Let’s stipulate that this is not a topic I care much about, so I am not overly inclined to go into detail about viruses. The show opens with a discussion of a 2016 study that found retroviruses to be the driving force behind protein mutation in mammals over the course of evolution. The narrator misunderstands this to mean that natural selection doesn’t drive evolution—natural selection works by selecting among mutations, to there is no contradiction. The narration goes on to tell us that it isn’t likely that dumb ol’ viruses could have produced “sophisticated” humans, and both the narrator and David Childress suggest that aliens must have “engineered” human evolution. Giorgio Tsoukalos adds that many of the viruses could have come from outer space as part of a “deliberate artificial change of our DNA.” Much of the discussion revolves around efforts to suggest that evolution couldn’t have happened following Darwin’s ideas—though they are 150 years out of date—so therefore aliens must be responsible. They discuss a bottleneck that occurred in human evolution when the human population was reduced to just a few thousand individuals. In the past, it was suggested that a volcano caused this bottleneck but more recent thinking fingers a virus, so the show suggests that a comet brought the virus on orders from space aliens.
The second segment covers the Spanish Flu of 1918 and speculates that the virus came from outer space since two outbreaks of flu occurred in Mumbai and Boston on the same day. The show suggests that it is impossible for this to have occurred without intervention from space, specifically a brush from a tail of the comet, but this was merely the time that the first cases were recognized and entered highly populated areas. The virus had probably spread for a while outside major population centers before it was noticed, and there isn’t really a need to imagine a comet as a necessary precondition. Scientific analysis two decades ago identified the source as a virus that spread from birds to pigs and then humans on the Western Front in France in 1917. This would then explain everything we need to know as soldiers returned home as the war ran down.
The rest of the segment describes how viruses can be taken up into the atmosphere and rained back down onto the Earth. Chandra Wickramasinghe, the panspermia theorist, arrives to talk about his belief that science is “dishonest” about these falling viruses. He believes that many are from outer space, and he has written books in which he provides weak evidence that he has identified alien viruses.
In the third segment, we follow Tsoukalos and Dr. Richard Hoover, a former NASA scientist and panspermia advocate, as they travel to an ice cave near Whistler, British Columbia—conveniently located next to another terrific vacation destination for Tsoukalos. Funny how he gets the desirable vacation spots for his field segments. The photography in the ice cave is beautiful and might have been worthy of a documentary of its own, but our heroes are less interested in the majesty of the blue glacial cave of ice than they are in trying to prove that microorganisms can survive for tens of thousands of years within the glacial ice. Hoover takes what he says is an uncontaminated sample, but Tsoukalos promptly breathes on it while trying to cap it, so the sample would seem to be worthless. The two men decide that the glacial cave is a good representation of what the inside of a comet would look like and therefore an analogy for how comets might transport life across the universe.
Panspermia is an interesting theory, and not implausible, but this investigation has precious little to do with the ancient astronaut theory since it requires no intelligent design to move microorganisms via comet. The narrator tries to rescue the segment by asking if comets were part of a “deliberate” design to genetically alter humanity, but the tossed-off question does little to bring panspermia under the purview of ancient astronautics. After all, why would the aliens who could come here in person fill comets with bacteria and hope that they’ll hit the Earth and take root as expected?
The fourth segment continues the third and revolves around analysis of the samples Tsoukalos and Hoover collected. They view microorganisms found in the glacial ice, which Hoover believes to be preserved bacteria that thawed out for the first time in ten thousand years. Based on this, the narrator basically summarizes The Andromeda Strain, and then we hear speculation that Mad Cow Disease came from prions from outer space. The narrator asks whether Ebola and plagues like the Black Death are the result of alien space viruses. Bill Birnes suggests aliens send diseases to us on purpose. Tsoukalos claims that a “black shield” sprayed “black dust” before the Black Death and implies this was a UFO. I can’t find a reference to support this, and the show does not provide one. I guess it’s a distorted version of something like the signs in the sky that the medieval Catalan doctor Jacme d’Agramont believed signaled the coming of plague, which included dust in a cloudless sky and a large illuminated object he called a drach that was bigger than twenty lance-lengths. The show concludes the segment by telling us that aliens are essentially space Nazis conducting eugenics experiments to strengthen our gene pool by killing off up to 50% of humans at any one time. (The show conflates the Black Death’s toll on Europe with the entire world, because … white people.)
The fifth segment discusses alien abduction in order to claim that aliens are experimenting on people in order to modify their DNA and reduce human fertility. Mike Bara offers an uncomfortable take on abduction that seems to reflect anxieties over changing gender roles, arguing that alien gene modification will sap men of their masculinity, making men “androgynous,” lowering their testosterone, and making them “frail” and womanly. Women, apparently, are unaffected—or, more likely, unimportant. When the theme that aliens are future humans first emerged a few decades ago, the aliens were seen as basically walking brains, superior in their removal from material concerns. Now they are scary space liberals, castrating red-blooded American men with their effeminacy. It’s all weirdly Freudian, especially weird since Freudian theories are bullshit to begin with.
In the final segment, the show discusses the recent discovery that a species of normally wingless aphid grows wings when the bug needs to travel for colonization because a virus’s genetic code has been incorporated into the aphid’s DNA and controls wing development. This fact goes nowhere, really, and Nick Pope tells us that aliens are possibly a dying species trying to preserve something of itself by hybridizing humans. This, of course, seemingly contradicts the idea that humans were genetically engineered by these aliens via comet unless you believe that there are many different species all playing with our DNA like Play-Doh. Finally, the narrator concludes that all of this is meant as a vaccine, “inoculating” humans against alien viruses and microbes so we won’t suffer like the Martians in War of the Worlds when the aliens show up—unless, of course, you believe the previous segment, which told us that the aliens were already here and abducting us.
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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