At the end of the fifth episode of Star Trek: Discovery, Lt. Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) stand side by side at a sink, brushing their teeth in matching red Starfleet pajamas.
It’s a quiet scene at the end of an action-packed episode of the new sci-fi drama on CBS: All Access (the network’s new streaming service), in which an escape from a Klingon attack turns on an act of heroism from Lt. Stamets. His decision to take the place of a possibly sentient being to power the ship’s spore drive not only saves the being, but also every crew member aboard.
Heroism aside, it is the simple toothbrush scene that will be remembered for making Star Trek history. For the first time since the franchise initially aired on television in 1966, fans saw not only how people in the future practice good oral hygiene, but, more importantly, a gay couple being themselves in an intimate moment.
“One tends to worry when they’re doomed to love a brilliant but reckless maniac who’s willing to risk his life for glory,” Dr. Culber tells his partner in the scene. “You may not care about you. But I do.”
It’s a moment that one of Discovery’s gay showrunners, Aaron Harberts, knows well. “I’ve been with my spouse for over 22 years. But for me, the thing that I love most about our day is when we’re brushing our teeth together,” he said.
Too often, Harberts has observed gay characters in film and television “sexualized right out of the gate.” But with Star Trek: Discovery, Harberts, fellow showrunner Gretchen J. Berg, and his writing team planned a “slow rollout” for the first obviously gay characters in the Star Trek universe.
This storyline aims to be “transcendent” and “a vision of a homosexual relationship that is rarely given” in mainstream media. LGBT people, Harberts declared, finally deserve a love story akin to Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore molding clay together in Ghost. They deserve to be seen as heroes.
In a New York studio last October, Rapp and Cruz, having just wrapped panels at PaleyFest NY and New York Comic Con, went through the rituals of grooming for a photo shoot for The Advocate. Cruz cycled through shirts to bare a superhero’s torso — occasionally giving workout tips to an editor in between shots. Rapp, in a Star Trek T-shirt, conversed with his real-life partner about iPad troubleshooting during pauses. At one point, Rapp checked his social media, and remarked with incredulity that someone had called his character a “douchebag.”
“The character’s a little edgy and persnickety — ornery in some ways — and I’m not really,” clarified Rapp, after the actors had finished the shoot and settled down to salads. Indeed, Stamets begins his story arc with a “persnickety” attitude — Harberts used the same term — particularly toward the show’s antihero, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), who had fallen from good graces after betraying her first captain.
While Stamets might rub some the wrong way, Cruz saw the appeal. “[My character finds] that he’s opinionated, or persnickety, or confident in his beliefs incredibly attractive,” Cruz says, admitting he “likes that about people as well.”
And what does Rapp’s character find appealing in Culber, the calm health care administrator who has long attended to Stamets?
“I recognize right away that he could handle my persnicketiness. It was like he let me be myself,” Rapp said. “We allow each other to be ourselves, and I like the softer sides. It’s a balance thing.”
The two 40-something actors themselves experienced a deepening of their friendship since beginning these new roles together. The pair has known each other since Rent — Rapp originated the role of Mark Cohen on Broadway, and Cruz later joined the cast as Angel Dumott Schunard. Their mutual respect for one another’s careers runs deep.