On July 29, the National Geographic Channel (“NatGeo”) aired a two-hour documentary about unidentified flying objects entitled The Secret History of UFOs. In late 2011, producers for NatGeo contacted me about appearing on the program as an expert on the ancient astronaut theory. I flew to Washington, D.C. in January of this year to record an interview for the show. NatGeo did not use my interview in the finished program. It produced two versions of the program, one for the U.S. and one for international distribution. The American version contains no discussion of ancient astronauts, while the international version, as represented by my DVD screener, does.
I was very disappointed in this decision, and my disappointment was compounded by the finished product, which was exceedingly mild in its critique of the ancient astronaut theory, almost to the point of uselessness. NatGeo demanded that I sign a confidentiality agreement prior to the interview which granted NatGeo the unlimited right to libel, defame, alter, and otherwise manipulate interview content without legal risk (this is standard for all TV releases) and required me to never divulge anything related to the “Shoot,” which referred specifically to the events of January 16, 2012, except for information publicly available. I will honor that agreement and restrict my comments to what happened before, what actually aired, and some ancient-astronaut-style questions about what might have happened that day.
In late 2011, the producers of the documentary contacted me about appearing on the program and professed their excitement at my participation. One producer told me that she was a big fan of my work and had read my blog and used the information on it to help develop their “take” on ancient astronauts. In telephone conversations prior to signing the confidentiality agreement, the producer told me that they intended to present a skeptical account of ancient astronauts.
In the pre-interview, conducted prior to the confidentiality agreement and not part of the physical shoot referenced therein, the producer asked me to discuss a number of topics that would be covered during the actual shoot. These questions exactly paralleled the topics ancient astronaut theorist Giorgio Tsoukalos discussed in the finished documentary. My opinions about such topics as ancient art depicting aliens in space suits, the Pacal sarcophagus, and the Columbian gold “airplanes” are well known, although I am not allowed to say whether I uttered them during the shoot itself. In the finished program, Tsoukalos was allowed to discuss all of these topics without direct criticism or opposition.
For legal reasons I can’t say whether Tsoukalos recorded his interview after mine, but his publicly available travel schedule via Twitter shows that he was not in Washington on or before January 16. Draw your own conclusion. It is also publicly available knowledge that Tsoukalos asks for (and usually gets) a guarantee of “positive” coverage without the risk of challenge or contradiction in exchange for lending his “celebrity” to a program. While I know whether he demanded such a guarantee from NatGeo, I am not allowed to report this information. NatGeo, like most journalistic organizations, does not typically honor requests to limit interview content.
I am also not allowed to say whether guests of National Geographic Channel were informed about other participants in the program during the shoot. Did I know in advance that Tsoukalos would be on the program? Could Tsoukalos have known that I had been interviewed? I know the answers to these questions, but, sadly, you can’t. Let’s recall, though, that Tsoukalos (a) hates me and (b) uses his “celebrity” to receive positive media coverage and quash criticism. Could Tsoukalos have demanded NatGeo cut me out as a condition of his participation? That one I genuinely don’t know the answer to, but I doubt it. My guess is that the producers decided that they had enough skeptics with Ken Feder and the director of SETI participating, and that the background and sociological meaning of the ancient astronaut theory (my areas of expertise) were beyond the scope of the (non-)story they were trying to tell.
Sadly, however, NatGeo did not inform me or any other participant of (a) the program's title, (b) the program's air date, (c) that the ancient astronaut segment would not air in the United States, or that (d) I and others would not appear in the program as aired. I was not aware of the program until I received a DVD screener on August 10.
I will restrict my discussion of the program to the section on ancient astronauts. The remainder of the program deals with UFOs but is beyond the scope of my blog.
My comments are based on the 1 hour and 37 minute international version of the program on my DVD screener. It differs (apparently) from the 90 minute US broadcast version, which eliminates all discussion of ancient astronauts, leaving a single sound byte from Tsoukalos, identified only as the “publisher” of Legendary Times, rhapsodizing about the benefits aliens will bring. The international version includes a complete segment on ancient astronauts not included in the U.S. version. This means that the U.S. version sort of strands Tsoukalos as a weird, irrelevant appendix to the discussion underway. At least they got that part right.
The segment begins by incorrectly asserting that Erich von Däniken “brought” us the ancient astronaut theory with Chariots of the Gods (1968). This is not correct for many reasons, not least of which are (a) the large number of ancient astronaut theories published before him and (b) the fact that his ancient astronaut theory became popular in the U.S. only after the 1973 Rod Serling documentary In Search of Ancient Astronauts, based on Chariots, popularized it. Without Serling’s documentary, America might never have embraced von Däniken.
The following assertions go unanswered in the NatGeo documentary. Those marked (*) are asserted by the narrator and not Tsoukalos.
Archaeologist Ken Feder did his best to represent the side of science, but the producers did not include any sound bites of him specifically challenging any of Tsoukalos’ claims. Instead, Feder is only seen discussing the philosophical position that ancient people had artistic imaginations and thus did not need alien models. This one generalization was chosen by the producers to represent all of the scientific, artistic, and historical criticism of Tsoukalos’ very specific assertions. The director of SETI, not an expert in archaeology, is brought in to talk about the pyramids’ construction. Feder emphasizes the point that they are human creations, and Tsoukalos is given the last word about his conviction of the aliens’ reality. No one explains why Feder is talking about the construction of the pyramids. Tsoukalos never mentions them; the narrator merely sets up a straw man about “all ancient monuments” being “immaculate” (whatever that incorrectly used word is supposed to mean—presumably “perfect”) to which Feder is seen responding to a different assertion about the impossibility of humans constructing the Egyptian pyramids.
The sad thing is that the producers really seem to think they produced a skeptical point of view on ancient astronaut theory. In terms of time, Ken Feder talks longer than Tsoukalos, and the narration confirms that the pyramids were not built by aliens. But none of Tsoukalos’ points are addressed, except to attribute ancient art to imagination, leaving the distinct impression that, even if the pyramids were the work of humans (which Tsoukalos doesn’t dispute), there might be something to the ancient astronaut theory.
The entire documentary suffers the same fault; it contains nothing new, rehashes the old, and is so relentlessly “balanced” that its skeptical thesis is little more than a mild assertion, timidly advanced. In the truest sense, this was not better than having no documentary at all.
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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