Star Trek Beyond pushes envelope on gender, race, sexual orientation

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 July, 2016, 1:09am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 July, 2016, 10:16am

Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek has promoted conversation about significant social issues since beginning its TV run in 1966.

Star Trek Beyond pushes that pioneering message about race, gender and sexual orientation even further.

First-time Trek director Justin Lin knew that, along with the action ride, social discussion would be part of the package he brought to the third film of the rebooted film franchise.

“That’s in the mission statement when you’re part of Trek. It’s our job to try to be bold and push forward. You have to be conscious of that,” says Lin, 44, speaking in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel with stars John Cho and Zoe Saldana. “Star Trek is not just about literal exploration, but also the exploration of ourselves.”

“I can’t think of any other franchise whose mandate it is to push that envelope. It’s special in that regard,” adds Cho, 44, the Asian-American actor who plays helmsman Sulu. “I think if Gene Roddenberry were alive, he’d be pushing the envelope as well. We’re just following the blueprint.”

The TV blueprint, mirrored in the rebooted films, featured a black woman (Uhura) and an Asian man (Sulu) working as part of a diverse crew that also included a Russian (Chekov). Seeing this USS Enterprise bridge inspired a young Lin, now one of the few prominent Asian-American directors in Hollywood.

“Sulu, for the longest time, was the only Asian face I saw which didn’t exist for an ‘Asian’ reason. He wasn’t a kung fu master or a tourist, just a human being,” says Lin. “That always stuck with me.”

Star Trek Beyond adds the villain Krall, played by Idris Elba, who is black, and a new alien character Jaylah, played by Algerian actress Sofia Boutella. Boutella joins Saldana (the film’s Uhura) as strong women of color in authority, who effectively execute fighting roles.

“It’s exciting, I can’t wait to get to a new layer where women kicking butt onscreen isn’t so rare,” says Saldana, 38, who admired Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor role in Terminator growing up. “This paves the way for more female actresses.”

Beyond brought a significant change for the existing crew, with Sulu divulging onscreen that he has a child with a same-sex partner. The revelation was long discussed by filmmakers and “was not taken lightly,” says Lin.

The disclosure was too much for TV’s Sulu, gay activist George Takei, who called it “unfortunate” and out of step with Roddenberry’s vision.

Cho disagrees, saying the low-key execution, which has spurred international discussion, would make Roddenberry, who died in 1991, smile today.

“I hope that (Takei) is heartened in the long run by the realisation that young LGBT viewers will say, ‘Hey, that’s me up there,’ ” says Cho.

No matter what the message, Lin is pleased by the conversation Star Trek Beyond has generated.

“Through discourse, you ultimately have hope. I love that, even in disagreement, the words come from passion,” he says. “As a society, we’re not perfect by any means. But any time we have an opportunity for this kind of discourse, only good things will come.”