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Star Trek: Discovery Unburies Its Gays (Sort Of)

Doctor Hugh Culber and Paul Stamets on Discovery

Midway through its first season, Star Trek: Discovery was hit by a wave of fan outrage after the brutal murder of Dr. Hugh Culber. Culber’s unexpected death seemed to break up the first canonically queer couple in Star Trek‘s long history. But last week, Discovery walked it back.

In the face of intense fan backlash last year, Discovery‘s creatives tried to assure us that Dr. Culber’s story wasn’t over yet, and actor Wilson Cruz implied the same; they could not, of course, give us more to go on then. I took this to mean that we’d likely see more of a ghostly Culber in the mycelial network, or in flashbacks, or the mirror universe, or some other Star Trekian way.

Then at NYCC in October, Cruz’s inclusion in the main panel and press room was a pleasant surprise. After Cruz himself reassured me that fans upset that Discovery had seemingly “buried its gays” would soon feel better, I’ve been expecting Dr. Culber to return in a more permanent form. Episode five, “Saints of Imperfection,” finally made this happen, but it’s hard to know exactly how to feel about the development.

On the one hand, I’m delighted to have the excellent Cruz, whom I’ve loved since I was a teenager, back on board. He deserves a lot more than the show has given him to do until now, and I’m hoping against hope that there are good things ahead for himAs Culber’s partner Paul Stamets, Anthony Rapp also turned in a stellar performance in “Saints of Imperfection.” The two actors have been friends for decades and the affection between them is genuine. It was wonderful to see them reunited. The last three episodes of this season of Discovery have been promisingly strong, and if this trend continues I’ll be thrilled.

On the other hand, death is a difficult and delicate topic to tackle in any medium. In most stories where people come back from the dead, they’re irrevocably changed by the experienced. There’s often the feeling that something isn’t “right,” that nature does not like to be cheated about this one thing. Frequently, the gambit fails.

Now, there’s no indication that Discovery is going to get rid of Cruz and Culber for a second time, but I believe that we are set up for a whole lot of angst. How can it go any other way? Culber not only died but has been living alone for months in a bizarre universe comprised of hostile spores, under constant attack, seeming to suffer every moment there. If death didn’t change him, his experiences in the network certainly did.

Stamets has also been altered, having to endure the wrenching loss of his partner (murdered by a trusted shipmate no less) and unable to fully grieve him at the time with the Federation at war. Even though regaining a lost loved one would be many people’s most profound wish, you aren’t the same person that you were before they died. And you’d have to live the rest of your life with the acute knowledge of what it felt like to be without them.

I wrote the above based on what I’ve come to know about storytelling, and, well, death, but after reading the actors’ commentary on the situation, they seem to confirm that there are many bumps in the road ahead. Per io9:

Looking forward, it may get rough for the couple. Cruz discussed how Culber’s changed since his time away, and it will affect his relationship with Stamets. After all, Culber’s been dead, returned to life, and then slowly devoured by spores until he could protect himself. The war may be over, but he’s spent months struggling to survive inside the Mycelial network. Plus, he’s essentially in a brand-new body now, one he’s never used before. As Rapp put it, it’s like “coming out of a coma.” Luckily, we’re going to get some quality time to find out.

io9’s story goes on to say that we’ll be spending more time with Culber this season, getting to know him as a character and an individual apart from his relationship with Stamets. That’s likely great! Less great is that the ramifications of what happened to Culber are going to radiate out unto infinity, and I’m afraid of this character forever being defined by his trauma and death rather than his life—a death that never should have happened in the first place.

I’m hardly alone in thinking Culber didn’t need to die in season one. “Discovery Corrects Season 1’s Worst Death,” wrote Screenrant about the episode. EW also characterized “Saints of Imperfection” as a “strange course correct.” While I’m glad that we’ve course-corrected and are now promised dives into Culber’s psyche in coming episodes, you can’t tell me that there was no other way to come to know this character. You can’t tell me that the payoff from this resurrection storyline will be so profound that it was worth upsetting countless Discovery fans (and the actors). That it was worth that sense of betrayal and heartache the show evoked just when we were starting to know and care about the characters and their groundbreaking relationship.

Culber’s death wasn’t handled well in the first place, leaving me somewhat skeptical that the recovery will be given the time and space it needs. As EW notes, “Hugh’s death always felt like a shock tactic, a wowza cliffhanger with zero buildup and no follow-through.” At the same time, I’m worried about every moment with Culber and Stamets now being reduced to them reliving their shared and separate traumas, again and again and again.

There continues to be such immense pushback when queer characters are killed or made to suffer in media because for far too long, these were the only kinds of storylines that they were afforded. In our distant futuristic stardate, why must we come to these plots for Culber and Stamets so quickly?

As the only committed queer pairing we’ve received across six Star Trek television shows and many more movies (blink and you’ll miss Sulu in the new movies), the Culber/Stamets relationship has an enormous representational power that means a lot to fans. That doesn’t mean the couple needs to be kept wrapped in wool, but it does demand that their depiction is approached with forethought and sensitivity. I’m not sure how much I trust Discovery on this going forward; they played too fast and loose before. And it is so very, very hard to come back from death. The effort to remedy all of this will need to be Herculean, not Orphean.

What did you think about the surprises in “Saints of Imperfection”?

(image: CBS)

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.