Last year, Star Trek: Discovery made history for being the first in the Star Trek television franchise to introduce gay characters: Lt. Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz). As a couple, Stamets and Culber achieved a victory for LGBT representation by showing a future where sexual orientation is not an issue to a new generation of viewers.
While their romance happened in the vacuum of space, it did not occur in a vacuum in the real world. Their storyline was shepherded by Aaron Harberts, who is a gay man himself. As one of the showrunners of Discovery, Harberts — alongside longtime collaborator and co-showrunner Gretchen Berg — has the awesome responsibility of executing the creative vision of the CBS: All Access series.
Harberts not only helped make sure this vision included gay characters; he ensured that their storyline was drawn from an authentic experience as well. The scene where Stamets and Culber are introduced to viewers as a couple, where they are brushing their teeth side by side? “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,” said Harberts — a touching tribute to his husband, Scott.
Harberts, 44, has a long career of writing in Hollywood; his credits include Roswell, Pepper Dennis, GCB, Revenge, Reign, and Beverly Hills, 90210.But his path to becoming a showrunner of one of television’s most celebrated and famous franchises was an unexpected one.
“I was not a Trekkie growing up,” admitted Harberts. “I’m a child of the '70s, and so I knew the original series in syndication. [My family] grew up watching that on my grandparents’ farm on Iowa, because it was the only television channel at the time that they got.”
Star Trek, apart from its long-standing of LGBT representation, has stood at the vanguard of diversity in Hollywood. The original series, which debuted in 1966, boasted a diverse cast and was the first to air an interracial kiss on American television.
For Harberts, who would watch reruns with his cousins, the show was eye-opening. He “was so intrigued by it, because as a kid growing up in the Midwest, diversity wasn’t super commonplace. And so to see a bridge crew that was so diverse was — it was defining. It really did make me realize that the world out there is a much larger place.”
Due to the timing of his studies at Northwestern University, where he met Berg, and Hollywood career-building, Harberts missed later installments of the sci-fi franchise. But Star Trek found him again through Bryan Fuller, a gay producer who had worked with Harberts and Berg on Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls. In 2016, Fuller — the co-creator of Discovery and its former showrunner — invited the pair, who had just finished a contract with ABC, to join his writing team.
“Hey, I’m doing Star Trek, would you like to come on?” Fuller asked them, as Harberts recalled. When they said, “We’re not Trekkies,” Fuller replied, “I’m not looking for Trekkies. I’ve got tons of people who’ve got tons of experience on Star Trek … I really want character writers. I want writers who can sort of help with serialized storytelling and long-arc things out and really track characters.”
Intrigued by Fuller’s pitch, Harberts and Berg agreed. “Let’s give this a shot. Let’s do what scares us,” Harberts recalled saying. “So we jumped in, realizing the second that we did that there was so much to learn.”
This learning period was shorter than anticipated. In October 2016, Fuller left Discovery to develop the Starz series American Gods (which would later make headlines for its sublime gay sex scene between two Middle Eastern men). As a result of Fuller's departure, CBS offered Berg and Harberts the opportunity to become the new co-showrunners. It was an offer they couldn’t refuse, in part because it would protect the ambitious concept of their friend.
“We really felt like Bryan’s vision for the show was so important to maintain, because it was such a complex version of Star Trek, and it had such deep themes, and it was so thoughtful,” Harberts said. “What we didn’t want to see was someone new come in and completely destroy that. Because often, when a showrunner leaves the show and someone brand new comes on, nine times out of 10, the person who arrives on scene gets rid of the writing staff, gets rid of many elements, stories, characters, all those sort of things. Gretchen and I just didn’t want to see that happen.”
The vision they helped protect is “one of complex moral questions and complex analysis of what you might say would be the ‘other.'” It asks, “What is alien?” in a universe where “individuals can be just as confounding to ourselves as the things or people or cultures that we do not know.” This philosophy is set against a “breathtaking” visual backdrop created by cinematographers, set decorators, prop masters, and graphic artists, many of whom are real-life Trekkies with the “heart and passion that goes beyond just wanting to do a job well done,” Harberts said.
And while there is much to applaud in the diversity on display in the cast of Discovery, Harberts is also proud of the different backgrounds and experiences of his team behind the scenes. Whereas in past Star Trek shows, there was a “very hetero component to the writing staff,” Discovery boasts a writers’ room inclusive of women and people of color. There’s also Harberts himself, who, after Fuller, is one of the first out showrunners in Star Trek history.
Harberts see this change as "emblematic of where we are going hopefully as a society as well, that there’s room for everybody at the table, in a way that I think in the 60s there wasn’t in television," said Harberts. “I look at the writing staff, and my pride swells."
Harberts is also proud of Discovery's depiction of its gay couple, which extends beyond visibility to a portrait of a romance that is "still mainly afforded to straight couples" in mainstream film and television. Discovery is "not promising happy endings," said Harberts, in a nod to (spoiler) the recent death of one of these characters. (Shortly afterward, Berg and Harberts assured fans that the "epic love story" of Stamets and Culber "has just begun.")
In what may also comfort grieving viewers, Harberts said Discovery is "promising a relationship that I think is going to be part of the pantheon of Star Trek, because it is all about heroism and sacrifice and love that goes beyond the physical. And what I hope happens is that our community looks at it and says, 'It’s about time, and that’s exactly what my relationship is like. And my relationship deserves to be put on the same pedestal as all of those other relationships we’ve seen since the dawn of time in media.'"
This goes to what Harberts sees as the mission of Star Trek, which is "to make sure that we give people hope." It's a feeling that many people, LGBT or otherwise, could use in the real world in these turbulent times. However, Harberts stressed, the journey toward a brighter future requires going through the darkness first — and not giving up. "We’ve got to keep going. We’ve got to keep fighting," he urged.
Harberts sees this struggle reflected on Discovery, and he pushed back against criticism that the show presents a "dystopian" universe. The reward, he promised, will come with waiting.
"By the end of the season, it’s our hope as a staff, and as a crew, and as a production, and as a cast, that everybody can watch that final episode and say, 'Wow, this was worth it. And I do have optimism, and I do have hope, and I do believe that I can make a difference.'"