More frequently as the years go by, we now get episodes that are only tangentially related to aliens but which are firmly ensconced in the concerns of geek culture, with increasing discussions of artificial intelligence, transhumanism, time travel, superheroes, and other staples of popular science fiction and the speculative science that follows in its wake.
It is certainly no coincidence that this episode comes less than a year after popular culture churned through another cycle of stories about dangerous robots, from the replicants of the Blade Runner sequel to the violent alien robot of the Lost in Space Netflix reboot, and the human-like AI robots on everything from Silicon Valley to Elementary. And it’s only a few months after folklorist Adrienne Mayor announced that ancient “robots” (accounts of automata) would be the subject of her next book. That’s just about the length of the Ancient Aliens production schedule, from breaking episodes to airing them. It’s probably also worth noting that Kevin Burns is a producer on Lost in Space, and scenes from the show are used in cross-promotion in the episode, and a chunk of the show interviews production team members about their fake robot.
Two hours, however, taxes even my seemingly infinite patience, so I will do as I have done with the last couple of two-hour specials. Instead of following along closely segment-by-segment as I do with the one-hour shows, I am going to try to hit the highlights and discuss the episode more thematically. This goes double for this episode since robots are not really one of my areas of interest, and the show already did this topic in 2015 with their episode “Aliens and Robots,” in which much of the material in the current episode was previously discussed.
Anyway, the show opens with one of those robots dressed up with a fake human-like face, the one that the Saudis made a citizen. The robot, for my money, never overcomes the uncanny valley and has a creepy air about it, particularly with the back of its head open to show the moving parts. The show engages in some halfhearted questions about whether intelligent robots should be granted human rights. It’s basically a freshman dorm-room bullshit session, raised to the level of cable TV self-seriousness, but it’s nothing that Futurama didn’t do better and faster with a throwaway gag. It’s also basically the plot of half of the science fiction stories of the 1950s, and those tended to be both deeper and more thoughtful than this collection of pointless soundbites.
When the show occasionally remembers that it is about ancient astronauts, they repeat claims from the last episode that robots were the first alien visitors to the Earth. Their tour of ancient robots doesn’t quite follow the expected path. It starts at Abydos in Egypt and tells the story of Osiris’s death, dismemberment, and resurrection, which they turn into the basest material reading possible: They imagine he is a robot and that, like C3PO in Star Wars, he was a robot who was dismantled and rebuilt. So how did he father children? Who knows? But a chunk of this segment is nearly identical to one from their two-hour Egypt episode a few weeks ago, and even closer to “Aliens and Robots” where the same claims appeared.
Any story of an artificial lifeform becomes proof of a robot. The golem legend is cited, as are the automata created by Hephaestus. They show the robot form of Talos from the Jason and the Argonauts movie, but they neglect to note that the robot version is a late one, replacing the first story—that he was a man from the Bronze Age, later confused into “a man made of Bronze.” They claim that Pandora, the first woman, was a robot, though again without answering the question of how this robot conceived and bore children, let alone all of the human race. Apparently, for them “robots” are genetically engineered beings, not just assembled automata. Definitions have never been their strong suit.
They also talk about the Shinto belief that technology has some kind of animating spirit, but this is a philosophical, not a factual, position. They introduce it to speculate, poorly, about whether technology can be conscious, whether robots might be said to be alive, and whether we should trust artificial intelligence to run our lives. These are all freshman philosophy questions—indeed, my actual freshman philosophy class two decades ago discussed them—and the presentation seems almost designed to seem mind-blowing to viewers who are high on substances are speculating about reality, the future, and, just, life, man.
Much of the second half hour is devoted to Giorgio Tsoukalos participating in demonstrations of various robots at UCLA which are meant to be impressive, and would be on a PBS documentary, but pale in comparison to their sci-fi counterparts and the supposed technology of space aliens. This is interspersed with material drawn from earlier episodes, notably the scurrilous rumors about Pope Sylvester II and demons that spread in response to his efforts to reform the Church and investigate Islamic learning. The stories were false, but Ancient Aliens is happy to repeat any lie that lets them revel in the idea that demons were really aliens. They relate the incident when Facebook had two computers talk to each other and they developed their own language before the plug got pulled. By weird coincidence, last week Bobcat Goldthwait’s Misfits & Monsters did a comedic episode based on this same incident that more thoughtfully probed the question of whether we would be better off if we shut down the computers before they develop the ability to outsmart us. Goldthwait at least remembered something Ancient Aliens did not—technology needs power, and we can always cut off the power supply.
The show pretends that Indian stories of flying machines were an “extraterrestrial robot army similar to the drones we are using today,” though this is predicated on the idea that it was impossible for ancient Indians to imagine flying machines without seeing them, though eighteenth and nineteenth century Europeans did this quite easily without seeing an airplane.
At the end of the first hour, I wondered why so many professors, scientists, and engineers agreed to appear on and lend their credibility to this show. Is it for self-aggrandizement or a misguided idea that they are educating the audience even when their words are chopped up to support claims about space aliens?
There is no clean break between hours, but they start the second hour by the clock with the story of a Chinese automaton first discussed in “Aliens and Robots.” (I discovered that text in an Edwardian book and published it in my Foundations of Atlantis in early 2015, and it showed up on Ancient Aliens a few months later. You can read it here.) Following this, the show discusses sex robots and the ancient astronaut theorists trip over themselves to defend the practice of men satisfying themselves with fembots rather than trying to develop the social skills needed to form relationships with real human women. They tell us that men have biological imperative to want to fuck inanimate objects and that this is perfectly normal and planned by the aliens. Linda Moulton Howe, the show’s lone female ancient astronaut theorist, says that becoming sexually aroused by robots shows that we as a species want to become like the robots. I will just leave this as it is and let you fill in your own jokes about geeks, nerds, sexual frustration, and robot sex toys.
Much of the rest of the third half-hour discusses cyborgs and neural links to merge humans and computers. The show presents opinions on why this is both good and bad, and they suggest that Elon Musk is right to be afraid of technology taking over our minds. The show uses clips of a Star Trek movie to discuss space probes becoming conscious, and then it moves on to ask whether our DNA is an artificial computer code operating us as “organic robots,” a concept introduced last week, to which they offer little that they did not already discuss in last week’s very similar segment. The new material this week involves the claim that the aliens programmed us to have a fetish for building humanlike robots with the goal of sending these robots into space. So why didn’t the aliens just send their own robots and save several billion years’ worth of farming and husbandry to get to this point? Who knows? Last week sending planets with DNA on meteors was the efficient way to colonize the galaxy, and this week growing your own Chia-bots to launch into space to do the colonizing is the better plan. Those sneaky aliens keep changing their grand vision from week to week, and it’s hard to keep up.
The last half hour revolves around the question of using robots to explore other planets and star systems, and it asks whether space aliens are similarly sending their own robots to Earth. This leads to speculation that humanity may be replaced by machines as we become “post-biological.” The show imagines a sort of Ship of Theseus future where humans are piece by piece replaced by silicon until nothing organic remains. The narrator speculates that this is a “master plan,” for which it is fairly clear that the “aliens” are really meant as a cypher for God, space a synecdoche for heaven, and the transformation into a machine a substitute for the age-old desire for the perfected bodies of the heavenly realm.
As we move toward the end, the show discusses self-replicating robots and some of the current technologies that point in that direction, with Nick Pope absolutely gleeful that 3-D printers are like the replicator from Star Trek. I get the sense that Star Trek is very important to people working on Ancient Aliens. The show asks whether humans or aliens might explore by sending small probes to other worlds and then having the probe’s 3-D printers print out robots and equipment once there. Talking heads speculate that this happened to Earth and somehow that makes us cyborgs. It isn’t quite clear how, but it seems that they think our DNA was 3-D printed.
Then the show discusses transhumanism, but they’ve done that before. David Childress then adds, apropos of nothing, that space aliens beamed the idea to create cyborgs and robots into the minds of scientists because, as he proves with each increasingly scripted appearance, humans aren’t capable of having coherent thoughts without being coached. This is a callback to the frequent claim on the show that originality and intelligence are an illusion and that all intellectual breakthroughs are the result of space aliens shooting thought beams into the sleeping minds of those most open to them, or, as a better writer put it: “When, after infinities of chaos, the first men came, the Great Old Ones spoke to the sensitive among them by moulding their dreams; for only thus could Their language reach the fleshly minds of mammals.”
In the last minutes, the show asks if technology will so far outstrip us that it will come to be worshiped as gods. The Twilight Zone did that in its “Old Man in the Cave” episode, and did it more thoughtfully. We hear that humans will soon be able to digitize consciousness, but as I mentioned last week, that’s pointless. The copy of you that gets preserved digitally isn’t you; it’s a copy. Since the copy can exist at the same time that you still live, you are not the copy and will never experience whatever it does, even if it has your memories. Nevertheless, physicist Michio Kaku claims otherwise, or appears to as edited, and literally says that these copies are actually our “souls” and can be “laser-pointed” for light-speed journeys to computers on other worlds. It is a modern version of the old belief that a photograph could steal a person’s soul because it copies one’s image.
William Henry tells us that this is the fulfillment of “Christian prophecy,” for the Cloud where data is stored “perfectly corresponds” to the cloud that Jesus will ride in on at the Second Coming. It’s an appropriate way to end the show a few weeks after Kevin Burns conceded to the New York Times that Ancient Aliens is a show about God. The aliens are angels, and technology is heaven. The Bible is just a user manual full of unread terms and conditions for merging us with the great Steve Jobs in the sky. The final words talk about how humans are unique and appeal to the sense of separation and specialness that creationists maintain proves evolution to be a demonic hoax designed to overthrow the comforts of divine revelation.
And that’s a wrap on Season Thirteen, a season that on and off screen saw Ancient Aliens break its traditional format, shill for the Russians, admit that their show is about the search for God, and finally concede that in the end, they really just want to talk about their favorite sci-fi and pretend it’s all real.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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