air. And, unfortunately, that's also one reason there were no explicitly gay or lesbian characters in the show's idealistic version of the future.

Takei says he did, very privately, bring up the issue of gay and lesbian characters on "Star Trek" with Roddenberry.

And while Roddenberry was, "as a sophisticated man, mindful of that…" he also shied away from addressing LGBTQ issues head-on, in favor of dealing with other issues that he felt were more pressing at the time.

GIFset via Big Think.

Of course, the exclusion of explicitly gay or lesbian characters still didn't save the show from cancellation. (I say "explicitly" because Roddenberry did suggest in William Shatner's 1979 biography that Kirk and Spock could have shared in the "Greek ideal" of love — much to the relief of fan-fic writers everywhere.)

We're certainly on our way to the bright future envisioned in "Star Trek" … but we haven't quite reached that final frontier.

Science fiction shows like "Star Trek" still give us something to aspire to in 2015.

And while things aren't perfect, we're a lot better off than we were in 1968 — a recent GLAAD report points to MTV and FX in particular as having nearly 50% LGBTQ-inclusive programming. But that's only half of the shows on two cable networks that feature queer characters.

Heck, there still hasn't been a queer character on any of the subsequent "Star Trek" series, or the recent movie reboots.

Like Takei discussed with Roddenberry, we know sometimes progress takes a while. There's plenty of work left to do, but it's still nice to know that we're headed in the right direction, and that progress is being made.

And even Takei himself is feeling pretty good about it:


GIFset via Big Think.

Cheers to you, Lieutenant Sulu. Now let's keep going boldly toward that brighter future.

Here's the full video, courtesy of Big Think:


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