Book Review 38: To The Stars

I remember my mother bought each of us kids our own individual water canteens at Sears for our trip. We thought that was great. She had actually bought them because she was worried about the quality of the water supply on the trip. But no matter how great my mother's anxiety, my own more vivid memory is of the fun of taking those wonderful little sips of lukewarm water that we were periodically treated to from our very own canteens.

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George Takei is an actor, activist,and real estate investor, best known for is role as Starfleet officer Hikaru Sulu. His book, To the Stars is a great look at his fascinating life, through 1994. Most of the Star Trek cast were primarily actors and performers. Most of them struggled in the early 70s, but Takei continued to work and, more importantly had real estate investments to carry him through the lean years. Plus he got involved with politics.

The book is well organized. Takei divided the 400+ pages into broad sections of his life, and then subdivides those into chapters. It makes it easy to follow his story as he talks about the different things he's done in his life.

The book came out in 1994, eleven years before Takei publicly announced that he is gay. As a result there is no discussion about his dating life. He talks extensively about his family and the friends he made in the theater. But he tells no stories about his other relationships or his involvement with the LGBT community.

The writing it florid. The ever-positive Takei relishes every sentence he has a chance to write. At times the tone can get a little tiring, and without it the book would likely be 100 pages shorter. But it is very Takei. I can hear his distinctive voice in my head reading each sentence to me.

Takei heaps vivid, over the top description on everything from his first burrito to the telephone.

The taste was fantastic! The soft earthiness of the frijoles was just delicious with the spicy-sweet tang of the salsa roja, all wrapped up in the warm corn flavor of this wonderful pancake called "tortilla." Onorato told me this delicious concoction was a "burrito." I loved it, and I couldn't wait to tell my family about it. Better yet, I had to get my mama to cook like Onorato's Mama.

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Faithful to my superstitions, I bided my time and maintained my vigil before this instrument, this modern-day heathen deity. There it sat, shiny, plastic, and silent. Imperiously and insolently silent, the dials looking like a gap-toothed, mocking grin. Squat, arrogant thing; a machine, a simple piece of equipment. and yet, there it sat, trying to take on the countenance of some great and inaccessible sage withholding a coveted bit of wisdom. A Buddha! A fat, smiling, silent Buddha!

And it can't bear being ignored. Just when I finally decided to walk away from it and go for another run, it suddenly sprang to life—shrill, and demanding.

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That style of writing fills the book whether he's talking first experiences, actors, jobs, apartments or even his time in a WWII internment camp.

During World War II, The US ordered that all US citizens of Japanese decent and legal Japanese aliens on the west coast imprisoned in one of 10 camps scattered across the country. More than 100,000 people, most of them US citizens were locked away because of their ancestry.

Four-year-old George Takei, his younger brother and sister, and their parents were among those who took the long train ride to their prison camp in Arkansas. Later, they were transferred to the Tule Lake camp in California.

The first 70 pages of the book focus on Takei's experience in the camp. Fortunately for him he was so young at the time he didn't really understand what was happening. His family had to give up nearly everything they owned and his father's successful career, but for George and his little brother it was a grand adventure. He enjoyed the new canteen his mother got him. He talked about the great adventure of the train trip, and he even found joy in drainage ditch. Takei has always had an enormously positive outlook on life, and combined with his childhood sense of wonder, he didn't dread the experience like some older people did.

The camp itself was boring in its geometric symmetry and rigid uniformity. But the areas near the barbed wire fence became a place of never-ending discoveries.

We were city kids, and although we had seen butterflies back in Los Angeles, never had we seen such large and colorful ones as those that flitted along the barbed wire fence. But these were dumb butterflies. If I quietly approached one resting on the wire and then moved swiftly, I could snatch it up with two fingers before it knew what happened. They were beautiful but dumb. Catching them was too easy. I threw them back up into the air, and as they gratefully fluttered away, I would find beautiful powder patterns left on my fingers.

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He contrasts his description with that of an older prisoner.

One of the internees, Eiichi Kamiya, later gave a vivid description of the camp as "far enough south to catch Gulf Coast hurricanes, far enough north to catch midwestern tornadoes, close enough to the river to be inundated by Mississippi Valley floods, and lush enough to be the haven for every creepy, crawly creature and pesky insect in the world." For me, it was to be a great, paradisaical adventureland.

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His father cautioned him against playing near the ditches because of snakes and other creatures. One day, his father got special permission to take the family outside the camp for a drive. His father pointed out all sorts of things in the area and took them to a farm that may have supplied some of the food for the camp. There, George got to see his first hog, which George thought of as some sort of monster.

But we saw no water moccasins, no copperheads, and no rattlesnakes—only the most monstrous creature I had ever come across in my life- And rather than being devoured by it, I learned instead that we ate it.

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Eventually the war ended and the Takei's were allowed to leave the camps with the rest of the internees. His family returned to LA and tried to rebuild their life from scratch. Despite the positive way he saw much of his life, his experience in the camp did have a lasting impact. In the school yard, he overheard one teacher refer to him as "that little Jap boy."

Somehow, shame dominated my anger. I had the queasy feeling that her calling me "Jap" had something to do with our having been in camp. And camp, I was old enough by now to know, was something like jail. It was a place where people who had done bad things were sent. I had a gnawing sense of guilt about our time spent in camp. I could not fully understand it, but I thought perhaps we had it coming to us to be punished like this. Maybe we deserved to be called this painful word, "Jap."

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Takei does make the observation that the camps actually proved counter productive with many attendees.

These were the young men who had turned radical in their disillusion and their sense of betrayal by America. If America was going to treat them like enemies, then they resolved to give America adversaries it would have to take seriously. They would become the enemies that America would be forced to reckon with from within. They would harden their muscles and their spirits. They would prepare to rise up when the Japanese military landed on the West Coast, as these men fervently believed, and join the battle.

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The most dangerous people in the world are those that have nothing to lose.

This type of situation also lead to the riots of the mid and late sixties.

The country passed from a time of demonstrations s and protests to a period of radicalism and nihilism. Idealists disillusioned transmogrify into harrowing creatures. They become deadly zealots. My dim memory of the militant pro-Japan radicals of Tule Lake internment camp began taking on denser shape as I watched the emergence of the Black Panthers, the Weathermen, and the Simbionese Liberation Army.

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His family's experience in the camps is one reason he became an activist for Japanese-American issues. That, plus the insistence of his father that the key to democracy was that people become involved.

His father not only encouraged him to engage in the democratic process, but he also encouraged his acting career.

After high school, Takei went to UC Berkley to study architecture. He was interested in it, but not consumed with passion for it. And eventually that lack of passion drove him out of the field. He attended a lecture by Frank Lloyd Wright.

I was profoundly inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. He gave me renewed understanding of the importance of architecture. I was impressed by his strength and passionate dedication to his vision of the world. And I was troubled by his strong advocacy of a total commitment to architecture.

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Takei's first professional acting job was a three day summer gig dubbing characters for the Japanese imported monster movie Rodan. He wanted to continue as a professional actor, but dreaded telling his father. He was sure his father wouldn't understand and would insist he pursue a "real career." He was wrong.

He told his father one night that he wanted to leave Berkley and be an actor.

"Then do it," he said. "Do what you are so determined to do. Become the best that you can be. We want you to be happy.' "

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In fact, I was beginning to realize how special my father was. His counsel was so unlike the stern dicta of Japanese American fathers of my friends. I couldn't imagine any of them supporting their sons' desire to go into a venturesome career field, whatever it might be. My father understood and encouraged the individual aptitudes of his children. The guidance he gave was benevolent, and it was enlightened. He widened rather than restricted, our horizons, stimulated rather than demanded. He subsidized my choice instead of throwing me to the wolves.

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Takei wanted to go to NYC to follow his dream. Instead, his father convinced him to transfer to UCLA and pursue a BA in Theater Studies there. This way, he would actually have a degree should things not work out.

It turned out to be great advice that Takei took. Much of Takei's acting success came from southern California anyway.

Once he started acting, his father also insisted Takei invest his earning for the slow periods in an acting career. This also turned out to be excellent advice. Takei turned some modest investments in cemetery plots into significant real estate holdings over the years. And Takei didn't have to live in the back of his truck once Star Trek ended.

Takei's political career benefited strongly from his family's influence on him. His father's emphasis drove him to participate. His experience in the internment camp drove him to fight for minority rights. As he became more involved with candidates and campaigns, he was even invited to run for the LA City Council. He didn't win, but a few years later, Mayor Tom Bradley appointed Takei to the Southern California Rapid Transit District, based on his political experience, ability to work with people, and his background in architecture. The RTD was the organization responsible for developing the Los Angeles subway system.

Pursuing politics posed challenges for Takei.

The Equal Time rule requires that if a TV or radio station gives a certain amount of time to one candidate, they have to give the same amount of time to another candidate. This applies to actors playing characters, as well. It meant that if an LA area TV station aired an episode of Star Trek that featured Sulu, they also had to give every other candidate in the race the same amount of time for free. Rather than deal with the hassle, TV stations simply dropped all Sulu episodes and delayed airing the Star Trek animated series during Takei's campaign. This rule hits actors especially hard.

This so-called "Equal Time" rule is a discriminatory law against a category of citizens who happen to be in a specific business—film and television. I did not become an actor in order to gain visibility to run for public office. Acting had been my established means of livelihood for over fifteen years. Offering oneself for consideration as a candidate for public service is both a citizen's right and responsibility.

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A candidate for public office from the film and television community would penalize that very community he or she represented.

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When an actor runs for office, it hurts everyone else who costarred with him in movies or TV shows.

After 11 years with the RTD, Takei decided it was time to leave. The advance work was done. When they started building things and problems inevitably arose, he wanted to make sure the public did not associate him, and Star Trek, with those problems.

The blame inevitably would be placed on the politicians and public officials—in other words, on people like me.

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Takei enjoyed his time with Star Trek. He got along well with everyone on the cast except William Shatner.

The last three years had given me a wonderful gift of shared experiences and rich relationships. Colleagues had become synonymous with friends. But Bill in his single-minded drive for personal success had made himself oblivious to the human riches surrounding him. With his shining armor of charm and wit, he had only taken and not experienced. His unrelenting determination to protect what he had gotten had only isolated him and made him the poorer.

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He was concerned when Walter Koenig joined the cast in Season 2 as Pavel Chekov. Takei had been lobbying to increase Sulu's role in the show after season 1. During the break between the two seasons, he went off to the Philippines to make "The Green Berets" with John Wayne. Before he left, one of the writers gave Takei early versions of the scripts for several of the first episodes on Season 2. They looked great and Takei was excited about doing them. However, filming in the Philippines took longer than expected and he missed the start of Star Trek. Most of those great Sulu lines and parts went to Chekov. By the time he got back to the set he was furious and frustrated. He expected to hate Koening.

The following show, "The Ultimate Computer," was a morality tale about the machines man creates and how they come to embody both its creator's weaknesses as well as his strengths. If a machine were to be made by me at this point, it would have been boiling internally with the greenest of jealousy, lubricated by the black grease of malice, and bristly on the outside with the most lethal of assault weaponry. I couldn't guess what kind of machine Walter might have built. Probably a sleek, slippery, high-tech burglary device. Both Walter and I were together in this script. In dramatic structure, this would be called the obligatory confrontation, the showdown.

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When he met Koenig, however, all his anger dissolved. Koenig caught him off guard by complaining about his wig. They quickly became good friends.

He went on and on comparing the shaggy helmet he wore to a dust mop,a rag-doll wig, a bird's nest, a Shih Tzu lapdog perched on his head, et cetera. I realized that this was a man equipped with a true gift of kvetch. Walter was the quintessential poet bellyacher.

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Takei was never close to Nimoy. On the set Nimoy kept to himself, staying in character as much as possible. It took a while for Takei to get to know him, but he did hold Nimoy in high regard.

When the studio was developing Star Trek: The Animated Series, they decided to not use Takei and Nichelle Nichols as the voices of Sulu and Uhura. They were going to have other actors do those parts to save money. But Leonard Nimoy wouldn't hear of it and threatened to walk out if the studio didn't hire Takei and Nichols.

An actor, in the truest sense, is an artist who bears the values and the ideals of his culture. Leonard Nimoy is such an artist. I will always be grateful to him for having kept Nichelle and me connected with STAR TREK, and I take great pride in my association with him for who he is as a man.

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Takei tells an amusing story about flying home from the filming of Star Trek IV with Nichols, Koenig, and Jimmy Doohan. During a layover in San Francisco, the plane developed mechanical problems that would require a short delay. Nichols talked Takei into getting off the plane for a drink. As they got up, Takei overheardheard Doohan.

I could hear Jimmy behind me grousing to Walter, "That Nichelle—she's going to expect all of us to wait for her, you know. I know that woman. I know her all too well!"

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Of course, they missed their flight. As Takei and Nichols walked back to the plane from the bar, they saw their plane pulling away.

As Nichelle and I retrieved our bags at luggage claim I heard her muttering to herself, "It's that Jimmy. I know he's the one that egged the pilot on. That Jimmy is the most impatient man in the world."

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Takei enjoyed the movies, but still had problems with Shatner stealing lines and scenes. The stories about his contract negotiations are interesting, as are the stories about him lobbying for a promotion for Sulu. He also tells the sad story of a missed shot in Star Trek IV, which a lot of the cast member felt bad about. I think everyone of them tells the story in their own books.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is probably the most boring action film ever. No one seems to like it. This is Takei's take on it:

The movie seemed to have successfully attained the Vulcan condition of kolinahr—the shedding of all emotions—a state Spock was striving for at the beginning of the film. STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE seemed cold, detached, dispassionate. Despite the awesome force the Enterprise confronted in V'ger, there was a strange absence of any sense of jeopardy.

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The other terrible movie is, of course, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Takei's main problem with it is the script.

But rammed together, they made for a confusing and ultimately tiresome two hours.

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He also felt it made a mockery of the characters, with Scotty hitting his head on a beam, Uhura doing a strip tease, and Chekov and Sulu getting lost in the woods.

He was pleasantly surprised with Shatner's job as director, however.

The really unanticipated surprise was Bill. It was not an unpleasant working experience to be directed by him. In fact, he was actually quite good at creating a positive environment on the set, marshaling his considerable reservoir ft charm, loading it into his weapon, and placing the setting at "enchant." We were pleasantly taken aback. Even Jimmy remarked, "The man's not half as bad as I thought he'd be!"

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In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the Enterprise crew travels back in time. In a rare bright spot in the script for Sulu, they were supposed to meet a little boy who it turns out is a distant, direct ancestor of Sulu. It was to be a touching scene. And the child they got to play the role seemed to have the part down. Unfortunately, when it was time to film it, the child clammed up.

As we pleaded, implored, and groveled before the stubbornly pouting child, the sun continued its implacable journey across the San Francisco sky. The shadows from the office towers started to lengthen. The streets started to darken. And as the sun slowly slipped behind Nob Hill, my heart sank with it. A scene with such charm, such warmhearted affection—so much of Sulu went down with that sunset.

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The rest of the cast felt bad for Takei, and they tell this story in most of the other Star Trek memoirs I've read.

The other thing Takei lobbied for in the movies was a promotion to Captain. I'd heard over the years that Takei pushed for this and I just chalked it up to the actor's ego. But reading this book, I learned there is likely more to this. Not to discount ego entirely, because that is something Takei certainly has, but this drive may come more from Takei's activist back ground.

He argues to directors, writers, and producers that if Starfleet is a meritocracy, why is one of the top helmsmen in the fleet, and one of the top graduates from Star Fleet Academy still at the helm after all these years? It only makes sense that he would have been promoted.

Apparently, his lobbying worked -- somewhat. In the script for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, they included a promotion scene. Kirk gives the message to Sulu that he is being promoted to Captain of the Excelsior. The way Takei tells the story, Shatner killed the scene intentionally. The implication is that the scene wasn't enough about Shatner so the Shatner just phoned in his performance.

When we shot the scene. Bill played it as he had rehearsed it. Disinterested, murmuring some trivia about my captaincy. Looking straight out into the void. There was no eye contact. No emotion. No relationship. Nothing. A few other takes followed. He played them as before. He wasn't going to change. Nick called for the next setup. And we moved on.

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The scene never made it into the movie.

Sulu did eventually get his promotion, though. When the script for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country showed up, Takei was ecstatic about what he saw on the first page.

I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I had been promoting the idea for so long, so persistently and so fruitlessly, that the campaign had now become an automatic reflex with me. Deep down inside, I was close to being resigned to never seeing Sulu's promotion. I was turning cynical. I read the scene over. Bill was nowhere in it. Good.

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He was thrilled, especially since his nemesis, Shatner, was not in the scene.

Takei and Shatner have had a strained relationship. Takei accuses Shatner of stealing peoples lines and camera shots. He blames Shatner for delaying Sulu's promotion. In 2008 they traded barbs in competing video clips.

And while the book is not about Shatner directly, it is telling that the last paragraph of the last chapter is about Shatner. And the last paragraph of epilogue on Gene Roddenberry's death is also about Shatner. While Takei may not have criticized Shatner as much as he could have throughout the book, problems with Shatner are what he chooses to end on.

Takei's book is enjoyable for its variety and great story telling. While the other Star Trek memoirs deal mainly with show business, Takei's book has a much wider breadth. From the prison camp in Arkansas to the halls of power in LA to back lots of Paramount, To The Stars is a fantastic journey through the life of a fascinating individual.

Tomorrow: The final book in Star Trek Book Week II Electric Boogaloo

1 comment:

Jason said...

Have you ever had the chance to hear George Takei on the Howard Stern Show? It's satellite radio, so it's uncensored, and it's full on out of the closet George at his most open and honest about EVERYTHING. I highly recommend hitting the bit torrent sites and grabbing any of the shows that George is on.