Episode Review of Stargate SG-1 Season 3: "Learning Curve"

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Episode Information

Title: "Learning Curve"
Written by: Heather E. Ash
Director: Martin Wood
Rating (out of 4 stars): ** 1/2
Reviewed on: December 25, 2014

Synopsis from GateWorld


The SGC learn from a planet that use their children to gather and disseminate information.

As the episode opens, we find SG-1 on the planet Orban, a peaceful planet inhabited by a human society transplanted there by the Goa'uld. The Goa'uld no longer rule the planet; one of the archaeological mysteries Daniel is happily digging into is when the Goa'uld left and why. It's a pleasure to see Daniel in his home element, digging for artifacts and carefully cleaning away the dirt from them.

Daniel is being assisted by many Orbanian children, who are somewhat vaguely described as being similar to apprentices. Teal'c is asked to describe his knowledge of the Goa'uld to another apprentice, Tomin, who is the son of the Orbanian leader, Kalan. Meanwhile, Kalan and another child-apprentice, Merrin, return to Earth with O'Neill and Carter through the Stargate with a naquadah reactor for the SGC to study.

Carter requests that Kalan or Merrin stay to teach her about the sample reactor; the idea of teaching seems to puzzle them, but Merrin agrees to stay. After she received a physical examination, she and Carter get to work; Merrin turns out to be remarkably intelligent and focused for an 11-year-old.

Dr. Fraiser discovers that Merrin has nanites in her bloodstream, which causes concern until Merrin explains. Certain Orbanian children are chosen at birth to have nanites inserted into their brains. The nanites act like additional synapses in their brains, enabling them to gain enormous amounts of knowledge very quickly. Merrin assures them that the nanites are harmless to anyone else, and after some additional testing, Merrin and Carter are allowed to continue their work.

Although Merrin is very smart, she has some interesting gaps in her learning and abilities. I would say that her knowledge seems to be rote-learning, in the sense that she seems to be able to explain things in only one way, indicating a lack of understanding of the underlying concepts. She seems to have difficulty with Carter's outside-of-the-box ideas, although she does seem to catch on after awhile.

On Orban, Tomin has become concerned about what he's learned from Teal'c about the Goa'uld threat and asks his father to undergo the "Averium", even though it is sooner than planned. After this mysterious event, Tomin disappears, and Kalan presents Teal'c with a new child-apprentice to continue imparting knowledge. Teal'c is worried about what has happened to Tomin and demands to see him. He is taken to Tomin, who is in a barren compound and in an infantile state. Tomin does not seem to recognize Teal'c or his father or anyone else. Teal'c demands an explanation. Kalan explains that all of Tomin's nanites, containing the information gathered from Teal'c, have been removed from Tomin and spread among the population of Orban in order to share the information. But removing the nanites has essentially wiped Tomin's mind clean. Kalan assures Teal'c that what Tomin did was customary, greatly honored, and thus he will be well taken care of for the rest of his life, even though he will never progress beyond his infantile state.

Teal'c is greatly disturbed by this custom and informs Daniel, who is also aghast. Kalan is upset that they want Orbanians to change a custom that has been very successful for years. Teal'c and Daniel report back to the SGC on the situation; O'Neill especially is disgusted by the practice. Merrin tries to assure them that she is honored to have been chosen to be one of the apprentices and to share her knowledge, but the SGC personnel are having none of it. While Merrin and Carter continue to work on the naquadah reactor, they try to persuade Merrin to ask for asylum on the Earth.

Things come to a head when Kalan comes to the SGC to bring Merrin back to Orban. Carter and Merrin start up the SGC's copy of the naquadah reactor, which has some unexpected but harmless side-effects. While everyone is distracted, O'Neill steals Merrin away to the surface.

O'Neill takes Merrin to an elementary school where he knows some of the students and teachers - apparently it was Cassandra's school, which is a nice continuity touch. He asks one of the teachers to let Merrin participate in recess and then in an art class. He pretty much forces her to stop being so structured and rigid in her thinking, trying to get her to have fun. At the end of the day, Merrin asks to be returned to Orban, as O'Neill had promised. It's understood that she'll be going back to her Averium.

Sometime later, Kalan requests that SG-1 return to Orban. They find that the compound in which the children are kept after their Averiums has been transformed: they are playing and drawing and laughing. Apparently Merrin's knowledge of "play" and "learning" was also disseminated in her Averium, and so now the post-Averium children have some hope of development and learning. At the end of the episode, O'Neill joins Merrin in some drawing.

This episode was a mixed bag. I found the Orbanian culture to be pretty interesting and mostly logical in its execution. There were some details that were lacking, though. The idea of gathering knowledge via the nanites and then disseminating that knowledge to the rest of the population seems reasonably logical and efficient. However, it does seem like it encourages the rote-learning that I commented upon earlier: everyone possesses all the facts about everything, but not necessarily the intuitive understanding of the underlying concepts leading to the facts. For example, it's one thing to know that the naquadah reactor case has to be a certain thickness and size, but another thing to understand the reason why: to protect against the radiation from the material inside. There are a couple of down sides to this method of knowledge-gathering. First is the obvious fact that it creates a population of infantile people that are then of no further use to society. As stated, these children are a small fraction of the population, but even so, this seems like a waste. Second, this method leads to the majority of the population having no idea how to learn new things: they just wait until the next Averium when they get the needed knowledge. Only the few child-apprentices seem to have the ability to actively learn. It seems like this would lead to a slower growth of knowledge, since most of the population isn't contributing. And, as I said before, most of the population only knows things by rote.

I am confused by how long this practice has been used on Orban. I thought that when Merrin was explaining it, she said that the first nanites were put into use 49 years go. That's really not that long. How did their society get so used to this custom and completely forget traditional learning modes in just a couple generations? Maybe I misheard.

I also think the ending of the episode didn't correctly follow the premise of the Orbanian learning method. If the post-Averium children are infantile and not expected to learn anything, presumably they are not given nanites from other children after each Averium. After all, why waste the nanites on these children? In that case, how did these children receive Merrin's knowledge of play?

The episode did have some nice character moments. As I said before, I enjoyed seeing Daniel back to basic research. Then, when he became aware of the situation with the Orbanian child-apprentices, he was really in a bind. He obviously wanted to protect the children of Orban, but when Kalan accused them of disrespecting Orbanian customs, Daniel almost acted like he was slapped in the face. He never really came up with a good compromise between Earth and Orbanian customs. I personally thought that Kalan's comment about Earth demanding that Orbanian customs change really hit home.

It was nice to see Carter gently schooling Merrin in different ways of thinking, but I was surprised that she wasn't more upset by Merrin's impending Averium. I think she was probably too distracted by the puzzle of the naquadah reactor.

O'Neill's overreaction to Merrin's upcoming Averium too me by surprise a bit, but I suppose he does tend to be over protective of children. They are just usually boys, so I didn't connect it as much. I think he tried a bit too hard to get Merrin to "play", but at least he did honor her request in the end to return to Orban.

The SGC and Earth have been making slow progress this season in their technology, working on their techniques with naquadah and power generation. This should be good for them in the end.

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