Note: I watched the two-hour season premiere on a screener posted to A+E Networks’ press site. This screener was missing some of the visual effects, and some minor edits might have occurred before the final version that aired on History.
The episode opens with the New York Times report about the Pentagon UFO program, which we have covered in these pages several times since the publication of the story in December. “It is the single biggest ever news in the entire history of the UFO phenomenon,” Nick Pope says, breathlessly. He wrongly implies that the aerial phenomena tracking program, funded by the effort of U.S. senators Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), at the request of billionaire UFO believer Robert Bigelow, to whom the actual tracking work was subcontracted, is much more involved, serious, or important than the midcentury UFO investigations of various government and military agencies. Those were more serious, more thorough, and broader in scope and scale.
The show then rehearses the career of Luis Elizondo, the former head of the program who is now the head of security for Tom DeLonge’s To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science. Ancient Aliens notes that Elizondo felt the government did not actually care about the UFO phenomenon, undercutting Pope’s statement from a few minutes earlier. Ancient Aliens initially omits the key fact that Elizondo left the government at the same time that he signed on with DeLonge, as well as the role of To the Stars in bringing the story to the Times as part of their own effort to launch the company’s stock offering at the same time. (Soliciting stock sales is still the most visible business the company conducts.) The show, to its credit, does discuss To the Stars at length, but they are reluctant to give too much credit to the company for pushing a specific narrative—or the financial reasons for doing so.
George Noory of Coast to Coast AM doesn’t seem to notice that he can’t both agree that the government sees UFOs as a joke and to also allege that the same government is covering up UFOs and hiding the truth, even from its own secret UFO investigators. It’s not possible to have it both ways, but he and Ancient Aliens try their best. To make it work, they need extra layers of conspiracy, even if it undermines the claim that the Pentagon program was actually important.
Most surprising of all is the fact that Ancient Aliens convinced former White House and Hillary Clinton campaign official John Podesta to appear on the show to discuss Tom DeLonge and space aliens. Podesta is a longtime believer in space aliens, and he was the recipient of several emails about aliens from DeLonge, which were published by Wikileaks after they were stolen from his account. Podesta is surprisingly (and rather disturbingly) enthusiastic about DeLonge’s company, and he puts in a plug for DeLonge’s fundraising prowess—and this almost suggests to me that we ought to be asking whether Podesta has a financial stake in To the Stars.
The show rehearses some of the UFO videos To the Stars has publicized, though they do not share with viewers the fact that these videos have been in the public domain for years, or that they have been debunked as the effects of infrared video on the heat signatures of other planes, and even as a balloon.
After this, the show discusses the alleged extraterrestrial alloys that Elizondo claimed Bigelow Aerospace was holding and studying. As we have discussed several times, there is no evidence for there being any indication that any metal that actually was recovered belonged to a UFO. Instead, these alloys seem to be connected to meteoric material. As we know, Elizondo is the only source of the claim, and the Times reporters misunderstood his original description, and according to paid Bigelow consultant Jacques Vallée—who tried to find someone to test the metal—the sample was unusual not because it was an alloy but because it had unusual isotope ratios, suggesting an origin in outer space. No lab reports have been released, and the whole thing, so far, is speculation and exaggeration atop half-understood facts.
In the second segment (at least on my screener; commercial breaks may vary in the broadcast version) describes the formation of the Pentagon Advanced Aerial (or Aviation) Threats Identification Program at the hands of Reid, Inouye, and Stevens and at the request of Robert Bigelow, whose longstanding interest in space aliens and UFOs the show reviews. Even though this was an actual conspiracy in which a handful of men worked in secret to direct public money to an undisclosed project for the benefit of a campaign donor, Ancient Aliens treats this like a heroic endeavor, even as it implies that the government has secret UFO programs that must be disclosed. “I’m very glad that my friend Harry Reid decided he would pursue this,” Podesta says, pouring what little remains of his credibility into the bottomless wishing well of the lucrative fringe history media circuit. Just imagine this: Ancient Aliens is praising the government for hiding UFO research with a secret and borderline corrupt financial deal to pay back Bigelow, one of Reid’s biggest campaign donors. In their minds, Bigelow wasn’t the driving force creating a boondoggle UFO program but rather a “point man” who could “operate in total secrecy” to help keep UFO information safe and secure. None of the producers seem to even notice that these claims contradict those from segment 1, when the program was a “joke” that no one took seriously.
Linda Moulton Howe says that “somebody” “must” ask Robert Bigelow about his beliefs and to demand to see the results of the AATIP program, which ended in 2012. Gee, if only there were, say, a documentary program about UFOs that employs dozens of so-called investigators and journalists who might have access to futuristic technologies like telephones and email to do that… But where might we find such an enterprise?
In the third segment, the usual crew of ancient astronaut theorists finally show up, but they have very little to say. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this segment is that Giorgio Tsoukalos has deflated his hair and has abandoned his vest and tie for an open paisley designer shirt. However, this piece of video doesn’t match his other appearances in the episode, and it appears to be a leftover clip from last year. This segment goes back in time to review some of the efforts the U.S. government made in the twentieth century to investigate various aerial anomalies, beginning with the so-called “Battle of Los Angeles” (a sighting of balloons mistaken for a Japanese invasion in World War II) and progressing through the Roswell crash (a secret spy balloon that the government tried to pass off as a weather balloon) to more recent UFO sightings. Nick Pope tells us that we should believe that UFOs are actually alien spacecraft because the Air Force was interested in the details of the sightings. But he and the other talking heads neglect to note that there are many other reasons to examine UFO sightings—ranging from interest in the social factors that lead to sightings, to an effort to understand how known physical phenomena (or even secret U.S. and Soviet spy technologies) can be misunderstood as spacecraft. By limiting their frame of references to a false dichotomy of either alien spacecraft or nothing at all, they artificially restrict their understanding of what the government actually did.
Pope claims that after the Air Force ended Project Bluebook, they must have secretly continued their UFO research without telling anyone. “I smell a rat!” Pope said, alleging that the Air Force wrongly reclassified unexplained UFO sightings as explained in order, as the narrator says, to cover up UFOs “even deeper than before.”
In the fourth segment (of my screener at least), the show discusses the “Majestic 12” hoax documents from the 1980s. These documents are familiar to most Ancient Aliens viewers since it was the subject of an entire hour just last season. The show might want to recycle its material, but I don’t feel like recycling mine. You are welcome to click the link to read my discussion of MJ-12 from last year. The segment folds this into familiar claims from past seasons about the secret goings-on at Area 51, most of which have been debunked over the years, or called into question because of the dubious credibility of most so-called “whistleblowers.” The show also discusses Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 sighting of unidentified objects, and Mike Bara wrong credits Arnold with inventing the term “flying saucer”—it was a newspaper reporter who spun the story in that direction. For a show that is obsessed with finding U.S. government documents about UFOs, they are strangely silent on the fact that the FBI investigated and determined that the origins of the UFO phenomenon actually originated with Ray Palmer, the editor of Amazing Stories, glomming on to Arnold’s sighting and using it to help make the pulp fiction stories he published seem real. We also see some early UFO media materials, and we hear a conspiracy theory that the Air Force cut the audio from Maj. Donald Keyhoe’s final summation of his belief that “UFOs are real” on a 1950s TV broadcast. Keyhoe believed that space aliens had been observing humanity since the 1770s.
Tsoukalos, now dressed in a different suit, and with his hair at attention—clearly shot at a different point in time—tries to compare this to the ancient astronaut theory, but can only give a brief summation of “misunderstood technology” and a milquetoast statement of his belief that the government knows “more” than they let on. What more? He won’t say.
The fifth segment reaches back to the show’s previous episodes about conspiracy theories surrounding NASA in order to allege that the space agency runs secret space missions to investigate UFOs and ancient astronauts and their ilk. There are certainly secret military space missions, often launching satellites into orbit, but the show offers no proof of their wilder implications. The segment also discusses astronauts’ sightings of lights or objects in space, which appeared in earlier episodes. Many of the stories are familiar, and they make no use of skeptical accounts that have debunked many of the alleged astronaut UFO sightings. The salient point is that just because an astronaut doesn’t recognize what an object is, it isn’t necessarily a flying saucer. Astronaut UFO sightings have been explained as space junk, pieces that fall off of NASA spacecraft, jettisoned water or other fluids, and many other non-alien things.
At the end of this segment, I reached 50% of the show’s 90-minute runtime (minus commercials), and given how punishingly boring the first half is, I can’t imagine who willingly sits through the two hours of a program like this for fun, much less the butt-busting four-hour Ancient Aliens Declassified clip shows that have occupied the show’s timeslot since it went on hiatus several months ago. Super-fans, I suppose. But the real secret is probably that this is a show meant to be consumed in segments, by grazers and channel-flippers, rather than all at once in a massive multi-hour dose.
The next segment starts with the moon landing and discusses the beginning of the space shuttle program as a propaganda effort to help Nixon look as active in the space program as Kennedy had been. As part of the effort the Committee to Reelect the President (CREEP) asked if there were a classified program that could be declassified to help drum up interest. One of the men involved in the effort recalls an Air Force man offering him UFO evidence for an exposé. This became the 1974 Rod Serling film UFOs: Past, Present and Future, which I discussed years ago and is worth quoting at length:
The bulk of the film was shot in 1972 and 1973 at the request of the Republican Party, the Air Force, and/or the Department of Defense (depending on the source you consult), which in 1971 asked filmmaker Robert Emenegger to produce a UFO documentary based on credible U.S. government sources. There are many versions of the story, most with contradictory details. One of the most common is that Emenegger was the fraternity brother of Nixon chief of staff H. R. Haldeman and that the Committee to Re-Elect the President had asked him to make a scientific documentary to make Nixon look strong on science for the upcoming 1972 reelection campaign. Allegedly, Republicans associated with the Nixon administration promised Emenegger authentic footage of the landing of an alien spacecraft at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico in 1964. We have only the word of Emenegger to support this. Emenegger does not appear in the index to the Nixon Library holdings of the CREEP files.
Do I have to say that Ancient Aliens accepts the later, fanciful account as the true one? The film was re-released in 1976 and again in 1979, the final time with new material from none other than Jacques Vallée. Funny, is it not, how closely connected all of this material is?
After the break, the show discusses presidential denials of knowledge about UFOs. The segment includes references to the MJ-12 hoax and to a fake transcript of an oral briefing allegedly given to Ronald Reagan in 1981 about ancient astronauts and Roswell. Why would this information be recorded if it were real? Just for fun, I guess. A bigger chunk of the segment is given over to Bill Clinton’s stated aim to find the truth about UFOs, an effort that resulted in the Air Force admitting that the Roswell crash was in fact a cover-up not of a UFO but of a spy balloon. Linda Moulton Howe admits that she and Robert Bigelow attended a meeting with Laurance Rockefeller in the early 1990s to help influence Bill and Hillary Clinton, and their lackey, John Podesta, to address UFO issues—and for this superbly stupid reason, as the show gives it: Rockefeller saw a documentary on TV about Roswell and went bonkers over UFOs. (In real life, he was a longtime advocate of fringe science, supporting John E. Mack, Steven Greer, and paranormal research.) So, basically, sensational media stories about Roswell caused rich dilettantes to become interested in UFOs and to use their wealth and social influence to get the government to “investigate” their interests, thus generating new conspiracies when nothing emerged, spawning more sensational media—like this show. It’s a big feedback loop that has basically no connection to reality.
Stephen Bassett opens this segment by describing his efforts to secure U.S. government UFO disclosure. He believes that acknowledgement of UFOs will usher in an age of peace and cultural reform, and he laments that the government is too dysfunctional today. He rhapsodizes about his ersatz congressional “disclosure” hearing from 2013 in which six former members of Congress listened to UFO believers share their views, which ranged from moderately plausible ideas to paranoid conspiracy theories. The subject has been alluded to a few times on Ancient Aliens since 2013, but Ancient Aliens leaves out some of the mitigating facts, such as the payments made to the former members of Congress to lend their dubious credibility to the hearings. Given that several members of Congress are actual UFO believers, the kabuki theater was something of a waste of time—like this segment, which burned time without contributing either useful information or anything to forward the narrative of the episode. Like most episodes, the segments aren’t really connected, but are simply thematically linked.
This segment would have followed more logically after Segment 7, but logic isn’t really their strong suit. In this segment, Bassett describes his efforts to influence Hillary Clinton to support UFO disclosure. Bassett claimed that his efforts provided a “significant” dilemma for the Clinton team, even though it did not. Podesta and Clinton are both UFO nuts, and this is something we have known for years. The show speculates that Clinton would have led a UFO disclosure movement had she won the presidency in 2016, and there is a strange implication that “the CIA and the Pentagon were worried about Sec. Clinton” and therefore arranged for her to lose the election. Since most conspiracy theories have government agencies working against Trump—the so-called Deep State—it’s a strange position to take. Rather than follow this line of reasoning to its conclusion, the show changes topic to the CIA’s document dump of 13 million UFO files. Rather than do anything with this information, Nick Pope and narrator Robert Clotworthy complain that there was too much disclosure and that it is too hard to find the good stuff in such a massive block of documents. The narration states that the CIA might well have declassified and released these documents in order to hide the truth somewhere in their unwieldy mass. Sure, why not? It would be just like the government to make their evil secrets public and then dare lazy ufologists to do the logical thing and divide the documents among themselves and read them.
As we bring this turkey in for a landing, the narrator circles back to Segment 1 and recaps what we already heard about disclosure and the New York Times and UFOs, and we listen to various ufologists and John Podesta wax poetic about their desire for UFO disclosure. Giorgio Tsoukalos laments that “nobody cared” about the Times story, and the narrator asks if the U.S. government and other countries will reveal the truth about UFOs. But nobody stops to ask the more sobering and frightening question: What if they already have shared everything they know, and they actually know nothing?
Overall, this was both an expected episode for the series, given the publicity surrounding To the Stars Academy, but also an unusual choice for a season premiere. The episode had only token appearances from their two most recognizable ancient astronaut theorists—Tsoukalos and Childress—and many in the regular cast are absent altogether in favor of a ragtag group of largely anonymous ufologists and paranoiacs. The subject also had virtually no connection to the “ancient” half of the show’s title, despite another token effort to shoehorn in some irrelevancies. The added hour of runtime doubled the length, but not the depth, of the episode, and at twice the length, the essential laziness of the production team, and the cheapness of the production, stand out in stark relief. In the four months between December and now, they could have done all manner of investigation—or even just made use of published inquiries into To the Stars Academy—but they chose not to. Oddly, watching on a screener in which the computer animation wasn’t ready, these problems are even more obvious because the visual doodad aren’t there to distract from the threadbare narrative and complete lack of effort to do anything more than to read the internet at us and call it a TV show.
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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