These Are The Voyages: A Celebration of Star Trek #7: Mr. Sulu

It has been well noted by many fans and scholars of the series Star Trek, that while Scotty, Chekov, and Uhura were certainly popular and iconic characters, they really weren’t as well developed in comparison to the series “Power Trio” of Kirk, Spock, and Bones. Notably, Walter Koenig’s advice to which ever actor was cast as Chekov prior to Anton Yelchin in the 2009 reboot, was to stay out of the shadows and insist on having dialogue that did more than advance the plot along.

These supporting players, were sometimes known to the fans as the “Irregulars” in that while they were clearly integral parts of the Enterprise crew, they appeared almost infrequently on the series. In some cases this was due to scheduling conflicts. In others it was a matter of what the studio was willing to pay for that day.  However, despite how limited their appearances may have been on the show, they were fairly well defined in terms of personality and interests.  This was certainly the case with the ship’s helmsman, Hikaru Sulu.

As it is noted in Star Trek:  Adventures in Time and Space,

Mr. Sulu

Mr. Sulu

“The original series probably told viewers more about Hikaru Sulu than it did about Uhura, Scotty, and Chekov. Several episodes mentioned his love of plants as well as his secret passion for prancing, romantic swashbuckling, and derring-do. At his helm position, Mr. Sulu frequently had the first on-camera reaction to an alien menace or friend. He occasionally led landing parties, and he was a skilled helmsman.”

Despite how scholars and critics have written at length about the cultural significance of the role of Lt. Uhura on the series, the historical importance of the role of Sulu should not be overlooked. Today, we take for granted having Ming-Na Wen and Chloe Bennet as Agent Melinda May and Skye on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,  Rila Fukushima as Tatsu Yamashiro/Katana on Arrow, Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park as Chin Ho Kelly and Kona “Kono” Noshimur on the reimagining of Hawaii Five-0, and Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson on Elementary, the modern-day retelling of the Sherlock Holmes mythos , but all that would have been unheard of in 1966. Even the original Hawaii Five-O, which featured actor Kam Fong Chun as Chin Ho, didn’t air until 1968 a full two years after Sulu was introduced on Star Trek.

In those days following World War II ,Asians were often depicted as villains. The 1943 Batman serial saw the dynamic duo tangle with Dr. Daka, an agent for the Axis powers who’s plans involved turning people into mind controlled zombies while Flash Gordon tangled with the Asiatic space emperor Ming the Mericless. The 1960s would see the cinematic debut of James Bond, in which he would thwart the plans of Dr. No, who was half Chinese, while Marvel Comics would introduce Iron Man’s arch nemesis known simply as “The Mandarin. ”

Even in non comic book and sci-fi related materials, Asian-Americans fared no better. While regarded by many as a classic, the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s starring Audrey Hepburn featured white actor Mickey Rooney made up to look Asian, and his portrayal has been regarded as many now a days as racially and culturally insensitive. This, however was nothing compared to the casting decisions involving the Chinese detective Charlie Chan in the movies. As Jessica Lachenal noted in “Orientalism, Whitewashing, and Erasure: Hollywood’s Historic Problem with Asian People” from the MarySue, which looked at the controversy surrounding the casting of Caucasian actresses Tilda Switon  as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange, and how Asian-Americans are still under-represented in film and television, especially compared to other racial minorities,

“So consider, then, the set of films based on the Chinese detective, Charlie Chan. At first, this novel-based character was created to directly oppose the trope of the evil, mystical Asian person; he was a detective for the Honolulu police, an actual hero people can appreciate. Unfortunately, the character didn’t exactly survive the jump from page to screen fully intact. He was, at first, portrayed by many East Asian actors, drawing little to no response from audiences. But as soon as those actors were replaced with Swedish actor Warner Oland (wearing yellowface, no less), the films blew up in popularity…Oland played Chan in fifteen films, then was replaced by American Sidney Toler who made twenty-two…The film’s performance reflects America’s view: when an East Asian actor plays a heroic Chinese character, audiences don’t respond; for whatever reason, it just doesn’t sell. But the moment you replace that person with a white actor in makeup, it’s like gangbusters. It feels as if audiences weren’t willing to believe that an actual Asian person can be a hero. They’d still rather see themselves in racist makeup than buy into someone so “different” playing a good guy.”

Not so with Sulu, here was an Asian character, played by an Asian actor, who was not some megalomaniac out to control the world, and was also not a blundering, jabbering idiot. Sulu even held a command position on the ship, and later became Captain of his own vessel.  In fact, the only other show on at the same time that had positive portray of a character of Asian decent at the time was Bruce Lee as the Green Hornet’s sidekick, Kato.

As actor George Takei noted in a radio interview from 1994, regarding the legacy of Mr. Sulu,

 “Well you have to remember back. This was the mid 1960s. Every time we had a hot war going on in Asia, it was difficult for Asian Americans here. During the Second World War, Japanese Americans were incarcerated. During the Korean War, we had a lot of depiction of Asians as villains and evil cutthroat people, and in the 60s we were in a war in Vietnam. On the six o’clock news you saw people who look like me wearing black pyjamas characterized as the enemy and people that we had to shoot. So here again the traditional war in Asia syndrome was going on on American television and movies. Except when Star Trek came on. You saw another Asian face and he was one of the good guys, one of us. So I think Sulu played a very important role in balancing the perception of Asians by the North American public that saw Star Trek.”

 

As J. William Snyder, Jr., elaborated further “Star Trek: A Phenomenon and Social Statement on the 1960s”.

“To have a Japanese-American in such an authority position was indeed a big step forward. Though hostile feelings in America towards Japanese-Americans due to World War II had cooled off significantly, some concern existed as to whether a Japanese-American character would cost the series viewers in Indonesia. Still, George Takei, like the other minority actors for Star Trek fought and lobbied hard for his character. He was never happy with the lines and actions the writers had for his character, and Takei pushed so hard for his character that producers and writers learned to watch out when he came around. Gene Roddenberry never viewed Sulu as a “token Asian”, even at a time when it seemed everyone was against him for insisting on a major role for his minority characters. Lt. Sulu thus became an indispensable member of the Enterprise crew. It is difficult to imagine anyone else at the helm of the USS Enterprise that could perform the duties of helmsman as well as Sulu.”

The significance of this character was not lost on actor George Takei, who eagerly took the role. As he noted in an interview with Mother Jones,

“I knew this character was a breakthrough role, certainly for me as an individual actor but also for the image of an Asian character: no accent, a member of the elite leadership team. I was supposed to be the best helmsman in the Starfleet, No. 1 graduate in the Starfleet Academy. At that time there was the horrible stereotype about Asians being bad drivers. I was the best driver in the galaxy! So many young Asian Americans came up to me then—and still do today, although they’re not that young anymore—to tell me that seeing me on their television screen made them feel so proud.”

 In fact, when they were developing Star Trek: The Animated Series, the producers were initially  going to cut Sulu and Uhura, along with the noticeably absent Chekov  from the show. Leonard Nimoy threatened to leave the show if they did not keep those two crew members on the show, citing the importance of the ethnically diverse crew. After all, they along, with Kirk, Spock, Bones and Scotty had been around since the show’s first season. They had been a part of the show’s success and to continue the voyages of the crew of the USS Enterprise would have robbed the continuing saga of it’s integrity . Thus, the producers relented and kept Sulu and Uhura.

Despite being played by a Japanese American actor, Sulu was not meant to reflect one ethnicity. In fact expanded universe materials Sulu is of Japanese and Phillipine ancestry.  However that did not stop concerns form being raised over the casting of Korean-American actor John Cho in the 2009 reboot. Takei reassured director JJ Abrams not to worry about it, informing him,

“[Gene] Roddenberry’s vision for Sulu was to represent all of Asia, being named for the Sulu Sea instead of using a specific country-specific name.”

This is reflected further in one of Sulu’s other interests, the sport of fencing. In the 2009 film, when Sulu accompanies Kirk and the expendable ensign on a mission to destroy the renegade Romulan Nero’s device, Sulu pulls out a sword to battle one of the Romulans. This is a call back to a classic scene in the original series episode “The  Naked Time”, which saw the crew under the influence of a strange liquid substance that removed many of the crew’s inhibitions. This episode established his interest in fencing. As he explained to two crew members in the rec room when they mock his fencings word, wondering if it just for making a shish kebab,

“Foil. It’s a rapier. A thin sword…What do you mean, what do you do with it?..You practice…Your attitude is all wrong. Fencing tones the muscle, sharpens the eye, improves the posture.”

As the substance over took Sulu, he stalked the ship with his rapier, shouting,

“Richelieu, beware! Stand. No farther. No escape for you. You either leave this bois bloodied, or with my blood on your swords. Cowards!”

He made his way to the bridge, where he tried to defend Uhura from Kirk and Spock, declaring his allegiance to The Queen and the country of France. He was quickly incapacitated by Spock, who even made a joke, telling someone to “take D’Artagnon to sick bay.” In any other show, he would have possibly wielded a katana and acted like a Samurai or a Ninja, however, as Keith Candido notes in the Star Trek The Original Series rewatch for “The Naked Time” from Tor.com

“Sulu’s shirtless romp through the corridors of the Enterprise with his sword is one of Trek’s iconic moments, and it’s no surprise that George Takei cites this as his favorite episode of the series. Reportedly, Takei worked very hard on his sword technique, and also did a ton of pushups once he realized he was going to be bare-chested. He also chose a rapier rather than a katana, figuring that in the 23rd century, people wouldn’t automatically adhere to their ethnic background.”

Later, in the episode “Shore Leave” when the crew found themselves on a world that can make fantasies real, Sulu found himself out of his element when in he went up against a Samurai while armed with a gun. On this world, however, the leader was able to generate whatever exciting fantasy a crew member might want. For Sulu it would be to encounter a Samurai. The fact that he could not hold his own, is perhaps a nod to the movie The Seven Samurai in which a man armed with a gun is incapable of defeating a perfect Samurai swordsman.

His appreciation for Japanese Feudal culture and 17th century France fits in perfectly with the rest of the crew. While they may be explorers and scientist, they do all share a heart for adventure. It’s this love of classics that exist among the crew members. Kirk has a fondness for old books, Picard in Next Generation for photo albums, and Sulu, towards old weapons and fighting styles. This helps demonstrate that no matter how far humanity may go in the future, there will always be an appreciation for the things of the past.

As a pilot Sulu could fly anything, from the Enterprise herself, to a Klingon Bird of Prey, to even much older aircrafts. This is best seen in Star Trek IV when he successfully pilots a late 20th century helicopter over San Francisco. He not only could handle it, he also knew its exact make and model, and admitted to training in something similar at the academy.

His position on the crew was the helmsman, and his role, like that of a helmsman on a naval vessel, it is simply put, his job to control the ship’s speed and attitude, working closely with the Navigator. Even using common expressions used by a naval helmsman including “steady as she goes”, and “steady on course.” While it might sound like a simple task to pilot a ship, there are a number of complexities that go into piloting a larger ship. These things can’t make turns on a dime, so a pilot needs to be ready for every eventuality, and thus they have to be able to be calm, cool, collected, and able to correct the course should a situation arise.

His levelheaded demeanor is seen in two original series episodes “The Corbomite Maneuver” and “Balance of Terror”. In “Corbomite Maneuver ” the ship’s navigator, Bailey, is on the verge of a panic attack during Balok’s ten minute countdown until he destroys the ship. Bailey chides him for being robotic and a countdown clock as he remains clam, keeping track of how much time they have, and not for any last wishes. Sulu knows that Kirk and Spock need to know how much time they have on the clock if they are going to save the ship with time to spare.

Later, in “Balance of Terror” crewman Stiles is insisting that they should try and fire at the cloaked Romulan warbird. Sulu quickly sees a flaw in the plan as they can’t see the ship and would not know where they could aim the weapons. Stiles insists that the ships sensors could help if they blanket the area, but when Stiles acknowledges the lack of accuracy, Sulu points out that they are hoping for nothing more than a lucky shot. Sulu knows that to risk everything on getting lucky would be a waste of time, resources and power that the ships needs in order to stay alive in their combat against the Romulan.

Sulu was so exceptional, that upon being introduced to Sulu’s daughter Damora on the Enterprise B in Star Trek: Generations, Captain Kirk said,

 

    “Congratulations ensign, it wouldn’t be the Enterprise without a Sulu at the helm.

 In terms of the mythic nature of Star Trek, his role is comparable to the Ferryman of ancient Myth who would carry the hero to their destination, a role usually shared by multiple crew members at a time. As Donald E. Polumbo notes in The Monomyth of Star Trek from The Infleunce of Star Trek on Television, Film, and Culture,

“The crew person most comparable to a ferryman would be the transporter operator…, navigator…., or helmsman.”

 

This role as “ferryman” was most often shared with Chekov and other crew members. This is especially true in the 2009 reboot as Polumbo noted further in The Monomyth in American Science Fiction Films: 28 Visions of the Hero’s Journey, in which he examined how JJ Abrams followed the heroes journey to relaunch the classic franchise,

“Pike as Enterprise captain, and Sulu, as helmsman, are the initial ferrymen who transport  Kirk and Spock to the Vulcan system; Chekov is the ferrymen who transport Kirk and Spock to the Vulcan system; Chekov is the ferryman who beams Kirk and Sulu to Enterprise as they subsequently plunge from Narada’s mining platform to Vulcan’s surface; and Sulu s the ferryman as helmsman who successfully warps Enterprise to an orbit within Saturn’s ring system, where Narada cannot detect it.”

His position on the ship was part of the reason he and Chekov became such great friends . Sharing the con together and having to learn to work in tandem and coordinate their efforts is going to help forge a friendship between crew members. In Star Trek V, the two of them even go hiking in South Dakota on shore leave. The two even vent to each other when dealing with the constantly changing orders they are given on the Enterprise at a moment’s notice.

As Sulu says in “Amok Time” when dealing with Kirk’s orders to go to Vulcan to help Spock, and Starfleet’s orders to go to Altair,

“How do you figure it, Chekov? First we’re going to Vulcan, then we’re going to Altair, then we’re headed to Vulcan again, and now we’re headed back to Altair.”

While Chekov may have maintained security clearances for the Enterprise, Sulu held a key position on the chain of command. Whenever Kirk, Spock, and Scotty were otherwise occupied, Sulu took command of the vessel. This means, he is usually left to make difficult choices regarding the fat of the ship and its crew. In the episode “The Arena” when Kirk, Spock and Scotty are investigating the colony attacked by the Gorn, he is given the choice between keeping the ship in orbit or leaving orbit at maximum warp, opting for the former, only to return later when the crisis is abated.

Similarly in “Errand of Mercy” when peace talks with the Klingon Empire are on the verge of collapse, the crew is ordered to a peaceful, neutral M class planet in hopes of preventing a war. When the ship is attacked, and Kirk, and Spock go to the planet in hopes of stalling the crisis, Sulu is told to put the needs of the Enterprise first, and if the ship is outnumbered to avoid combat and alert Starfleet of the war.

Further it is established in the Star Trek: The Animated Series episode “Albatross”  that Sulu has full authorization to enact General Order 6, should all life on board the ship perish. The episode sees the crew overcome by a virus that Dr. McCoy is accused of creating, and as it gets worse, Kirk asks him if the order has been enacted. Sulu solemnly tells him,

“Yes, sir. If everyone on board has perished at the end of 24 hours the ship will self-destruct in… in order to protect other beings from the disease on board.”

The film Star Trek Into Darkness alluded to not only his role in the chain of command, but his ability to be a competent commander this when Kirk, Spock, and Uhura went down to Kronos to locate Kahn .With Scotty having abdicated his position, Sulu took the controls, and McCoy expressed doubt in Sulu’s abilities to bluff Kahn. However, Sulu remained calm, cool, collected, and most importantly conducted himself in a manner becoming of a captain .When he made contact with the Kahn of the alternate universe, going by the pseudonym of John Harrison,

“Attention: John Harrison. This is Captain Hikaru Sulu of the USS Enterprise. A shuttle of highly trained officers is on its way to your location. If you do not surrender to them immediately, I will unleash the entire payload of advanced long-range torpedoes currently locked on to your location. You have two minutes to confirm your compliance. Refusal to do so will result in your obliteration. And If you test me, you will fail.”

McCoy was suitably impressed with Sulu’s skill, even telling him to remind the doctor never to get on his bad side. When pressed into a wall, Sulu could be a cunning and formidable foe.  In the episode “Who Mourns Adonias” he was able to divert the power from the transmission circuits to the weapon systems so they could fire phasers at the being who claimed to be Apollo. In the original timeline, after many years of service he would become captain of his own ship. In a deleted scene from Wrath of Kahn that was featured in the original script, Captain Kirk informed Sulu,

    “I cut your new orders personally. By the end of the month, you’ll have your first command: USS Excelsior…You’ve earned it. But I’m still grateful to have you at the helm for three weeks. I don’t believe these kids can steer.”

Later in the Star Trek: Voyager episode entitled “Flashback” in which characters saw some of the events going on board Sulu’s ship in Star Trek VI, even the Klingon commander Kang, upon seeing Sulu in the captain’s chair acknowledged that the Federation had finally given him the leadership position he deserved.

Perhaps one of the shining moments for Sulu and Chekov came in the much maligned series finale for the Original Series, “The Turnabout Intruder” which featured body swapping high jinks in which Captain Kirk’s body was inhabited by another person, specifically one of his many angry ex-girlfriends. Spock was able to learn of the switch and sought to remove the fake Kirk, only to end up tried for mutiny. When Dr. McCoy and Scotty tried to defend Spock, they two were sentenced, with the punishment of death hanging over them. Sulu was the one to point out that the death penalty was expressly forbidden with the exception of one circumstance which had not been violated.

The fake Kirk would hear none of it, and ordered them back to their posts, where they staged their own mutiny, refusing to fly the ship to the destination where their friends would be executed. Sulu was the one of the two to urge that they take action to save them, saying,

“The captain really must be going mad if he thinks he can get away with an execution…What difference does it make who he is? Are we going to allow an execution to take place? …I’ll fight them every way and any way I can.”

The two simply backed away from the con, and it was due to their actions that  Spock, McCoy and Scotty saved just in time for the body swap on Kirk to wear off. Sulu, like the rest of the crew was willing to disobey orders if they went what against was morally and ethically right. In Star Trek III, after Admiral Morrow declares that none of the Enterprise crew can go to the Genesis planet to help save Spock and McCoy, Sulu, upon hearing that the order form the top is “no”, informs him that he, and the rest of their core group, will be going with Captain Kirk any way. He ends up keeping a guard distracted while they spring Dr. McCoy, and destroys the communications system, all before taking down and delivering a pithy comeback to a belligerent guard who called him “tiny.”

This all boils down to the response he would later give to one of his own ensigns upon becoming captain of the Excelsior. It was his ship that helped rescue Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy during the events of Star Trek VI. While it was not seen in the movie, an episode of the sequel series, Star Trek: Voyager, saw the Captain Kathryn Janeway mind meld with her Vulcan Science officer, Mr. Tuvok, to the events of that film and see the full story. Tuvok, perhaps adhering more to Vulcan traditions then Spock or even Spock’s  father Sarek, objecting to the decision, citing Starfleet regulations.

Sulu responded,

“Ensign, you’re absolutely right. But you’re also absolutely wrong. You’ll find that more happens on the bridge of a starship than just carrying out orders and observing regulations. There is a sense of loyalty to the men and women you serve with – a sense of family. Those two men on trial, I served with them for a long time. I owe them my life, a dozen times over. And right now they’re in trouble, and I’m going to help them. Let the regulations be damned.”

 

 

 

Bibliography:

 

FILM: Abrams, JJ ( Dir.) Star Trek. Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Eric Bana, Bruce Greenwood,  Ben Cross, Winona Ryder, Chris Hemsworth, Jennifer Morrison, and Leonard Nimoy. Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (writers). 2009. Paramount Pictures.

FILM: Abrams, JJ ( Dir.) Star Trek Into Darkness. Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Bruce Greenwood,  Alice Eve, and Leonard Nimoy. Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (writers). 2013. Paramount Pictures.

TV Show: Daniels, Marc(Dir.) “The  Naked Time ”Star Trek. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, George Takei, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, Grace Lee Whitney, Bruce Hyde, Stewart Moss and Majel Barrett.  John D.F. Black ( Writer.) Original Airdate: September 29, 1966. Desilu Productions/Paramount Television.

TV Show: Daniels, Marc ( Dir.) “Who Mourns Adonais?” Star Trek. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, George Takei, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig,Michael Forest, Leslie Parrish, and John Winston. Gilbert Ralston, and Gene L. Coon ( writers). Original Airdate: September 22, 1967. Desilu Productions/Paramount Television.

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FILM: Meyer, Nicolas (Dir).Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley , James Doohan, Walter Koenig , Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Kim Catrell, Christopher Plummer, David Warner, Rosanna DeSoto, and Iman.  Nicholas Meyer, and Denny Martin Flinn ( Writers) 1991. Paramount Pictures.

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DISCLAIMER:

This Blog is not authorized, endorsed, or approved by any entities involved the creation, development, distribution or ownership of the Star Trek franchise. The views and opinions contained in this blog reflect those of the author and do not represent the views or ownership of the Paramount Pictures, Desilu Productions, CBS Studios or any other parties involved in the creation or ownership of the franchise.

PHOTO CREDIT:

1967 Paramount Pictures/CBS Studios/Desilu Productions.

 

 

 

 

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About jonathondsvendsen

Hi! Thanks for stopping by my blog! Somehow you stumbled upon it. Whatever brought you around, I'm glad you're here. I am a free-lance writer and independent scholar of pop-cultural mythology, living and working in Minnesota. An aspiring mythmaker, I dream of voyages through space, fantastic worlds, and even my own superhero or two. I am also an established public speaker and have guest-lectured for college classes on the topic of comic book superheroes. I graduated from Bethel University in 2007 with a degree in Literature and Creative writing. I also write for the website NarniaFans.com. Head on over and you can check out my book reviews , a few fun interviews and even my April Fools Day jokes.
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2 Responses to These Are The Voyages: A Celebration of Star Trek #7: Mr. Sulu

  1. Wonderful writeup! Do you ever feature your writing with any other sites at all?

  2. I do! I’ve actually been a staff writer and editor for the website NarniaFans.com since July of’07.

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