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Stargate | Teal’c on Trial: Can ‘Cor-Ai’s War Crimes be Redeemed?

Dial the Gate‘s David Read weighs up justice and redemption in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘Cor-Ai’ as Teal’c’s past catches up with him.

“It is not our abilities that show what we truly are. It is our choices.”

Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Teal’c is a Hero. He betrayed his god and walked away from the life he knew, leaving behind his wife, his son, and his future. He would spend the next decade battling those who would attempt to coerce others to worship false gods and would free countless societies from oppression at the hands of the Goa’uld, Ori, and others.

Teal’c is a Murderer. He took part in a system that oppressed societies across the known galaxy, executing people who defied his god’s commands and enslaving hundreds of thousands in order to keep the wheels of war turning. He personally selected humans to become hosts to the Goa’uld and his staff weapon was wielded against thousands.

Teal’c is a Victim. Born into a system of feudal oppression, he had few options for survival and advancing his station. His father was murdered at the hands of a rival god, and as a result, he and his mother were forced to flee to another planet to survive. There, they dealt with the scorn of being outsiders. What he did under Apophis, he did to protect his wife, and his son, and keep himself alive.

Perspective is everything.

Stargate Philosophy is a regular feature from Dial the Gate‘s David Read that deals with some of the complex ethical dilemmas raised in the show. 💭

New articles are published every two weeks so check back soon.

The Stargate SG-1 Episode ‘Cor-Ai’

Many years ago – as seen in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘Cor-Ai’ (S1, Ep15) – Teal’c (Chris Judge) visited planet Cartago as First Prime of Apophis, to take more humans to be slaves for the Goa’uld. The Byrsa, the local people, were very loyal to each other. Under no circumstances would they leave a member of their people behind before running and hiding on foot.

The Byrsa maintained caves and tunnels in all directions of the Stargate. When the lights of the chevrons would begin to glow, the Byrsa knew they would have only a few moments to disappear before the Goa’uld would arrive. As First Prime, Teal’c had studied their strategy. He knew this. He had also secretly renounced Apophis – but only to himself.

On this particular visit, Teal’c was forced to make an example of one of the Byrsa for their disobedience. By the orders of Apophis (Peter Williams), he was to select one of the Byrsa to kill. In a crowd of people, he saw an old man reaching his hand out to Teal’c. In his other hand was a cane to keep balance.

An old man wearing peasant clothes leans on a stick and offers his hand towards the camera.
Hanno’s father reaches out to Teal’c (Chris Judge) in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘Cor-Ai’ (S1, Ep15). | MGM, 1998.

Teal’c Chose: He chose to kill an old man knowing that, with him removed from the group, the Byrsa might run fast enough next time that they may evade Apophis and his Jaffa. They would not flee the Stargate so slowly. As one Byrsa would later say, “We all go, or we all stay.”

Teal’c Chose. He chose not to disobey the orders of his god and to do a terrible thing. He chose to leave a young boy fatherless, and solidify the point that the Goa’uld are a bloodthirsty mob who will not show mercy to the weak and infirm.

Teal'c, wearing his Serpent Guard, armour, looks down at his victim. His helmet is open, revealing an expression of horror.
Teal’c (Chris Judge) reluctantly does Apophiss bidding in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘Cor-Ai’ (S1, Ep15). | MGM, 1998.

Teal’c Had No Choice: Surrounded by his commander – his god – and by his men, disobeying would have meant certain death, and any future opportunity to free the entire galaxy from the Goa’uld would be lost. Teal’c would have been executed for contradicting his god. He would never have met Jack O’Neill or the rest of SG-1, witnessed their advanced technology, and correctly deduced that they would be powerful enough to help him defeat the Goa’uld once and for all.

Perspective is everything.

“We don’t stop pursuing war criminals just because they have a change of heart.”

General George Hammond, Stargate SG-1, ‘Cor-Ai’ – S1, Ep15.

During the first year with SG-1, Teal’c returned to Cartago on a routine exploratory mission. Only after arriving through the gate did he realize where his team had been sent. When the Byrsa came out of hiding to confront them, he did not attempt to run. He knew one day he might return to a familiar world where he had done damage. He accepted his fate then and there.

Teal'c looks around warily, Daniel Jackson is asking him a question. In the background the roof of a building made from leaves is visible.
Teal’c (Chris Judge) recognizes Cartago in the opening scene of the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘Cor-Ai’ (S1, Ep15). | MGM, 1998.

When making eye contact with an adult Hanno (David McNally) – the child of the crippled man he murdered – Teal’c communicated in every way that mattered that he was the same person Hanno remembered. Nothing Jack O’Neill (Richard Dean Anderson) said could dissuade either side, and Teal’c was taken away.

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SG-1’s Ethical Dilemma

Jack, Sam (Amanda Tapping), and Daniel (Michael Shanks) were placed in an unusual position. By all accounts, the Byrsa were no match for SG-1’s hardware. SG-1 had technology that would render these people helpless. Additionally, they could bring back additional firepower through the Stargate to ensure extraction of Teal’c from the hands of the Byrsa. Though the result would likely be bloodshed.

Jack in particular shares a certain understanding with Teal’c. With his prior black ops experience, he knows what it’s like to do “some damned distasteful things” under the orders of his superiors. Serving the greater good? Arguably yes. Killing people who would kill others? Very much so. Devoid of innocent bloodshed? Difficult to say, but considering the words Jack uses in a conversation with General Hammond, probably not. His complete career is locked in a file hidden somewhere far away.

Hanno, a young man with dark shoulder-length hair, addresses Teal'c, who has his back to the camera. Hanno looks angry and has a crossbow-like weapon aimed at Teal'c's chest.
Hanno (David McNally) recognizes Teal’c (Chris Judge) as the man who killed his father in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘Cor-Ai’ (S1, Ep15). McNally, who like many Stargate SG-1 cast members had appeared in The Outer Limits, would go on to play Simon in the third season Stargate SG-1 episode Demons (S3, Ep8). | MGM, 1998.

Daniel, like Hanno, has a great reason to hate Teal’c. He knows that Teal’c was responsible for Sha’re (Vaitiare Bandera)’s selection as a host for Amaunet, Apophis’s Goa’uld queen. It is entirely possible that she would have been spared had Teal’c not pulled her out of the crowd.

But these people – Jack, Sam, and Daniel – witnessed something extraordinary. They saw a Jaffa commander turn his weapon on his men at the exact opportunity he saw to free dozens of captives – including SG-1 – from Apophis. Daniel would be completely within his rights to carry his hatred of Teal’c to his grave. He is a victim of Teal’c’s choices, after all.

That’s not what Daniel chose.

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The Trial of Teal’c

Less than a year later, Dr. Jackson would be at Teal’c’s side during the Cor-Ai trial, reinforcing his belief that “a different Teal’c” was responsible for the crimes of the past. Not a different man, but a man tempered by a different perspective.

In Byrsa law, the victim of the crime is the only person qualified to determine the appropriate sentence. Only Hanno has the right to assign value to the life of his father, and the potential sentence that can be carried out upon Teal’c is his alone to decide. Hanno has lived his life under the boot of Jaffa oppression and still is a thoughtful, considerate human being who is willing to hear SG-1 plead their case for their friend’s life.

Daniel Jackson stands in front of Teal'c in an amphitheater. Teal'c is standing on a pedestal. An audience is visible behind them.
Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks) speaks in Teal’c (Chris Judge)’s defense in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘Cor-Ai’ (S1, Ep15). | MGM, 1998.

Hanno acknowledges the arguments of Jack, Sam, and Daniel. Teal’c is a changed man. He is now doing good for many worlds and his death would not further this. He is sharing his knowledge of the Goa’uld freely and is risking his life on a daily basis to stand against his former comrades on the battlefield.

“You have made a compelling argument that this Jaffa’s more recent and continuing good should somehow negate his past evil… Can his recent actions, or any future actions, return my father from the dead?”

Hanno, Stargate SG-1, ‘Cor-Ai’ – S1, Ep15.

Hanno’s father will not be returned to him. He cannot be made whole. These victories against the Goa’uld will not bring back the lives of those Teal’c willfully murdered to further the ends of the Goa’uld. But they must count for something.

Teal'c stands with his face set.
Teal’c (Chris Judge) stands resolute in accepting his judgment in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘Cor-Ai’ (S1, Ep15). | MGM, 1998.

As far as Teal’c goes, he has accepted this fate. Jack repeatedly attempts to prevail upon him that dying this way will not help the long-term fight should he choose to accept Hanno’s decision. But Teal’c is resolute. He knows he cannot give justice to all the innocent lives who have suffered at his hands. But he can at least give it to Hanno. This will have to be enough.

Since leaving the Goa’uld behind, Teal’c has carried the guilt of his decisions. As he admitted to Tomin years later, Teal’c will never be able to forgive himself for his actions.

“There comes a point when a man must refuse to answer to his leader if he is also to answer to his own conscience.”

British prosecutor Sir Hartley Shawcross in his Opening Statement at the Nuremberg Trial – December 4th, 1945.
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Judgment vs Justice

Perspective is everything. The crimes of the past can never be undone. We have to look to the future, and trust that our leaders will make wise and just decisions. If not perfect, then optimal. But what does that mean?

It requires that we maintain a dialogue with each other to find out. It requires that we see each other as human beings and treat one another with as much grace and good faith as we can. This is how we begin to find justice.

Before Teal’c can be executed by his own weapon at Hanno’s hands, the Goa’uld pay another visit to Cartago. Shak’l, one of Teal’c’s former lieutenants, recognizes that he has his former commander in his sights. With the help of the Byrsa, Teal’c kills Shak’l and begins freeing the Byrsa people from the current Jaffa attack. In a split-second decision, he puts his own body in front of a staff weapon burst to free innocent people.

Shak'l, in his Serpent Guard armor with his helmet open, looms over Teal'c, who has just stabbed him. Only the two men's heads are visible, but Shak'l's eyes are wide with shock.
Shak’l (Michasa Armstrong) confronts Teal’c (Chris Judge) in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘Cor-Ai’ (S1, Ep15) and gets a blade to the guts. The British-born Armstrong is a genre regular, with guest roles in Supernatural, Continuum, The Flash, Lucifer, and iZombie. | MGM, 1998.

Hanno witnesses this, and for the first time since Teal’c’s latest visit to his people, he finally can see. The Teal’c who killed his father is now dead. This Teal’c was responsible for – not a death, per se – a transformation of consciousness. A choice. This Teal’c is not the same, and this Teal’c will continue to defend the people who cannot defend themselves. Unless Hanno kills him.

“We have our own wounded to care for. I suggest you take your friend home.”

Hanno, Stargate SG-1, ‘Cor-Ai’ – S1, Ep15.

When is justice met? When is it satiated?

It is not appropriate to ask this question of Teal’c’s victims. Of Mao’s victims. Of Hitler’s victims. Because perspective is everything. To presume otherwise is to say that one person knows better than another because of their lived experiences. But each human’s lived experiences are of equal weight and value, are they not?

As a society, we try to quantify the human experience. We see it demonstrated every day on the news and on social media. But how much of one’s life has been spent as a victim? How much as an oppressor? These approaches are dangerously reductive and seek to reduce the true value and unfulfilled potential of each human life.

The truth is we have all fallen short. We are all victims. We are all victimizers. It depends on your level of resolution. It depends on how far back in time you are willing to go.

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Teal’c Redeemed?

Because of Hanno’s choices, Teal’c was given an opportunity to prove himself to other worlds. Because of Hanno, Teal’c is redeemed.

Teal’c is redeemed in our omniscient eyes. After all, he would go on to contribute to Apophis’s downfall. We know him as no one else can, having witnessed firsthand his past and his present. He has defended countless millions from oppression and helped purge the galaxy of the Goa’uld for all time. The choices he made were never going to be easy, but they were arguably necessary to achieve the freedom of all the worlds under Goa’uld oppression.

But Teal’c will never be redeemed. Individual life is a sacred life, and regardless of his options, Teal’c chose to take hundreds – if not thousands – by his own hand. As he admitted to O’Neill at Hanno’s trial, “I have done far worse.” What horrors does this statement imply? Do not those victims deserve retribution?

“That which is right, just and true can still prevail. If you do not fight for what you believe in, all may be lost for everyone else. But do not fight for yourself, fight for others, others that may be saved through your effort. That is the least you can do.”

Teal’c, Stargate: The Ark of Truth (2008)

Hanno cannot represent the whole. Hanno should not represent the whole. But by some definitions, Hanno does. By a quirk of fate, Teal’c was given the exact opportunity he needed to demonstrate his new purpose. He will fight for the oppressed, against implacable odds. He will continue to be a voice for those who can’t longer speak for themselves.

This is the grace that Hanno gave Teal’c. This is the gift that Hanno gave those who would next be saved.

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David Read is the host and executive producer of Dial the Gate. He has been reporting on the Stargate franchise via since he was 18 years old. He has written for the Official Stargate Magazine, sold Stargate costumes and props through the Propworx auction house, and managed the online community of the ill-fated Stargate Worlds Massively Multiplayer video game. When not working on a Stargate-related project, you’ll likely find him watching Star Trek.

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