“I did very privately bring up the issue of gays and lesbians,” said Takei, who played Sulu on the long-running sci-fi series. “And he was certainly, as a sophisticated man, mindful of that, but he said — in one episode we had a biracial kiss, Captain Kirk and Uhura had a kiss.”
That episode was “Plato’s Stepchildren,” which aired in 1968. The characters played by William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols locked lips while under the psionic thrall of controlling aliens. “That show was literally blacked out in the South — Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia didn’t air that; our ratings plummeted,” Takei continued. “It was the lowest-rated episode that we had. And [Roddenberry] said, ‘I’m treading a fine tight wire here. I’m dealing with issues of the time. I’m dealing with the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and I need to be able to make that statement by staying on the air.’ He said, ‘If I dealt with that issue I wouldn’t be able to deal with any issue because I would be canceled.’”
Roddenberry succeeded in bringing diversity to the program in other ways. For example, Takei went into detail on how his character got the name of Sulu. As he described, the crew of the Enterprise was meant to embody the various cultures of the world, and Takei’s character represented Asia.
“The problem [Roddenberry] had was to find a name for this Asian character from the 23rd century because every Asian surname is nationally specific,” said Takei. “Tanaka is Japanese. Wong is Chinese. Kim is Korean. And 20th century Asia was turbulent with warfare, colonization, rebellion, and he didn’t want to suggest that.”
As Takei described, “He had a map of Asia pinned on the wall and he was staring at it trying to get some inspiration for the Asian character. And he found, off the coast of the Philippines, the Sulu Sea. And he thought, ‘Ah, the waters of the sea touch all shores, embracing all of Asia. And that’s how my character came to have the name Sulu.”
Watch more from Big Think’s video with Takei below.