Stargate SG-1: S01E04 “The Broca Divide”

“The Broca Divide” plays a unique role in Stargate SG-1. It doesn’t ever end up contributing substantially to the series plot. The premise is frankly laughable, as it stems directly from the worst impulses of 19th-century science. Most of the main characters spend the episode sidelined and, occasionally, stabbed. Yet it’s one of the most memorable early SG-1 episodes. Partially this is because it’s just plain fun to watch — I mean, it involves Richard Dean Anderson doing his best impression of a stoned chimpanzee — and partially it’s because it introduces Dr. Janet Fraiser, the sardonic, long-suffering miracle worker who routinely cures alien diseases that would take any normal team of scientists years just to understand. But it’s also because “The Broca Divide” is the tonal pilot for the series. It’s a forty-four-minute-long thesis statement about Stargate SG-1‘s view of humanity and our capacity for self-improvement through scientific advances. Or, as the subtext of this episode would term it, nerd power.

Although “The Broca Divide” is technically the second SG-1 exploration episode, in many ways it feels like the first. The difference from “Emancipation” is immediately obvious, as the episode starts not with the new planet, but with stock footage of Cheyenne Mountain, a briefing at a long conference table, and a thin plot pretext for today’s mission. The boringness of these elements is, weirdly, tonally integral to SG-1. Watching these battle-hardened people leaf through their mission assignments reminds us that these aren’t random yahoos, but trained professionals who are trying to do their jobs with integrity, even if they can’t get through briefings without some light bickering. This tone is underscored by the introduction of the SGC planetary designations, which are computer-generated by “a binary code” in one of Carter’s computer models. (Today’s rejoices in the alphanumeric identifier “P3X-797.”) It’s also underscored by O’Neill refusing to let the Marine bodyguards through the Stargate first, because it’s possible that Skaara and Sha’re are waiting on the other side.

But when they go through, they don’t find Goa’ulds. Instead there’s a forest that seems to be permanently without sun, inhabited by savage, stick-wielding humanoid beasts. They quickly discover that these are humans who have seemingly been cursed and thrown out of the nearest civilization, the Land of Light. O’Neill loses interest once he learns that the Stargate hasn’t been activated in the recent past, so SG-1 heads back to Earth. There’s just one problem: the affliction isn’t a curse, but a disease, which they are now carrying — and transmitting to everyone on the base, wreaking havoc as people gradually lose access to their prefrontal cortex. According to Daniel, the virus that causes the disease is capable of bridging “the Broca divide,” or the divide between “primitive” and “modern” humans.

Let me explain why I put those in quotes. Pierre Paul Broca was indeed a real person who studied anatomy and anthropology, and you may already know of him as the discoverer of Broca’s area, the small part of your brain that allows you to generate language-based communication. He did turn his attention to craniometry later in life…in an attempt to prove that white men were genetically superior to all other humans. This is the part of his research that seems to have sparked the title of this episode, although the phrase “the Broca divide” was never used by anyone until “The Broca Divide” aired.

So, to be clear: all of those “findings” have been thoroughly debunked, and craniometry itself is certainly not a modern science, whatever Carter says. But one of Broca’s Victorian assumptions lingers: that “primitives” were uniformly violent and incapable of empathy towards others. In fact, there is compelling evidence that Homo erectus bands cared for their elderly and infirm members as far back as 1.9 million years ago. That’s not even getting into the whole anthropological debate over what constitutes a “modern” human. Is that anatomically modern? Behaviorally modern? Really into abstract expressionism? And that’s not even getting into the myriad studies about how animals and humans share a surprising number of cognitive traits.

But that’s okay, because the point of “The Broca Divide” isn’t to engage in a hard sci-fi discussion about hominid evolution or cognitive ethology. The point is to feel the joy of realizing that we don’t have to be defined by our basest instincts, and to make a statement about what stands between them and our better selves. Indeed, that statement is clear: it’s all in our ability to be nerds.

The episode makes this quite explicit. As the SGC descends into chaos, they don’t simply quarantine the affected personnel and hope for the best. Instead, Fraiser starts looking for patterns and analyzing the disease to find a cure. Sedation seems to return a measure of humanity to the victims, even as it renders them physically incapable of fighting. When Daniel is taken by the Touched, the only thing left behind is his glasses. And the final cure turns out to be…anti-allergy medication. That’s right, jocks! That’s what you get for teasing us about our allergies! Nerd power!

I mean, okay, I guess you could argue that self-sacrifice is part of it. You know, because of that incredibly touching scene between O’Neill and Fraiser, where he gives his consent for her to experiment cures on him. Or when Teal’c, who has the least academic training of anyone on the team, trusts Fraiser’s judgment enough to knock out a couple of Untouched guards and draw a blood sample from them. (He did try to convince the other Untouched first, but unfortunately CHA is his dump stat.) Or when Hammond calls the President and tells him that, if anyone tries to leave the SGC, they should be shot on sight and the body burned.

Ultimately, it’s not simply intellect or self-sacrifice that save the day, but a moral philosophy that combines and transcends them. This becomes clear through the episode’s depiction of the Untouched. A defining trait of SG-1 is its ability to find the human element in all the “primitive” cultures the team encounters. It’s easy to paint the Untouched as cold and uncaring, but the episode goes out of its way to point out that they aren’t really acting any differently than their more “advanced” descendants. They’re making the best decisions they can, given their belief that the disease is incurable. Teal’c may think that heartless, but that’s because he has the luxury of knowing differently.

But why does he know differently? Sure, he’s seen that some kind of immunity is possible. But so have the Untouched, given that they are, well, untouched. The difference is that Teal’c, and the rest of the humans in the SGC, don’t believe that people are obliged to sit back and accept their fates. We’re all fundamentally ordinary, says the episode, but even ordinary people can change themselves for the better. All it takes is curiosity, determination, and the courage to do what’s right, even if it means putting yourself in danger. This is the sentiment at the heart of Stargate, and it’s why “The Broca Divide” is able to rise above its flimsy premise.

Stray observations:

  • “I’m real glad it was you who took point.” I had no idea I would get such a kick out of snarky Marines.
  • “Love what they’ve done with the place.” “I was going to do my living room like this, but it didn’t go with my other stuff.”
  • Is infected Jack’s screaming really Richard Dean Anderson, or did they dub an angry cat over him?
  • “I cannot be certain you’re back to being yourself. You referred to me as ‘Lucy.'”
  • “Daniel, you dog. Keep this up and you’ll have a girl on every planet.”