Editor’s note: This piece was inspired by one of our readers who used their write-in vote to nominate the episode’s emotional climax as one of the most inspiring Sam Carter moments in our poll. Please keep voting guys, and don’t forget, we have an exclusive live video interview with Amanda Tapping in a fortnight’s time! Find out how you can submit your questions.
One of the strongest episodes of Stargate SG-1’s first season, ‘Singularity’ is perhaps the first truly great Carter-centric story. The team pop through the gate to the agricultural backwater of Hanka to observe the titular astronomical event, talk of which peppers the episode as its importance ebbs and flows in conjunction with the more immediate crisis.
When they arrive they discover a mysterious chemical or bacteriological event has slaughtered both the inhabitants and the unassuming redshirts of SG-7, who all lie dead in their bunks). Whilst grimly tallying the casualties in their hazmat suits, the gang encounter a single survivor – a seemingly immune young girl called Cassandra (Katie Stuart, most recently a regular on The Returned and The 100, and three episodes of Altered Carbon) who is coaxed out of the corn by one of those disconcerting Teal’c smiles we’re still getting used to.
Sharing as she does her name with the seer of Ancient Greek myth, cursed to be ignored by her fellows, and accompanied portentous lines about the black hole (the locals believed “with the darkness would come the apocalypse,” reports Daniel rather too credulously) we’re encouraged to look to the skies for threat. We eventually get some Goa’uld Death Gliders and the very first Ha’tak attack ship of the series, but it’s not much of an apocalypse and it’s not got much to do with the singularity.
[See also: CGI Friday – A Hollywood Kawoosh on a Vancouver Budget by Alasdair Stuart]
In fact the infection doesn’t really get any real resolution either, other than a shrug and some speculation. But then this isn’t either Star Trek: The Next Generation or The X-Files, both of whom you could imagine tackling very similar stories but with a very different emphasis when it came to pulling the plot levers.
Those stories could well be playing out somewhere else with the Other Guys , but just as ‘Singularity’ isn’t about a singularity, it’s not about investigating a mysterious plague or what the Goa’uld are up to on Hanka either.
‘Singularity’ is wholly about Captain Samatha Carter and surfacing an internal struggle that anchors the character, depicted so deftly by Amanda Tapping. But it’s also about being a woman in a strongly male environment, which to one degree or another is a space that the vast majority of women have to navigate on a daily basis.
Sam at Arms
To put Sam in context, although women have long had roles in the US Air Force, it was only as recently as 1993 the prohibition of women in combat roles was lifted (it was lifted in the US Army in 2013) and the first three women were trained as fighter pilots, presumably in the Stargate universe, Sam was one of them, although she did claim a combat record during the First Gulf War (1991) putting science fiction well ahead of reality as usual.
Debate around women in the military dominated the English-speaking world in 1997, the year ‘Singularity’ was first broadcast, with the release of Ridley Scott’s G. I. Jane that summer giving you an idea of how prominently it featured in public discourse.
Much of the opposition focused on physicality – whether a woman was literally strong enough for combat – and on the vague dangers posed to morale and unit cohesion, by the ‘distraction’ of a woman. These are concerns that are for the most part unique to the military and maybe a few other fields, like, I don’t know, sumo wrestling. What ‘Singularity’ explores is something more commonplace, the perception that women are more emotional and therefore irrational. That they’re not held to the same standard as men, whose outbursts aren’t seen as part of the inherent disadvantage of their gender.
Once Cassandra is declared free of the infection, Jack announces that she’ll be returning with them, prompting a bizarre rationalization from Sam as to why she shouldn’t be returning alongside her:
Jack: So, she goes back with us.‘Singularity’ – S1, Ep15.
Sam: Doctor, would it be safe for someone to stay a little while longer? I mean, we’re safe right now, right?
Sam: Sir, the eclipse happens in less than one day. This is our only opportunity to use this window of darkness to photograph the black hole with this telescope. It could change the course of human history. I don’t want to belittle what’s happened here, but if we just pack up and leave, SG-7 and all these people will have died for nothing.
Jesus Sam, how many fatalities are a fair exchange for getting to watch a black hole slurp up some matter? The appeal is so absurd, so obviously conjured up on the hoof, that I’d argue it can be read as not Sam reacting to the threat of missing out on some dope astrophysics, but her reacting to the threat of Cassandra’s proximity. It’s not that she doesn’t care about SG-7 or the poor bloody Hankans, but that she cares about Cassandra and she’s scared of how that will be perceived in the hyper-masculine environment of SGC.
She feels vulnerable and exposed, like the house of cards she’s built could crumble so easily. After all, we’re only an episode on from ‘Hathor’ (S1, Ep14) in which an Ancient Egyptian sex goddess blows kisses of pink mist at all the lads and Sam admits:
“Man. I think maybe it’s just me, but I can’t figure out how to feel like one of the guys with these guys, you know what I mean? I always feel like I’m The Girl.”Sam Carter, ‘Hathor’ – S1, Ep14.
But when this girl slips in behind her and clutches her arm, Sam realizes that this isn’t a responsibility she can shirk – and nor does she want to because just not who she is.
Strength of Feeling
Much like the episode itself – which claims to be about something other than what it is – Sam’s lines give away little about her emotional journey through ‘Singularity’. However, she communicates so much to those prepared to turn the episode over their minds long after the credits have dropped to black.
Immediately after she attempts to dodge the whole business, she returns through the Stargate with Cassandra, taking her by the hand and promising that it’s nothing to be afraid of, but these early interactions are tinged with a hesitance that she never lets the child witness. It’s just a look here and a drawn breath there, enough for the viewer to catch. It could be a concern for Cassandra’s wellbeing, but I’d argued that there’s something much more subtle going on.
Like an unwitting suicide bomber, Cassandra has been set up to explode in the proximity of a Stargate, with the Goa’uld counting on SG-1 bringing her back to base so that they could take humanity out of the game entirely. She’s a nuclear warhead, with a literally ticking countdown clock in her chest.
It’s worth noting here, that the entire Goa’uld gambit depends on the team’s compassion, not specifically Sam’s. Yet the compassion of Jack, Teal’c or Daniel doesn’t carry the same risk of being interpreted as weakness (well, maybe Daniel’s does) or the weakness of an entire gender.
[See also: Jack O’Neill – Living with Loss by George Mole.]
Sam: How could they do this?‘Singularity’ – S1, Ep15
Daniel: Well, to the Goa’uld, she’s not as we see her. She’s a tool. Her death is a very cheap way to get rid of us.
Sam: I know I’m supposed to be detached.
Daniel: Who said that?
Sam: Sometimes I forget you’re not military.
That’s the closest we get to an admission of what’s really going on, an exchange that the whole episode has to be viewed through the context of. Even the indirect manner in which the information is delivered tells us so much about the culture she is operating in as she doesn’t make a single direct statement about how she feels. Instead, Sam asks a question and makes two generalized statements that reveal to us that she’s appalled she’s emotionally invested, and she is at the mercy of a set of values that demand she keeps these feelings withheld.
I’d be tempted to add that “sometimes I forget” is an enigmatic criticism of Daniel’s own lack of outrage and his more resigned reading of events as she looks for understanding in the softest of the soft scientists. The main takeaway is that even in conversation with the team’s doe-eyed academic, Sam is careful with how she shares the feelings that she knows full well could open her up to being undermined.
Cassandra Explains it All
Awaking from the biopsy in which the Goa’uld dirty bomb is discovered, Cassandra calls out for her mother. It’s Sam who answers the call without even that covert flicker of hesitation we saw earlier. She’s made her choice, offering up what her conscience and character ask of her, but she’s not yet ready to share this journey with anyone else.
When Daniel offers to take her watch at the girl’s bedside, she pushes him away with another enigmatic exchange that dodges direct answers:
Daniel: How is she?‘Singularity’ – S1, Ep15.
Sam: She’s fine. Sleeping.
Daniel: Um. Um, if you want…I can sit with her tomorrow. For a few hours.
Sam: No, I’m okay.
Sam: I just…I want to do this.
Daniel: Okay. But I guess what I’m saying is that you don’t have to do this alone.
As Cassandra’s grim countdown speeds up and plunges her into unconsciousness, SG-1 realizes they can’t just send her back to Hanka and dump her there as passing through the Stargate will most likely trigger the nuke. Instead, she’s rushed to an abandoned nuclear facility where she can detonate without harm to anyone else.
As Sam descends the elevator with Cassandra in her arms, the girl stirs. Ordered to leave her in her concrete catacomb and get out whilst there’s still time, Sam begins her ascent. Alone for the first time in this episode, she releases the valve on the emotions that have been repressed so firmly. She breaks down, sobbing and lashing out at the elevator walls in frustration. It’s a heartrending scene. Although you know in your heart she’ll go back, as it unfolds you’re just as terrified as Sam is that she’ll obey her orders and have to live with the weight of the consequences. Rightly or wrongly, that’s what a serviceman or woman is expected to do. But that’s not Sam Carter, she answers to a higher authority: herself.
By finally letting herself be who she is and feel what she feels, without thought to how this will be perceived, she gains clarity of purpose. By allowing herself to be emotional – not because she’s a woman, but because she is a person of incredible empathy and moral conviction – and rage at the unfairness of it all, she finds her strength. Completing her arc, she stops the elevator and returns to Cassandra’s side, ignoring Jack’s frantic call for her to return to the surface. They clutch each other and await the end:
Cassandra: We’re both very brave. I love you.‘Singularity’ – S1, Ep15.
Sam: I love you too.
Once More with Feeling
Death doesn’t come. By taking Cassandra well away from the Stargate, the bomb ceased its countdown. Back on the surface, Sam’s honesty is allowed one sentence in the open before Jack helps her sweep it under the rug.
Sam: We’re okay. Nothing happened. Cassandra’s fine, I’m fine. It didn’t happen. I just…I couldn’t leave her Sir.‘Singularity’ – S1, Ep15.
Jack: How did you know, Captain?
Sam: It occurred to me that she first slipped into the coma when we brought her closer to the Stargate. As soon as we got her far enough away from the Stargate, she woke up. And I… knew.
Jack: You knew.
She didn’t know. Surely if she had known then her meltdown in the elevator wouldn’t have taken place, remaining with Cassandra to comfort her wouldn’t have carried the same emotional cost, she could have left Cassandra for a few minutes without problem, and she could just have easily made the team aware of that reasoning.
It’s notable that she doesn’t offer the retroactive rationalization until Jack prompts her for it. The first words she utters are “I couldn’t leave her.” I’d like to think Jack is in on the act and “how did you know?” is an affirmation: that’s right, you knew, that’s our story. I believe whether it was in the nuclear facility, or on poor benighted Hanka, she would have always come to the same conclusion, to be with a girl who needed her even if it led to her own death.
Sam has changed and learnt something, but the rest of the world hasn’t. We can deal with planet-to-planet portals, but the idea that centuries of military culture – and millennia of male privilege – can just be cast aside by one woman’s elevator epiphany pushes suspension of disbelief to its limits.
Later on, we’re given a pointed reminder of precisely why Sam was right to keep her reasons on the downlow. “Mother’s instinct, perhaps,” muses Teal’c, looking for some sort of explanation for Sam’s behaviour. “Subtle, but no,” she replies with gentle sarcasm, because no Teal’c, that isn’t subtle at all.
There’s no malice in his statement. It’s another one of those uncomprehending observations from Teal’c, but his value here is to speak what would normally go unspoken or arrive shrouded in innuendo. He gets a pass as a member of a tribal culture clinging to an archaic set of values imposed by a smug space-worm theocracy. It gives Stargate SG-1 the room to float a pretty nuanced point in front of its viewers.
Had Daniel or Jack taken Sam’s role in this story, it would have elicited some deep soul-searching and meaningful exchanges about Jack’s lost son, or Daniel’s overly-earnest humanism. Instead, because it’s a woman doing it, it’s accepted as a mystical function of womanhood and not because of that one woman’s beliefs or experiences. Perhaps Sam’s own unresolved abandonment issues played a role, but as we’ve made clear – motives are a male privilege.
[See also: Sam Carter – A Father’s Battle, A Daughter’s War by James Hoare.]
The first season of Stargate SG-1 gave us a Captain Sam Carter who has fought tooth and nail to get to the top in her field, both astrophysics and the air force. A woman raised by an emotionally distant and demanding father, who looked to the uniform and its masculine codes for family and purpose. ‘Singularity’ showed us just how damaging that could be if it meant burying a part of herself, yet even embracing her instincts and her feelings, she has to tread to be true to herself without losing who she wants to become.
‘Singularity’ is powerful because it lowers its horizons to our world. It shows us the challenges and deeply-rooted expectations that women have to face, but it doesn’t condescend us with a sweeping solution and a fantasy world that no longer sees gender.
It says simply: pick the path that’s right for you, make the compromises you can live with, and draw the line where you can’t.
And remember – like Sam – you don’t owe anybody answers for how you feel.
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James is editor of The Companion. He has been “working in publishing” since the early 1990s when he made his own Doctor Who fanzine to sell in the school playground.You can find him on Twitter @JDHoare