'It's a sucker punch every time you see it,' Aaron Harberts says of the death on Sunday's episode

January 07, 2018 at 09:30 PM EST

SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you’ve already watched Sunday’s episode of Star Trek: Discovery, “Despite Yourself.”

Star Trek: Discovery showrunners Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts knew fans were likely to have an intense reaction to their hit series’ latest shocker.

“We can’t be afraid to take people through the good times and the bad times — and the horrifying hard times, in this case,” Berg tells EW of Sunday’s episode, in which Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) is killed by Lt. Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif).

Culber — as an openly gay man of color in a relationship with Lt. Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) — has been a groundbreaking character in the Star Trek television universe, and Berg and Harberts are quick to point out that his death does not mean the end of Stamet and Culber’s love story.

“Stamets is based on a real-life scientist named Paul Stamets, and he talks all about how the mycelial network is life-giving and death becomes life and life turns to death and it’s a constant circle where nothing is ever destroyed,” says Harberts. “We love these characters and we’re committed to them and the actors playing them, and I can promise you haven’t seen the last of [Culber].”

Wilson Cruz as Dr. Culber on Star Trek: Discovery.
Jan Thijs/CBS

Now that audiences have streamed the episode on CBS All Access, Berg and Harberts break down Culber’s death scene and the reasons behind it, and explain why they didn’t want the character to become just another LGBTQ person killed off a TV show:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How long have you had Culber’s death planned?
AARON HARBERTS: This is something we knew we wanted to do from the beginning of the show. We knew that we wanted our gay couple to save the universe. We wanted to show the audience a gay love story that is transcendent and epic — that’s not something that a lot of gay characters get to be a part of, especially in science fiction. So we knew Culber had to die and we knew that Tyler was going to be the person who brought about his death, but we went through great pains to make sure that his death didn’t feel gratuitous.
GRETCHEN J. BERG: Tyler has been very confused as to what’s happening to him. He’s alarmed by it and looking for answers. We’ve all been in situations where we know we’re getting a little out of control but we really want to be able to handle it on our own — and not for selfish reasons, but because we want to take care of the people we love. Culber is  the smartest person on the ship and he’s ahead of what’s going on, and that’s where the tragedy comes from. That’s when we have a moment of panic from Tyler and he does this horrible, horrible thing.

Fans have been very passionate about seeing Star Trek’s first gay couple on TV. What do you have to say to them?
HARBERTS: We knew that this was going to be shocking for an audience and for a community that has unfortunately been assaulted by this “bury your gays” trope, but I’m an openly gay showrunner and my writing partner is nothing if not the most supportive person when it comes to LGBT portrayals on TV. We’ve got gay members of the writing staff and we have two incredible out gay actors as part of our team. We knew that starting this journey was going to be really painful for a lot of people, but at the end of the day we could say to our audience, “This is the team who is bringing you this story.”
BERG: We just love that Culber is so loving and kind. He’s the doctor you always want. His bedside manner is unbelievable.
HARBERTS: It was important to us that Culber was not killed for who he is or his sexuality. He’s killed because he’s the smartest person on this ship and he’s getting dangerously close to putting his finger on the truth. Culber dies because he is a hero and because he is really very insightful, smart, doing his job and, frankly, trying to protect his crew and this officer who is coming apart at the seams.

Was it a hard death scene to write?
HARBERTS: It’s a sucker punch every time you see it. We’ve watched that death 30 or 40 times in the process of doing post-production on the show, and we literally suck in our breath every single time. We had to make sure that that death is a gut-punch, and it is. And from there, the story really begins.

Where does the journey go from here?
HARBERTS: With Stamets’ consciousness trapped in the mycelial network and Culber dead, we have absolutely no way for our ship to get home. The story, for Statmets, is, “How in the world is he going to get out of the mycelial network?” It’s ultimately going to be a story where he leans on the love of his life for help. These two men are here for each other.
BERG: We were very inspired by the work of the real-life Paul Stamets. I would say if people are looking to come up with their own theories, dive into his research because it’s fascinating and it was the inspiration for the way that we told the story.

So we definitely haven’t seen the last of Culber?
HARBERTS: When we shared the arc with the cast, Wilson called — and this is about a scene you will not have seen yet — and he said to us, “This is the best thing I think I’ve ever done in my career.” That right there is an incredible thing; we were hearing that from Wilson Cruz, who is a trailblazer who’s been an out actor his entire life. We all realized in that moment that we’ve done something pretty profound and incredible, and the proof is in the pudding.

New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery are released Sundays on CBS All Access.