In a series that explores ethics almost as often as it explores alien planets, "Pretense" is Stargate SG-1's richest and most ambitious exploration to date. In addition to raising important moral issues, "Pretense" delivers interesting character development and the long-awaited resolution of a plot thread that originated in the pilot episode.
"Pretense" asks the viewer to consider some of the most compelling and enduring ethical issues: what does it mean to be alive and when is the taking of another life justified? The question of the morality of the seekers is taken out of the equation; the Tollan and Lya refuse to consider whether Klorel or Skaara is the "better" person, leaving a decision to be made purely on the underlying principles -- which are neither clear nor universally agreed upon.
Goa'uld must have hosts to live; can this need justify the taking of another life? Is life as a host to a Goa'uld, with no will of one's own, actually life? What is the definition of sentient life -- or is that distinction merely one of comparison, rather than objective qualification?
Although choosing between the manifestly evil Klorel and the sympathetic Skaara at first seems easy, a look at how we treat life and sentience issues in American society reveals that these are questions we still debate. How we describe sentience and what legal rights should be accorded lower life forms is continually challenged by animal rights activists. The American legal system allows some killing for self-preservation, and our Constitution has been judged to permit the killing of unborn children, even those fully-developed and capable of existing on their own, for any reason, including personal convenience or the harvesting or organs and tissues to serve others.
"Stargate" chooses television's favorite venue for exploring these issues: the courtroom. The episode not only explores these overarching issues, but also uses the occasion to tell us about the personality and beliefs of the characters. Skaara selects both Jack and Daniel to be his arkons because he realizes the benefits of the different but complimentary strengths each character holds.
Jack sees people and their actions primarily as either bad or good. He has a set of principles and beliefs that he applies to all situations, and that he strongly defends. We see from his judgment of Lya and his arguments against Klorel that Jack sees the universe in terms of allies and enemies, good and bad. Lya is an "ally" and a good person who will see that the Goa'uld are bad. Jack repeatedly points out that the Goa'uld got where they are through theft and are evil, scheming parasites, a fact he emphasizes when he taps Travell's view screen after a Goa'uld mothership suspiciously appears.
This may be why he is so continually frustrated by the Tollan and the Asgard, who often refuse to taken an active role in helping Earth defeat the Goa'uld, and with the Tok'ra, who claim to be "good" Goa'ulds. To Jack, there is a struggle between evil and good taking place, in which all must take sides. His attitude is a necessary one for the soldier in the field defending his home: there is a good and evil, and the protection of home and furtherance of his interests is the primary goal. His refusal to accept the idea that the evil Goa'uld would play fair lead Sam and Teal'c to discover that there is some plan to disrupt the triad in the works.
While Daniel also believes that there is right and wrong, he is more able to empathize with other cultures and to be more sensitive and diplomatic. While Jack's primary goal is protection and defense, Daniel is more oriented towards understanding and alliance-building. His somewhat sarcastic line, "I know all this weapons chatter gets my blood pumping, but can we get back to the triad?" emphasizes his different orientation. He vigilantly ensures that, in fighting the Goa'uld, we do not become like them, and tries to ensure that overarching ethical concerns and values are considered in making decisions.
During the triad, Daniel presents his arguments diplomatically, more aware of the importance of following protocols. He directs his arguments specifically to what would be effective with Lya and High Chancellor Travell. As we see from this and other episodes, Daniel and Jack's differing skills and approaches each have merit -- and although they can be a source of conflict, they can also serve a valuable complimentary purpose.
Other ethical issues are visited in this episode. After the treachery of the Goa'uld is revealed, Sam questions Lya about her willingness to hide weapons that she knows will be used to take life. Lya admits that she has walked a fine line, but does not believe she has violated her pacifist principles.
We also see from Teal'c's actions in direct defiance of O'Neill's orders that Teal'c will put his own view of the stakes of the situation and the fight against the Goa'uld above his loyalty to Earth -- or to Jack -- if he believes it necessary. While all ended well in "Pretense," this may come back to haunt SG-1 (see Season Four's "Exodus").
The episode also gives us other elements of character and plot development, the biggest of which is Skaara's freedom from the Goa'uld Klorel, which has possessed him for nearly three years. Though the ending of the episode is open, Skaara's statement that he has been watching and learning from his evil symbiote indicate that he has information that may be useful in the fight against the Goa'uld.
The happy resolution of this plot point is satisfying, especially for Jack, for whom Skaara is a surrogate son. Daniel's smile seemed somewhat wistful; he was pleased for being able to rescue his brother-in-law, but wondering why he could not do the same for his wife.
In "Pretense" we also see another indication of how greatly Sam has been affected by her joining with the Tok'ra Jolinar. Her explanation to Narim that she is unable to begin a relationship while she is still separating her emotions from that of the symbiote is a disappointment to Narim, with whom she has shared some affection, but is consistent with the theme of confusion and recovery that has been present in this episode, and in several episodes this season.
"Pretense" is an excellent conclusion to one of the series' principle storylines. It deftly combines plot development with the exploration of compelling ethical questions and insight into the characters. It is an outstanding episode.
Rating: * * * *