Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Stargate SG-1--"Beast of Burden"

Daniel’s Unas buddy, Chaka, is captured by slave traders because, thanks to daniel, Chaka is far too trusting of humans. The entire capture--including the address of the slave traders’ stargate--is conveniently caught on camera. Daniel wants to rescue his friend. Jack is not keen on risking lives on such a mission, but reluctantly goes along with it because the slave traders are using Goa’uld weapons. It would be prudent to find out what else they have of Goa’uld origin. What they discover is an agrarian society wherein unas are used as slave labor.

The humans there used to be slaves of the Goa’uld. The Goa’uld used Unas as slave drivers. The humans rose up and overthrew the Goa’uld. Afterwards, they took the unas as slaves in payback. Over the years, the Unas have been inbred so far they have become untrainable, so now the humans travel to the only other planet they know to capture more Unas. The Unas are and always have been beasts, so there is no moral issue at stake as far as the people are concerned. The unas do not know any different, either.

I was about a third of the way into the episode making Planet of the Apes comparisons when it dawned on me the episode aired during the same summer tim Burton’s less than stellar remake hit theaters. The main character in each version has a different idea about the scope of his predicament. George Taylor only wants to escape imprisonment with his newfound girlfriend and forget the rest of the human slaves. Leo Davidson is concerned with his fellow slaves’ plight. Taylor is a cynic, while Davidson is an idealist. You should have already guessed jack is Taylor and daniel is Davidson in ‘Beast of Burden.”

The episode is quite literally the moral debate between Jack and Daniel over how to best handle the situation. Jack does not want to risk anything serious in order to free Chaka. Indeed, he expresses complete ambivalence over Chaka’s capture when he is first made aware. He is not going to go in guns blazing regardless. Daniel can only negotiate for Chaka’s sale, which falls through. It is only after Daniel’s absolute refusal to return to earth without freeing Chaka that Jack agrees to sneak in the cover of night with absolutely no bloodshed. The mission goes wrong, and the two are imprisoned as Unas thieves.

This is where the real heart of the episode lies. The two sit in jail quarreling over how to proceed. To his credit, Jack is sympathetic, but a realist. Yes, the Unas are enslaved. Yes, they are brutally abused. In fact, there are no scenes of humans treating Unas with any degree of decency, though there is an Unas who is gently caring for a small child. What is going on here is a way of life. The Unas do not even know what freedom is. Others will have to fight on their behalf to free them, and that means people will die. Jack wants to escape with the help of Sam and Teal’c and that be the end of it. They will take Chaka to placate Daniel.

Daniel is not going to be fully placated, however. Often his idealism crosses the line into absurd naivete. This is one of those times. He witnesses Chaka explain the concept of freedom to the other unas. There is a spark of recognition within them. To his credit, daniel does not advocate SG-1 help overthrow the slavers. But after everyone has escaped, he realizes Chaka plans to stay and forment rebellion. Daniel goes along with the idea, even after Chaka kills the chief slave trader in cold blood at a point when he is wounded and helpless. Daniel advises chaka he does not have to kill to free his people, then hands him a gun.

What happens next is up to the imagination, but it is not a stretch to believe Jack is right. Daniel just inadvertently sparked off a war in which innocent people are going to die. Even in the best case scenario, the Unas will be free, but then what? We did not see any people sympathetic to them. The Unas winning a bloody war over the people is not going to encourage a positive change. There are no abolitionists now. There will be no Freddmen’s Bureau later. The future is going to be chaos all over an idealistic principle that is likely so far out there as to be unattainable.

I appreciate the unsinkable nature of the moral debate. Not many television series would tackle such a no win situation, much less end the story with the idea things are going to turn out very badly even in the best case scenario. Not only that, but it is one of the heroic main characters who puts it all in motion. Worse yet, daniel appears concerned, but strangely satisfied by the result.

Rating; *** (out of 5)

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