If I wasn’t writing about each of these episodes in order for this rewatch, Stargate: SG-1 Season 1 Episode 4 “Emancipation” would be the one that I’d most likely skip, and I am not alone.
Do a cursory examination for reviews of “Emancipation” and you’ll find that among the fanbase this is widely regarded as the worst episode of the series. There are reviews, podcasts, and even a guide to how to not write sexist storylines that references it.
The SciFi Channel seems to hold a similar view because whenever the series airs in syndication they often skip “Emancipation” entirely and go straight to Stargate: SG-1 Season 1 Episode 5 “The Broca Divide.”
“Emancipation” is one of eleven Stargate: SG-1 episodes written by Kathryn Powers. Powers is also responsible for Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 1 Episode 4 “Code of Honor.” The two episodes feature similar plots and are both held in very high disdain.
While “Emancipation” tries to tackle the subject of sexism, it does so in a very problematic way, and it’s unfortunate that this is the first time we see SG-1 interact with people off-world.
“Emancipation” opens with SG-1 exploring a planet called Simarka. The stargate on this world is in the middle of a destroyed temple. The planet seems to have no signs of technology but they encounter a young man running from some rabid dogs, and save his life.
The young man introduces himself as Abu of the Shavadai, played by Jorge Vargas, and gets upset when he sees that Carter is a woman. Carter keeps trying to figure out what she did wrong, but things get worse when other members of Abu’s clan show up and point arrows at her.
This is the start of a really rocky downhill slope. The people on Simarka are descended from the Mongols and their women have no rights. Carter quickly learns that it’s forbidden for her to speak in public or wear “the clothes of a man.”
Later Moughal, played by Soon-Tek Oh, explains that these old laws were put into place to protect their women from the Goa’uld, and have continued, in part because they’re afraid breaking the laws will bring the Goa’uld back and, as Moughal speculates, men just want to have their way.
The opening of “Emancipation” feels like this is something that should have been anticipated. On Stargate: SG-1 Season 1 Episode 3 “The Enemy Within” we find out that the ancient peoples of Earth are amongst the stars thanks to the Goa’uld. So, it feels like there would be a primer on how to deal with these issues when they arise, especially since Daniel’s role was supposed to be to liaise with the rest of the SG-1 teams and get them up to speed.
Abu tells his father, Moughal, how SG-1 saved him from the dogs and Moughal spares Carter’s life. He invites SG-1 back to the village, but Carter thinks it may be best if they leave while they’re ahead. In keeping with the theme of this episode, no one listens to her.
When they get to the village it turns out that Carter is free to speak in the yurt, but not in public, and if she’s going to walk around the village she needs to be properly attired. Which means a dress, and Carter isn’t pleased.
CARTER: Daniel, find me an anthropologist that dresses like this, and I will eat this headdress.
Her reaction harkens back to my question about Daniel’s real purpose. If he’s supposed to be advising them on ancient cultures, what has he been doing? Wouldn’t SG-1 be aware that they should observe local customs?
If you hold this episode up to any other episode in SG-1, this one gives O’Neill and Jackson the flattest characterization possible. Upon seeing Carter in the dress: O’Neill tells her it “kind of works for me,” and Jackson looks at it through scholarly anthropological eyes. The entire time, Teal’c isn’t saying anything. Abu’s also there, and he looks at Carter wide-eyed in a trope-y “Oh, she’s a girl now!” way.
And after all this, it turns out that Sam probably shouldn’t leave the yurt anyway. In short, on this mission, there is literally nothing for her to do, but they do concede that they should probably bring an all-male team if they ever come back.
If this was the first mission outside of Abydos, I could buy that this is going down, but since they later mention another mission, they’ve clearly been off-world before. Yes, I acknowledge that there needs to be a complication for a story to move forward, otherwise you have a boring hour of television, but if they’ve started exploring the galaxy, and have had more adventures than what we’re seeing, the writing shouldn’t be this flat and the chemistry between the team shouldn’t be as stiff.
While the guys are out at the celebration, Sam is sleeping in the yurt when someone kidnaps her. The rest of SG-1 doesn’t notice that she’s missing until the next morning when Daniel goes to look for her.
In another display of uneven writing, Jackson calls Carter by her salutation, not her rank. If you remember, she had a sharp retort when Kawalsky and O’Neill tried to pull that stunt during her first scene in Stargate: SG-1 Season 1 Episodes 1 and 2 “Children of the Gods.”
I want to assume that Jackson is trying to appease the Shavadai by not calling her Captain Carter, but it surprises me that for a character that keeps speaking out, this is something she lets slide.
Turns out the kidnapper is Abu, yes the kid who was being chased by dogs, and he’s taking Carter to barter for the love of his life Nya, played by Crystal Lowe. Nya is the daughter of a strict warlord named Turghan, played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who is much less tolerant than Abu’s father. Turghan also has 22 clans behind him, but plans to marry Nya off to make it 23.
Abu tries to trade Carter for Nya’s hand in marriage, but Turghan refuses and instead offers 300 weights of gold or death. Abu takes the gold and leaves but sneaks back into the camp to tell Nya that he’ll wait in the forest for her so they can elope.
Carter is left with Turghan who wants to know if Carter can cook, spin, sew, or dye–all things that Carter is terrible at.
SAM: I’m a lousy cook and I can’t spin, sew, or dye if my life depended on it. You made a bad deal.
Carter has several more cringe-worthy scenes with Turghan, including one where he forcibly kisses her after she attempts to escape on horseback.
Outside she talks with Nya about how Turghan’s treatment of women is not normal. Nya defends her father saying that his actions mean that women of their village are protected and taken care of. She also says that she’s not free to choose. Carter subscribes to Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no” philosophy.
The irony is, this is exactly what Carter has been doing for the whole episode, and it hasn’t worked out for her.
Really, what Carter means is she’ll create a distraction while Nya escapes on horseback–again, that worked out so well for Carter earlier in this episode.
While all of this is happening, SG-1 is on the way, because as Moughal explains, if they wait until tomorrow morning Turghan will “partake” in his purchase. If Carter refuses him, she’ll die.
SG-1 attempts to negotiate with Turghan arguing that Carter is a shaman among their people, and they must have her back. Turghan refuses all offers for her, despite the fact that “she is difficult,” until O’Neill offers an M9 Pistol.
So, Carter has now been purchased twice, once for 300 weight of gold, and again for a weapon. Let’s let that sink in for a moment.
While SG-1 is reunited in the forest around a campfire, ready to go back through the stargate in the morning, they discuss another incident that happened while they were off-world in which Carter drank something.
CARTER: What a relief, I’ve never been so happy to see you guys!
O’NEILL: Well, sure you have. Remember that time on P3X-595 you drank that stuff that made you take off–
CARTER: (interrupting) We won’t get into that right now!
It’s unclear how many times SG-1 has been through the gate and how many worlds they visited from the Abydos cartouche, but the two missions we now know about involve Carter being intoxicated and Carter getting kidnapped.
If I was watching this in 1997, I’d probably ask myself: ‘Are all of these storylines going to involve Carter getting in trouble and SG-1 saving her?’ We already have Jackson looking for his wife, it’s not to much to ask that Carter be able to use her skills.
Carter also talks about how she doesn’t blame Abu for what he did, even though, the entire plot of “Emancipation” hinges on Abu’s kidnapping of Carter. It’s very sweet that she can forgive a kid that’s young and in love, but he delivered her to a place where he knew her life would be hell for his own purposes.
Then Abu shows up. Turghan caught up with him and Nya as they were running away and her father is planning on having her stoned to death. Abu begs SG-1 to save her with their guns, but if SG-1 does this then the Shavadai will be at war.
Moughal tells them about a law where a clan leader can challenge another to a dual in order to halt the stoning. If Turghan can be defeated in the setting of a legal challenge, the stoning can be stopped and there will be no more war. However, Turghan refused to fight Moughal, because he’s an old man.
So Carter steps up, but what SG-1 thinks is a hand-to-hand fight, is actually a duel to the death. As she prepares for the fight by taking off her extraneous gear, O’Neill shows a surprising lack of concern for a member of his team serving up platitudes before finally asking if she has some hand-to-hand training.
O’NEILL: So when your back’s up against the wall, and there’s no tomorrow, just take one day at a time, and remember the bigger they are…et cetera.
CARTER: You don’t think I can win.
O’NEILL: Sure I do. I assume you’ve had at least some basic hand-to-hand training.
CARTER: Yeah, level three, advanced.
Richard Dean Anderson wanted to play O’Neill with more of a sense of humor compared to the movie. His sense of humor can add a good dose of levity at times, but here it’s just another extraneous line that really serves no purpose.
Carter and Turghan get ready to fight hand-to-hand, but he pulls out a knife, and so she pulls out another knife and then proceeds to win the fight. But, she refuses to kill Turghan and instead makes him promise to release Nya, keep the peace with the Shavadai, and yield to her.
As an example to the other clans Moughal sets all the Shavadai women free by abolishing the old laws, letting them walk around camp with their faces uncovered. This moment is so small that it doesn’t address some of the bigger issues that come with that world.
Keep in mind, there are at least 24 other clans on this world that we know of. That means that every time these women leave their camp they’ll still be covering their faces. This doesn’t immediately fix the problem, and since we don’t visit this world again, this entire story has no real consequence to the overall plot of the series.
Now, on another note, let’s talk about Teal’c for a moment. When I watched this episode a second time for this post, I noticed something: Teal’c rarely speaks.
In fact, he doesn’t have much of a function at all in this episode and seems so out of place. You have a character who has been set up to provide SG-1 with intelligence on the enemy, and his entire function is to look around, track carter, and then deliver the final punchline:
O’NEILL: Damn. Guess I’m going to have to cancel that Oprah interview.
TEAL’C: What is an Oprah?
There is no better way to describe “Emancipation” except to use the first line spoken in this episode, and that’s: “What a mess.”
Considering this is a rewatch, I tend to write this episode off as growing pains. It’s not unusual for a series to take some time to find its legs and for writers to find the flow with a character. The dialogue and actions given to many of these characters don’t fit what we will see them do and there are better stories on the horizon.
Really, the series makes just as much sense if you skip it and go straight to Stargate: SG-1 Season 1 Episode 5 “The Broca Divide” because “Emancipation” is really a self-contained episode. If I’m looking for a silver lining, the only one I can find is that they got this out of way, and the series can only go up from here, and it does go up from here.
What do you think of this episode of Stargate SG-1? Let us know in the comments below.
All ten seasons of Stargate: SG-1 are currently available on Hulu.
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