Spoiler alert: This is a foundational SG-1 episode, so if you’re a newbie, consider watching it before reading this review.
“Thor’s Hammer” is perhaps the most important episode of SG-1‘s first season. That’s not the same as saying it’s the best, as it’s not as delightfully constructed as “The Nox.” But it takes its cue from that episode by introducing the Asgard, the non-Goa’uld race of aliens known to Earth as the Norse gods, who are a sort of intermittent galactic police force.
Having the Asgard around is, narratively, a smart move. After all, if the galaxy is host to so many intelligent, technologically advanced species, why haven’t any of them taken more of a stand against the Goa’uld? And even if the Tau’ri find some incredible technology, it would still take time to understand it and train with it — how could they plausibly stave off the Goa’uld this season? The introduction of the Asgard neatly solves both problems, and gives us the emotional satisfaction of knowing that there are good aliens willing to ally with humanity.
Before getting into the episode itself, I’d like to take a minute to talk about the way it identifies those good aliens with the Norse gods. (I’m aware that much of what I’m about to discuss is locally due to Katharyn Powers, but she didn’t write in a vacuum, and nothing introduced in this episode gets retconned later in the series.)
The idea that any culture’s gods might have been evil aliens walks the line of offensiveness, and Stargate generally puts a lot of work into staying on the right side of that line. It goes to great lengths to endow every individual character with agency and self-awareness. But the way that “Thor’s Hammer” has Daniel introduce the idea that the Norse gods might have been good aliens instead of bad comes very close to undoing all that work.
Daniel: If you study myths worldwide, it looks as if there were two different kinds of star gods. The tyrants, who treated their subjects like cattle, demanded absolute obedience, utilized their technology to punish and control.
Carter: As in the Goa’uld.
Daniel: Yes. And [then there were] the culture-bearers, who used their technology to benefit humans.
Hammond: Any indications of who they [the culture-bearers] are?
Daniel: Yes, sir. The Vikings. Now, in Norse mythology, the gods were powerful warriors. Legend tells us that the god Thor was a friend to humans and protected them from the Aettans, beings of great power and knowledge who were enemies of mankind.
That’s it. That’s the entire argument for why Stargate thinks the Norse gods should be good guys.
It’s hard to put into words how shockingly oblivious this is, and that’s putting it very, very mildly. Do the Stargate writers really think that the Vikings were the only culture whose gods were powerful warriors who protected humans from demons? Because if so, I’ve got news: EVERY PERSON WHO HAS EVER EXISTED BELIEVED THAT ABOUT THEIR GODS. Religion sprang from the human need to believe in super-powered entities who shield us from dark and chaotic forces. You don’t even have to be an anthropologist to know this. All you have to do is read literally ANY myth from a religious tradition that isn’t yours.
Now, it would be one thing if “Thor’s Hammer” introduced this argument only to knock it down. But the rest of the episode confirms that, indeed, the Norse gods are the good guys who shield humanity from the Goa’uld. In my opinion, this is where Stargate gets indefensibly racist.
See, I think the flimsiness of Daniel’s argument is pretty obvious. In fact, it was so obvious in the episode itself that Daniel didn’t get to finish what he was saying, because O’Neill saw that Hammond was about to respond with incredulity and jumped in to redirect the conversation. That his argument bears fruit — and even worse, that the good aliens identify themselves as the Asgard in a message recorded for Goa’ulds, which immediately shows that they only ever protected one human culture — only makes sense in light of an impulse I call But Not Us. Yes, our media franchise is premised on the idea that ancient Egyptians and Africans and Greeks and Indians and Sumerians and everyone else on Earth based their religions around the worship of evil aliens, but we, white Stargate writers of northern European descent, feel an emotional connection to Norse mythology, so we’d feel bad casting the Norse gods as Goa’ulds. Plus, it makes narrative sense to have some good aliens in the world we’re creating, so let’s kill two birds with one stone and make the Norse gods the good guys.
This is lazy and self-indulgent by itself, but the wider implications are what make it really racist. By making the Norse gods, and only the Norse gods, good aliens interested in protecting humanity, the writers are retroactively making a statement about all the cultures whose gods they depict as Goa’ulds: namely, that those people weren’t “chosen,” that they never had rulers who looked like them and “used technology to benefit humans,” and that their indigenous religions, many of which sprang from the same cultural complex as Norse mythology, were, for them, oppressive rather than uplifting. Up until this point, the fact that the majority of Goa’uld slave cultures are non-white seems like a straightforward, if slightly annoying, way to feature actors of color. But when the writers fail to turn that critical lens on their own ancestral culture, their viewpoint starts looking more like full-blown colonialism.
My guess is that, if confronted with this argument, the writers would defend their decision because of the perception that the Vikings were more socially egalitarian than other ancient cultures. They might point to the many Viking skeletons who were assumed to be male but who, on closer examination, are turning out to be honored women warriors. Or they might talk about the Vikings’ skill as navigators, which enabled vast trade networks that spanned Eurasia and touched the Americas. But the historiography of Viking studies shows that much of this perception comes from nineteenth-century romanticizations of the Vikings as ancestral white people.
In actual fact, the Vikings’ wealth most likely derived from the Eurasian slave trade; the demand for slave bodies may well have been the motivation for the centuries of terror the North European coast experienced at their hands. And their chief method of acquiring new technology was not to invent it themselves, but to head to the Middle East and North Africa — you know, those societies that Stargate thinks were so oppressed that they couldn’t conceive of using science to help themselves — and trade female slaves for it. In this light, it seems quite possible that the Vikings’ famed egalitarianism may have come from the same place as white male equality in the early American colonies, i.e., the uniting of a master class in the oppression of others. This isn’t to imply that non-white people weren’t just as culpable in slave trading, patriarchy, and classism as Europeans, but the conflation of Viking culture with the powerful and good depends on focusing on those flaws in non-northern-European cultures while eliding them in the Vikings, and that’s what makes this argument so hard to swallow. (Why not just have the good aliens assume the identity of the good gods in every Earth culture?)
In “Thor’s Hammer,” this comes through most clearly in the character of Kendra. It’s very interesting to me that Kendra was cast as a black woman. Was this an attempt to undercut the racism inherent in privileging the Vikings above all other ancient peoples? If so, it didn’t work, because if you don’t implicitly accept the Vikings as deserving of that privilege, her story looks like a nicer phrasing of the classic white savior narrative. Sure, she has agency, and watching her exercise that agency does go some way towards redeeming her plot. But the episode isn’t troubled by the idea that her suffering might be indirectly due to the Asgards’ protection of one human culture over all others, or by how she’s compelled to accept that culture banishing her to its margins as the price of her freedom. In fact, Kendra thanks Daniel for his support, as if his neverending questions about the most traumatic time in her life magically supplied her with the intelligence and kindness necessary to lead total strangers through mountains she barely remembered to save their friends. The intent may have been to convey that non-white people are just as capable as anyone else, but what actually comes through is that that capability is only made possible through interaction with white people. It’s just gross.
You may be wondering why I watch Stargate when I disagree so strongly with one of its central story choices. The reason is because, while Stargate does seem unwilling to fully confront how race informs its series arc, it has an almost unmatched ability to depict individual characters as, well, individuals. No one that SG-1 interacts with is defined solely by their race, species, or gender; the vast majority of characters act in reasonable ways that are informed but not dictated by their circumstances. Its willingness to dispense with the idiot ball means that Stargate‘s plots develop much more organically, and are subsequently much more interesting, than the contrivances of most episodic television. And following those developments to their natural conclusion means that the show occasionally, and unexpectedly, rises above itself.
“Thor’s Hammer” exemplifies this part of Stargate too, through its plot with O’Neill and Teal’c. When the Asgard device outside the Stargate identifies Teal’c’s Goa’uld and sends him to the labyrinth, O’Neill ends up going along for the ride — not just because the plot demands it, but because O’Neill’s defining character trait is that he’s the guy who pulls his teammates out of death laser beams. This is all for the best, because the O’Neill/Teal’c dynamic is reliably excellent. Snark and deadpan are never not funny together, and here the combination is elevated by the characters’ mutual selflessness, which gives their interactions some genuine joy.
As O’Neill and Teal’c make their way through the labyrinth, they soon realize that their camaraderie has attracted a shadow of the ugly past: Unas, the very first Goa’uld host. (It’s ambiguous in this episode, but later it’s made clear that Unas refers to the species, not just that individual specimen.) Thanks to the regenerative powers of the Goa’uld, conventional weapons can only delay him a little. But Thor’s Hammer has the power to kill Goa’uld, so O’Neill and Teal’c sensibly lure Unas to the end of the labyrinth and use the Hammer against him. Crucially, it’s Teal’c who deals the death blow. It’s Teal’c’s first chance to slay his own personal demons, and it’s incredibly satisfying to watch. There’s just one problem: he can’t leave, because Thor’s Hammer will kill him too.
This is a perfect symbol of the narrow-mindedness I talked about earlier. Just as the Asgard overlooked every non-Norse race on Earth, they also clearly overlooked the many Goa’uld carriers who still control their own minds. So the emotional climax of the episode is not Teal’c killing Unas, but Daniel destroying the Hammer. It’s the perfect resolution not just for their individual arcs, but for the entire idea that it’s possible to define someone’s character through their biology. Whether intentionally anti-racist or not, it certainly plays as a self-aware nod from the writers, and the surprise of that self-awareness is what saves the episode.
It also sets up one of SG-1‘s best and most unique (for the genre) themes, which is its emphasis on relationship-building over sheer military dominance. O’Neill and the team could well have decided that keeping Thor’s Hammer around was worth leaving Teal’c in the labyrinth while creating an alternate exit, or perhaps even indefinitely. Instead, the writers chose to affirm the value of people over technology. That’s not always the order of priorities in science fiction, and SG-1‘s willingness to overturn that convention is part of why it’s aged so well.
There’s probably even more to say about “Thor’s Hammer,” but this review is already twice the usual length, so I’m going to leave the main discussion here. Suffice it to say that, while “The Nox” opens the door to new possibilities, “Thor’s Hammer” kicks the wall down and grabs all the shiny ideas it can see. All that glitters is not gold, but on balance, the haul is worth the effort.
- I love Daniel’s enthusiasm for his weird box thingy. I know it’s based on the gold disc sent with the Voyager mission, but it’s so weird and his enthusiasm for it is so great.
- You can tell this was pre-MCU, because a) nobody can pronounce Mjollnir and b) “Thor”‘s beard is so long.
- This is also the first episode to float the idea that the Goa’uld didn’t build the Stargates, and the first time they show that a human can use Goa’uld technology without a Goa’uld inside them. So much foreshadowing!
- Jeez, Kendra’s dress is gorgeous. It rivals Eowyn’s outfits in Lord of the Rings.
- “O’Neill, are you considering the same tactic as I?”