Now, a lifetime later—literally longer than my entire lifetime!—Shatner has returned to von Däniken’s bosom for a two-hour special in which the host of The UnXplained crosses over to his fellow Prometheus Entertainment production, Ancient Aliens, a show also based (officially at least) on Chariots of the Gods. In this two-hour special, Shatner quizzes the show’s regular cast of talking heads about a range of topics related to aliens, science, technology, and futurism. It’s a cheap effort to squeeze a little more life out of two fading franchises whose ratings have stubbornly hovered under the one million viewer mark without having to do too much original research or location filming.
The spectacle took on a bit of a surreal air. The night before, Farhad Manjoo, a New York Times opinion columnist, published a column in the paper claiming that Avi Loeb’s new book about space aliens was “dazzling” and endorsing the frequent cry from science’s discontents that the scientific project is a repressive mechanism to stifle the imagination. The very day this episode aired, von Däniken himself tweeted (in German) that he had watched an Ancient Aliens episode about Nazca and was shocked that it was filled with “pseudo-experts” talking “nonsense.” He is a consulting producer on Ancient Aliens. We live in strange times.
A two-hour panel discussion with the usual talking heads, all men—Giorgio Tsoukalos, Nick Pope, William Henry, David Childress, and the various lesser lights (the only woman, Linda Moulton Howe, joins briefly by video chat near the end)—doesn’t really lend itself to a point-by-point description. Shatner poses open-ended questions, the heads make some general claims, throw in a few anecdotes supplemented by narrator Robert Clotworthy speaking over b-roll, and basically it turns into a clip show in which bits and pieces of old episodes are recycled as a primer for Shatner, pretending to be ignorant, though as we’ve seen he literally made a movie about the same material. By setting this up as a discussion to try to convince Shatner that aliens visited earth, the show allows itself to return to its simplest and earliest claims, but it means that the arguments much lazier and more familiar than most of its repetitive late-season baroque mythology. Parts of the episode contain claims the show made in its pilot episode back in 2009. Some of this episode’s material is the same as last episode, including the segment on the Book of Enoch. It’s hard to find anything new to say that sixteen seasons of my debunking hasn’t already covered.
The group wrongly claim the racist old von Däniken (“Was the black race a failure?” he once asked, before speculating that aliens “programmed” whites to replace them) invented the ancient astronaut theory. He blatantly copied from earlier writers, but the show happily lets von Däniken repeat his usual spiel about how he supposedly discovered the idea on his own, despite the evidence that he copied from Robert Charroux, Louis Pauwels, and Jacques Bergier. The usual spiel about God and the gods being aliens and heaven being outer space is rehearsed, but there is nothing that would suggest this to be the case except imagination. After all, many of the gods of old lived in caves, or underwater, or on mountains. Relatively few were in the sky, and there is no reason to pretend everything follows a Judeo-Christian model. Von Däniken never really gets beyond claiming that any myth that talks about the sky must be about space aliens, and the producers don’t let his discussion of aliens genetically manipulating us touch on his two favorite topics, sexuality and race (he argues in his books that aliens have sex with people and breed “chosen” races that way), leaving his analysis even less coherent than usual. Even Shatner doesn’t quite buy it, though in pretending to ask von Däniken for proof of his claims, he never quite presses him to go beyond generalizations.
When von Däniken leaves, the panel turns to a new topic, one discussed regularly on Ancient Aliens: Whether humans could lift heavy blocks without the need for alien super-technology. They can. Always have. Lots of people, ropes, and levers can do wonders. The talking heads aren’t always clear about what they are discussing, and it seems that viewers are expected to already be familiar with many of the claims. They bounce, for example, from Abydos in Egypt to Baalbek in Lebanon to Ollantaytambo in Peru, a jumble of cross-talk, b-roll, and random assertions that humans can’t move of shape rocks without alien help. The heads assert, based on various false ideas from the 1990s, that various buildings and monuments date back to ten thousand BCE, and then they discuss one actually that old, Göbekli Tepe, and falsely assert, again, that only an “advance civilization” could build a stone building and therefore the evidence that hunter-gatherers built the site must be fraudulent.
The next topic is another evergreen favorite, “advanced technology.” Travis Taylor, from Secret of Skinwalker Ranch and Rocket City Rednecks, suggests that he believes that super-civilizations rose and fell millions or billions of years ago. Shatner claims to be amazed by long-debunked claims about advanced technology that were in the movie he did about this same material decades ago. Clips from previous episodes (including pieces of the 2014 In Search of Aliens spinoff) fill time. It’s all very sad as middle-aged and old men—I believe everyone on this show is older than I am, and I am almost forty—gibbering goofily about silly claims that were laughed at when my parents were young. I mean, seriously: The Dendera “Lightbulb”? Still? Those flower buds really get around. The “levitating stone” myths? You might as well take comic books for encyclopedias.
As we head into the second hour, we head into Great Pyramid mysteries. Since I will be publishing a book on the subject this summer, I am a bit of an expert on these legends, and I know that the stories that the talking heads claim are Erich von Däniken’s conclusions are in reality nineteenth century explications of medieval Arabic-language legends, misappropriated from Late Antique stories originally applied to Egyptian temples and New Kingdom tombs. Giorgio Tsoukalos misidentifies the claim that the Great Pyramid is 12,000 years old as the work of “some archaeologists” when in fact it was the claim of journalist Graham Hancock and engineer Robert Bauval, ultimately derived, in a roundabout way, from medieval Arabic-language claims that the pyramids predated Noah’s Flood. The talking heads rehearse Zecharia Sitchin’s false claim that Col. Vyse, in 1837, faked Khufu’s name in the Great Pyramid to try to make the pyramid postdate the Flood. The show does not note that we possess a papyrus from an official who built the pyramid describing the construction effort and attributing it to Khufu. A bunch of nineteenth-century lies from Charles Piazzi Smyth—including the silly claim that that pyramid is at the “center” of the earth’s landmass (it’s not!)—are presented as though they were “new” revelations.
Physicist Michio Kaku long ago sold his soul to Ancient Aliens, knowingly contributing to its lies and deceptions to stroke his ego and build his lucrative brand. Here, he blatantly says that we need to “keep our minds open” to the ancient astronaut theory, and he endorses the idea that civilizations rose and fell millions or billions of years ago, though it is unclear whether he means on earth or outer space. He offers some science-adjacent talk about how aliens a million years more advanced than us could travel faster than light to visit the earth, citing Star Trek as inspiration and example.
As we round the bottom of the second hour, the roundtable discussion moves away from aliens creating humans in a flying saucer lab and instead discusses panspermia, the idea that life came to earth from another planet, perhaps by aliens sending DNA on a space rock. The various talking heads enter into some disagreement here with Nick Pope standing up for natural evolution and the other talking heads debating whether aliens send DNA to earth to spark evolution or genetically engineered humans after natural evolution created pre-humans. All of them, however, have difficulty understanding the problems with teleology and all but Pope are quite certain that there is a specific endpoint humans are destined to reach.
In the last half-hour, the show moves into modern UFO sightings. It rehearses the Roswell Incident—misunderstanding the kind of balloon that sparked the actual incident—and it misstates the content of a 1950 FBI memo (not briefing) about crashed saucers, which actually reported on a hoax then circulating. It did not assert the reality of a crash. As we approach the top of the hour, UFO conspiracies take center stage (with Nick Pope wildly exaggerating his involvement in “investigating” UFOs for the U.K. government), with Shatner wondering why there should be a conspiracy and everyone else claiming at some level that the government is hiding something—but what, they can’t say. The New York Times stories about the Pentagon’s UFO programs are discussed—though ultimately, via To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science, this was a product of the same constellation of people who are also tied to the History Channel and its ilk. They’re all connected. The recent Congressional order to the Pentagon to create a UFO task force, legislation lobbied for by then-members of To the Stars (something Ancient Aliens omits), is discussed.
The show ends with Tsoukalos and the others agreeing that Ancient Aliens is an important part of the so-called disclosure process. I will actually agree with that. Disclosure is a fantasy created by passionate believers in unreal things, and Ancient Aliens has certainly been a part fueling the culture of conspiracy that surrounds that fantasy. Shatner calls the ancient astronaut theorists people of “education” and “intelligence,” so we fade out on solid laugh line.
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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