Star Trek’s George Takei’s Influence on an LA City Council Election

Can animated, "idealized" versions of political figures sway the average voter?

“Kirk’s John, Spock’s Paul, Bones is George, Scotty is Ringo. Or Chekov, after the first season. Doesn’t matter, it’s like a Scotty-Chekov-combination Ringo. Spare parts are always surplus Georges or Ringos.”

— Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude

Saturday, 8 September 1973, was a typical day for most Americans. If not attending the year’s Mr. Olympia bodybuilding competition at New York City’s Brooklyn Academy of Music — the winner was a future California governor named Arnold Schwarzenegger — or involved with recreational or job-related activities, there was a good chance that you or your fellow American was parked in front of the family television set, watching one of the offerings from the three major networks of the pre-“hundreds of cable channels” era. It was the first day of the new Saturday Morning Cartoon Season. A day that had Star Trek: The Animated Series as something new to watch.

NBC had cancelled what became known as Star Trek: The Original Series (ST: TOS) in 1969, following three years of building a loyal fan base that, unfortunately, didn’t result in a high enough ranking in the all-powerful Nielsen ratings system used by the Big Three Networks to determine which programs would continue to broadcast on their affiliate stations and, more importantly, continue to generate income from advertisers. By 1969, the only shared aspect of the terms “Star Trek” and “cash flow” was that both phrases were composed of two words containing four letters each, not to be confused with “two four-letter words”, which NBC network executives probably used as standard practice when discussing ST: TOS with network programmers and advertiser representatives. Actually, these executives may have used all seven from George Carlin’s well-known list; regardless, the series was cancelled on 3 June 1969, and that was that. Or so it seemed.

Two things happened during the next four years.

First, Paramount Studios, which had purchased Desilu Productions and its collection of programs in 1967, licensed broadcast syndication rights for ST: TOS, which began airing on various television stations in the fall of 1969, only a few months after its cancellation. This action resulted in continued interest by the core fan base, as well as created new fans, ones who either missed the series the first time around or who took a second look and got hooked.

Second, the first Star Trek convention took place in 1972. Five hundred attendees were expected; 3,000 fans showed up.

It’s likely that both of these facts convinced NBC’s programming executives to add an animated version of the Star Trek series onto the network’s upcoming programming schedule. This version became a joint venture by Paramount Television and the Filmation Associates production company.

Filmation had a track record of success with cartoon series on CBS featuring DC Comics’ favorites such as Superman, Batman, and Aquaman, along with The Archie Show. The Archie Show was responsible for giving the world, via the pop music hitmaker Don Kirshner, an animated pop band called The Archies and their Top 40 hit “Sugar, Sugar”, and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, which gave kids of all ages a reason to say “Hey, hey, HEY!” and also ended each episode with Bill Cosby presenting a life lesson to the audience. If only…

NBC green-lighted the series. It was broadcast for two seasons as part of its 1973 “Super Saturdays” morning block of cartoons, joining Inch High Private Eye, The Addams Family, Emergency + 4, Butch Cassidy — another rock group cartoon minus the “Sugar, Sugar” — and Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. Initially known simply as Star Trek — years would pass before the series was referred to as Star Trek: The Animated Series, or ST:TAS — it was broadcast at 10:30 AM between Butch Cassidy and Sigmund and the Sea Monsters‘s time slots.

Star Trek‘s creator, executive producer, and mastermind Gene Roddenberry hired D. C. Fontana as story editor and associate producer for ST: TAS. Fontana had written ten episodes for the original series, and also served as story editor during its first two seasons. She was already familiar with where and how to boldly go in terms of the series canon. She also benefitted from a loophole regarding a Writers Guild of America strike that was underway: by agreement, Guild members were allowed to write for an animated series, which brought veterans from the original series like David Gerrold, Paul Schneider, director Marc Daniels, Samuel A. Peeples, even actor Walter Koenig, all able to apply what they knew from their three years on the original series into scripts that adhered to the show’s “series bible”. As a reward for the fine work by everyone associated with the series, including the first Emmy Award received by the Star Trek franchise, Roddenberry declared it “decanonized”, and all concepts from the series were prohibited from use by the franchise. After he died, the series’ decanonization was lifted.

Fontana also contributed a script for an episode titled “Yesteryear”. The premise of the plot was based upon time travel: Kirk (William Shatner) and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) had returned from a time-travel research project to find that no one on the starship Enterprise recognized Spock. Spock’s research led him to discover that the present history showed that he’d died at the age of seven; he remembers being saved from danger by an adult relative during his childhood on Vulcan, which led to his return to his Vulcan past through the Guardian of Forever time portal — the same one featured in the original series episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” — to correct errors in the timeline. Aspects of “Yesteryear” made their way into both the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode entitled “Unification”, and the 2009 reboot film Star Trek.

There would’ve been no Young Spock being saved by Adult Spock, however, without Leonard Nimoy’s demand to keep the characters of Lieutenants Sulu (George Takei) and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) as part of the Enterprise’s crew, and to use ST: TOS members George Takei and Nichelle Nichols, respectively, to voice their characters. According to reports from fellow actors and production members, Nimoy felt that their characters were not spare parts to be disposed as a matter of convenience, but were an important aspect of both the starship and the series itself. His position came down to “no Nimoy, no Spock, no animated series”, which resulted in a no-brainer decision: Takei and Nichols joined Nimoy, William Shatner, James Doohan, DeForest Kelley, and Majel Barrett to voice their original series’ characters for ST: TAS. There would be no Ensign Chekov because there was no room in the series’ budget for Walter Koenig; Koenig did, however, contribute a script that resulted in the seventh episode of the first season, “The Infinite Vulcan”.

The series, as stated earlier, was scheduled to begin on 8 September 1973. The first episode broadcast was Samuel A. Peeples’ “Beyond the Farthest Star”. But not in Los Angeles.

Tom Bradley had been elected mayor of Los Angeles, the city’s first African-American mayor, on 29 May 1973. He’d been the City Councilman for its Tenth District prior to becoming mayor. The city had a special election held on 18 September 1973 to fill Bradley’s vacated position. Bradley had endorsed political consultant David Cunningham, Jr. to fill his seat. A few other men and women also campaigned for it. One of them was George Takei.

Nineteen years after the special election, Cunningham was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, “If you don’t exercise political muscle by voting, you are not part of anything but a nondescript group.” Apparently he knew something about the use of political muscle. Complaints were raised during the 1973 campaign for the Tenth District seat — possibly by Cunningham, possibly by a nondescript group: there was no published list of named complainers found at this point in time — regarding Takei’s recognition level within the voting population being higher than for other candidates because of his portrayal of Sulu on ST: TOS. As a result of the Federal Communication Commission’s equal-time rule regarding political candidates on television, reruns of the original series were not broadcast in Los Angeles until the special election had ended.

Which brings us, once again, to 8 September 1973. The Los Angeles NBC affiliate KNBC didn’t broadcast “Beyond the Farthest Star” on that date like every other network affiliate in America; instead, it broadcast the episode scheduled to follow it, “Yesteryear”, because Takei-as-Sulu had no dialogue, nor was his character a part of the plotline, which his above-mentioned political opponents were convinced would be a factor in the election. The following week, KNBC broadcast “Yesteryear” again. “Beyond the Farthest Star” wasn’t shown in Los Angeles for the first time until 22 December 1973.

“Let me tell you how ridiculous this [FCC] law is,” Takei said during an interview published in the February 1981 issue of Starlog Magazine, “when I ran for the [Los Angeles] city council, an animated series of Star Trek had to be blacked out in Los Angeles because my voice accompanied an idealized drawing of me.”

The Los Angeles Times reported the vote count on the morning after the election. Cunningham received 8,199 votes, the top amount in a race where a plurality was needed to win. Takei finished second with 6,552. Two months later, the newspaper’s 2nd of November edition reported that Cunningham spent $62,766 on his campaign, compared to Takei’s $31,228. It’s very likely that spending twice the amount of money on various political advertising than his closest competitor had more to do with Cunningham’s victory than keeping a cartoon character from possibly influencing an undecided voter. Cunningham and Mayor Bradley were African-American politicians in a district that was 50 percent African-American in 1973, a time when the Black Power Movement and political victories like Bradley’s election created a fresh and growing sense of empowerment among African-Americans; this aspect, too, probably had more to do with Cunningham’s victory than the Sulu factor.

In Starlog Magazine’s August 1981 issue, Takei described the 1973 campaign as something that “held a lot of surprises. I had always known that there were a lot of people who would stoop to any level to win an election, but I really saw them in action for the first time. Some of the behavior of my own party members [Democratic] was reprehensible. Someone in the opposition even accused my father of having been a Communist — which of course he was not — so therefore I must be a Communist as well. Now, my father and I could both deal with that kind of lie, but I wasn’t prepared to have to deal with that dirtiness. I mean, that person attacked my family.”

And what about the Cunningham family? Did young David Cunningham III watch either broadcast of “Yesteryear” during the first two weeks of NBC’s “Super Saturdays”? Had the Councilman-to-be listened while the televised Sarek (Mark Lenard) informed Young Spock (Billy Simpson) about his paternal expectations regarding the Vulcan test of adulthood known as the Kahs-wan …

Sarek: “To fail once is not a disgrace … for others. If you fail, there will be those who call you a coward all your life. I do not expect you to fail.”

Young Spock: “What if I do, Father?”

Sarek: “There is no need to ask that question. You will not disappoint me. Not if your heart and spirit are Vulcan.”

…and wondered how it related to his life with his son? Had the thought crossed his mind that he was concerned with potentially losing votes because of a cartoon character? Or was he busy flexing political muscles?

A different set of political muscles was being flexed 30 years later. California had another special election in 2003, this time for Governor, and Arnold Schwarzenegger was one of the candidates. Once again, in keeping with the FCC equal-time rule, the state’s television stations refrained from showing any of his films during the gubernatorial campaign. Not even the one where he goes back in time to assassinate a woman whose son will be a leader in the movement against machines in the future. It probably didn’t matter one way or the other: Schwarzenegger won the election. Among his duties as Governor was to appoint Superior Court judges. One of his 2009 appointees was David Cunningham III.

So here we are in 2016. Bill Clinton addressed this year’s Democratic National Convention and summarized the career and life of his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic Party nominee for President. Near the end of his speech he pointed out how “a real change-maker represents a real threat. So [the opposition’s] only option is to create a cartoon, a cartoon alternative, then run against the cartoon.”

It appears that both Democrats and Republicans have taken his observation to heart: The Late Show with Stephen Colbert featured “interviews” with animated figures of both Clinton and Donald Trump. Perhaps it would’ve been easier for David Cunningham, Jr. to follow suit in 1973. Maybe DC Comics could have whipped something up for a small chunk of the 60 grand-and-change that he spent to win the election. Maybe George Takei was just ahead of the historical curve when it came to campaigning as a cartoon.

Ironically, what Cunningham or any of Takei’s opponents in the City Council race had overlooked was that their playing of the “FCC equal-time card” hadn’t prevented Lieutenant Sulu’s appearance in the twice-broadcast episode of “Yesteryear”. It appeared that no one seemed to notice or care about the “Star Message” segment — endorsed by the American Psychological Association! — at the end of the episode, a script device used to review or wrap up any loose ends of the plotline, similar to the one used at the end of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Four seconds into the segment, there’s an overhead shot of the crew members assigned to the Enterprise’s bridge: “idealized drawings” of Kirk in his big chair, Spock and McCoy (DeForest Kelley) flanking either side of him, Uhura at her post, and the Lieutenants Arex (James Doohan) and Sulu in their usual spots, seated in front of the Captain’s chair. Theme music plays, no one speaks. The shot lasted for exactly one second.

I made three attempts to contact Takei for an interview regarding the 1973 race, as well as his thoughts on the current Presidential campaign’s antics. It would’ve been interesting to know his thoughts regarding the special election more than 40 years later, get some insight on why he ran and what he would have done differently than David Cunningham, Jr., even find out what he thought an animated version of Trump and both Clintons would have been like as characters on ST: TAS. No such luck. All I got for my efforts was having my e-mail address added to his weekly newsletter mailing list. Still, that is something; I get to read what he considers important in both his life and the world. I know that comparing newsletters to a newspaper like, say, The New York Times as a news source is like the difference between a car and an assortment of spare parts. But what to do? He is, after all — to use Jonathan Lethem’s Star Trek-as-Beatles analogy from his novel The Fortress of Solitude — a George.

Dave Tilton is a San Francisco Bay Area musician and writer, a PopMatters contributor, and recently attended an Oakland Festival Opera production of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, which was presented with Star Trek-themed characters, costumes, and plotlines. It was, in a word, fascinating.