The shock death is sure to upset fans who had come to know and appreciate Dr Culber’s appearances and sweet relationship with husband Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), and at first glance raises uncomfortable questions about Discovery’s much-vaunted inclusivity.
Wilson Cruz as Dr Hugh Culber in Star Trek: Discovery (Netflix)
After all, is this not just another example of the much-criticised “bury your gays” trope, where LGBTQ characters are denied happy endings and killed off for dramatic effect? (See: Tara’s death in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lexa in The 100 and even characters in ITV’s Victoria among many many others.)
Well, maybe not – because LGBTQ rights organisation GLAAD has released a statement that hints Culber might not be quite as finished as he appears in the latest episode.
“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,” the organisation said in their statement.
“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.
“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.”
Meanwhile, Cruz himself hinted that his character might have a future in the series, quoting a line his character says in the episode and going into more detail in some interviews.
“I understand why people are upset,” Cruz told Buzzfeed. “I am familiar with the problematic tendencies of television shows to do away with their LGBT characters, especially people of colour.”
“[But]I give you my word that this is not what that is,” Cruz went on. “What’s being planned is something we haven’t really had an opportunity to see LGBT characters experience. I’m really excited about it.
“My favourite experience on camera in my entire career is still yet to be seen in this series,” he concluded.
So intriguingly, it sounds like Culber might somehow live on – but how?
Will the alternate version of him from the Mirror Universe (where the crew are currently situated) join the Discovery crew? Will Stamets’ ability to pilot the ship through space and dimensions somehow allow him to bring his husband back from the brink (perhaps by time travelling, as fellow starship the USS Defiant is noted in the episode to have done when travelling between dimensions)?
Or could it be that Culber will be brought back to life in some other sci-fi form, perhaps using holographic, robotic or genetic technology possible in Discovery’s sci-fi future, in one way or another creating a “double” of Culber that Stamets will struggle to reconcile with the memory of his “real” husband?
Who knows? Something like this unusual solution could be what co-showrunner Aaron Harberts (who is gay himself) was hinting at in his own post-episode comments, where he said this was the “first chapter in [Culber and Stamets’] story.”
“We though it was going to take a little while for the audience to bond with them, get to know the characters,” he told CBS.
“We didn’t realise how this couple was going to resonate with audience, and they bonded so so quickly. Our intention was to really start their story with what happens tonight.”
Speaking to Buzzfeed, he added, “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.
“After this journey is all done, the hope is that their romance will be, if not the most iconic gay romance [on TV], you know, in the top five.”
For now, we’ll have to wait and see what on Earth (or in deep alternate space) Discovery has planned for these characters – but whatever the details, it looks like Culber’s story still has a while to run yet.
Star Trek: Discovery releases new episodes on Netflix in the UK every Monday