Standing just 5 foot 8, George Takei looms large over a captivated audience of hundreds of assorted Trekkies, Trekkers and erstwhile Trek-o-philes (humans all, for the most part) in the Gaylord Opryland Hotel's Presidential Ballroom. Pacing calmly on a brightly lit stage, microphone in hand, Takei — best known for his portrayal of Lt. Hikaru Sulu, helmsman of the U.S.S. Enterprise, in a little show called Star Trek — greets rows upon rows of rank-and-file red-shirted attendees of the 2012 Star Trek Convention with a reminder of just how big this whole thing really is.
"There are people from Canada here, but ... even more astounding, there's one young man who flew over the Pacific from Taiwan to be here this afternoon. This is an international Star Trek Convention here in Nashville, Tennessee, at the Gaylord Hotel," says Takei, dragging out the first syllable in Gaylord for comedic effect. Attendees applaud wildly and bark with laughter. The response couldn't get more raucous if someone tossed a real live Tribble into the audience.
Over the course of last weekend, attendees from all over the world rubbed elbows and sought autographs from series luminaries like Takei and Nichelle "Uhura" Nichols; Deep Space Nine's Avery Brooks, Star Trek: The Next Generation's Jonathan Frakes and LeVar Burton, among others, each of whom regaled audiences with a talk and requisite apocrypha-focused Q&A session amidst the commercial exchange of merchandise ("Shirtless Kirk" eau de toilette, anyone?), trivia competitions, costume contests and ubiquitous fan conversations.
"Yeah, I didn't know the answer to, 'What disease did James Kirk contract when he was a farm boy in Iowa?,' " says a woman in a pale-blue Starfleet miniskirt, her skin painted green. "But I was thinking, 'an STD!' "
"I wouldn't be surprised if it was," says her friend, clad in a red Starfleet miniskirt, skin unpainted, laughing.
"Yeah, but no," says the green-skinned woman. "Turns out it was just Rigelian meningitis."
Others were there to show off their costume-making prowess, including 12-year-old Rochester, N.Y., native Dylan Dailor, whose detailed rendition of Capt. Jean-Luc Picard's personal replicator (replete with a cup of synthesized Earl Grey tea) earned him second-place honors.
"I was really excited," says Dailor, who says his peers aren't much into Star Trek. Never mind that: Like so many attendees of the convention, Dailor is a kind of genius when it comes to space — so much so, his parents inform the Scene, he received an honorable mention for a 22-page space-station design application he submitted to NASA.
"I want to go into aerospace engineering," he says.
But the highlight of the weekend was Takei's talk, which focused on the themes of diversity that made Star Trek stand out in a genre too often dominated by mindless "swords and stars" swashbucklery and jingoistic plotlines.
Since coming out publicly as a gay man to Frontiers magazine in 2005, Takei has used his status as an original cast member of Star Trek — a show whose godfather, Gene Roddenberry, smuggled many far-reaching social concerns under the guise of spaceships and alien costumes — to shine an ever brightening spotlight on the issue of marriage equality in the U.S.
When Star Trek was in production in the '60s, says Takei, "We were frozen in the coldest of cold wars. The Soviet Union and the United States were mortal enemies. ... And there on the bridge of the Enterprise, we had a navigator who was proud of his Russian heritage. He was a part of the team. We were [equals] working together as one, and that's what made the Star Trek Enterprise not only stronger, but much more interesting and engaging. It's the diversity that makes life what it is."
Despite its bold progressive bent, however, the TV show had at least one frontier it couldn't explore on the airwaves in the 1960s: sexual orientation. Know this, science-fiction fans: Takei has the safety unlatched on his phaser when it comes to Tennessee's sex-obsessed legislature.
"There is a [state] senator from Knoxville who is, I think, a ridiculous stand-up comedian," Takei says to a round of laughter. "A senator named Stacey Campfield, who is obsessed with this homophobia. He is trying to get a bill passed to silence schoolteachers of all people from repeating the word 'gay.' I mean, it's outlandish."
In response to Campfield's notorious "Don't Say Gay" bill, which passed the state Senate but failed to become law this past legislative session, Takei touts his "Just Say Takei" campaign, a viral video he filmed in May that implores those teachers and students hypothetically prohibited by Campfield's bill from saying the word "gay" to use the Japanese-American actor's own surname as a substitute.
"The best way to put a spotlight on this homophobic state senator is to make a joke of it," Takei tells the crowd, "because he is so ridiculous."
His impassioned speech resonated with many. Nashvillian Joseph Powell, dressed as Capt. James T. Kirk and holding a plastic phaser in his hand, gives a thumbs up when asked about his reaction to Takei's message.
"However, I think he was too kind on Campfield," Powell adds.
Like Nichols — who spoke about her fateful meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who convinced her to stick with the show for the simple fact that she portrayed an intelligent African-American woman in a position of authority — Takei spoke about the failings of democracy, including his internment in two Japanese-American concentration camps while he was a child during World War II. But ugly episodes like that, Jim Crow and our current battle over marriage equality, he suggests, ultimately force society closer to Gene Roddenberry's utopian vision.
"We are changing," Takei says, "and we are changing for the better." In the galactic rainbow coalition that is Star Trek's multitude-containing fan base, he professes room for all.
"I love young people, particularly young heterosexual couples," Takei says, to roars from the audience, "because they're producing the gay babies of the future."