George Takei on Star Trek’s 50th anniversary and his mastery of all media
Since 1966, George Takei has guided the starship Enterprise (and, later, the Excelsior) through an endless series of reruns of Star Trek and through six feature films and an animated series (plus video games) as Hikaru Sulu. Driving James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and Mr. Spock (the late Leonard Nimoy) around the universe would have been enough to secure Takei’s place in the pop-culture firmament, but the 79-year-actor has over the past decade carved out a surprising new place for himself: everywhere.
Along with his husband, Brad Altman Takei, and the rest of Team Takei, he has become a major force in social media, constantly sharing jokes or taking stands on LGBT issues. (It’s no wonder Taco Bell used him in a recent commercial to show that its new quesalupa was trending; Takei himself frequently trends.) Alert viewers will note his sarcastic yakuza on the Kansas City-connected Archer, and he is featured in a series of videos for AARP. He has even branched into musical theater, with the Tony Award-nominated Allegiance, which deals with the U.S. internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Takei is coming to Planet Comicon at Bartle Hall on May 21 and 22 to meet fans and continue his voyage. Speaking to The Pitch by phone from his home in Los Angeles, Takei says the fantasy of Star Trek has helped inspire a lot of his real-life activism.
The Pitch: What’s it like to deal with fans in person at signings and panels instead of social media?
Takei: It’s an opportunity to see them face to face and connect with them. In particular, I’m looking forward to the panels where I can literally have a town-hall discussion and hear their ideas, their thoughts, their suggestions and their criticisms. That’s the part that I look forward to the most.
What was it like to see yourself in Star Trek comic books?
[Laughs] We’re now comic books as well as action figures, as well as games and many, many novels. You know, this is the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, this year, which is a phenomenon in itself. And that phenomenon has given us all of these various other manifestations of our association with Star Trek. My mother, she’s passed now, used to say, “You know, George, you were a doll when you were a baby, and you’re a grown-up now, but you’re still a doll.” And she points to the action figures.
You’ve been diligent in making sure that we never forget what happened to you and 125,000 other Americans during World War II, when you and your family were held in internment camps.
Equality has always been a struggle. This is all based on the shining ideals of our founding fathers, more than 200 years ago. In contrast to those times and the struggles that we have today, we are a utopian society because the ideal of all men are created equal was a literal interpretation by the founding fathers. Women had no rights. They couldn’t vote. They couldn’t own property. They couldn’t have rights over their own children. And here we are today with a woman running for the president of the United States. We’ve come a long way.
Certainly the founding fathers who articulated those ideals kept other human beings as slaves, and now we do have an African-American as the president of the United States, so that’s 200 years looking back. Now, when we look 200 years ahead, to the 23rd century, that’s the world of Star Trek. We urge people to look at the big view because our struggle today seems very, very intense, but we’re making progress. When we look at that larger picture, we see the progress that we’re making, and we see the goal that we want to reach, which is that utopian society of the Enterprise.
That was [Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry’s vision, and that was what resulted in the phenomenon of this 50-year celebration for what was actually a failed television series. With each episode, we announced that we were boldly going on a five-year mission, which was aborted in three years. But because the fans discovered us in syndication, when it was run five nights a week, then it became this enormously popular series of feature motion pictures. There’s another Star Trek movie coming at you this July, to celebrate the 50th anniversary. It’s an amazing phenomenon that I certainly am proud to be associated with.
Might you have become more politically involved because of what happened to you as a boy?
Absolutely. I was a child then when we were imprisoned, but as a teenager I started reading civics books and history books, reading about the ideals of the United States, and I couldn’t reconcile that with what I knew from my childhood imprisonment. I had long discussions with my father after dinner, and I learned from this man, my father, who had lost everything in the middle of his life. He’d lost his business, our home, his freedom, yet he was able to explain to me the core concept of American democracy. He said, “Our democracy is a people’s democracy, and it can be as great as the people have the capacity to be, but it’s also as fallible as people are. It’s that fallibility that put us into these prison camps.” But the flip side of that fallibility is our potential to do great things. We have the responsibility to reach those ideas that the founding fathers articulated. I’ve been blessed with both the failure of our democracy and with the amplification of my voice that being a celebrity gives me, and I’m very mindful of the responsibility that I have.
Do you think this sense of responsibility might be part of the reason you seem to have been able navigate social media more adeptly than other public figures?
You learn from every experience in life. I’m a fallible human being — oh, don’t I know it. I’m very imperfect. Most people have their ego that gets in the way. Their ego doesn’t allow them to see and recognize their own fallibility.
And so you carry on like Bill Shatner does. [Laughs] I had to get that dig in, and that’s another one of my fallibilities. I respond to things that people say. I know how to fight back, just like Donald Trump! [Laughs] It takes a bit of ego, but also a bit of ego-lessness, to be blessed with this thing called celebrity.
For most of your campaigns on LGBT issues, you’ve used humor as your main weapon. Why do you think that works?
So much of discrimination, when you really look at it, is ridiculous, in the true meaning of that word. It’s silly. North Carolina is dealing with that issue. Their state legislature at the last minute, at the end of the day, rushed through this bill using religious freedom to discriminate against LGBT people. And it the dark of the night, very quickly done, the governor there, Pat McCrory, signed the bill. And the battleground here now is … the bathroom. Transgender people using the bathroom. It’s really ridiculous, isn’t it?
They’re talking about men being in the women’s room and being predators. They don’t know the reality. They’re transgender people, and they’re dressed as women, and that’s what they identify with. Their birth certificate may say that they’re male, but they’ve grown up and their mentality is that of a woman, and their dress is that of a woman. And rather than being predators, they’re going to be the ones, when they are exposed, to be bullied and humiliated in that ladies room.
In your book, Lions and Tigers and Bears — The Internet Strikes Back, you recount how you and Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill worked together to remove restrictions on portable electronic devices on planes.
I like to read on my flights, and rather than carrying a thick, heavy book, a Kindle is the best way to be able to read. I’m reading that big thick book on Tennessee Williams. To lug that about would be well nigh impossible with all the luggage you’d have to wheel around.
The late Leonard Nimoy came up with the “live long and prosper” Vulcan greeting Mr. Spock uses from his own Jewish upbringing. Did you bring up anything from your own heritage in developing Mr. Sulu?
I put my hands together and pray as Christians and most other people do for prayer. That wasn’t as unique as Leonard’s contribution. That was supposed to be a Vulcan thing, but all good things we adapt. I used “live long and prosper,” and I wish you, too, will live long and prosper.