News that Captain Hikaru Sulu, the helmsman of the USS Enterprise, will be revealed to be gay in the July 22 release Star Trek Beyond has been met with both approval and disdain. John Cho, who has played Sulu since the 2009 reboot Star Trek, made the announcement of the character’s homosexuality at a promotional event in Australia. In Beyond, he will be shown raising a daughter with a same-sex partner.

Sulu in ‘Star Trek Beyond’.

Most fans agree that for a series that has always been socially progressive, a central LGBT character is long overdue. But opposition to the move has come from an unexpected quarter: George Takei, who played Sulu in the original series (as well as in the first six films) and is a vocal LGBT rights advocate, has decried the idea.

“…This movie is going to be coming out on the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, the 50th anniversary of paying tribute to Gene Roddenberry, the man whose vision it was carried us through half a century. Honor him and create a new character. I urged them. He [Justin Lin, the director] left me feeling that that was going to happen,” Takei told Hollywood Reporter.

Takei’s discomfort with a gay Sulu may appear paradoxical but he has clearly elucidated his reasons. He does not want the vision of Roddenberry, who conceived Star Trek, to be sullied. Indeed, such is the breadth of the Star Trek canon that forcing new storylines on existing characters can be perilous. While Sulu, safely enough, had no onscreen love interest during the series’s initial three-season run between 1966 and 1969, a daughter of his, Demora, did appear in 1994’s Star Trek Generations.

Demora’s origins have already been explored in the 1995 tie-in novel The Captain’s Daughter – and they are comprehensively straight. As Takei told Hollywood Reporter, “It was, to put it crudely, a one-night stand with a glamazon, a very athletic, powerful and stunningly gorgeous woman. That’s Demora’s mother.”

Leave aside this wrinkle, however, and more serious issues emerge. Takei feels making Sulu gay at this point, when his sexuality has never been explored in earlier versions, will be little more than tokenism. Far better, in his view, to bring in a new character that is imagined as gay.

The debate is reminiscent of the recent contretemps over calls to make Frozen’s Elsa gay. If Twitter trends are any indication, most fans seemed to agree with the demand. But some doubted whether something as germane as sexuality should be introduced to the screenplay after the fact. While a gay Elsa indicates a welcome willingness to include LGBT storylines, the obvious question arises: Would Elsa have become as popular as she did if she had been explicitly gay in Frozen? Would Harry Potter have become a global phenomenon if JK Rowling had made Dumbledore gay in the novels, not just on the drawing board?

The debate over a gay Sulu is, thus, representative of the pull of the opposing forces of commercial viability and greater inclusion. To be sure, Star Trek has historically plumbed for the latter. It showcased American television’s first interracial kiss in 1968 between Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols). Such was the fear of reprisal, especially in the American South, that affiliates of NBC, the channel that broadcast the series, refused to air it.

The interracial kiss.

The makeup of the original series reflected Rodenberry’s wish to have a truly multicultural crew on USS Enterprise. Apart from the Japanese-origin Sulu and African-American Uhura, there was the Scottish Scotty (James Doohan) and the Russian Chekhov (Walter Koening). The series, thanks to its science fiction moorings, went further in breaking rules about what was possible on television. Spock, played by the iconic Leonard Nimoy, was half-human and half-Vulcan.

That the show had a Russian character at the height of the Cold War paranoia, and included an interracial kiss when race relations were (and continue to be) fraught, speaks of Star Trek’s ability to preempt the prejudices of the day and go where no one had gone before.

That is hardly the case with LGBT rights today. The milieu in which the series is introducing an out gay character is markedly different from an earlier era. LGBT rights, at least on paper and also to a large extent socially, are a won battle in the West. Cho’s remarks situate his character’s sexuality in this post-gay world: “I liked the approach, which was not to make a big thing out of it, which is where I hope we are going as a species, to not politicize one’s personal orientations.”

Star Trek is thus a beneficiary, not a trailblazer, in this department. Historically the series has only winked at queer themes – some episodes of The Next Generation explored asexuality and an AIDS-like disease, but these treatments were at best perfunctory and at worst offensive. Against this backdrop, the decision to make Sulu gay looks like an attempt to avoid staying behind the curve. At a time when television is introducing rounded LGBT characters with multi-dimensional storylines, viewers may find it easy to shrug off a gay Sulu as an anodyne bid to be part of the conversation.

But to someone like Takei, who has played Sulu and, as a gay man in Hollywood, had to hide his sexuality until his advancing years, the matter is not nearly as impersonal. Sulu will now be gay, just as others on the Enterprise are straight, and that we can avoid making a “big thing out of it” is great. But perhaps his storyline will count for something if it nodded, however briefly, to the long years of struggle that got us to this point.