The first time I watched Stargate SG-1‘s fourth season episode “The Other Side,” I was deeply impressed. I already loved the show, but this episode was on another level. It is also the episode that made me aware of just how much the series deals with ethics. It suddenly made sense that a university in Washington State was offering an ethics class focused on this show.
“The Other Side” begins with an unexpected event: instead of our intrepid explorers venturing to a new planet and making first contact, Earth is the one contacted by another civilization of humans – and they need our help. The planet is neck-deep in a world war, and the Eurondans who contact the S.G.C. are desperate. Without material aid in the form of heavy water to fuel their defense systems, they face imminent destruction at the hands of their enemy.
But what they lack in resources, they make up for in advanced technology.
With their standing orders to find new technologies to help in the fight against the Goa’uld, SG-1 is authorized to make a trade deal, which Jack pursues aggressively. He shuts down Daniel’s concerns about getting involved without knowing the whole story and taking advantage of the Eurondan’s desperation. Jack even takes an advanced, remotely piloted aircraft squadron for a test drive, shooting down an unmanned enemy reconnaissance plane.
The fact that the Eurondans didn’t tell Jack that prolonged use of the technology can lead to brain damage barely slows him down. The first event that seems to shake his resolve occurs when Jack again uses the technology — but this time, unbeknownst to him, the enemy aircraft is manned. He’s not happy when he realizes he has actually taken a life.
But it’s still not a deal-breaker. He wants that trade deal, and doesn’t seem to care at what cost.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
At first glance, “The Other Side” may seem like an odd episode. It’s hardly unusual for Jack and Daniel to clash. But in this episode Jack is downright rude to his friend, even going so far as to tell him to “shut up.” He’s also rude to Sam, which almost never happens.
But if it seems out of character for Jack to take such an aggressive approach to securing a trade agreement with the Eurondans — without getting the whole story — then placing the episode in context may help.
“The Other Side” is the second episode in Season Four, directly following Earth’s first encounter with the Replicators. In that story the metallic, bug-shaped Replicators nearly kill Sam, Jack, Teal’c, and Thor, and threaten to take over Earth itself. Despite their superior technology, the Asgard have been unable to defeat them.
For this reason, the Asgard Protected Planets Treaty that keeps Earth safe from the Goa’uld is shown to be, in truth, little more than a bluff. And now there is a very real possibility that the Asgard, Earth’s only advanced ally willing to go to bat for us if necessary, might actually be defeated by the Replicators. That would leave Earth vulnerable to Goa’uld attack.
The need to acquire advanced technology has never been more urgent. And it’s not just Jack who thinks so. Before they head through the gate to Euronda, General Hammond reminds Jack of this need — something he doesn’t normally do.
Seen through this contextual lens, Jack’s behavior in “The Other Side” makes more sense. But that doesn’t make it right.
THE ETHICAL PROBLEM
There is actually more than one ethical problem in this episode, but the first and most obvious problem presented is whether the ends justify the means. Is it alright to become involved in someone else’s conflict without all the facts, for the sake of gaining something good (in this case, technology)? Is it alright to essentially take advantage of the other party’s weakness to gain that access?
Jack proposes to do both in this episode. Daniel, of course, argues against both of these tactics, and Sam quietly supports his argument when the two of them speak with General Hammond about the situation.
Typically, the S.G.C. does not operate on an opportunistic basis. Nor do they operate on the premise that the ends justify the means. With some notable exceptions (see Season Two’s “Spirits”), the S.G.C. tries to take the moral high ground. This means the way they do business with other worlds matters. And the character of those they do business with matters, too.
“The Other Side” is an interesting scenario because Jack seems content for his ignorance in this situation to be bliss. As long as they don’t know the particulars and can simply take the Eurondans’ word for how the war started, SG-1 and Earth maintain deniability. They can supply the Eurondans with the heavy water they need to defend themselves, and carry the fight back to their enemy with a theoretically clean conscience. And they can receive the Eurondans’ technology … free of complications.
But a “see no evil” approach only works until you’ve seen the evil. And Jack catches a glimpse he can’t ignore when Alar suggests that Teal’c remain on Earth because he’s “not like us.” There had been tensions between Alar and Teal’c before, but they could be put down to cultural differences. But Alar’s pointed request is enough of a red flag that Jack does a 180 in his attitude — going from telling Daniel to shut up, to telling him to ask all the questions he wants.
However willing Jack may have been to jump in bed with the Eurondans without knowing the details of their war with the “Breeders,” the realization that they may be racist pulls him up short. That is one thing Jack will not tolerate, so much so that he doesn’t just shrug it off as being the attitude of one person but makes the connection between Alar’s apparent bigotry and all the other tiny little things that were making Daniel question the alliance to begin with.
Sure enough, our team members separately discover the Eurondans’ secret: that they are racist toward their enemy, the so-called “Breeders” who come in all shapes, sizes, and colors; that they are themselves white supremacists, consisting only of Aryan-looking specimens; and that they triggered the war by poisoning the atmosphere in an attempted genocide of those they considered racially impure.
And so, by taking that “ends justify the means” approach, Earth nearly took the side of an otherworldly Hitler.
Jack’s response to this revelation is immediate. He actually begins to respond before Sam and Daniel report their discoveries. Feigning continued cooperation, he and Teal’c man two of the Eurondans’ remotely piloted fighter aircraft squadrons when the base comes under attack. But instead of helping, like Jack had done before, they turn the ships to escort the enemy bombers, and fire on other Eurondan fighters.
As a finishing touch, Jack kamikazes his remote squadron into the surface above them, further damaging the underground complex where the Eurondans and their thousands of “genetically pure” brethren in stasis launched their plot to murder the “Breeders.”
The complex begins to crumble all around them, and as SG-1 heads for the Stargate Jack advises the Alar not to follow them.
Here we have a new ethical quandary: Once Jack knew the truth about the Eurondans, what was the appropriate response? It’s easy to say he should have cut off the trade talks and left the Eurondans’ to their fate – that much seems obvious. But was it right not just to do that but take it a step further and turn against them, knowing that doing so would destroy their facility and all the lives within it? Jack obviously thinks so, and his team does not offer any opposition to the Colonel’s choice to take sides.
Certainly one could make the argument that the Eurondans brought this upon themselves. And without Earth supplying them with heavy water for their shields, their days (indeed, their hours) were numbered anyway. But the practical difference here is that, by destroying the Eurondans, Jack prevented further loss of life among their innocent enemy.
THE FINAL ERROR
One of the most memorable and fascinating things about “The Other Side” as an episode is the ending. SG-1 returns to the S.G.C. after Jack warned Alar not to follow them. There will be no rescue of the Eurondans here. Jack steps through the wormhole … and orders the technicians in the control room to close the iris. A moment later, we hear the thud that is obviously Alar dying on impact with the iris as he tried to follow the team through the Stargate.
It would be easy for us, as passive viewers, to cheer the triumph of the good guys, cheer the death of the bad guy, and move on with our day.
Thankfully, the show doesn’t let us.
Instead, we are left with Sam’s reaction to Jack’s actions. She had stepped through the gate and immediately turned to face it, weapon up and ready to cover Alar when he came through behind the Colonel. She was obviously expecting him to, and no wonder – he had just begged them for sanctuary, offering all of his knowledge in spite of what Jack had just done to sabotage the Eurondan’s war effort.
Jack, just as obviously, also expected Alar to follow. There would be no need to order the iris to be closed if he didn’t. Bringing an end to an unjust war by sabotaging the bad guys has ethical merit … but knowingly causing the death of a now powerless individual seeking refuge, without a trial, is problematic to say the least.
This is the perspective we get with those lingering shots on Jack and Sam’s faces after Jack gives that order. This is the perspective we’re left with, as Sam silently rejects Jack’s admonition to not be sorry about how things turned out. She walks out of the Gate Room without a word. But her eyes are full of censure, and the final shot of Jack leaves us with the uncomfortable feeling that she is right.
Our heroes aren’t perfect. They are human beings, and they make mistakes.
Stargate SG-1 explored those nuances so responsibly, by holding its characters accountable to their own ethical standards — and trusting their audience to bear the weight of it.