In honor of George Takei: 9 times that Sulu went off the rails (or almost did)

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Apr 20, 2017

As stoic in his way as Spock, Mr. Sulu has had his share of crazy moments in Star Trek history.

For as long as the character has existed (and he dates back to the second Star Trek pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," where he started as the ship's astrophysicist), Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu has always been the cool-as-ice, largely unflappable human member of the Star Trek bridge crew, second only to Mr. Emotionless himself, Spock. As played by George Takei, the helmsman delivered either the most dire sensor readings or the most prosaic orbit status in a calm and composed manner, even if the Enterprise (or the planet it was circling, or the universe, or ... etc.) was on the verge of conquest, war or destruction.

But Sulu was indeed only human, and he was prone to his moments of breaking down, getting angry or going off the path just like anyone else -- usually under the influence of alien mind control, an inhibition-breaking virus or something equally unsettling. And when that happened, watch out, because Sulu was capable of anything.

In honor of George Takei's 80th birthday, here are nine moments when Sulu's chill veneer shattered or very nearly did -- moments that often displayed a whole different layer or other side to this beloved and often underused character.

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"The Naked Time"

The fourth episode ever aired of the original Star Trek gave us our first insight into Sulu's character -- and that of other crew members, as they all became infected with a virus that lowered one's inhibitions. In the case of the Enterprise helmsman, he revealed himself to be, in the words of Spock, a "swashbuckler of the 18th century" as he abandoned his post and gleefully scurried shirtless through the ship's corridors, brandishing a sword at whoever came his way. According to Star Trek lore, Takei didn't know fencing and had to learn it in a hurry, but his frequent lunging at crew members led them to jokingly threaten a mass walkout if Sulu was ever handed a sword again.

"Shore Leave"

In this classic first-season episode of the original series, the crew of the Enterprise beams down to a seemingly empty, bucolic planet where an advanced alien technology instantly provides anything you want just by reading your thoughts. We don't exactly know what is going on in Sulu's head in this story, but the first thing he imagines is an old-style Colt Police Positive revolver, while later conjuring up a samurai who attacks him with a katana. Why would a beautiful, park-like, peaceful setting trigger such violent images in Sulu's brain? Luckily his sword doesn't make an encore.

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"The Return of the Archons"

The first time -- but not the last -- that Sulu will come under the influence of alien mind control occurs in this first season adventure, in which the Enterprise encounters a society that is completely stagnant and repressed, with all its violent and aggressive tendencies allowed free rein during a single 12-hour period known as "the Festival." The episode actually opens with Sulu being pursued by the "lawgivers" of Beta III, who capture and "absorb" him, turning him into a drone-like member of "the Body." He doesn't get to do much more after that other than smile unsettlingly, but we have to wonder just what the gun-and-sword-loving Sulu might have done when let loose for the Festival.

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"Mirror, Mirror"

This is perhaps Sulu's single greatest moment in the entire run of the original Trek, except of course it's not the "real" Sulu at all but a way more evil one who exists in the mirror universe. And boy, does he get up to no good: aggressively putting the make on Uhura, plotting to kill the Captain and Spock so he can ascend to command of the Enterprise -- this is a Sulu we've never seen before and Takei milks this version of the character for all its worth. If he retained his interest in weaponry, he probably did up end commandeering the Enterprise -- or even the evil version of Starfleet -- at some point.

"Catspaw"

This is the "Zombie Sulu" episode in which he and Scotty come under the influence of two alien beings from another galaxy masquerading as a sorceress and a warlock. It's never exactly made clear why, but the whole idea was to make a Halloween-themed episode so that's what they came up with. The result, written by the legendary Robert Bloch, doesn't usually make anyone's list of favorite Trek episodes but it has its goofy charms, one of which is watching Kirk and Sulu square off in a big fight scene (interestingly, Bloch killed Sulu off in his first draft of the script, which was quickly jettisoned in subsequent drafts).

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"And the Children Shall Lead"

This third season loser is generally considered one of the worst original Trek episodes ever produced. The silly plot involves five children -- the only survivors of a distant colony -- who come under the control of Gorgan, an ancient evil entity revealed to be stunt-casting attorney Melvin Belli dressed in a shower curtain. Gorgan and the kids can make the crew members see terrifying illusions, and in one cringeworthy sequence, Sulu is reduced to a frozen state of fear by the sight of ceremonial daggers flying out of space on the bridge viewscreen. The intent was supposed to be the equivalent of a bad drug trip, but the result just looked kind of ludicrous. It's a credit to Takei that he could play it without embarrassing himself.

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"The Magicks of Megas-tu"

One of the best episodes of the underrated Star Trek: The Animated Series (and one of two that was first pitched for the third season of the original live-action show), this trippy entry dealt with the Enterprise crew coming upon a planet where magical powers are the norm and they all get a chance to play around with them a little. Interestingly, Sulu uses magic to conjure up a beautiful woman -- shades of the mirror universe horndog we met in "Mirror, Mirror," but now at odds with the Sulu of the rebooted Star Trek movies, who is happily married to a man (although those movies are set in their own slightly altered universe as well -- so could Sulu be hetero in one reality and gay in another? That's a question above my pay grade).

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Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Sulu, in his way, is the ultimate starship crew member -- loyal and always ready to follow orders. Yet he willingly joins Kirk and the rest of the gang in their plot to disable the Excelsior and steal the Enterprise in order to save Spock's life -- perhaps explicitly going against his career training for the first time. This movie shows us Sulu the rebel -- and let's not forget his effortless beatdown of that musclehead security guard ("Don't call me Tiny.")

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Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Finally given a well-deserved command of his own starship (the Excelsior), Sulu gets to shine a little bit more than usual in the final film to feature the entire classic Trek cast. But surprisingly enough -- given that it's his first command -- Sulu is all too ready to disobey Starfleet orders as well as push his ship to the breaking point. He first ignores an order to track the Enterprise ("You having hearing problems, mister?") and then rushes to help it in the battle above Camp Khitomer with the rogue Klingon bird of prey. His angry shout as the Excelsior strains to get to the peace summit in time ("Fly her apart then!") is a brief but standout moment in his young career as captain.