Spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery’s tenth episode (and unspecified subsequent episodes) below.
In my review of this week’s terrific return episode of Star Trek: Discovery, I mourned ship's doctor Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz), whose neck got snapped by Ash Tyler/Voq - not just as a character, but as a symptom of a major problem facing queer characters in television and movies. The recurring issue - known colloquially as “Bury Your Gays” - refers to the disproportionate number of instances in which a queer character is killed for dramatic impact or shock value - often as a direct result of their queerness, and often purely to further a cis/straight character’s development. For a franchise like Star Trek, with a long history of progressive representation, the death of Culber, half of the property’s first foregrounded LGBTQ romance, seemed unfathomably tone-deaf.
I wasn’t alone in that criticism, and Discovery’s showrunners have heard the outcry. So determined to get in front of it are they, they’ve dropped major spoilers for the show’s future in an attempt to reassure fans that Culber is not, in fact, gone for good.
Speaking with IndieWire, Cruz definitively stated that “This is not [Bury Your Gays],” speaking to the love the writers have for the character and the fact that in sci-fi, death is not necessarily the end. Cruz has some credibility here, as in addition to playing the character in question, he's served as an industry liaison for GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) on such issues. The episode itself has also received a statement of support from the organisation, citing the showrunners’ plan “to continue exploring and telling Stamets and Culber’s epic love story,” and praising Cruz’s “smart, lovable, and strong character.”
Those showrunners have some larger-picture insight to add. “This is a first step that we knew we had to take,” said co-showrunner Aaron Harberts. “Culber is killed because he’s the smartest person on the ship. He’s not killed because he’s gay. He’s killed because he’s a threat to Tyler, and to what Tyler’s going through.” Harberts added that Stamets and Culber are “one of the most important couples on our show, and further expounded to Variety:
“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.”
Fellow showrunner Gretchen Berg went one further, telling Variety point-blank that “you will see Culber again.” And that won’t be in the form of a Mirror Universe doppelganger, either, thanks to the writers wanting to “keep him pure for the rest of this journey.” Rather, Culber will return, in some fashion, via Stamets’ research into the interdimensional mycelial network, which Harberts refers to as “focused on the cycles of life and death” just like the work of the real mycologist Paul Stamets.
How do you feel about Culber’s death? His return seemed inevitable from the moment he died, but I'm still in two minds about the death scene itself. It’s certainly an intriguing development for the showrunners to come out and drop massive spoilers like this - it speaks to the virulence of TV’s dead-gays problem, and to the frustration and anger expressed by audiences when it keeps cropping up. I really like Culber, at any rate, largely thanks to Cruz’s confidently empathetic performance; at this point, I’m mostly hoping he doesn’t get turned into a science-fiction plot point or some ethereal space-fungus ghost. Time will tell: Discovery has five episodes remaining in its first season, wrapping up on February 11th.