For many reasons, the original Star Trek series was groundbreaking. From the perspective of sheer science and technology, the show’s ideas and gadgets have proved to be prophetic. The cell phone, the tablet computer, and the modern medical diagnostic bed are just a few examples of how 1960s Star Trek predicted what was to come in the 1990s and beyond. But part of Star Trek’s legacy was how people of all races and backgrounds were represented on the Enterprise’s bridge.
The fact that two people of color were part of the main cast was a huge breakthrough. Nichelle Nichols’ portrayal of Uhura had fans far and wide, including the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Asian American actor George Takei brought Mr. Sulu to life, and his addition was another stroke of genius for Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.
The name Uhura is from the Swahili language, which means “freedom.” But is there a special meaning for Sulu?
During an interview for the Emmy Awards, Takei said that his presence on the Enterprise represented all of Asia, while Uhura represented Africa. He noted that Roddenberry explained that the Enterprise was a metaphor for “Starship Earth.”
“The strength of the starship is in its diversity,” said Takei. “He wanted to reflect that diversity in the makeup of the crew.”
Takei said that Roddenberry explained to him when he auditioned for the role of Mr. Sulu that much of the show would feature stories that emphasized this message of unity and inclusion.
“When the scripts came, you saw it in many guises,” Takei told Wil Wheaton and Rod Roddenberry in a video interview for Star Trek Day 2020. “There’s that acronym that we had — IDIC — Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. When I first came across that, I thought, ‘Oh yes!’ Compressed in just those four letters is what Star Trek is about.”
When it came to the actual naming of the character, Takei recounted that Roddenberry struggled. All Asian surnames are related to their nation of origin. Takei noted that “Kim” is a Korean name while “Wong” was a Chinese name. How could Takei’s character represent all of Asia but not be tied to one particular nation?
“He was looking at the map of Asia, and [Roddenberry] noticed that off to the side of the South China Sea was the Sulu Sea,” said Takei. “He thought ‘Ah-ha!’ The waters of the sea touch all shores, and that’s how he came up with Sulu.”
Takei also said that he made a point to visit the Sulu Sea when he was on a film shoot in the Philippines.
From Takei to Cho
Sulu must have been the right choice for the character since the actor chosen to reprise the role in J.J. Abrams’ Kelvin Star Trek films is of Korean ancestry — John Cho. Takei is of Japanese descent and approved of Cho taking over the part.
“Sulu’s in good hands,” Takei said on his website. “John Cho is an exciting actor. I’ve seen Cho in many productions at East West Players, and he always brings a vigorous sense of individuality to his roles. Under the leadership of J.J. Abrams, the Star Trek franchise is being infused with new energy and I hope John Cho plays a critical part for many years — and films — to come.”
A First Name Too?
Interestingly, for years, Sulu had no first name. His first name, Hikaru, was first used on screen in Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country. This was when Sulu had been promoted to captain and was in charge of the U.S.S. Excelsior. Fitting that it was Takei who got to say Sulu’s complete name in a Captain’s Log report at the start of the film.
The name originated in the novel, The Entropy Effect, published by Pocket Books in 1981.