Sunday, October 11, 2009

Classics: SG1 1:14 – Cor-Ai

Plot Synopsis:

When SG1 arrives on P3X-1279, Teal’c recognizes the planet as Chartago, home of the Byrsa. Teal’c went to Chartago many times under the service of Apophis, who used the planet as a favorite harvesting site. When the Byrsa emerge from their hiding places, one, Hanno, recognizes Teal’c as the Jaffa who killed his disabled father. Teal’c is immediately imprisoned, and Hanno and the other villagers prepare to conduct the Cor-Ai, a judicial proceeding that functions more as a sentencing hearing than as an adversarial trial. Jack is ready to break Teal’c out, but Teal’c insists that he not proceed – he will not run from the consequences of his former life. Jack must settle for preparing Teal’c’s defense.

After Teal’c “pleads guilty,” SG1 attempts to argue that Teal’c is a changed man and doesn’t deserve to be executed. They question Teal’c about his betrayal of Apophis and point out that Teal’c has since fought against his former comrades many times. Then Daniel discovers while wandering the village during a recess that the Byrsa use hiding tunnels to escape the Goa’uld and that no clan leaves their weaker members behind in their flight – “We all go, or none of us do.” Daniel argues at the Cor-Ai that in choosing the disabled member of the clan for execution, Teal’c saved the lives of many others. Hanno is not convinced and sentences Teal’c to death by his own staff weapon. Meanwhile, Jack and Sam return to the SGC and ask for reinforcements. General Hammond refuses, pointing out that Teal’c is in fact a war criminal and that the Byrsa have just as much right to pursue their war criminals as we do ours.

A disappointed Jack returns to Chartago and finds the village in ruin – the Goa’uld are here and they have figured out where the Byrsa run to hide. Hanno believes that Jack has informed the Goa’uld of their defensive strategy, but when he sees Jack and Sam – and then Teal’c – fighting the Goa’uld on the Byrsa’s behalf, he has a change of heart and releases Teal’c.

The Ratings:

Overall: 7.3 – A strong episode marred by an oversimplified understanding of the military and a too convenient conclusion.

Writing: 8

In many ways, this could’ve been a classic episode – something we might’ve written up as a feature. Cor-Ai is indeed a necessary story told, I believe, with considerable fairness to both sides. Up until the final act, it was pregnant with a sense of the enormity of Teal’c’s past sins, and Teal’c’s refusal to hide from the temporal punishment due to him increases my respect for the character by leaps and bounds. There is a reason Teal’c is my favorite.

However, this episode falls short of the perfect ten because I found the ending rather convenient. If Hanno is so convinced that no present good can erase a past evil – and I don’t think he’s wrong here – why would one more selfless act change his perspective? After building a great story that highlights just how difficult forgiveness really is, the writers undermine the strength of the narrative with Hanno’s easy about-face.

Acting: 7

Everyone here seems to err on the side of unsubtlety at times – even Chris Judge, who in later seasons is usually very good at restraining himself while still conveying the complexity of Teal’c’s inner life. Granted, this episode is supposed to be emotional, but several times, I found myself wishing the director had dialed back the yelling. Teal’c’s scene in which he describes the extent of his guilt, for example, does not have as much variety as it should.

Message: 7

I was disappointed in Jack and the writers for floating the “following orders” excuse. The reality of the military is far more complex than that. Yes, there is a chain of command that all soldiers, sailors and airmen must respect – and yes, if junior officers and enlisted men constantly questioned all of their orders, the cohesion of the military would fall apart (Dad points out that such constant questioning is what led to the demise of the communist forces during the Spanish Civil War) – but no good commanding officer wants mere automatons for subordinates. Moreover, if a commanding officer issues an order that seemingly violates the Constitution, the rules of honorable warfare, or human rights, those under his command are, according to Dad, strongly encouraged to question that order. Commanders may come under heavier fire for atrocities in a time of war because their responsibility is perceived to be greater, but their subordinates are not considered completely blameless.

On the other hand, I greatly appreciate that Teal’c (and Hanno to a certain extent) is allowed to make a powerful case for the value of retribution (as distinct from revenge). Too often, those in the elite left – including those in the performing arts – make sin a numbers game. They behave as if a lifetime of protecting puppies, orphans, and old ladies absolves a man of mortal sins up to and including murder. But the reality is, there is nothing a man can do to erase such sins. That is something only God can do – and even then, you are not freed from any temporal punishment you deserve. I have remarked to friends that I would like to see a movie in which an inmate on death row, after converting to Catholicism, begs to be executed over the objections of those who believe he’s “reformed.” In this episode, Teal’c is that death row inmate.


TEAL'C: “Hanno's father died by my hand. No one else's. I am responsible. What I did while serving Apophis, I will not hide from.”
JACK: “Even if the punishment is death?”
TEAL'C: “Then that is what I deserve.”

TEAL’C: “While in the service of Apophis I did many things. For these deeds, my victims deserve retribution.”
JACK: “Can we focus on this one case only for now please?”
TEAL'C: “This case represents the many.”
JACK: “Well it shouldn't! Why? Why are you doin' this?”
TEAL'C: “When I look into Hanno's eyes, I see the horror on the faces of many others, as their loved ones prepare for Goa'uld absorption. Worse yet is the face of the victims whom I selected as they realize they are about to take their final human breath. Hanno's father is not the first nor the last of those whose lives I've taken. And I have done far worse, O'Neill. I cannot give all of their loved ones retribution, but I can at least give it to this one. I am sorry, O'Neill. I will not run.” – Genuine repentance is a true gem. I have only seen it in one other place to my recollection.

HANNO: “You have made a compelling argument that this Jaffa's more recent and continuing good should somehow negate his past evil. I have but one final question. Can his recent actions, or any future actions, return my father from the dead?”
DANIEL: “No, no, of course not.”
HANNO: “Then clearly no amount of good in the present can erase what he has done in the past.” – Again, Hanno is not wrong here. You cannot erase sin.

CARTER: “General Hammond, sir, if I may. Even setting aside that Teal'c is our friend, how can you let such a valuable information resource be taken away?”
HAMMOND: “These people's laws in this regard are no different from our own. We don't stop pursuing war criminals because they have a change of heart.”
O'NEILL: “War criminals?”
HAMMOND: “Yes, Colonel, he is! Like it or not, what the Jaffa have done to these people and thousands of other people is a crime.” – And it is great to see the show acknowledge this.

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