I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started watching “The First Commandment.” I vaguely recalled that it involved Christianity but not any Goa’ulds, which, together with the season 3 episode “Demons,” felt to teenage me like a cop-out from depicting the Abrahamic God in the same way the show depicted ancient gods. At the same time, while the members of SG-1 do have to deal with politics occasionally, the series itself never takes any overtly political stances. So it was a shock to adult me to realize that this episode not only walks right up to the edge of indicting Christianity, but does so in a way that’s uncomfortably relevant to modern politics. In fact, it’s a little eerie how well the writers depict the psychology of a social dominator set loose in a credulous world.
As a story, it’s just okay. On the one hand, we get some excellent moments of Teal’c comedy and Carter awesomeness, as well as a final standoff that crackles with excitement and tension. On the other hand, the story structure has some significant flaws, and the episode is so self-contained, even by SG-1 standards, that it never has a chance to resonate with the viewer.
To recap: it seems Sam Carter was once engaged to a guy named Jonas Hanson. This is the first time it’s been mentioned in the series, although the episode acts like it’s been known all along. Carter broke things off with her ex when she realized he was a little too fond of control, a trait she attributes to spending years in black ops. But now he’s a member of SG-9, whose latest mission took him to a planet with such high UV radiation levels that people die from spending too much time outside during the day. The combination of exposure to this radiation, the cultural predisposition for Gate civilizations to ascribe godhood to anyone who arrives via Stargate, and Hanson’s preexisting penchant for dominance, has caused him to believe that he really is a god. All he needs to seal the deal is the ability to operate a Goa’uld device designed to block the radiation. So he engineers a scheme to bring SG-1 and Carter to his doorstep, betting that she’ll be able to turn it on.
The episode wraps this premise in the structure of a horror film, starting with an immediately familiar shot of two men sprinting through a dark and foreboding forest. One of them trips — thankfully, it’s not the black guy — while the other keeps going and activates the Stargate. Unfortunately, he’s too late to help his companion, who is murdered by a mysterious villain in a hood.
While dramatic, this introduction immediately shows the flaws in the pacing of “The First Commandment.” No respectable horror film shows you the villain in the first thirty seconds; the whole point of the blindly-running-away scene is to build the viewer’s anticipation for the eventual reveal. At most, we should hear the gunshot without knowing where it came from.
That’s not to say that the writers don’t find some ingenious ways to deepen Hanson’s evil. For one, there’s Connor’s description of Hanson’s favored method of execution, tying people to stakes and leaving them outside to die of radiation poisoning. Roger Cross does an incredible job of conveying repulsion mixed with despair as he relays this to SG-1. By the time he adds that he personally would rather commit suicide than undergo that, the viewer is right there with him.
Eventually the episode builds to its first big standoff, in which Carter pulls a gun on Hanson. We’re pretty sure she’s not going to kill him, since she’s one of the good guys. Unfortunately, Hanson knows this too, and like most abusers, he believes that compassion in others is a weakness, while his lack of it shows his inherent superiority. So instead of panicking, he gently, almost invitingly, dares Sam to pull the trigger. For all his posturing in other scenes, William Russ is never more chilling than he is here, calmly staring down the barrel of a gun. By the time he takes it out of Sam’s hands, telling her, “You appeared to have all the power. Yet I was in control. That is the strength of a god,” she, and we, are thoroughly unnerved.
The problem is, this is only the penultimate establishing-the-villain’s-depravity scene. The episode still has one left, in which Hanson asks Sam for her help with the Goa’uld device. Now, usually the villain’s explanation of his evil plan is directly followed by the part where he either reveals his ultimate power, or commits an act so heinous that the hero feels compelled to play along. This is where the episode slams into a wall. Everyone knows Hanson is working the indigenous cave-dwellers to death, especially the cave-dwellers themselves. His ultimate power of psychological manipulation was just shown. He’s already declared himself a god several times, most notably in the earlier scene where Carter asks why he’s posing as one, and he snaps back, “I hate that word ‘posing!'” One popular evil overlord technique is to keep a recalcitrant teammate around to make an example of, but of course Hanson’s already — and, unfortunately, literally — burned through his. The result is a tepid leafing through the Bible and declaring that, when it refers to God, it means him. Just like that, the horror momentum stops, and the premise suddenly feels shallow and flat.
At least the B-plot, in which O’Neill, Daniel, and Teal’c learn about the shield device from a disgruntled worker named Jamala, brings some relief from the weird pacing. It’s supposed to be Daniel’s job to translate between cultures, but this turns out to be Teal’c’s time to shine. He’s not only seen the device before, he knows that creating a successful radiation shield requires two of them, and he’s able to predict the location of the second one. Even better, interacting with Jamala gives Christopher Judge another opportunity to show off his comedic chops. His Teal’c deadpan makes everything instantly funny, up to and including friendly smiles and illustrative notebook sketches.
From here the plot resolves quickly, as Carter activates the device Hanson knows about, it doesn’t work on its own, and Daniel and Jamala swoop in to turn the populace against Hanson. The scene is tense and satisfying, despite playing out exactly as expected. In the end, Hanson dies, Connor’s alive, the valley is shielded, and everyone’s happy. Even Carter doesn’t seem particularly troubled by her ex-fiance’s demise, beyond vaguely wondering if she should have fired the gun earlier and saved the team all this trouble.
Although “The First Commandment” doesn’t explicitly call Christianity an abusive religion, it certainly winks at the concept. Daniel draws a direct parallel between Hanson’s death camp and the story of Abraham and Isaac, while the episode ends with Carter quoting the first commandment in full: “I am the Lord your God, and you shall take no other gods before me.” Hanson spends his free time studying the Bible and monologuing to Carter about how faith in him is the cave-dwellers’ path to salvation. Of course, he also grows steadily more crazed, not to mention burned, as he exposes himself to the planet’s radiation, so the viewer has ample room to draw their own conclusions.
Somewhat more clear-cut is the comparison to today’s politics. Hanson is a domestic abuser with a superiority complex, who’s all too happy to leverage others’ belief in him into absolute power. He has this actual exchange with Carter: “I’m creating a great people.” “In your image?” “Yes! It’s going to be wondrous!” When Daniel and O’Neill ask Jamala why people are following Hanson’s instructions to work during the day, he explains that Hanson has promised that the sooner they finish the temple, the sooner he will
make America great again turn the sky orange again. In fact, arguably the only difference between our president and the villain of a forgettable SG-1 episode is that our president is less competent. The last time I saw a video so unwittingly relevant to today’s politics, it was this one:
Next week I’ll be watching “Cold Lazarus,” “The Nox” (!!!), and “Brief Candle.” Perhaps by then we’ll have found out which of our elected officials is really a hologram generated by an alien crystal (my money’s on Mitch McConnell). See you all then!
- If you’re wondering why every planet looks like the Canadian wilderness, it’s because
they arethe Goa’uld totally terraformed them, for real, you guys.
- “This tastes like chicken.” “So what’s wrong with it?” “It’s macaroni and cheese.”
- “What did you see in him?” “I guess I’ve always had a soft spot for the lunatic fringe.”
- “Make the sky orange?” “Yes, the sky, up there. *points*” This kind of character detail goes a long way towards making the less technological Gate civilizations feel socially equal to modern-day Americans.
- “Good drawing.” “Thank you.”