“Despite Yourself” was an episode filled with surprises for Star Trek: Discovery, with the launch of a Mirror Universe storyline that’s set to last for several more weeks — but perhaps the biggest shock of all was a scene that many never saw coming.
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Outed Klingon agent Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) attacks and kills Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) in sickbay after the doctor uncovers the depths of physical and psychological manipulation that Tyler undertook at the hands of L’Rell, ending the first ongoing same-sex relationship seen in a Star Trek television series.
As soon as the episode ended, showrunners Aaron Harberts and Gretchen J. Berg, along with actor Mary Chieffo and Wilson Cruz, all appeared on the post-episode After Trek discussion show, and much of the conversation centered around this fateful moment.
CRUZ: “They gave me a very lovely phone call… there were tears, I won’t lie. And before I get ahead of myself, it’s totally okay for [the audience] to be sad. It’s fine. I’m still here, I’m not going anywhere. This is a chapter in the [life] of this epic love story.
How did I feel about it? I was sad because I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. I just know that I turned to these two beautiful people [Harberts and Berg] that I trust and love, and said that if this is the way it’s going to go, I’m going to give you everything that I have until I go. And I hope people saw that it was all ‘on the stage’ in this episode.”
Harberts was quick to both discuss and defend Culber’s fate, referencing both his own background and the strength of the Discovery characters.
HARBERTS: “Culber dies because he’s the smartest person on the ship. Anyone who would have come to that conclusion [about Tyler] and confronted Tyler on that would have died. It’s just that Culber was the person who was really drilling down on the mystery of what’s going on.
That was really important to us [because] we love – love – Stamets and Culber on the show. There’s no way, as an out gay writer with an ensemble that’s nothing but LGBT positive and a writing partner who’s supported me my entire career – in terms of being out – there’s no way that you hire Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz to play the first gay couple on Star Trek and have them go for 10 episodes and say, ‘It’s over.’
The whole point of this was, he’s the smartest one on the ship, putting the clue trail together. He was not just a hapless victim.”
Harberts also shared the showrunning team’s surprise at how quickly fans latched onto the Culber / Stamets relationship, perhaps sooner than expected to the writing partners:
HARBERTS: “We always knew that the appetite for a gay couple on Star Trek was, uh, tremendous – we never dreamed that people were going to fall in love with them out of the gate.
This has been the most tremendous experience because Gretchen and I have worked on a lot of shows, and we’ve had fantastic ensembles, but this ensemble has just been embraced. So we always felt, in terms of the storytelling, that the relationship between Dr. Culber and Stamets would actually start to gather a lot of followers and a lot of investment NOW.
We didn’t predict that it would happen the minute that we saw them brushing their teeth! So it’s almost like people jumped in a little early! [Laughs] But we really do see this as the catalyst to really start exploring that relationship.”
With the jump to the Mirror Universe in “Despite Yourself,” After Trek host Matt Mira asked Cruz what he thinks this universe’s version of Culber might be like:
CRUZ: “I think he’s a bit of a mad scientist, probably doing like crazy, experimental things on aliens – kind of like the Germans did back in World War II.”
But that doesn’t mean we’ll be seeing an ‘evil’ Culber in Discovery’s future. While After Trek featured a creative — but ultimately unused — look at what Culber’s Mirror Universe look may have been like, Harberts explained why we won’t see Wilson Cruz saluting the Terran Empire.
HARBERTS: “As we started to think about Culber, and whether he would appear or not, it was [our decision] that we never see him in the Mirror Universe because we wanted to make sure that the image of Culber continues to stay pure, and absolutely not evil.”
But is that really the end for the “pure” Hugh Culber of the Discovery universe? Harberts and Berg spelled it out:
BERG: “We will see Dr. Culber again. He is not 100% dead.”
HARBERTS: “Everything we do on Star Trek comes out of character and also, as much as we can, grounded in science. Get [the real] Paul Stamets’ book “Mycellium Running,” and give it a read – because his view on the mycellial network and the building blocks of life and how life and death are interwoven will give you very, very good hints as to what’s going to happen.”
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In addition to their time on After Trek, Harberts, Cruz, and Berg also spoke to Buzzfeed’s Adam B. Vary about the well-known “bury your gays” trope, a disappointing cliche in which a television series kills off a homosexual character for shock value. Last year, CW series The 100 faced serious backlash from fans and critics alike after a similar event impacted a same-sex couple on that series.
Culber’s death may appear to be the latest in a long and unhappy trend of TV shows killing off their LGBT characters — a creative tic that approached epidemic levels in 2016, popularizing the trope “bury your gays” and sparking major fan outcry.
“I understand why people are upset,” said Cruz, who spent two years working as a GLAAD spokesperson. “I am familiar with the problematic tendencies of television shows to do away with their LGBT characters, especially people of color.”
But Cruz, Harberts, and Berg all insisted to BuzzFeed News that Culber’s death in Discovery will not be another “bury your gays” moment.
“I give you my word that this is not what that is,” said Cruz. “What’s being planned is something we haven’t really had an opportunity to see LGBT characters experience. I’m really excited about it.”
According to the showrunners, Culber’s death will not terminate the character’s narrative arc on the show, nor will it be the last time Cruz appears. “This is a beginning, rather than an ending,” said Harberts. “We’re more than happy to put our gay couple front and center and let them guide the audience on a story of love and loss and redemption and heroism and grief and life and all of those things.”
Knowing the potential for controversy, the team also shared the storyline with GLAAD to seek feedback on the impact of Culber’s death.
“You have to ask yourself, are you worried about an initial reaction, or are you worried about a macro experience?” said Harberts, who is openly gay. “We knew that our side of the street is clean. And we know that our actors understand what this journey is all about. We have faith that if our audience is so enraged and thinks that we would actually lean into a [bury your gays] trope, then they don’t really understand what we’re about as storytellers.”
Understanding the tricky factors at play with their decision, the producers did run it by GLAAD — and received the organization’s blessing. In a statement to BuzzFeed News, spokesperson Nick Adams said that GLAAD is “mourning … the death of a beloved groundbreaking character,” but went on to note that “death is not always final in the Star Trek universe, and we know the producers plan to continue exploring and telling Stamets and Culber’s epic love story.”
For Harberts and Berg, the wide open narrative possibilities presented by Star Trek — a sci-fi show predicted on boldly going where no one’s gone before — greatly outweigh any fear of immediate fan backlash, especially on a show with a serialized storyline that still has five episodes left in the season.
We’ve got five episodes left in the first season of Star Trek: Discovery — so we’ll see what the rest of “Chapter 2” brings us on the fate of Hugh Culber.