Sunday, March 10, 2019

Fight Back Club: how Star Trek: Discovery's Hugh Culver helps us remember the future

"If Memory Serves," the eighth episode in Season 2 of the amazing Star Trek: Discovery, not only recalls the earliest of days of the show's legacy, but along with a thrilling multi-layered story, reminds us of how LGBT people recover after the 'death' of violence.

While viewing the episode, I had an epiphany, which I'll explain. But first let me go back, or forward, if you will.

I have an enemy. I will confront him again.
Perhaps you do, too, that one most evil soul who assaulted you, or betrayed you beyond explanation. A gay-basher, an abusive partner, a violent authority figure with weapons and power who dragged you off at a protest, or for no reason other than being Black, or gay, or transgender, or poor; a former employer who sabotaged you, a judge who disdained and sentenced you in one way or another.

The first time I truly felt such a communal experience of this was back in 1990, when OutWeek published a special issue on anti-gay violence. Staffers were asked if they had a story to tell. Everyone did, as did our freelance writers, photographers, even a cartoon artist, I believe.

You can read that issue online at on Gabriel Rotello's website. Issue #54, July 11, 1990, covers the rash of anti-gay violence nationwide at the time, reported by John Voelker, along with short staff essays (the greyed layout is a bit questionable, so consider buying my version!).

Other than some arts reviews and a few questionable erotic tales (more on that some other day), my own contribution, the later-titled creative nonfiction "Split Lip," was my first published story worth noting. It was later published in two anthologies, and a third time in my own self-published collection, Forty Wild Crushes.

What I tried to convey in abrupt, blunt syntax (and in the second person, a tense that runs the risk of pretension), is the isolation, emptiness and collapse of trust a victim of violence feels. 

"You never forget the moment when you did nothing."
You may have felt it. Others have. Relationships lose their bond, strangers pose a possible threat. Crowds become difficult to endure. Every person experiences the fallout of it in similar and also unique ways. You can't explain it, and you really never fully recover.

The question that hovers in your mind is not will your enemy pose a threat to you, but what will you do to your enemy? What if you met your attacker?

That brings us back to Star Trek: Discovery.

Wilson Cruz and Anthony Rapp in S2E8 Star Trek: Discovery
Previously, Wilson Cruz, who plays Dr. Hugh Culber (big spoiler) was murdered by the Klingon/Human character Ash Tyler, played by Shazad Latif. After aliens restore Culber to life, he experiences a disorienting return, unable to feel emotions or even sensations for his favorite food. 

In S2E8, The dinner argument between Culber and his husband Paul Stametz (played by Anthony Rapp) in the episode should be familiar to anyone who's experienced violence against them; the aftermath. Friends and partners try to empathize, but don't know what inner pain remains after the physical violence or threats.

So the built-up eventual confrontation, surly glances and tension aptly portrayed in the show, should also be familiar. Others, whether on board a starship, or in your company at a bar or a theater, even walking with you on a street, may not even see the stark glare given by your 'enemy' should you encounter them. You simply move on, avoid each other, and wait.

Culber fumes in a elevator
So, when Culber storms into the mess hall of the Discovery to fight it out with Tyler, I tensed in anticipation.

'Oh, goodie. Here comes a fight scene,' I thought, readying a snack. While I abhor violence, as a former dancer and wrestler, I appreciate the choreography of cinematic fictional versions, the ballet power struggle. Be they hunky gladiators or Amazon super-heroines, it's fun to watch, because it's staged.

But then it occurred to me. This is not just any fight scene on a great scifi show.

This is the first time we've seen an openly gay actor play an openly gay character on a television show fight back and confront his enemy– in this fictional case, his murderer.

The mess hall fight scene
And although Culber's death the story in Star Trek does not involve homophobia, but a different important plot point, I saw a gay man confront his enemy and almost knock him senseless. Like the aliens of Talon 4, I projected my own past and potential future confrontations, as many viewers may have done. Great stories are universal, beyond their setting or time, or location in the galaxy.

I would have cheered had Culber beat Tyler senseless, but he stopped. As Commander Saru states, "the catharsis was achieved." An understanding of their different yet similar agony was shared in two lines. Their conflict is temporarily abated.

While I doubt such an understanding can be achieved with homophobes, mine in particular, or others who attack or betray us, how we deal with hatred or violence put upon us is what makes us either good or bad people. 

Perhaps, as on board Discovery, your enemy is a respected coworker of friends, or in the case of social media, a friend of a "friend." Perhaps your enemy, known for violence in the past, is now simply sitting nearby in a mess hall  (or on Earth, a restaurant), not shunned as you know they should be. What would you do? Confront your "friends" or simply "unfriend?" Is letting them continue to be deceived a moral flaw or a victory?

That's one of the quandaries of the show, obviously. And a great one it is. Project the multitude of potential outcomes, and find that one path is to navigate away from confrontation for your own benefit and that of others, not out of cowardice, but with logic.

Well, perhaps with an occasional revenge punch.
Thank you to the Star Trek: Discovery producers, actor Wilson Cruz and others for telling this true and fictional story – oh, and thanks to fight coordinator Hubert Boorder, too.

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