Saturday, February 18, 2012

Stargate SG-1--"Learning Curve"

What a strangely disturbing episode. “Learning Curve” follows the course of a newly introduced people called the Orban as they go from a cold, fascist society to more childlike…literally. I am not even certain it is a happy ending. It is just…yeah. Very weird.

The Orban are a highly advanced species with incredibly brilliant children who possess the capacity to learn vast amounts of knowledge. One of the children, a young girl named Mirren, assists sam in building a reactor from scratch. A routine medical exam reveals the secret of the children’s learning abilities--they are specially selected from among other children to be injected with nanites that grant them the ability to absorb knowledge. But all they do learn. They have no inkling of the concepts of fun or love. What is worse, when they have learned everything about their designated subjects, the nanites containing all the knowledge are removed, effectively turning the children into an infant like state while their knowledge is implanted in the rest of the population.

The knowledge the nanites contain can save decades worth of research for normal people, so the orban consider sacrificing their children to be an honor. Plus, the children are well cared for. Lobotomized, but well cared for. The SG-1 team does not see things that way, particularly Jack. He wants to keep mirren on earth so her nanites cannot be removed. When the Orban demand her return, he goes AWOL with her to a nearby school where she spends time on the playground and learns to paint. He offers to help her gain asylum, but she says it is her duty to share knowledge with her people. Jack reluctantly goes along with her wishes. He sends her off through the stargate to Orban with a box of crayons as a gift.

Several days later, SG-1 is requested on orban. The only Orban adult we have met, Kalan, is giddy as he takes them to see the children who nanites have been removed. Instead of being in a near vegetative state, they are running, playing, and coloring with crayons. Mirren’s knowledge imparted to the Orban population included the value of fun. They now see the value also in teaching the children after their nanites have been removed so they can still be a part of society. Kalan gives jack a stick figure drawing of himself in crayon as a thank you, which would be the most awkward moment if not for jack sitting down to color with mirren, who seems like a toddler who no longer recognizes him.

So are the Orbans now a society that eschews advanced nanotechnology in favor of playing hopscotch and drawing stick figures? The viewer has to embrace the possibility in consideration of Kalan’s sudden childlike exuberance. Is this a change for the better, or will their society fall apart? Certainly, the ending is supposed to be positive, but I think the writers went overboard. Not that mirren seems to be in particularly good shape in the very last scene.

I am not calling “Learning Curve’ a bad episode. It has some thought provoking elements. It certainly is not like many parents do not sacrifice their children’s happiness for what they perceive as better opportunities for them. There are rational arguments in favor, and “Learning Curve” presents the sacrifice for the greater good argument plausibly. What price would you pay if your child could develop a cure for cancer by completely immersing himself in the subject for a year or three? Just because a price is hefty does not mean it is not worth paying.

What really sells the episode is Jack’s relationship with Mirren. His soft spot for children due to the loss of his son, Charlie, is in full bloom. In general Stargate SG-1 does episodes centered on children far better than anything Star Trek has managed. Speaking of Star Trek, the lack of a prime Directive in this story is highly appreciated. It is amazing how bogged down a story like this could get in that franchise. All that said, the ending is too over the top and ambiguous. I am just going to assume everything works out for the best even if the final few minutes send mixed signals.

Rating; *** (out of 5)

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