"Learning Curve" examines the fascinating issue of how much one society should attempt to change or impose itself on another culture. Although the episode cops out a bit with the Disney-fied ending, the ideas presented along the way give the viewer much food for thought.
The episode opens with a nifty bit of foreshadowing. Jack, observing the number of young Urrones assisting Daniel with the study of the Orban gate room, quips, "No child labor laws on Orban?" In a tone belying the seriousness of events to come, Daniel replies, "It's just kind of the way they do things."
In American society, there is a general consensus that some level of imposition of our values on other societies is appropriate, even morally required. Very few people argue, for example, that the nation does not have some duty to attempt to protect basic human rights, regardless of borders. The question for American society (and by extension the S.G.C.) is always, "Where does one draw the line?"
No one argues that we should have ignored the plight of German Jews in concentration camps simply because that's the way Nazi society chose to order itself. The U.S. used economic sanctions against the Apartheid government of South Africa, but recently dropped economic sanctions against the People's Republic of China, though they commit human rights abuses arguably equal to or greater than those of South Africa. There is no consensus on how far we should go in asking other countries to adopt our values.
I commend the writers for choosing to present a difficult issue in "Learning Curve." If, for example, the Orbanians had been committing genocide, the choice from the S.G.C.'s perspective would have been much easier. In this case, the Urrone children are well taken care of, though they lack personality. The Orbanians do not refuse to teach their children because they are cruel; they just simply don't know how to teach.
Their idea -- that individuals should be sacrificed for the greater good of society -- is not an unknown notion in human society. Even some contemporary human cultures practice the sacrifice of the individual's dreams, rights, or even life, for the good of the whole. In history, many societies have regarded the individual as unimportant.
And the Orbanian system has worked. Though it is not said in the episode, the advancements in technology may have lead to medical discoveries that saved thousands of lives for every Urrone sacrificed, or military advancement to protect the whole of the society from the Goa'uld -- and they are willing to share that knowledge with Earth. Does the potential good make a difference?
The episode reaches a peak of dramatic tension in the confrontation between Kalan and Daniel, when Kalan angrily observes "You claim to love knowledge, but when you find something you don't like, you demand that we change to please you." While the statement is oversimplified, it is essentially true, though Daniel denies it. While one can understand Kalan's frustration, it doesn't answer whether the demand is morally justified, and neither does Daniel's response.
Jackson is caught up in the fact that such a technologically advanced society hasn't found a better way to deal with this problem. He seems lost to the fact that advances in technology do not necessarily mean advances on a moral or cultural scale, which is surprising considering his first hand exposure to another technologically advanced but relatively empty society, the Goa'uld.
For all its advancement, Orban society knows nothing of music or recreation -- two of the elements essential to cultural advancement. They have traded this type of advancement for scientific advancement -- once he saw how single-minded Orban's society is, Daniel probably shouldn't have been so surprised to find the Orbanians don't do a lot of creative thinking.
"Learning Curve" presents a problem that has become a theme on "Stargate" -- advanced technology is out there, but it has a price. Unfortunately, the episode does not choose to tell us fully what choice the S.G.C. was prepared to make. General Hammond went as far as offering Merrin asylum -- something that could have greatly affected Orban society at least technologically, as Daniel notes, and perhaps socially. We are not told whether the S.G.C. would have continued to share technology with the Orbanians, regardless of their method of procuring it.
I thought Jack's actions with Merrin made for an interesting insight into his character. We see that he is perfectly willing to accept any punishment from General Hammond, because he so strongly believes what he's done is right. He's the only one of the team for whom there is no question of the appropriate course of action -- his position is correct, period. The vehemence with which Jack attacks Kalan in Hammond's office shows just how deeply he's affected; "You don't deserve them," he says. Jack's soft handling of Merrin in the classroom puts a nice facet on his sometimes-rough character.
Though I like the exposition of the issues presented in "Learning Curve," the situation felt contrived and interfered with my enjoyment of the episode. I found myself wondering why the Orbanians couldn't have fixed this themselves. If you left a nanite or two in the brain of the Urrone child, would they eventually be able to repair the synapses that were broken when the other nanites were removed? The Orbanians had only created the nanite technology 49 years ago -- is that really enough time for an entire society to forget about teaching?
I also had issues with the touchy-feely ending. Jack just happened to teach Merrin what she needed to know to change the society, without knowing he was doing it. Cue the happy music and purple dog drawings.
Though "Learning Curve" is slightly contrived and sports a sapping ending, the episode explores some of the important and difficult moral choices posed by our contact with other cultures through the Stargate. I hope the powers that be further explore this theme.
Rating: * * 1/2