When we add up Samantha Carter’s appearances in Stargate SG-1, Atlantis, and Universe, we get a whopping 228 episodes – and that’s not including Stargate: The Ark of Truth (2008) and Stargate: Continuum (2008). Suffice to say, there have been a lot of things written about SG-1’s first lady over the past 22 years.
Of course, the longevity of a character doesn’t automatically equal their emotional impact. However, time and time again when I meet other Stargate fans, Sam often comes up as a favorite character. Sam’s not only a wickedly smart theoretical astrophysicist but also a combat veteran, able to drop Jaffa jaws when she takes down a moving target with one shot (‘The Warrior’ – S5, Ep18), pilot an experimental F-302 fighter (‘Fallen’ – S7, Ep1), and command a 36-gun battlecruiser in combat (SGU ‘Incursion, Part 1’ – S1, Ep19).
However, Sam’s greatness isn’t only the sum of her intelligence and military prowess, it’s her empathy and determination that keeps the SG-1 team together, guides her decision-making, informs her leadership, and makes the character resonate so strongly with fans.
I was on the verge of becoming a teenager when Stargate SG-1 first aired in my country, the Czech Republic. A capable female lead wasn’t often seen on TV back then, certainly not one whose primary purpose wasn’t to cater to the male audience. She quickly turned into a real role model for me and other girls my age, and I hope she continues to inspire many young women today.
Does that mean she’s only a role model for girls? Absolutely not. If you have ever felt like you didn’t fit in, weren’t good enough or your skills were underappreciated, Sam shows us the way.
Rising in the Ranks
We don’t know a lot about Sam’s childhood, but what we do witness is the tragic event of her mother’s death during her adolescence (‘The Devil You Know’ – S3, Ep13.). She was left with an often absent father Jacob, a highly decorated US Air Force major general, who buried his grief under his work. As such, Sam grew up in a cold, formal environment and had a distant relationship with her father, Jacob, and her brother.
[See also: Stargate | Sam Carter – A Father’s Battle, A Daughter’s War by James Hoare.]
However, Sam’s childhood experiences and the example of her father’s work ethic (coupled with a desire, perhaps, to finally win his approval) gave her a unique insight into the military, a blueprint on how to achieve at the highest levels, and gave her a head start figuring out how to navigate two male-dominated fields – science and service.
In ‘Children of the Gods’ (S1, Ep1-2), we can see Sam wary of her new teammates. She has been in the military long enough to expect the worst from her male colleagues and Jack’s curmudgeonly manner certainly gives her cause. He projects a belligerent disdain for knowledge and the square-jawed masculine attitudes of another era. Sam has probably dealt with six men exactly like this in the past week alone.
Although she’s forced immediately on the defensive, she pushes back from a place of unassailable authority and confidence, rather than panic.
“Colonel, I logged over 100 hours in enemy airspace during the Gulf War. Is that tough enough for you? Or are we going to have to arm wrestle?”Sam, ‘Children of the Gods’ – S1, Ep1-2.
We can see Major Kawalsky underestimate her abilities and then his surprise when confirms that she has pulled out of a simulated bombing run in an F-16 at eight-plus Gs and is every bit as capable as all of them for the mission.
As the episode goes on, we see her relax more when she realizes her teammates are not like the other military men she has encountered – well, not entirely.
What can we take from this? Whether because of your gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or disability, don’t let anyone tell you that you aren’t good enough just because you are seen to be different.
Sam and Elizabeth: Contrasting Leadership
It is quite easy to draw parallels between Sam and Elizabeth, as many did instinctively (and unfairly) when the latter was introduced in ‘Lost City, Part 1’ (S7, Ep21). Both are brave leaders who have to make life and death decisions every day, and have found routes through a masculine environment that plays to their particular strengths. Both even served as CO of the Atlantis team and have a PhD to their name.
[See also: Stargate | Why Elizabeth Weir is the Heart of Atlantis by Catherine Kelly]
However, where they differ is their leadership style, which produced radically divergent results when dealing with both their teams, and the often unwelcome interference of politicians.
Elizabeth is a diplomat at the highest level. Her method of leadership is direct and forthright – just the sort of voice you want fighting your corner in a negotiation – leading to criticisms from some fans that she is ‘cold’. (Pointedly, this is a criticism never levelled at her male counterparts). In a high stakes environment constantly battling the Wraith, Replicators, or Genii, her candour is highly efficient, cutting the distance between decision and action neatly in half.
However, Elizabeth’s decisions often bring her into direct conflict with the International Oversight Advisory (IOA) Committee, SGC, and the Byzantine political leadership in Washington, DC, including her patron, Senator Kinsey.
“This is my office. This is my chair. Until someone tells me otherwise I’m going to make decisions as I see fit, not as they fit in to your agenda.”Elizabeth – ‘Lost City, Part 1’ (S7, Ep21).
She comes from a world – whether it’s academia or international diplomacy – where fighting your corner is second nature, whereas Sam’s experiences have taught her more about how the game is played within the strict hierarchy of the military. She respects the chain of command and also understands the nuances required when working with government officials, as much as she might personally resent them.
Pick Your Battles
Sam’s ability to use a more subtle approach and invest in productive relationships with the government – knowing when to toe the line and when to rock the boat – meant she was eventually entrusted as CO of SG-1, leading the Atlantis Expedition, in charge of Stargate Command, and commander of USS Daedalus/George Hammond. Although willing to disobey and question orders when she feels it is necessary, that’s a lever she’s far less casual about pulling than the headstrong civilian archaeologist, the single-minded Jaffa defector, and the USAF cowboy with (at first) nothing left to live for.
Heck, it certainly says something about her approach when “Sir, with all due respect…” is virtually a catchphrase.
Understanding where the odds are stacked against you, or the most effective way of getting things done, shouldn’t be seen as an absence of moral fibre or inner strength. Although she rarely uses threats, when she does, they’re sharp and effective. In ‘Be All My Sins Remember’d’ (SGA S2, Ep11), Colonel Ellis of USS Apollo is incredibly rude to Rodney McKay. When the meeting concludes, Sam warns Ellis in no uncertain terms:
“If you ever talk like that to someone under my command again, you will not be welcome on this base, Colonel. Is that clear?”Sam, ‘Be All My Sins Remember’d’ – Stargate Atlantis S2, Ep11.
Overlooked at the beginning of Stargate SG-1 – and her character was perhaps the least developed out of the box – Sam grows into a very influential character, rising through the ranks and earning the respect of scientists, military personnel, and politicians alike for her accomplishments.
While she is a confident leader, she has he judgement enough to question her own leadership. Most notably when she expressed her doubts to Jack at the end of ‘Zero Hour’ (S8, Ep4), where she second-guessed her command decision on the mission.
Despite being considered one of the smartest people on the planet (or a ‘national treasure’ as Jack would say), there is no ego about her. No matter the confidence placed in her or the achievements she could list, she never lets it blind her to asking the right questions of herself – first and foremost – and others.
What is the takeaway from this? Tread softly, but don’t be afraid to put your foot down if necessary.
Fighting for the Family
Losing her mother at the crucial age of 12, both Sam and her brother Mark had a subsequent estrangement from their father. Unlike Mark, Sam tried her hardest to win her father’s approval (adding strain to her relationship with Mark in the process), perhaps terrified of losing him as well as her mother. In ‘Seth’ (S3, Ep2), she acted as the bridge for her dad and brother to take the first steps towards repairing their relationship. This moment foreshadows her importance for SG-1 and later Atlantis.
When we’re first introduced to SG-1, every one of them has become severed from their literal or figurative families. Unable to return to their old lives through betrayal (Teal’c), tragedy (Jack), or alienation (Daniel), it takes Sam to turn them into a family.
Not only does Sam rely on the ‘found family’ of SG-1 to play the role her biological kin couldn’t, but she’s often the one who steps forward to keep that family together. Sharing a bond with Daniel forged by their similar ages, humanism, and sheer smarts, she’s often the one to mediate between him and Jack when the collision between civilian and military values begins to produce sparks. Similarly, she’s often the voice of reason or restraint with Jack, knowing that their shared military experience gives her words more weight, this intimacy having launched a thousand ‘ships.
As the head of the family, rather than a mere ‘sibling’ Sam continued to invest in her relationships, showing a willingness to really consider the needs of the individual and how she can meet them. In ‘Quarantine’ (SGA S4, Ep14), Sam gets stuck in the elevator with Radek Zelenka. A brilliant scientist in his own right, Zelenka plays second fiddle to Rodney. On most occasions, Rodney would yell and berate Zelenka at any little mistake, likely crushing his confidence.
[See also: Stargate | Rodney McKay – The Tao of an Unlikely Hero by Michael Simpson]
Whilst stuck in the high-intensity environment, Carter tries to push Zelenka to think creatively to fix the situation. This increased pressure causes Zelenka to haphazardly touch the crystals inside the transporter, frying their tablet. He’s very apologetic, confidence shattered.
Sam quickly realizes her current tactic won’t work and instead, tries to coax his genius out rather than force it. Sam assures Zelenka she’s not angry, which instantly makes him feel better. Her continued positive reinforcement eventually inspires Zelenka into climbing into a tiny ventilation shaft, ultimately saving the entire Atlantis expedition.
Sam teaches us that leadership isn’t about you, it’s about lifting others to be their best selves.
The Woman Behind the Woman
While we have to thank the executive producers Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner for creating Samantha Carter in the first place, we cannot forget the woman who breathed life into the character so brilliantly.
Amanda Tapping’s influence has been an integral part of the character’s development. Her courage to fight for Sam, and in extension, for all the viewers who look up to Sam and consider her a role model, was what made Sam one of the most important female characters of sci-fi TV.
Thanks to Amanda’s unwavering courage, Samantha Carter isn’t a one-dimensional, sexualized character but rather a wonderful, complex, smart, funny, strong, vulnerable, and fallible human being.
“Sam’s an interesting entity, because she’s not part of the original [movie] cast, like Jack and Daniel. Nor is she this fascinating alien character like Teal’c with all these incredible possibilities. She sits firmly in the middle. She’s a difficult character to write in that she’s part military, part scientist. So, I think what they’re slowly doing is making her more of a fully realized person and playing up to her strengths.Amanda Tapping to Starlog Magazine #249 (1998)
Samantha Carter’s importance in the series cannot be denied. Her tenacity in dealing with enemies played a vital part in SG-1’s success, she even punched Ba’al in the face that one time. Not only is she a badass, it’s her empathy that tells her when to reach out and when to stand her ground and that’s what makes her a truly inspiring person.
She’s the cement that holds the team together, making her an incredible, loyal friend to SG-1 and an even better role model to the fans who watched her each week.
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Dana is a freelance web designer by day and blogger by night based in the Czech Republic. She also has a Stargate tattoo of the Earth symbol on her wrist and is looking forward to getting more in the future.Dana tweets at @dana_cz