The second season premiere, S02E01 “The Ancient Astronaut Cover-Up,” asks whether the United States government is covering up evidence to ancient astronauts. Tied to H2’s other hit series, Ancient Aliens (to the extent that they are reusing a great deal of interview footage from that show), the episode brings in the talking heads from Ancient Aliens, including Giorgio Tsoukalos and the now long-dead Philip Coppens, to repeat Ancient Aliens’ claims about ancient astronauts. This is really just a Cliff’s Notes version of Ancient Aliens with a soupcon of panic about how social mores and norms would be thrown aside in a “holocaust of ecstasy and freedom” should the public learn of the existence of aliens.
Do people really watch a show whose opening credits tell us that “some” unidentified people believe that “a book” of America’s top secrets may or may not exist and asks “if such a book exists what would it contain?” The government of the United States is many things, but efficient enough to hide alien secrets for centuries just isn’t one of them, especially since the narrator notes at the top that aliens are prevalent in our popular culture.
The narrator asserts that those who believe in ancient astronauts are subject to “ridicule, scorn, and in some cases government scrutiny.” Erich von von Däniken is shown as these words are spoken. I have reviewed all of the government’s files on ancient astronauts, and I have obtained some that are not available on Google from the National Archives, and I can state categorically that the United States government not only did not care about ancient astronauts, the Ford administration tried as hard as it could to blow off Erich von Däniken so he would leave them alone. This is not the behavior of a government conspiring to hoard ancient astronaut theories.
Let me tell you a little something about the difference between real research and conspiracy mongering. This show uses no other research than newspaper article, and it relies only on the talking heads of Ancient Aliens to explain them. That’s conspiracy mongering. On the other hand, I have done the research, and I’ve clawed through all of the U.S. government’s ancient astronaut files, including some that were not released to the public until I requested them. I’ve even read ancillary documents looking for even the slightest hint of references to ancient astronaut investigations. (You can guess what hasn’t been released by seeing references in other files, like the way the existence of an FBI file on Rod Serling can be deduced from mentions of him in Steve Allen’s file.) The U.S. government was not careful about hiding that material, and the story it tells is clear and obvious: American interest in ancient astronauts extended only to interest in whether the Soviets and anti-government groups were using the idea to undermine American society and values. Otherwise, they just didn’t care. The show, of course, does not even take a superficial look at any of the actual government ancient astronaut files but nevertheless pretends to speak from secret knowledge.
Naturally, this means that we need to talk about the Roswell Incident, which of course occurred in 1947 and therefore is not ancient. Worse, the story has been extensively debunked to the point that even many ufologists no longer believe it was an alien event. Jim Marrs, author of a new but heavily recycled ancient astronaut book whose title I refuse to utter because HarperCollins refused to send me a review copy, blathers on about flying saucers on the strength of an “officially sanctioned press release” that he mistakenly believes mentions flying saucers. The release, from Roswell in 1947, actually reports on a “flying disc” and makes no implication of aliens. The incident is well understood as a secret balloon project and dummy drop that the government attempted to cover up with a smaller weather balloon.
Refreshingly, America’s Book of Secrets has on skeptic Michael Shermer and actually reports on the Air Force’s discussion of what really happened. Sadly, though, they let Jim Marrs lie about it and scoff based on ignorance—he believes, falsely, that the dummies were shaped like “Grey” aliens, but this is based only on later, false testimony from “witnesses.”
George Noory, another Ancient Aliens staple, claims that UFOs are kept secret to avoid panic, and Marrs adds that the government is using UFOs to (a) get new weapons and (b) maintain the power of the ruling elites.
Marrs does not understand history and therefore falsely claims that “until 1947, ’48, ’49,” technology advanced slowly but afterward took off exponentially. In truth, technology has advanced exponentially since the dawn of human civilization, and no major change happened in 1947; in fact, the most widespread and dramatic changes in the lives of everyday people actually occurred between 1850 and 1900. Marrs doesn’t really understand what “exponential” means or how later discoveries build on earlier ones. Instead, he looks at the modern world and is baffled by science he personally fails to understand. He asks, befuddled, “Where did all that come from?” Believing humans stupid, he can only project his own ignorance onto all humanity and thus assigns science to aliens.
“What is so strange about the idea that extraterrestrials should come here?” David Childress asks. Well, the fact that science explains how extraordinarily difficult it would be to travel between the stars, for one. Another might be the challenge of an alien race—let alone dozens of them!—picking out our earth from among the billions of stars and planets in the whole of the universe and deciding that this planet is the one to come to and anally sodomize its residents. Yet Tsoukalos tells us that scientists are arrogant.
But so far none of this has anything to do with ancient aliens, and I’m feeling a bit annoyed.
Fifteen minutes in, still no ancient aliens. Instead the show talks about the 1969 moon landing and alleged conspiracies about the moon landing. Jason Martell, author of the correctly-titled Knowledge Apocalypse, for that is what his book represents—the end of knowledge, asserts that Neil Armstrong saw a UFO and alien technology on the dark side of the moon—a strange notion to ascribe to a man who later investigated Erich von Däniken’s golden library in Ecuador and found no evidence of aliens. But now that he’s dead, he can’t be libeled, so whatever, right?
The show falsely asserts that Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods was “flying off store shelves” at the time of the moon landing. This isn’t true, at least not in America. Although the book was reviewed in Time in 1969 and had modest sales, it was only with serialization in the National Enquirer in 1970 that sales began to pick up in the United States. The book achieved its greatest sales only with the broadcast of the tie-in documentary In Search of Ancient Astronauts in 1973, itself an edited dubbing of a 1970 German documentary. In Europe, sales were more robust, but at the time that continent was in the middle of an ancient astronaut craze with books from a number of competing authors, now forgotten in America. The show conveniently elides this and makes von Däniken’s sales in Europe stand for the world.
I find it amusing that von Däniken appears on the show to repeat his claim that the Nazca lines “look like airstrips,” a claim even Ancient Aliens couldn’t countenance. He then complains that critics began criticizing Chariots “within four weeks” of its publication. Well, that’s what happens when you’re wrong; you get criticized. Several skeptics appear to explain why the idea isn’t true, and I am a bit sad that no one thought to interview me since I am, after all, probably the most prolific writer about ancient astronauts.
I also give America’s Book of Secrets credit for doing what Ancient Aliens would not do an hour earlier: They admitted that he was arrested for fraud and embezzlement. But sadly the narrator suggests that this was a government (Swiss?) conspiracy to “discredit and silence” him—leaving out the fact that he had been in trouble with the law over such problems several times in the past and had a history of embezzlement and fraud. David Childress chimes in that this was part of the “natural suppression” of extreme ideas, and Tsoukalos says that science has a “status quo that needs to be maintained” while pictures of Charles Darwin flash by. Darwin, of course, revolutionized science, overturned the status quo, and secured widespread acceptance within a few years of proposing his ideas based entirely on the rigor of his analysis and explanatory power of his theory of evolution. Von Däniken lacks any of that, and after 45 years, nothing has changed.
Philip Coppens asserts that science is “unwilling to address” the ancient astronaut theory and therefore can offer “no answers.” Science has repeatedly tested ancient astronaut hypotheses where and when they can be tested, and they have turned up nothing. Hell, I’ve examined and tested their literary hypotheses, and I’ve discovered nothing but lies and fraud. I don’t think the problem is with the scientists.
Reviewing the success of Chariots, we next hear about the film version. “For the first time ever, the idea that extraterrestrials might have visited earth in the remote past was being popularized,” Tsoukalos enthuses. He obviously missed out on Morning of the Magicians (1960), H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos (1926-1937 and after), Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophy (fl. 1870s-1920s), and more. This idea was not new, nor was this its first popular go-around; but Tsoukalos—who is only three years older than me—deigns to speak for the 1970s as though he had firsthand knowledge of the “upheaval” in America, which he compares to today’s unsettled climate. Apparently he has half an inkling that the revival of the ancient alien idea in 2009 could be tied to the same economic and social unrest that led to its first heyday in the 1970s.
The narrator attributes the ancient astronaut theory’s acceptance in the 1970s to the Baby Boomers’ questioning of political elites and (with a thunderclap no less!) questioning of “even the existence of God.” H2 has some weird fetish for promoting submission to God’s will as the highest form of human service.
America’s Book of Secrets then tries to trace the influence of Chariots of the Gods on popular culture, and it tries to rope in Star Wars, which was not in fact based on Chariots. Battlestar Gallactica was perhaps closer, but the show is right in that popular culture helped to cement the idea in the public mind that von Däniken might be right.
Anyway, still no ancient astronaut government conspiracy as we hit the halfway point.
As we cross into the second half, the narrator acknowledges that critics of von Däniken cited the racist and colonialist backdrop of his theories—which is undeniable, given his adaptation of the colonial narrative whereby a superior master race tutors benighted natives and improves them through knowledge transfer and sexual intercourse—but the narrator takes another potshot at “academia” for being closed to the awe and wonder of von Däniken’s fact-free fantasy. Let me get this straight: Asking 238 questions and calling it a thesis is an act of heroism, but evaluating those claims, sorting through the evidence, and coming to conclusions about those questions is small-minded evil? Philip Coppens fumes that “academics” were upset because of preconceived notions that alien visitation was “impossible.” He isn’t able to understand that academics concluded von Däniken was wrong because his evidence doesn’t hold up.
Remember how I said that this show was reusing material from Ancient Aliens? Well, here I am on America’s Book of Secrets. My 2004 article “Charioteer of the Gods” appears on screen and then turns blood red (in material reused from the 2009 Ancient Aliens pilot) while Coppens talks about how “science was basically saying there was no validity whatsoever” to the ancient astronaut theory. Again: FUCK YOU, and fuck your recycling, Prometheus Entertainment. You still haven’t asked for or received permission from me to use my name and my work in your foul documentaries.
Former vice president Dan Quayle incongruously appears to note that the United States has no conclusive proof of aliens on earth (no other American officials appear on the show), but the narrator fears that the presidents are being kept in the dark by the military elites. George Noory and Philip Coppens and Jim Marrs are all certain that presidents can’t have access to UFO secrets, but this is beyond my remit. Instead, we get a summary of the Ancient Aliens episode in which the pundits try to claim that aliens were present at the founding of America.
Having run the American government angle dry, we turn to the Catholic Church but I can’t follow the logic. A Catholic theologian suggested that it was possible to believe in God and that other worlds were populated. This is presented as a powerful upheaval of Church dogma, but so far as I know, it is nothing of the sort. Theologians (and Mark Twain) debated whether Jesus was the savior of our planet or all planets for years, and in the Middle Ages—before anyone knew just what a planet was—Catholic dogma populated the planets with ranks of “otherworldly beings”—angels. I just don’t see why this is weird; other faiths, particularly Islam, have speculated about life on other worlds and how it represents more of God’s creation. Looking for bacteria on Saturn’s moons is not, as the narrator claims, tantamount to saying that earth’s religions “have extraterrestrial origins.” Jim Marrs actually says “Pfft!” while asserting that “power and control” are at stake should aliens be proved to be the origins of the ancient gods. Power and control of what? Perhaps Marrs hasn’t noticed that we don’t live in a theocracy anymore.
This leads directly to a discussion of Intelligent Design, and I give the show credit for recognizing the clear similarity between ancient astronauts and creationism, for they are two sides of the same coin, but America’s Book of Secrets leaves out the fact that Intelligent Design was not an ancient astronaut spinoff but rather a redefinition of creationism in response to court rulings about religion in school. The two ideas moved on similar and parallel paths, but they are not connected directly except in their likeminded effort to make religion palatable to people who accept science as a source of truth. Therefore, the show’s implied conspiracy that conservatives are using intelligent design to marry religion to evolution in order to prepare for the revelation of alien involvement in the ancient earth is speculation without foundation. Intelligent Design advocates become red faced whenever they are told that their pseudo-religion could equally well support ancient astronaut theories. Intelligent Design is a gateway to religion, not to aliens.
As we start bringing this bird in for a landing, we explore the possibility that aliens are sending radio signals to earth. Then we hear—without proof—that the United Nations has secret plans for an alien invasion. The narrator reminds us that the “foundations of government, religion, science, and our society” will fall before the reality of aliens—and the revelation of “our origins.”
“If an American Book of Secrets existed,” Tsoukalos says, “then the chapter on ancient astronauts would suggest that we shouldn’t look for our origins on planet earth, but in fact our origins lie out there.”
And that is the ancient astronaut theory in a nutshell: Evolution is evil, God is good, and the aliens are angels who remind us that we are made of star dust and have deep connections to the cosmic wonder of the heavens. It’s religion by another name, cloaked in the trappings of science. Unless, as the final moments suggest, a “sect” of the aliens are “strangely evil” and could just destroy all us sinners, like God before Sodom and Gomorrah. Still religion, though, just Old Testament “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” religion.
So, if America’s Book of Secrets is superficially more balanced than Ancient Aliens, it is still cut from the same cloth: endless rhetorical questions, vitriol aimed at academia, anger at the very notion of expertise, a loose interpretation of the episode’s theme, and the hope that throwing enough claims at the viewer will overwhelm critical ability. Tied in with all that is a strange undercurrent of spiritual longing and a desire to support traditional social norms and mores by bolstering the authority of religious texts, religious beliefs, and those who can speak for the gods.