Warning: This story contains MAJOR SPOILERS for the Jan. 7 episode of Star Trek: Discovery.
When Wilson Cruz first learned about what was going to happen to his character Dr. Hugh Culber on Sunday's episode of Star Trek: Discovery, he cried.
Playing the recurring role of Dr. Culber had been "a perfect fit" for Cruz, he said, in part because he got to make TV history as one half of the first major same-sex love story on a Star Trek series, along with fellow out actor Anthony Rapp, who is part of the main cast as the persnickety scientist Lt. Paul Stamets. The previous episode had ended on a major cliffhanger — and marked a midseason hiatus for the series, which streams in the US on CBS All Access — and Cruz was eager to learn what was next in store for his character.
Then showrunners Aaron Harberts and Gretchen J. Berg broke the news to Cruz: Culber was going to die.
"It was hard," Cruz told BuzzFeed News. "There were tears."
He's likely not the only one. 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."
"There is a timelessness and endlessness to how we envision Hugh and Stamets," added Berg. "They're the couple with the epic love story. We knew in order to have an epic love story, you have to have big things happen and have really high stakes."
“We knew in order to have an epic love story, you have to have big things happen and have really high stakes.”
The words "epic love story" have scarcely (if ever) been used in reference to previous iterations of Star Trek, where the strongest emotional bonds have largely been platonic and collegial among fellow officers, most famously between Kirk and Spock. Soon after the premiere of Star Trek in 1966, however, fans seized on the Kirk/Spock relationship in speculative fiction — popularly known as slash fiction — that imagines the characters in at times wildly creative sexual encounters with each other. But while fans were eager to picture the characters through an LGBT lens, for over 50 years the franchise, so popular for its embrace of egalitarian values, rarely explored same-sex intimacy and never included a main character on a Trek TV series who was definitively queer.
So when the creators of Discovery chose to make Stamets and Culber the franchise's first long-term same-sex couple, the representational pressures on the characters — and the openly gay actors playing them — were enormous.
"Anthony and I were obviously aware of the fact … that fans were clamoring for it," said Cruz. "So we felt really proud and excited that we get to give that gift to the audience and be those people that they had been looking forward to, and that we were looking forward to seeing."
The fan response "has been really overwhelming," Cruz said with a laugh. "They're thanking me as if I wrote it!"
Given the outpouring of fan enthusiasm for Stamets and Culber — and the uproar over the deaths of LGBT characters on other popular genre shows like The 100, The Walking Dead, and Person of Interest — why didn't the Discovery writers simply avoid controversy altogether by keeping Culber alive?
For Harberts and Berg, that is simply the wrong question to be asking.
"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.
“Why would we limit an opportunity to allow our gay characters to show the audience something truly profound?"
"Why would we limit ourselves?” said Harberts. “Why would we limit the audience's experience, and why would we limit an opportunity to allow our gay characters to show the audience something truly profound?"
Exactly how that story will play out is something that Harberts and Berg were unwilling to spoil. Similarly, they declined to comment on whether how Culber died — at the hands of Lt. Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), after Culber discovered he had been somehow surgically altered at the hands of the Klingons — confirms a popular fan theory that Tyler is actually the Klingon character Voq, who played a crucial role in the first three episodes of the season and then mysteriously disappeared.
It's clear, though, that Harberts and Berg have high ambitions for where they want to take Stamets and Culber's relationship on Discovery. "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," said Harberts.
Similarly, Cruz offered this enthusiastic teaser: "My favorite experience on camera in my entire career is still yet to be seen in this series."