SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched “Star Trek: Discovery” episode 10, “Despite Yourself.”
The “Star Trek: Discovery” writers have a shorthand for Lt. Paul Stamets and Dr. Hugh Culber.
“When we’re in the room, whether or not they’re married, we call them ‘the married couple,'” said executive producer Gretchen J. Berg. “And it’s not ‘the gay married couple.'”
Stamets and Culber are indeed unmarried on CBS All Access’ “Discovery.” (According to Wilson Cruz, who plays Culber, the characters are two years into a committed relationship.) But producers and stars of “Discovery” say that they have been overwhelmed by the positive feedback they’ve received for the portrayal of Culber and Anthony Rapp’s Stamets — the only two characters in “Star Trek” history to share a toothbrushing scene.
That onscreen relationship was transformed in Sunday’s episode, “Despite Yourself,” in which Culber was apparently murdered, his neck broken by Shazad Latif’s Lt. Ash Tyler. But according to Berg and fellow showrunner Aaron Harberts, death is not the end for Culber or “the married couple.”
“We have a really smart audience and an audience that I think thrives on nuance,” Harberts said. “All you have to do is think about all the things that Stamets has said on camera about the mycelial network,” the scientific revelation that has been central to season one’s story, “and about life and death and I think that the audience will certainly understand that this is not an ending, it’s a beginning.”
Harberts and Berg are longtime writing partners who have known each other since they were in college at Northwestern, where Harberts first came out to Berg as gay. Sensitive to concerns over the “bury your gays” trope that drew fire from LGBTQ communities in recent seasons as an extreme number of openly gay characters were killed off television, they are providing spoilers about Culber’s future on “Discovery.”
“He’s a character in the story,” Berg said. “You will see Culber again.”
In addition to killing Culber, “Despite Yourself” also re-introduced the Mirror Universe — the parallel dimension first seen in the original “Star Trek” and filled with doppelgangers of the franchise’s core characters. But the Culber that will be seen in future episodes will not hail from the Mirror Universe. According to Harberts, no Culber doppelganger will appear on “Discovery.”
“We realized that we absolutely didn’t want to see him in the Mirror Universe, because we wanted to keep him pure for the rest of this journey,” Harberts said. The showrunner’s reference to the mycelial network indicates that when Culber reappears, it will be the same Culber who shared a two-year relationship with Stamets, returned to the story via fictional science stuff.
The character’s role figures to be significant. “One of my favorite scenes that I’ve ever shot in my 25-year career is still yet to be seen in this season,” Cruz said.
A GLAAD count last summer pegged the number of gay characters killed on series television shows in the last two years at 62. The organization’s 2016 report called out the high number of female queer characters affected by the trend, noting, “served no other purpose than to further the narrative of a more central (and often straight, cisgender) character.”
“Discovery” producers shared their plans for Culber ahead of the release of “Despite Yourself” Sunday night.
“Alongside so many fans, GLAAD cheered the arrival of ‘Star Trek’s’ first gay relationship, and we share in their mourning over the death of a beloved groundbreaking character. Death is not always final in the ‘Star Trek’ universe, and we know the producers plan to continue exploring and telling Stamets and Culbers’ epic love story,” GLAAD spokesperson Nick Adams said in a statement. “Wilson Cruz has leveraged his talent as an actor to create a smart, lovable, and strong character in Dr. Culber, once again bursting through doors that were once closed to gay actors in Hollywood. We look forward to watching their love story unfold.”
That story is described by the showrunners as critical to the resolution of “Discovery” season one’s story.
“These two characters are going to be instrumental in saving the universe,” Harberts said. That, he added, will be “far more exciting for the gay community to watch” than the “gays, they’re just like us” moment of two men affectionately bickering while brushing their teeth.
“So everybody hold on,” Harberts said. “Some really phenomenal stuff is coming, and if you think that the out gay showrunner and his more-than-supportive writing partner and friend of more than 20 years are just going to kill a gay character to be done with a gay character, you’re wrong. And if anybody thinks that you would hire two of the best gay out actors working today in Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz and put them on ‘Star Trek’ just to sort of throw them away, you would also be very, very wrong.”