Bad television tends to reveal more about the zeitgeist that quality TV, if only because its effort to appeal to a mass audience rather than a niche one necessitates reflecting popular attitudes and values. That’s one reason that Ancient Aliens is fascinating to think about, if only for what it tells us about popular attitudes toward faith and science. On the other hand, I was rather dumbfounded by some of the underlying assumptions animating the shambling CBS adaptation of Stephen King’s Under the Dome, now in its third season.
There has always been a strain of faith vs. reason in Under the Dome, and to an extent this reflects Stephen King’s own focus on the emotional stakes of human lives. But in the most recent episode, which aired last night, we saw quite a bit more of Ancient Aliens than we did of Stephen King, and it seems that the writers have adopted the ancient astronaut theory’s anti-scientific viewpoint in dragging their story out over the years. The development that the alien “eggs” had been buried on the earth long ago should have been a clue that we were entering Ancient Aliens territory.
Regular readers will remember (from just yesterday!) that ancient people going back to at least Plato and Berossus claimed that a deluge of fire would someday purge the earth, the flaming counterpoint to the flood that once drowned it. This would become the fiery reckoning of the Abrahamic Judgment Day. Anyway, the fiery conflagration occurred last night as storm of meteors burned the entire earth except for the spot under the dome. It is rather uncanny that this aired not long after fringe writers howled in triumph that scientists found evidence that an ancient comet struck the earth at the start of the Younger Dryas, the last Ice Age.
So, Under the Dome gave the space aliens advanced notice of the apocalypse, and they therefore created the dome for the same reason that the ancient astronaut theory alleges that the antediluvians built the pyramids: to preserve science, knowledge, and a fraction of intelligent beings (in this case the aliens inhabiting human bodies) from cosmic doom.
What makes this anti-science? Well, not the cosmic doom. Instead, it’s the fact that the few remaining humans have discovered how to combat the hyper-rational aliens, who are adherents of the utilitarian system of ethics proposed by the rationalist thinkers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Their solution? Irrational emotion! The show’s teen characters discover that only by embracing unthinking emotion—anger, fear, grief—can they expel the hyper-rational, emotionless aliens from within them. As with everything on this show, the message is muddled—the aliens take over humans by exploiting their emotional desire for belonging, for one thing—but the upshot is clear: feeling is good, while thinking is bad.
The aliens are villains because they care about group dynamics, providing for the whole community, and ensuring equal distribution of resources. In other words, they’re evil liberal communist socialist Democrats. The heroes are good because they are self-centered, individualistic, angry, and in favor of power imbalances where self-proclaimed leaders receive more and greater resources. In other words, they’re ’Muricans, despite the fact that emotionalism is not a traditional conservative value. It is, however, a pop culture value. Naturally, to maintain the dichotomy the aliens have to be depicted as favoring eugenics, casual sex, and threesomes, while the heroes, deep down, just want monogamous marriages, lots of babies, and 1920s-style Craftsman houses.
It’s weird that CBS, the most traditional of broadcast networks, has taken the work of Stephen King, a well-known progressive humanist, and transformed it into a particularly troublesome conservative fantasy about American values that the heroes, in seasons one and two, did not actually embody—sort of like the thrice-married Donald Trump opining on the sanctity of marriage. Apparently the lesson the dome wants to teach is how to become more acceptable to Middle American values voters.
Now, there is obviously nothing wrong with celebrating conservative values in art. The trope of the small band of individualists who stand against an oppressive system is inseparable from American art and American identity. The problem is that Under the Dome has done it so artlessly that the change stands out in marked contrast to where the series started and makes me wonder exactly why they chose to create a weird mishmash of Ancient Aliens and the O’Reilly Factor.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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