(Disclosure: Many years ago, I provided some unpaid research assistance to the producers of Weird or What? without knowing what the show would be. Like many TV producers, they dangled the promise of an on-screen appearance to get help and then stopped communicating as soon as they got what they wanted.)
As has been my practice with two-hour episodes of Ancient Aliens, I will try to summarize the show thematically and roughly chronologically, but due to the length of the episode, I won’t be able to describe each segment in full detail. Two hours of wild speculation and irrationality is mind-numbing. I don’t even watch the four-hour “special” clip shows History puts on.
The conceit of this episode is that recent discoveries and developments might finally “prove right” von Däniken’s ideas—a neat trick considering von Däniken famously claims not to have ideas. “I’m just asking questions,” he has repeatedly insisted for the past half century. (Well, almost: In his famous Playboy interview in 1974 he made clear claims and did not use the question excuse. It seems to have entered his repertoire when after he received real challenges to his ideas. In 1974, he actually asserted that he was certain that he was correct about his many space alien claims.) It turns out that this is only an excuse trotted out when challenged on points of fact or logic. When absorbing the adulation of believers and reveling in perceived harmonies between some his questions and real-life events—akin to stopped cocks telling the right time twice a day, or horoscopes being vague enough to predict any future—suddenly his disclaimer about not actually making any real or testable claims evaporate.
At the end of last year, EVD complained in an interview that Ancient Aliens made many claims that he disagreed with. “I’m not happy with all the conclusions Ancient Aliens makes,” he said. I guess he and Ancient Aliens made up since they gave him a two-hour showcase and paid for him to travel to Peru to film segments for the show.
Readers with a long memory—or the tenth anniversary gift set of Ancient Aliens—will recall that Ancient Aliens did an episode basically identical to this one for the forty-fifth anniversary of Chariots of the Gods back in 2013, and I guess they figured that enough time had passed that it was OK to repeat the same thing basically point for point. To that end, let me paste in my own previous discussion of the history of Chariots in contrast to theirs. The rest of this introduction originally appeared in 2013:
Erich Anton Paul von Däniken was born in Switzerland in 1935, raised a strict Catholic, and in Catholic school developed an interest in UFOs, like many youths in the early 1950s. He had a criminal record. He was convicted of theft when he was 19, and he left school to become a hotelier. He was convicted of embezzlement after leaving that job. He took another hotel position, and he stole money there, too, by falsifying records in order to obtain tens of thousands in fraudulent loans to finance his interest in space aliens and what the court later called his “playboy lifestyle.” The court psychiatrist declared him a pathological liar. Eventually, he would be convicted of embezzlement and fraud yet again, serving a year in prison.
In 1960, two French authors who were interested in the occult, Nazis, UFOs, and H. P. Lovecraft put out a book called Morning of the Magicians in which they tried to show that Lovecraft’s vision of ancient astronauts could be correlated to the “occult” truths of Theosophy and the UFO movement. Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels put together the entire case for ancient astronauts as we currently know it—from the claims about ancient atom bombs to the claims about “impossibly” precise and heavy stone architecture. Their book inspired several by Robert Charroux, who presented Bergier’s and Pauwel’s discursive, disorganized ideas in a more popular and readable format.
In 1964, von Däniken simply appropriated this material wholesale for a magazine article, and on the strength of the magazine article, he received a book deal for what became Chariots of the Gods. In his zeal to fill the book, he in places came close enough to plagiarizing Pauwels, Bergier, and Charroux that lawyers convinced the publisher to add those authors to the book’s bibliography, and in the sequels von Däniken specifically credited them by name, as if to assuage hurt feelings. Von Däniken went a step beyond his sources, though, in deciding that Jesus was a space alien along with the pagan gods.
The publisher, Econ, found the manuscript less than satisfactory, and they hired a screenwriter, Wilhelm Roggersdorf, to punch it up. En route they cut out claims about Jesus’ alien origin, and von Däniken forever after asserted Jesus was the exception to the alien rule. Roggersdorf’s version of Chariots met with great success, but much to von Däniken’s dismay, the contract he had signed with Econ stripped him of most of the profits from the book. What money he did make went to pay off debts from the embezzlement and fraud; so, with little choice but to forge ahead, while serving his prison sentence in 1970, von Däniken wrote Gods from Outer Space, a sequel he would sell to publishers worldwide on more favorable terms, and the foundation for his future financial success. After about 25 books (of which I’ve read half, all of the non-fiction volumes translated into English), von Däniken was a millionaire several times over.
His success afforded him the luxury of admitting that he lied, cheated, and committed fraud whenever and wherever it suited him. He told Playboy that he had lied about seeing a golden library of alien texts in Ecuador, and he admitted to others that he fabricated evidence to make his ideas seem more solid. All was fair, he said, when fighting “a war we have to win” to overturn modern science. He saw his ancient astronaut theory as a way of promoting traditional moral values and combating socialism and communism. Specifically, he told Pres. Gerald Ford that socialism was the greatest danger facing the world and conservatives needed to embrace UFO believers to win elections, and he later wrote that the aliens would punish the sexually unchaste as well as uppity feminists when they returned in 2012. (They didn’t.)
This episode starts with a potted history of the 1960s and argues that Chariots of the Gods was part of the youth rebellion against all forms of authority, and to that end, von Däniken (henceforth EVD) was 33 at the time that an ex-Nazi rewrote the book to make it a bestseller. Using clips of EVD on the Tonight Show, our current show overemphasizes the role EVD played in the development of the ancient astronaut theory, for it was already widely discussed in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, both in books and in magazines. Chariots was, of course, the most popular of the books, and the first to become an international bestseller, but books by Robert Charroux, Pauwels and Bergier, a number of English writers, etc. were all on shelves long before EVD.
A number of regular talking heads—those like Ramy Romany and Michael Dennin, with scientific credentials—appear to describe their love of Chariots of the Gods and how it impacted their lives and drove them into scientific careers. Romany claims, depressingly, that EVD taught him to question received truths about archaeology. William Shatner does the same, and then the show bitterly complains about “the academic community” refusing to accept EVD’s claims—claims that EVD himself here repeats are simply “238 questions” whose answers he did not know. But he weasels out of this, too, claiming that the questions whose answers he got wrong were just “questions,” but otherwise he was on the “right track.” It’s basically a “get out of facts free” card, allowing him to excuse his own failures and laziness by waving away any problem as a “question.” But what happens to his “right track” when the answer to all 238 questions is “you’re wrong”?
About 15 minutes in, Giorgio Tsoukalos and EVD visit the school where EVD first started fantasizing about space aliens as child in the 1940s, and EVD repeats his usual spiel about his loss of religious faith in the face of some standard questions about theodicy. EVD describes himself as an “alpha animal” who dominated everyone around him.
For no good reason, this includes EVD giving a potted history of the Book of Enoch and its narrative of fallen angels having sex with human women, giving rise to the Giants. The narrator claims that the Book of Enoch was “edited out” of the Bible in the fourth century, though it was never part of the fixed canon in Judaism of Christianity, except in Ethiopia. (Several early Church Fathers accepted its authenticity, however.)
Much of the rest of the first half-hour tells a whitewashed view of EVD’s life story, omitting his legal problems and falsely claiming that he financed his trips around the world by “saving every franc” from his job as a hotel manager. He used stolen money and loans obtained under false pretenses to finance these trips, according to his criminal conviction. The half-hour ends the story just before the publication of Chariots of the Gods.
The second half-hour begins with the moon landing in 1969 and suggests that the moon landing made Chariots a best-seller, implying with visuals that Americans bought the book during the moon landing. This is false. It was already a best-seller in Europe in 1968 and wasn’t a bestseller in the United States until the early 1970s, when a TV adaptation of a 1970 German documentary aired. The Oscar-nominated documentary was indeed influential, but the narrator made me laugh by describing an English-language dubbing as the “American language” version and wrongly suggesting that the English version was nominated for an Oscar. It wasn’t.
Megan Fox appeared to claim that the book became “a truth” for her and has shaped her world-view, and she alleges that academics “don’t want their life’s work challenged” and so are unable to accept new points of view. (Unlike movie stars, of course!) Giorgio Tsoukalos repeats his familiar story about his grandmother feeding him Chariots of the Gods as a child and how it made him an ancient astronaut theorist.
EVD admits to being less than critical as a young man and cites his early acceptance of the Iron Pillar of Delhi—supposedly unrusting—as one key error. But he omits to note that the error is still in print in every version of Chariots, right down to the current edition.
A section of this half-hour describes how NASA’s Josef Blumrich became convinced that EVD was right that the Biblical vision of God’s chariot in Ezekiel is a spaceship. Tsoukalos wrongly claims that Blumrich holds a patent on an omnidirectional wheel based on his imagined version of Ezekiel “to this day.” First, patents last 17 years in the United States, and Blumrich’s patent expired in, I believe, 1991. Second, the omni wheel was first patented in 1919, without any reference to Ezekiel. Blumrich’s version was a variation on the 1919 original, despite his claim of Biblical inspiration.
The show skipped over several important facts about EVD’s life, including his time in prison writing his second book, his plagiarism scandal, and his fight with his publisher over royalties. It also omits the influence of Rod Serling’s Chariots TV special, In Search of Ancient Astronauts—the single most important factor in making Chariots a best-seller and exposing the ancient astronaut theory to millions of Americans. Instead, it focuses on William Shatner’s re-edit of a German documentary in 1976 as William Shatner’s Mysteries of the Gods and tries to claim that Start Wars was inspired by Chariots because it was “science fiction happening in the remote past,” as David Childress claims. (The show kindly omits the fact that Childress spent the first two decades of his career attacking EVD and the ancient astronaut theory as wrong.) It’s true that George Lucas read Chariots and wanted to base an Indiana Jones villain on EVD, but I don’t believe that Star Wars was influenced by the book. Other 1970s art was certainly inspired by it, notably Battlestar Galactica, but science fiction of the 1930s-1950s was just as influential, if not more, particularly H. P. Lovecraft’s influence, which hangs over movies like Alien.
More recent pop culture is clearly modeled on 1970s ancient astronaut books, and ancient astronauts can be found in a wide range of movies and TV shows. The show presents this as both triumph and conspiracy, suggesting that artists are preparing us for the return of the aliens by using movies and TV shows to normalize aliens. They do normalize the ancient astronaut theory—but as fringe history propaganda in service of sales, not for any alien agenda.
Megan Fox says that she would “assume that a majority” of young adults are open to the ancient astronaut theory. Sadly, Chapman University’s recent survey found that this is close to the case. They found 41% of adults profess belief in the ancient astronaut theory.
The third half-hour once again contrasts “mainstream” scholars, whom it depicts as hidebound and quick to reject EVD, with the public at large, whom it lauds for asking “very intelligent” questions that mainstream scholars would not consider. It describes the increasing number of writers seeking to emulate EVD’s success as a “growing army of ancient astronaut theorists.” For no particular reason, this army leads to a pointlessly false implication that EVD predicted the discovery of Göbekli Tepe, the ancient temple complex in Turkey, because EVD accepted the “Biblical Flood from the Bible,” as Childress calls it. Childress asks if Göbekli Tepe’s people were killed by the Flood, and Megan Fox says that she believes that the Flood really happened and associates it with Graham Hancock’s idea that the end of the Ice Age was the Flood.
The show goes into some of its greatest hits, including Gunung Padang, claimed now to be 25,000 years old by Danny Hilman Natawidjaja, the Indonesian geologist, according to the show, and said to be a natural hill by skeptics. The narrator also alleges that the number of petroglyphs depicting bulbous-headed humanoids “undermine” the idea that the images are mythological rather than depictions of space beings wearing 1960s-style sci-fi helmets with antennae. Part of the half-hour is given over to the DNA tests that Brien Foerster and L. A. Marzulli did on elongated skulls from Paracas, Peru. Foerster repeats a number of claims that the skulls are larger than head-binding could produce and that the missing sagittal suture indicates nonhuman origins, claims that were disproved by physical anthropologists years ago, which I have discussed many times and need not repeat here.
Another part of the half-hour discusses Zecharia Sitchin’s views, and Jason Martell calls him one of the “greatest” researchers of all time. That’s pretty sad since Sitchin couldn’t distinguish between the different Mesopotamian languages he professed to be an expert in. The show demands that Puabi, called a Sumerian queen (though her actual rank is disputed, and she was ethnically Akkadian while also a powerful person in Sumerian Ur), be tested for space alien DNA and Nick Pope alleges a cover-up because British officials, who control what remains of her skull at the Natural History Museum in London, won’t indulge ancient astronaut theorists their fantasy.
The half-hour concludes with the episode starting to run out or steam in attempting a hagiography of EVD. Instead, we are treated to the greatest hits of “alien architecture,” with claims that are not those of EVD, or even those directly inspired by him. The show alleges that ancient structures that are aligned to the stars or in some way associated with astronomy signal the arrival of aliens. The show presents Robert Bauval’s Orion Correlation Theory of the Giza pyramids and claims, apparently with Bauval’s blessing (or pecuniary acquiescence) that space aliens planned the correlation. (Bauval was inspired by Sirius Mystery author Robert Temple, himself inspired by EVD, creating a daisy-chain of bad ideas.) They repeat the false claim that Teotihuacan represents Orion’s Belt—false since the largest Teotihuacan pyramid “correlates” to Orion’s smallest belt star. But even if all the claims about buildings aligning with stars were true, it implies nothing about aliens since the stars can be seen by anyone standing on the Earth in the places where these buildings were built. You don’t need aliens to look at the sky, and you don’t need aliens to stake out the positions of the stars. We hear a reprisal of the familiar Ancient Aliens claim—still without evidence—that pyramids are built on an energy grid and beam electricity to one another and to the sky. We also get a repeat of the claim that any depiction of a basket or a bag held by a god in ancient art is really “misunderstood technology,” perhaps a life support system of a laptop computer. This is only “mysterious” because ancient astronaut theorists find it unusual that a male would have a handbag, which we today associate with women. I will bet you good money that if goddesses rather than gods were holding the purse, no one would have given it a thought.
The fourth half-hour started a bit late because History jammed in extra commercials to pad the episode’s runtime to two hours and five minutes. It takes EVD to Nazca to make claims about the ancient lines that EVD once suggested were an airport for spaceships. The shows describes “space archaeology”—the use of satellite imagery to identify archaeological sites—and vaguely connects this to the idea that anything forming a shape visible from above must have been intended for aliens to fly over. To see why this is silly one need only remember that most Christian churches are cruciform when seen from the air. They are not, however, built to signal space aliens with crosses. The symbolism is in building the structure in the shape, not whether people can see the shape.
Megan Fox shows up to falsely claim that ancient people feared that they would fall off the edge of the Earth in their “rowboat,” and therefore science is wrong because it was wrong about the flat earth. The Earth’s shape has been known since ancient Greek times, so I’m not sure this is a good example. William Shatner appears and repeats the idea that science is often wrong and constantly changing. This is a difficult claim because it posits “science” as a fixed body of knowledge that is “wrong” when science is a process that continuously refines and improves its conclusions. There isn’t room here to go into the philosophy of it, but Ancient Aliens errs in confusing the body of knowledge accepted as the best approximation of truth at a given point in time for a dogmatic, quasi-religious doctrine. It belies that religious underpinnings of the ancient astronaut worldview, born—as EVD admits—from an effort to recreate Christianity into something more acceptable to postmodern thought.
A roll-call of doofuses who support ancient astronaut theories and UFO studies, including Ancient Aliens talking heads, billionaire UFO believer Robert Bigelow, etc., are presented in heroic imagery, as soldiers in a battle for Truth.
As the show moves toward its end, EVD’s panel discussion at Alien Con is shown, including a ridiculous tribute from an audience member that EVD belongs alongside Abraham Lincoln in the pantheon of “great men.” It includes more of EVD’s pouting about being “attacked” by people who know facts, and in an argumentum ad populum, he suggests that the 76 million books he sold proves him correct. A curtain-call of ancient astronaut theorists profess to be following in EVD’s footsteps, and EVD declares ancient astronaut theory—which, remember, was “238 questions” and no facts at the start of the special—to be “the new science” which will replace mainstream history.
In the last five minutes, the show notes that Akdeniz University in Turkey now has a program in ancient astronauts and UFO diplomacy and it describes college courses covering UFOs and ancient astronauts at Western schools. William Henry says that students demand such studies because they “want to be part of the revolution.” David Childress actually says something unintentionally insightful. He notes that we live in a time of change and with the failure of elite institutions, the public is turning toward alternatives, including the ancient astronaut theory. He sees this as a positive opening of minds, but it’s really a symptom of the collapse of old elites and the systems that held them together. It is postmodernism curdling into mythology and masquerading as knowledge.
EVD tells us that the aliens will be in contact with us within 10 years. And Ancient Aliens will probably still be on to excuse the failure of his prophecy.
And that is a wrap on this endless special.
A promo informs me that the show is doing another two-hour special on Monday as part of a “History’s Mysteries” week that, bizarrely, is stretching into its second week. I’m sorry, but that is just too much for me. I can’t do four hours of Ancient Aliens in one week. It will just have to wait. Even I have my limits.
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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