Star Trek: Discovery season 3 spoilers ahead
Star Trek is no stranger to storylines involving the mental health of its characters. Counselor Troi’s role on the Enterprise-D, after all, was indeed that of a counselor. We occasionally saw the impacts on Jean-Luc Picard from his time amongst the Borg as Locutus. Miles O’Brien dealt with PTSD on Deep Space Nine after having memories of imprisonment implanted within him. And Charles Tucker on the NX-01 Enterprise struggled to even acknowledge his grief for his sister’s death for almost an entire season.
But with Discovery’s third season, the serialized Trek show has turned its viewscreen towards the idea of mental health with a level of care and compassion. Discovery‘s understanding of the subject’s importance has been hitherto unseen within the realm of the long-running franchise. The first significant moment of that was when Lt. Keyla Detmer (Emily Coutts) wandered zombie-like away from sickbay following a catastrophic crash of the ship. The fallout for her, and the overall crew of which she serves as the face, has been present as the season has progressed.
But then there’s Dr. Hugh Culber. The once-murdered, since-revived ship’s physician portrayed by Wilson Cruz has taken on a major new role in season three as the vocal advocate for the mental health of the crew. To put it bluntly, Culber has taken on big Deanna Troi energy and we are here for it. Nerdist spoke to Cruz himself to discuss the journey from a character that many saw as once unfairly fridged, into a mouthpiece for some of the most timely and important elements of the show right now.
Previous Trek shows have often had these moments where the bridge is destroyed and the characters have been through hell, and then the credits roll and next week we’re back and everything is just spotless, replicated back to new, and the crew is fine. But Discovery seems to linger in a way that Star Trek never has before.
Wilson Cruz: I think the fact that Star Trek historically has been so episodic hasn’t allowed it to really delve into the ramifications of what their crews have endured; right? And what the emotional price has been for one traumatic event or another. So, you know, with Discovery, we have the ability to remember, as we say, on the show, right?
In terms of Dr. Culber, he went through the most traumatic event, which is death itself, and was given a second lease on life. And so in my research in season two, in which Dr. Culber comes back from the dead, I was really trying to think about what that meant for him emotionally. And I just started to do some research in terms of soldiers, essential workers, and emergency medical providers, and how they dealt with their own trauma.
I came upon this theory called post-traumatic growth, which holds that because of a traumatic event, we can learn to look at life differently. And perhaps even lead a different kind of life because of the traumatic event.
That rings really true with not just your portrayal of Culber but also how his role in the writing has evolved. He was the one in “Forget Me Not” who set off the B-story with Saru (Doug Jones) by telling him, “Hey, none of your crew is okay.” And then we had this moment in the most recent episode, “Die Trying,” where he’s telling Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) that she needs to be the one to talk to this survivor on the seed vault ship because Nahn (Rachel Ancheril) is just too close to him.
WC: Michelle Paradise, who came on as our showrunner along with Alex [Kurtzman] last season has been incredibly open to conversation. I wanted to be hands-on in the development of this character. I have opinions. And I’m very free with sharing them and luckily I have Michelle and the writers who are very open to receiving them.
I really wanted to see a different Culber emerge from this traumatic experience and so I came to Michelle with this idea of post-traumatic growth. And she was really excited to learn more about it and so I sent her what I had read about it, and she did her own research and she wrote the scene. She actually added that theme into [“Forget Me Not”] after I presented it to her.
And it really kind of set the stage for who Culber was going to become. I really wanted him to be someone who, yes, found the joy in life, but also was willing to be honest with people. I think what is missing from some people’s ideas of how to get past trauma is that they don’t actually face the trauma and deal with the issue at hand in order to let it go. I think in that dinner scene in [“Forget Me Not”], that’s what that was about. It was, for lack of a better term, an opportunity for some truth and reconciliation. Which, by the way, we could use more of in this country.
That actually brings up another thing about that episode, it was shockingly timely.
WC: It was a great parallel. It was a great thing for me to play, but also these stories of resilience are something that I think we need in society right now. I would hasten to argue that the last four years for many people have been quite traumatic. And accidentally, Star Trek: Discovery took on this issue last year when we shot it. And it couldn’t have been more relevant when it aired this past week when we were all facing the possibility of the end of the trauma. And the possibilities that the end of that trauma presented. Yeah.
I found it equally important that this week in “Die Trying,” that it’s also Culber who has to nudge Burnham towards actually completing the mission and fulfilling their obligation to Starfleet.
WC: Right. The needs of the many, which is what Star Trek is all about. Taking care of our communities. You know, I just think that Dr. Culber is always going to speak truth to power, even when it’s uncomfortable. And that was an uncomfortable conversation to have. I think he doesn’t shy away from those things anymore I think he’s willing to go there. I’m an acolyte of Brené Brown, and she talks about having a strong back, a soft front, and a wild heart. And I think about that a lot when I think about Dr. Culber.
Touching on that community point, do you think there’s something to the fact that it’s specifically your character who has become the voice of empathy and healing on the show? Star Trek has always strived to present this very idealized version of the future, which is why so many of us can connect with it. But the drawback with a utopian narrative is that it can, from a certain angle, whitewash away some of the attempts to empathize with the things the audience is still dealing with.
WC: Yes, I do think Star Trek finds interesting and creative ways to make parallels to our current condition. But I have to tell you, for me, as Wilson playing Hugh, it’s been transformational. Because I, as this Latino gay man, have to imagine what it would be like if I was free from all of those isms. If I was allowed to live a life in which I didn’t have to think about racism and homophobia. And what kind of person… what kind of life could I be free to lead if I was unshackled from all of that? And I have to tell you, it’s been really moving to me.
And, like I said, transformational. Because as Wilson I’m thinking, why the hell can’t I have that now? And what can I do, immediately, to help us be on the path to that reality? And so I understand you and I hear you when you’re saying Star Trek has a responsibility to speak to our current condition, but it also has a responsibility to help us imagine a life in a world that we should be working towards.
Featured Image: CBS