Star Trek Guide

Star Trek: Discovery’s Most Important Retcon Is Stamets and Culber

Star Trek: Discovery has made several retcons, but undoubtedly the most important is the revival of Hugh Culber and his relationship with Stamets. Perhaps the biggest criticism of Star Trek: Discovery has been an ongoing tendency to retcon previously established elements of the franchise, from adding a massive war between the Federation and the Klingons to introducing Starfleet's very first mutineer, but changes of direction aren't always for the worse.

Star Trek: Discovery introduced science officer Paul Stamets and ship doctor Hugh Culber, who were in a romantic, homosexual relationship. As the first openly gay couple in the franchise (Star TrekBeyond's token Sulu hand-holding aside), Stamets and Culber represented a watershed landmark both for Star Trek and the science fiction genre in general, however, the characters weren't just praised for breaking new ground, but also because they were presented in a relatively realistic way. The couple lived together on the Discovery, and neither of their character arcs revolved entirely around their sexuality, as can sometimes be the case. Unfortunately, Star Trek: Discovery made the mistake of killing Culber off in its first season, murdered by Ash Tyler whose inner Klingon was in the process of waking up.

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After garnering widespread praise for introducing the Stamets and Culber pairing, Star Trek: Discovery was condemned for ending the progressive relationship so quickly, and fans despaired that such a progressive series now seemed to be reverting to the maligned 'bury your gays' trope. Similar incidents in The 100Arrow and more have sparked much controversy, highlighting how gay characters feel more likely to be offed on TV than their heterosexual counterparts. Fortunately, Star Trek: Discovery rectifies the mistake in its second season. Culber is revealed to have been trapped inside the mycelial network since his death and the network's inhabitants want him out so badly that they reconstruct a new physical body for his consciousness to go back into, effectively resurrecting Culber.

Several hints and teases from cast and crew interviews following the Culber death episode suggest that a revival was always part of the plan, and that the death wasn't ever intended as a permanent exit for the character. However, Wilson Cruz (the actor playing Culber in Star Trek: Discovery) expressed disappointment at his character's demise and claimed he didn't always know whether he'd be coming back, perhaps implying that Culber's death was originally permanent, but later retconned due to the subsequent backlash. Whatever the case, un-killing Hugh is by far the most important of the backtracks and retcons Star Trek: Discovery makes in its second season.

Not only is it vital to continue the representation that Star Trek: Discovery's first season started, but Stamets and Culber's story had plenty more room to develop and, even without considering issues of equality, the character was very much killed off prematurely. As such, Culber's return improves Star Trek: Discovery on two accounts: bringing back a figure with much more to offer and offering better representation in its characters.

The success of Culber's resurrection largely hinges on the intriguing story that followed. While many might've expected Culber to come back and immediately fall into Stamets' arms, this risked looking like a shallow admission of a guilt and a rapid attempt to 'unbury' Star Trek: Discovery's Culber in response to mounting criticism. Instead, nu-Culber came back stripped of his previous emotional attachments, meaning that while Stamets was overjoyed, Hugh was forced to rediscover his identity, and no sooner had the couple reunited, than they had chosen to split and a transfer to the Enterprise beckoned for the doctor.

Of course, Culber eventually reconnected with his former emotions and the couple reconciled, but this story was a prime example of why these characters were so celebrated upon their introduction. For many gay TV couples, their arcs revolve around their sexuality, whether that's because a parent doesn't approve, or because one of the characters is still in the closet, etc. Stamets and Culber's issues are firmly rooted in science fiction and would apply equally to any romantic pairing - coming back from the dead shouldn't be without its complications, after all. Now firmly back together, Star Trek: Discovery season 3 takes Stamets and Culber into new territory, exactly the way it should be.

Star Trek: Discovery season 3 premieres in 2020 on CBS All Access.