“You’ve always been quick to ask questions. This weakness shall be your doom.”
Every Stargate SG-1 fan worth their salt has at least a handful of favorite episodes. The kind of episodes they can (and will) watch over and over again, never tiring of the stories they weave. And, while the likes of ‘Window of Opportunity’ (S4, Ep6) and ‘Nemesis’ (S3, Ep22) always tend to – fairly – crop up on these Top 10 lists, this particular writer has always had an extra soft spot for another, slightly more maligned, chapter in Stargate SG-1’s weaving and rambling tale. One which adds a healthy dollop of the Salem witch trials to our usual sci-fi fare, and then some!
I’m talking, of course, about the worryingly all-too-relevant Stargate SG-1 episode ‘Demons’ (S3, Ep8).
The eighth episode of the show’s third season, ‘Demons’ hurls our motley crew through the wormhole and smack-bang into a medieval civilization. So far, so standard fare (or maybe, ‘fayre’) – well, when it comes to Stargate, that is. And, in yet another serving of traditional fare, it isn’t long before Jack O’Neill (Richard Dean Anderson), Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks), Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping), and Teal’c (Christopher Judge) find themselves in a dangerous predicament.
This time, though, it’s not because they’ve insulted a snakehead. Oh no. Rather, it’s because they’ve been mistaken for… well, for demons. Obviously. Hence the title.
But I’m getting ahead of myself because there is yet another glaring difference between this off-world mission and the others that came before it. As Sam points out to a nonplussed Jack: “This is the first sign of Christianity we’ve encountered.”
It makes for an excellent setup; a devout little community terrorized by an Unas with glowing eyes. An Unas with glowing eyes that’s playing at being… well, not God, but the actual Devil. Clearly all too aware of the fact he doesn’t fit the bill for an all-forgiving and benevolent deity, this Unas has leaned hard into the ritualistic punishment section of the Bible, regularly swooping into town, picking up “five wretched human souls” during the “time of Sacrifice”, and taking them away to… well, one might assume to feast upon long unto the night, but actually to present as host bodies to everyone’s least favorite Goa’uld, Sokar (David Palffy).
That poor community, eh? Terrorized by a bonafide beast! Except… then Daniel translates an etching (written in pre-Chaucer English, no less).
“‘Myn Jesus, by the sorrows thou suffered in thy passion in ye garden, thy scourging and thy crowning with thorns, in thy crucifixion and death show mercy to those who are about to be delivered unto the devil,’” he reads.
“It’s a derivative of the Catholic Prayer for Suffering Souls.”
And herein lies the big problem with this little town. The Unas might be a frightening-looking alien, true, but he’s not the Big Bad of this episode; rather, he is but a cog in a far bigger manmade machine.
The Real Villain of ‘Demons’
The true villain, as it turns out, is the village’s Canon (A. C. Peterson) – an ever-smiling religious leader who claims to speak on God’s behalf. This means – you guessed it – he is the one to cherrypick the human sacrifices for the Unas, thus ridding himself of anyone who might openly challenge him and his position of power.
“Why does he get to choose?” Jack asks.
“He is our spiritual leader. It falls to him to determine those of us whose souls are already possessed with evil.”
Or, in other words, “because he does, that’s why.”
It isn’t long before our beloved Teal’c is – solely due to the fact he looks and behaves differently from the others – accused of witchcraft, beaten to a bloody pulp, and subjected to a series of tests. First up is the Mark of the Devil, in which a mark on the body is insensitive to pain. As the golden tattoo on Teal’c’s forehead is impervious to pain, then, this means things get off to a bad start. Hey, they didn’t call them the Dark Ages because they were poorly lit.
Next up, though, comes the Water Test. We all know how this one goes; if he floats, he’s found guilty and burned at the stake. If he drowns, he’s found innocent and his soul is deemed pure. Kind of a Catch-22, as Sam points out.
For a hot minute, it seems as if Teal’c is a goner; he disappears deep in a stream of bubbles – and he doesn’t come back up. Well, not until they pull his lifeless body out of the water and begin preparing it for a good Christian burial. Gulp.
Thankfully, it later transpires that (of course) he survived drowning by putting himself into a deep state of kelno’reem, during which time the symbiote, in its natural environment, filtered the oxygen from the water and fed it to Teal’c. Way to go, Junior! But, and this is a big but, when he seemingly rises from the dead, The Canon doesn’t fall to his knees and pronounce Teal’c the second Christ. Instead, he goes for the more obvious “DEMON” option and… yes, you guessed it: SG-1 wind up tied to a stake awaiting the arrival of the Unas and the exciting concluding chapter to this tale.
Fake News and Paranoia in ‘Demons’
Now, there are those who have dismissed the episode as being absolutely riddled with cliches. Some have dubbed it “stereotypical,” “predictable,” and even (rudely) “thoroughly uninteresting”. These people, however, couldn’t be more mistaken; ‘Demons’ is one of the show’s most thought-provoking episodes, expertly showing us how faith can fuel everyday cruelty and violence. And it also, in a narrative that feels all too apt for 2022, shows us how fake news can spread like wildfire among communities – particularly when being peddled by a “charismatic leader”.
The Canon relies on a tried-and-tested pattern of control which we’ve seen play out throughout history; he creates a very strong “us-versus-them” narrative. In doing so, he “creates a very strong sense of him being able to come in and create a totally different order and a revolution,” according to Sara E. Gorman, a public-health expert, and her father, Jack M. Gorman, a psychiatrist and CEO of Franklin Behavioral Health Consultants, in their 2016 book, Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us.
Speaking to The Atlantic about the theory behind the “charismatic leader,” the Gormans explain that the “us-versus-them” narrative allows people like ‘Demons’ Canon to sow the seeds of discontent among the masses.
“Once you create a sense of a ‘them,’ you reinforce a strong ‘us.’ And when you reinforce a very strong ‘us,’ a lot of group psychology will sort of kick up,” note the Gormans. “There’s a lot of conformity, there’s a lot of not questioning things because other people seem to be going along with it. It’s harder for individuals who are part of groups to make independent judgments and decisions.”
Adding that “being less specific makes it harder to disagree with them,” the Gormans continue: “[The charismatic leader] also uses fear and personal stories to heighten risk perception. He will lead with stories of individual people who were supposedly murdered by illegal immigrants.
“He also positions himself as the person who will protect all of your rights and all of these huge issues around justice and fairness and freedom of speech. He often will bring things back to those huge issues rather than going into more specifics around various policy issues. That makes it harder to disagree with him, and it creates a sort of authoritarian godlike aura around a person.”
The Canon abuses his position of power, no doubt about it; he even uses a “magic” ring – in truth a piece of Goa’uld technology – to bring lightning down upon those who dare to disagree with him. Still, though, he does it with a smile on his face. Still, he sentences his enemies to their untimely deaths, all as he prays for their redemption. And this, coupled with his masterful grasp on religious exclusion, helps him to draw divisions between the villagers and keep them from working together (and, more importantly, from working against him). Instead, they unwittingly build walls between the so-called chosen and those considered outsiders.
“The Sacrifices allowed the people of this village to survive for generations,” The Canon tells the SG-1 team, dismissing their logical explanations for their group’s apparently ‘demonic’ qualities, not to mention their protestations against his bloodthirsty beliefs.
“Just as the wheat is separated from the chaff, the unclean souls among us must be taken away, through the Circle of Darkness. Forever.”
Perhaps one of the show’s most chilling villains, The Canon doesn’t seem like a Bad Guy at first. A pompous and misguided ass, maybe, but not a Bad Guy. Here’s the thing, though; much like those powerful IRL figures who make it their business to peddle fake news and misinformation, The Canon relies on a tried-and-tested method to make his voice heard above the masses.
Why Tyrants Need Fear
That’s right; he provokes in the villagers their most primitive and powerful emotion – fear. In doing so, he ensures that his voice is deemed more important than all the scientists and experts around him, even in spite of the fact that he is sharing opinions in the face of their facts and logic.
As Jack Gorman explains to The Atlantic: “If the first thing you hear about a topic is something that’s associated with fear, that will often suppress the rational part of the brain. It will be placed into long-term memory by this more primitive part of the brain, and it turns out to be very, very difficult to dislodge that.”
He adds: “The point is, those fears that these charismatic leaders arouse are often committed to permanent indelible memory, and they become extremely hard to dislodge, and they are easy to evoke simply by making people scared again.”
Or, to put it in Teal’c’s easy-to-follow terms: “Your fear is its greatest power over you.
The Canon has, in helping the Unas collect his sacrifices, whipped the people of his village up into a state of almost paralytic fear. They don’t dare question his authority, because they know they’ll wind up chained and awaiting the heavy tread of the Unas. They don’t dare ask questions full stop, actually, because seeking knowledge outside that which they’ve been provided is… well, it’s enough to rattle the Canon. He needs his people to remain compliant. In fact, when Simon suggests that there might be truth to SG-1’s claims about the Goa’uld, the Canon wastes no time in threatening him.
“You’ve always been quick to ask questions,” he tells him. “This weakness shall be your doom. If you persist, I shall be unable to defend you when the next Sacrifice is called.”
Thankfully, we all know how ‘Demons’ ends; the Unas is defeated, our heroes escape a fate worse than death, and the Canon’s lies are silenced. Forever. In real life, though, it’s harder to spot fake news, trickier to keep it from spreading, and almost impossible to stop people from believing it. Thanks to social media, in fact, it’s easier for misinformation to be spread than ever before – and a common maxim of propaganda is that if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.
So what can we do about it? Well, we all need to make like Simon (eventually) and develop a critical mindset. We should check the source of a story, approach its content rationally, and ask ourselves why it’s being shared before we take it as fact.
It’s also worth considering who is sharing the content, and what they’re getting out of it. More importantly, we should check to see if they’re on the side of a muscle-bound beast of an alien with glowing eyes because… well because if they are, it’s fair to assume that they’re not working in your best interests. Even if they are a smiling and charismatic leader.
This article was first published on April 12th, 2022, on the original Companion website.
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