It might make good business sense to appeal to audience’s current prejudices, but it makes for disturbing television. Note, by the way, that this obnoxious pandering isn’t necessarily a political choice per se. History’s parent company, A+E Networks, also owns and operates Viceland, a complementary channel that panders to its young and liberal post-Millennial audience with liberal and libertine programs about sex and drugs. It’s all about the money, I’m sure. But the damage is real.
I mean, for crying out loud, tonight Ancient Aliens proposed that the U.S. and Russian governments are secret allies working together to battle evil space aliens (“Space Force”?) and openly called for America and Russia to unite against their common enemies, which is just a step removed from openly endorsing political collusion with a hostile foreign power. In fact, it’s a slightly bastardized form of the current alt-right argument that Russia is the last true Christian power and needs to ally with America to repel the Muslims—seen as that other kind of alien. After all, Ancient Aliens does not make the same effort with China, or India, or any of the other world powers. In other words, however you slice it, the show is suggesting that Russians are on “our” team, which is a current talking point among Trump supporters.
But nothing could be further from the truth, as every organ of the United States government has concluded, and even the Trump Administration itself has conceded. This extends, by the way, beyond politics to questions of science.
As Foreign Policy reported in 2016, Vladimir Putin has used organs of the Russian state to promote all manner of pseudoscience with the goal of undermining the notions of truth and reality in the name of discrediting Western science. And American media eat up Russia’s fake claims. But Russian involvement in the ancient astronaut theory and ufology goes much deeper, building on a sixty-year-long effort by the Soviet and Russian governments to promote ancient astronaut beliefs in the West. Today, that takes the form of a pipeline where ancient astronaut claims are gathered from the most insane corners of the internet, or sometimes concocted outright, and then legitimized through being reported in Russian government-funded propaganda sites, including Sputnik magazine and the RT television network. Once given this legitimacy, the stories populate the online editions of U.K. tabloids like the Express and the Mail Online, which will recycle any content in a bottomless search for clicks. Having been laundered, the claims percolate upward to Ancient Aliens where they are packaged for a mass audience. The genius of the system is that it works automatically, through the collective power of greed and the media’s endless hunger for new content, without any need for official collusion or even intention. But nevertheless, it is no coincidence that Sputnik and RT report on a large proportion of the material that also appears on Ancient Aliens.
(Disclosure: RT asked me to appear earlier this year on a program devoted to ancient astronaut conspiracy theories, but they terminated communication when I asked if their coverage of these conspiracy theories came on orders from Moscow.)
Earlier in the season, Ancient Aliens had Democratic operative John Podesta on to give cover and credence to a conspiracy popular among a certain set that the so-called Deep State was a hostile entity with an agenda that could not be trusted. Now we hear about how amazing revelations are coming not from the corrupt American Deep State but from those honest and lovable chaps over at the Kremlin.
The episode opens with a 2012 nuclear security summit held in Seoul in which Pres. Obama told Russian Pres. Dimitri Medvedev (then subbing in for Putin, who took the role of prime minister due to a constitutional limitation Putin later removed) that he needed “space.” Quite obviously it meant that Obama needed room to work, but Ancient Aliens asserts that it meant that Obama claimed all of outer space for the United States, apparently in violation of the treaties that govern the use of space. Later that year, Medvedev made his infamous comments about having access to top secret information “entirely devoted to the visitors to our planet.” This was apparently intended as a joke, but the ancient astronaut theorists, particularly newly minted Russophile Richard Dolan, take it as serious confession that multiple species of aliens are in contact with the Russian government. The show then asserts that the Russians and the Americans had a “secret relationship” to work together on UFO and alien issues. This is rather surprising considering that declassified U.S. documents show that the American government planted fake UFO stories in the media to fool the Russians, and the Russians apparently did the same for the Americans. As a result, this “cooperation” seems to be entirely at odds with the documentary record.
Meanwhile, the show repeats material from earlier episodes about the so-called “Russian Roswell,” when a Russian air fighter allegedly shot down a cigar-shaped alien spaceship in 1948. Even though the show’s talking heads can point to no evidence that this incident ever occurred, Nick Pope decides that it meant that the Soviet lead in the space race was due entirely to “live aliens” who “gave them the edge in the Space Race.” Oddly, it was not that long ago that the show attributed America’s success in the Space Race to the Nazis and their UFO secrets. The truth of the matter is more prosaic: America captured or relocated Nazi rocket scientists, but the Soviets captured all of their records, their research materials, and the remains of their rockets and were able to recreate them and move forward faster than their American counterparts could recreate them. They further benefited from a totalitarian government’s ability to devote resources to the space program virtually unchecked.
The second segment discusses the 1970s era of American and Soviet cooperation in space, but Ancient Aliens instead asserts that America and Russia had been working together in space since 1948. But it’s rather weird that everyone uses the passive voice or impersonal language (“…there’s an argument that…”, Nick Pope says, disbelieving his own mouth), as though even Ancient Aliens recognizes that this is ridiculous speculation. Mike Bara and Travis Taylor, an aerospace engineer best known from Rocket City Rednecks on NatGeo but a regular cable TV presence, show up to blather on about speculation that there are structures on the far side of the moon allegedly captured by Soviet photographs in the 1960s. Jason Martell claims that a photo taken by a Soviet probe near Mars’s moon Phobos shows a laser beam shooting down Phobos II. William Henry declares a rock on Phobos to be a “monolith” akin to those from 2001: A Space Odyssey and not just a tall natural formation. This is all material that has been frequently discussed and debunked, and it has appeared on this show before.
The third segment is a virtual repeat of a segment from 2016 about Russian rocketry pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, an advocate of “cosmism,” the belief that humans came from the stars and should return to them. As in 2016, the talking heads repeat the notion that cosmism is an early form of ancient astronaut theory, and they repeat the claim that Tsiolkovsky had received his rocket science from alien thought beams. Apparently, Tsiolkovsky believed he had been in contact with space aliens, not entirely different from the Theosophists of the same era who claimed to be in touch with beings from Venus. The show, naturally, takes this literally. While they make much hay of Tsiolkovsky’s cosmism but they neglect to report that he also believed in a mechanical universe in which a cosmic entity controlled all the beings in existence as though they were marionettes or characters in a movie. Nick Pope asserts that the Americans believed cosmism to be the key to Soviet space success and therefore sought to copy their embrace of ancient astronautics and ufology. The narrator adds that Americans probably partnered with the Soviets because of their joint belief in ancient astronaut theory and UFOs. I would dismiss this as stupid fantasy, but it’s not entirely untrue. The part about a secret partnership is false, of course, and the two superpowers used UFOs and ancient astronaut material to bait one another and cover up spy missions and military testing, but… In the 1970s, American psychical researchers such as Hal Putoff and Jacques Vallée did indeed convince intelligence agents and defense officials that there was something to ancient astronaut theories and ufology.
The fourth segment describes Russia before Vladimir Putin as “a hellhole,” which basically serves to endorse Putin’s rule, even though they admit that Putin is an “autocrat.” Even so, they seem impressed by what they call his ability to avoid public scrutiny and to impose strict secrecy—an odd claim considering their usual line is that America’s Deep State has such total secrecy that not a single fact can escape its black hole. Like many in our current world, power seems to be the real object of their affection.
Nick Pope says that America ceded space to Russia after 2011 when the space shuttle program ended and Russian Soyuz rockets became the only way for Americans to reach the Russian space station. The narrator claims that this is an “admission” that the Russians are and have always been supreme in space, rather than the more obvious answer that American elites prefer to spend the country’s money on its ruling class’s wars and tax cuts rather than on science, while Putin considers the space program Russia’s prestige project. (In reality, the state corporation that runs Russia’s space program is beset with productivity and efficiency problems, funding issues, and obsolete equipment.)
The fifth segment asks whether the aliens that visit the Earth are actually robots or artificial entities. This leads to a discussion of Russian efforts to achieve immortality by uploading a person’s personality to a computer. This is dumb. A copy of a brain is not the person. It is a copy of the person, a simulacrum. Imagine, for example, that you upload a copy of your consciousness at your death, as they want to do, but then the wire snaps and you don’t get euthanized. Now there are two of “you,” even though one has continuity of consciousness from birth to the present, and the other is merely a copy that thinks it does. This leads the show to talk about transplanting brains into robots and to openly express praise for autocracy, claiming that Russia’s autocratic government will allow them to perform unethical scientific experiments on human subjects that America’s namby-pamby concern for human welfare and informed consent simply will not allow. Nick Pope and Travis Taylor expressly declare autocracy to be the superior system for achieving dramatic scientific advancements in human-robot convergence. “There is a real benefit to the U.S. in making the Russian our partners,” Pope says, with a rather malevolent glee, considering he is not American and therefore the “our” is misplaced.
Just stop and think about this for a moment: A popular program on a mainstream American cable channel is openly embracing autocracy and expressing veiled contempt for democratic institutions.
The sixth segment reports Donald Trump’s call to establish a Space Force, and the narrator asks if this was related to Trump’s one-on-one meeting with Putin in Helsinki, where only their translators were present. Nick Pope claims that Trump and Putin discussed the alien threat and are working together to establish a military presence in space for the joint defense of the Earth. Taylor praises the Space Force as a necessary step to protect Earth, and the final segment comes fairly close to praising Trump for his secret contacts with the Russians and his private meeting with Putin. Pope says America and Russia are “inextricably bound together,” and the show tells us that only by fully embracing Putin’s Russia as a full and complete partner for America can we join with the alien gods (who were just attacking warriors a minute earlier… but whatever, right?) and achieve transcendence.
The only question I had at the end was whether the show’s writers are on Russia’s payroll or if Russia merely bought a lot of stock in A+E Networks. This wouldn’t have been out of place on RT rather than the History Channel.
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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