Are Sulu and Rand the Secret BFFs we Need?

Tuvok speaks to Sulu in "Flashback," Rand stands behind himWhile the main plot of the Voyager episode “Flashback” is about Tuvok mind melding with Janeway to work through a repressed memory, the episode also highlights a friendship that could have developed two characters who were underserved in The Original Series: Hikaru Sulu and Janice Rand. As we’ll see, Sulu was written out of multiple episodes for different reasons, and Rand was written out of the series entirely due to a combination of the writers wanting to let Kirk have “love interests of the week” and the horrendous working conditions the actress faced. “Flashback” hints at character development for both while also providing needed representation of platonic friendship between people of different genders, something lacking in media even today. This April, George Takei turns eighty-six and Grace Lee Whitney would have turned ninety-three. As a tribute to both underserved characters, let‘s examine the hints of their friendship in TOS and Voyager’s “Flashback.”

Scheduling conflicts and concerns about accidentally being racist led to some episodes meant to highlight Sulu being switched to another character: “The Gamesters of Triskelion” had to switch Sulu for Chekov due to scheduling, and “Wolf in the Fold” switched Sulu for Scotty due to worries about making the only Asian main character appear to be a murder, which left Sulu’s character very underdeveloped except for fleeting mentions. In fact one of the only consistent character traits referenced was his love of botany, mentioned in passing in “The Man Trap”, “The Way to Eden”, “The Naked Time”, and “Shore Leave”. His love of botany is even referenced in The Animated Series episode “The Infinite Vulcan.”

Sulu’s other trait that was referenced more than once was his love and use of antique weapons, including the iconic shirtless fencing scene in “The Naked Time.” Yet every one of these references were fleeting, rarely having a direct impact on an episode’s overarching plotline. Compare this to “The Trouble with Tribbles,” where Uhura’s shore leave directly impacts the plot by bringing the tribbles onto the Enterprise, thus creating the “trouble.”  In “Who Mourns for Adonais?,” Carolyn Palamas is the one who is instrumental in getting Adonis to release the landing party via her intelligence and rebuffing Apollo’s romantic actions. Had she returned Apollo’s affections or agreed to stay with him, the entire plot of Trek could have changed.

Rand only appeared in eight episodes of TOS, then did not appear or get referenced in TAS. She also had a very limited role in the TOS movies. In fact her main appearance in these movies, working on the transporter, then having Kirk and Scotty take over just as a malfunction leads to two redshirt deaths, highlights how the Trek writers failed to develop Rand into a complex character. Her original role in TOS was Kirk’s personal yeoman, where the two had implied unresolved feelings towards each other. This left Rand as a character who was dependent on romantic plotlines to develop her character and as a prop for Kirk’s character to develop. What makes these plotlines even worse is how one of her scenes in “The Enemy Within,” where the evil side of Kirk assaults her in her own quarters, ended up echoing real life. .Shortly after one of the executives on the show forced himself on Grace Lee Whitney (TW for description of sexual assault at the link), Rand was written out of the series, opening the way for Kirk to have rotating love interests.

Rand and Sulu talk about plants in "The Man Trap"

While many of the supporting characters would also have benefitted from the writers developing friendships between them, Sulu and Rand were already set up for this within Rand’s eight episodes. In “The Man Trap” Rand brings Sulu a tray while he is working with his plants. They talk about his plants, including a joking exchange about whether the plant Sulu is tending is male or female. Later on, Sulu and Rand discover one of the salt creature’s victims while walking together in the Enterprise corridors then confer as Sulu calls for the medical team to attend to their fallen crewmember. Then after Kirk has warned the crew about the creature’s shapeshifting, Rand talks to Sulu about how Green—or rather the salt creature who assumed Green’s form—creeped her out. In these few exchanges a rapport between the two is already interesting: they joke together and the exchange about the sex of plant Sulu is tending seems to indicate she has seen his plants before and knows about them, establishing they had a friendship prior to this episode.

Rand and Sulu in the corridor during "The Man Trap"

Later episodes could easily have expanded on this. One possibility could have been Sulu and Rand discussing Rand painting a picture of one of his plants—canvases can be seen in her room during “The Enemy Within”, one of the only hints about her life outside of romantic plotlines the audience sees. There was also an opportunity for the two to share a joke during “The Naked Time,” an episode both were in yet in which they did not share a scene. In the episode, Rand takes over his station when Sulu is unconscious from Spock’s Vulcan nerve pinch following the iconic “fair maiden” scene with Uhura and the others are trying to wrestle control of the Enterprise from Riley. Sulu could have congratulated Rand for how she handled herself after he started recovering while she could have joked about his swashbuckling or asked him to teach her to fence; the fencing could even have been added in brief scenes in later episodes as their equivalent of Kirk and Spock playing 3D chess.

Had Rand not been written out of TOS so early, she and Sulu could have joined Uhura and Chekov on the shore leave trip then come upon Cyrano Jones selling the tribbles in “The Trouble with Tribbles.” Would they have enjoyed the tribbles as much as Uhura or would they have asked questions about the tribbles? Since the tribbles devour mass quantities of grain in the episode, the writers could easily have written a scene where Rand tried to help Sulu save his plants from the voracious tribble swarms.

Sulu and Rand on the bridge of the Excelsior during "Flashback"

Thankfully, Sulu and Rand are allowed to have hints of a developed friendship during “Flashback.” As their relationship lacks the tension of Kirk and Rand, Sulu and Rand are allowed to be friends who have formed a fun bond. A prime example of this is how both react to Tuvok bringing Sulu tea: both make a joke about Tuvok trying to get a promotion via offering Sulu a Vulcan tea blend. Since they are not in the same part of the ship, Rand closer to her quarters while Sulu is on the bridge, it is very striking that they make nearly the same joke verbatim, implying they have similar senses of humor. Then when Tuvok stubbornly protests Sulu’s actions during a battle with the Klingons, Rand immediately dresses Tuvok down and reminds him he is still an ensign and a new one at that, something she did not do for Kirk. Sulu then comments about how a crew must be loyal to each other, like a family. Does this reveal his feelings about Rand: he saw how she did not enjoy serving under Kirk so when he became Captain in his own right, he selected her to be his communications officer and treated her with respect on the bridge?

Many of the peripheral main cast of TOS did not have much character development until the TOS cast movies. Unfortunately, Janice Rand did not receive significant character development until the episode “Flashback” in Voyager. Thankfully, that episode gave her some necessary character development alongside Hikaru Sulu, and the hints of their friendship that were glimpsed in TOS were expanded upon. Yet it’s not hard to imagine how the very tempting hints of their friendship from TOS could have been expanded upon within the series itself to give both characters much needed depth.

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