By Xueting Wu
Edited By Chichi Amaefuna
Bringing the dead back to life is a common event in science fiction but the resurrection of Dr. Hugh Culber on Star Trek: Discovery has implications beyond the wonders of science and our imagination.
Culber, played by Wilson Cruz, made Star Trek history in a number of ways that steered the franchise towards greater inclusivity. The U.S.S. Discovery’s chief medical officer is one of the first few openly queer characters in the 53-year-old franchise. He, alongside his partner Lieutenant Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), is also one half of the first-ever gay couple in the franchise to have a fully explored relationship, as well as being brought to life by two actors who are openly gay themselves.
Any fears LGBTQ people may have had that Culber and Stamets would be a token gay couple were quickly squashed in the first season of Discovery. Viewers got to see them sharing quiet moments of intimacy and affection, similar to how straight couples are usually depicted, and their relationship also helped to propel the main plot. It also gave LGBTQ fans hope and joy to see people like them in a real loving relationship without fear of discrimination in the 23rd century, when Discovery is set.
The significance of Culber and Stamets to the progress of LGBTQ representation made the death of Culber even more devastating. Midway through season one, Culber is murdered by a shipmate in a sudden and brutal manner. Fans were outraged and disappointed. Many criticised the show for perpetuating the problematic ‘bury your gays’ trope which refers to the prevalent killing of LGBTQ characters, especially queer women, on television in haphazard ways.
Anticipating the frustrated response from fans, Cruz and the Discovery showrunners went on social media and interviews almost immediately after the episode aired to assure fans that Culber would return and fulfill a long story arc already planned out for him. In an interview, Cruz himself commented on the awful history of the ‘bury your gays’ trope and, contrasting those deaths to his characters’, said firmly that “this is not that… This is a chapter of this epic love story of these two characters.”
It still took over a year, with only the off-screen conversations to hang on to for hope, before fans finally saw Culber come back to life in season two’s fifth episode titled ‘Saints of Imperfection’. The episode revealed that Stamets, who’s connected to the mycelial network, had transported Culber’s essence to the network through a kiss he had given his dying lover. After Stamets discovers Culber in the network, their reunion becomes a rescue to bring him back to the real world. To do so, Culber’s form is reconstituted by matter from the mycelial network. It was a Valentines Day miracle.
Yet, despite that epically romantic rescue and resurrection, what follows is not all smiles and celebrations. While Stamets is overjoyed by Culber coming back to life, Culber is struggling not only through the trauma of being brutally murdered, but also feeling painfully foreign in his new, not fully human body. Overwhelmed by his inner turmoil, he explodes in anger towards Stamets, who expects things to return to the way they were. He even starts a physical fight with the man who killed him, Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif).
And that’s how Discovery powerfully responds to the death of its gay character: it has Culber and the people around him confront the consequences of his brutal murder. Many LGBTQ character deaths on TV have felt so dismissive partly because the characters were treated as expendable and their deaths functioned as mere plot devices in order to advance the story arc of other, more major characters. One such controversial case is Tara Maclay’s death in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an abrupt tragedy that served purely as the catalyst for her girlfriend Willow’s descent into evil.
If the effect of Tara’s death further indicated that the purpose of her character is ultimately to help develop Willow’s arc, the aftermath of Culber’s resurrection counteracts a similar limitation of his character’s purpose. Throughout Discovery’s first season, Culber does not get an individual arc, but served primarily to support Stamet. In his journey to re-discover his sense of self, Culber finally gets his own spotlight. It’s a long overdue spotlight for this gay character of colour to at last be explored in greater and more interesting depth, much like his white partner and many of the straight characters.
The storyline begins with angst and darkness, which feels like a crushing blow for fans who wish to see more happy queer characters and couples represented on TV. Historically, queer characters and couples tend not to get happy endings, a problem at the core of the ‘bury your gays’ trope. It would be disappointing, to say the least, if the once cute and happy Culmets (the common term for the pairing of Culber and Stamets) go down that line.
So it’s reassuring to see Culber’s new arc develop through long-form storytelling and towards healing and positive transformation. Discovery is turning a struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) into a journey of self-discovery and coming out of the darkness stronger. Although Culber is fragmented inside, he is not powerless. Through excellent performances from Cruz, we see Culber get assertive as he works through his PTSD. When the usually mild-mannered doctor starts a fight with Tyler, it is a raw, physical and public display of anger. It does not concern sexuality, but it’s powerful because LGBTQ people are not often portrayed like this on the big screen.
It is important that Culber shows visceral rage and even more so that he moves forward on his road to recovery. In the most recent episode (“The Red Angel”), he appears much lighter, seeks help from Admiral Cornwell, a former therapist, and even tries to reconcile with Stamets. We are seeing Culber taking his new life by the reins and actively try to break himself out of misery.
Cruz has also hinted at the positive journey of his character that would hopefully provide “an example of resilience” for LGBTQ survivors of violence and trauma. Many viewers who experience PTSD, whether related to their sexuality or not, have embraced this representation. That these viewers are able to not just relate to, but heal through the emotional journey, is a testament to its meaningfulness.
The conflict is meaningfully developed and refreshingly one that does not revolve solely around being queer. But Discovery desperately needs to direct its gay characters’ through conflict with hope, strength and eventual happiness if the show wants to truly steer away from perpetuating problematic LGBTQ tropes. With LGBTQ people still poorly represented on screen, especially in terms of diversity and complex storylines, Culber and Stamets promise change on a mainstream and legendary franchise. We look forward to following them on their journey to find new joy and love, one step at a time.