Interview: Star Trek's George Takei
We were fortunate enough to meet up with 70-year-old George “Sulu” Takei in London last month, when he came to the UK to help promote the release of the original series on high-definition DVD (reviewed in SFX 164). He was one of the nicest people we’ve interviewed, and you can read what he had to say about JJ Abram’s forthcoming Star Trek prequel movie, and John Cho (the man who will replace him as Sulu), in the news section of SFX 165, on sale on Wednesday 19 December. Ahead of that, we share below some of his comments about the history of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, and also some personal reminiscences about growing up in the United States, about playing Sulu on screen, and about American politics and history.
SFX: Why do you think that Star Trek has so much resonance with people still today?
George Takei: “Gene Roddenberry had a certain philosophy and a vision of the human future. So much of science fiction both then and today, sees the future as doom and gloom, a dysfunctional society, a society that has been taken over by aliens or apes or whatever. Gene was the polar opposite! He saw the future as a bracing challenge, and he used to tell us that the starship Enterprise is a metaphor of Starship Earth and the strength of both starships lay in its diversity coming together and working in concert as a team.”
“If this team had confidence in its creativity, its inventiveness, its innovative capacity, its entrepreneurial spirit, its problem solving capacity, then we can face almost any challenge and prevail. It was a very optimistic philosophy. And, the opposite of what was a reality back then. Race riots were exploding throughout the big cities of America – an inability to deal with racial diversity, an inability to resolve political differences. The Vietnam War was tearing the fabric of American society apart. The entire globe was gripped by the coldest of Cold Wars, two great powers threatening each other with nuclear annihilation. But Gene Roddenberry’s vision inspired many people and many young people.”
“It has been 40 plus years since then, and we still have some of those travails, but we had made outstanding advances. We have a spacecraft out in space, and the crew of that spacecraft – called the International Space Station – is made up of people from all over this planet, many different races, many different countries, many different languages, many different faiths, and most outstanding of all: Cold War mortal enemies, Americans and Russians working together in concert!”
“I think it takes an optimist to set some goals, and the problem solvers will eventually take us there. And yes, we have a lot of unsolved problems – like a horrible war, senseless, mindless war carried out by an irresponsible reckless president. We have these problems still – and because the problems still exist, the optimistic and positive Star Trek philosophy resonates to people today. We want to see a good vibrant and diverse future, a diversity-coming-together kind of future.”
SFX: There is something like Gulliver’s Travels about Star Trek – we travel from place to place and in each place learn something more about ourselves…
Takei: “Exactly. The enemy within. We discover some of the things within ourselves. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings’. That goes back 500 years, so there are certain verities that resonate with every generation. Other people took the Star Trek franchise and reinterpreted it, and they paid very quickly. I think it is the strength and the power of Gene’s philosophy that still resonates today.”
SFX: Do you have a favourite episode from Gene Roddenberry’s original series, that you enjoyed taking part in?
Takei: “Naked Time! Because I got unleashed from that damn console and got to do a little interesting, eccentric but fun thing. Again, that is the kind of thing that Gene worked in that made Star Trek become a long-lasting classic. We are not just functional creatures. We are creatures of joy, of delight, of surprise, and wonder. That aspect of the human animal is just as essential as our functional qualities and Gene knew that. And so, he had some of these whimsical episodes or episodes that had a little dash and swash buckle.”
“But it is not just entertainment. Gene’s philosophy was that television is a rich, wonderful medium that was being wasted. It can be certainly entertaining but it can also be informative. It can be inspiring and those aspects were missing in television, and he was able to combine all of that to make it entertaining and engaging, but at the same time, it was filled with ideas. And those that wanted to dig behind the surface of entertainment could extract those ideas. Some got inspiration and they acted on it.”
SFX: Would you go back to participating again regularly if the option was there – would you play Sulu again?
Takei: “After Star Trek VI, I personally thought that it was going to segue into a Captain Sulu TV series – and the fans thought that too and they campaigned massively to get a Starship Excelsior series on TV. Initially when Paramount were considering developing a new series they invited suggestions from the fans. And, when the fans started recommending, in tidal wave proportions, a USS Excelsior series, they just froze up and they stopped listening to the fans. And, they came out with Enterprise. So, there you are. You can take a horse to water, but if the horse of Paramount won’t drink, what can you do? This was the age of the internet, and so it was a global campaign to get USS Excelsior series going. It did not happen. Ultimately, it is not the fans but some intelligence in those decision-making sectors that is going to determine the future, I think. Yes, I would be more than happy to come back.”
SFX: Did you take any souvenirs from the set of Star Trek? Do you have a helm console at your house or something?!
Takei: “As a matter of fact, Gene gave me two of the uniforms. One, the Captain Sulu uniform that I wore in ‘Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country’ and with something as important as that in the lore Star Trek I believe in sharing it, rather than having it sitting in my closet.”
“We founded a museum in Los Angeles, it is a national museum called the Japanese-American National Museum. The mission of the museum is to tell the story of the Japanese-American experience, but the core story that we want to tell is a part of American history that is rather mute in American history books. When Pearl Harbour was bombed, America was swept by war hysteria and many generations of American citizens were summarily rounded up simply because we happen to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbour, and put into barbwire internment camps.”
“We founded that museum in order to make up for the silence in American history books. We think that it is even more important for Americans to know the dark chapters because there are enough glorious chapters in American history. We need to learn from the mistakes that we made. You know, incarcerating a whole group of people with no charges, no trial, and no due process, and imprisoning us behind barbwire fences!”
“And so, we founded the museum. We travel our exhibits throughout the nation. We exchange exhibits with the Smithsonian in Washington DC. Although the internment story is the core story that we tell, we also tell the story of Japanese-American citizens who have that experience, who went on from there, picked up with their lives and contributed to American society in various ways, in the political arena, in the economic arena, academic arena and in the cultural arena. And, Captain Sulu happens to be one of them. And so I donated that uniform to the Japanese-American National Museum and we have been getting great interest in the Japanese-American story by Star Trek fans that come to the museum to see the original Captain Sulu uniform.”
“I also have the uniform that I wore in Star Trek III and IV, that grey kind of kimono style. That I still have in my closet and I am trying to decide how I am going to share that with the fans. Christy’s, the auction house, has that big auction, but I do not want to auction it off and have it in somebody’s private collection. I think it should be public and shared with people.”
SFX: There was an episode of Enterprise that dealt with the Japanese-American internment. It is interesting how an SF television drama can share history with a wider audience.
Takei: “That is in line with how Gene wanted to use television to inform and to educate and hopefully to inspire people to not make that happen again. Alas it is, with Arab-Americans this time. The word is not ‘internment’ this time, it is ‘detention’. No charges. No trial. No due process. Daddy is suddenly taken away. Why is he taken away? Where is he taken? In our case, all of us, from children to elderly people, from sick people to young men who could have been soldiers.”
“This is the other madness of that whole thing. They rounded us all up, but a year into the internment, the US government discovered that we had a wartime manpower shortage, and there are all these young people that are behind barbwire! So, they came down a year after they took our property, our freedom, with what they called a ‘loyalty questionnaire.’ The outrage of that, after they have done all that, to ask us to be loyal! Well, there were 40 questions, and two key ones that they wanted to get an answer to. Everyone over 17 years of age and behind those barbwire fences had to respond to the entire loyalty questionnaire. One key question was, ‘Will you bear arms to defend the United States of America?’ This is being asked of a 17-year-old girl or an 87-year-old immigrant lady. It was outrageous that they all have to respond to that.”
“The second question was even more insidious, two ideas in one sentence. ‘Will you swear your loyalty to the United States of America and foreswear your loyalty to the emperor of Japan?’ I mean, we are American citizens! How can you foreswear something that does not exist? And, if you did say, ‘Yes, I will foreswear my loyalty to the emperor’ then AHA! You WERE loyal to the emperor. It’s a ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ kind of question. And so if you said, ‘No, I do not have loyalty to the emperor to foreswear’ then you are saying ‘no’ to the first part too.”
“Some thousands of young people swallowed the outrage and answered the way the government wanted you to answer: ‘yes’ to both. “’Yes, I had been loyal to the emperor of Japan, but I will be loyal to the United States of America.’ It was an outrageous thing, but the amazing thing is this: the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was made up completely of Japanese-Americans. It was a segregated outfit. They fought heroically in the European theatre; they are the most decorated unit to return from the Second World War! Japanese-Americans who came from internment camps. One rifle team was part of the team that liberated Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp. Their own families, parents, wives, children, brothers, and sisters were behind American barbwire fences, and here they are liberating the Jews who were confined in those death camps. Thank God, ours were not death camps – but it was a time of many ironies.”
“We went to school in a black tarpaper schoolhouse, and I can see the barbwire fences and the Sentry Tower with the machine guns pointed at us, right outside the schoolhouse window. We began school everyday with a pledge of allegiance to the flag. I recited without any sense of irony ‘with liberty and justice for all’ – barbwire fences and machine guns. Ironic.”
SFX: How much do you think those experiences shaped your outlook?
Takei: “When I was a teenager and I started asking questions about it, my father told us that both the strength and the weakness of the American democracy is a fact that it is a true people’s democracy. It can be as great as the people can be, but it is as fallible as people are. That is why our democracy is so dependent on good people being actively engaged in the process. Otherwise, those that will manipulate, take advantage of, or respond to hysteria will be the operative forces in American democracy. My father took me when I still could not vote as a volunteer to the ‘Adlai Stevenson for president’ campaign headquarters. He volunteered for me – I was too young to volunteer!”
“Thank you for giving me the chance to be a history professor today!”
SFX: Thank you!
George Takei as an official website here, where you can read more about his acting and his foundation. He has also recently taken part in World Enough and Time, an episode of the fan-based New Voyages internet series. Find out more, here. The original series is out now with remastered special effects, in a combined DVD and HD format (see details here). Keep up to date with JJ Abrams new Star Trek movie in the pages of SFX magazine and on the official Star Trek site here.