Last night, the Travel Channel debuted its new alien-themed series Expedition Unknown: Hunt for Extraterrestrials, in which host Josh Gates does his usual schtick but with more of a typical cable alien show theme. Travel Channel is surely counting on high ratings from their effort to attract the Ancient Aliens audience since they’ve chosen to pair this limited series with an hour-long After the Hunt talk show to double the length of each episode and are offering alien-themed episodes of their other shows, such as Mysteries at the Museum. There are limits, however, to my patience, and I don’t have the time or the inclination to sit through the after-show, especially when the main hour is a dull and derivative affair that offers very little beyond a blandly pleasant restatement of what anyone with a mild interest in space exploration already knows, and some standard cable-TV ufology. It was televisual wallpaper.
Hunt for Extraterrestrials is never quite clear on its topic. It conflates questions about extraterrestrial life in general with intelligent life specifically, and it weaves together the scientific effort to locate exoplanets harboring intelligent life with evidence-free assumptions that lights in the sky are interstellar craft piloted by space aliens. The overall impression is that ufologists are equivalent to astronomers, and that the study of UFOs is, more or less, a co-equal branch of astronomy, engineering, or physics.
The hour included four different topics. The first twenty minutes saw Gates travel to Houston to explore NASA headquarters and to speak with administrators, engineers, and astronauts about current space exploration plans. He also test-drove a rover. I found it a dull segment that told me nothing new about NASA that I hadn’t seen many times before. I’m not a big tech geek, so I don’t really take much pleasure in watching TV hosts drive heavy equipment. They always look like Donald Trump in the fire truck to me. Vroom, vroom!
In the second part of the hour, Gates traveled to Santiago, Chile to discuss Chile’s UFO problem with the official government agency, CEFAA, founded in 1997 to investigate flying saucers. The majority of this twenty-minute segment was devoted to a Chilean “UFO” sighting that came to popular attention in January of this year. A thermal video taken by the Chilean military appeared to show a cigar-shaped object emitting a circular object. Gates expresses astonishment at the video, and he travels in a helicopter to see if a hot air balloon could be responsible. It was not. Even though the video has been debunked—it appears to show the aerodynamic contrails left behind by flight IB6830—Gates claims that the Chileans say it could not be a plane, and Gates never informs viewers of the likely explanation.
The third segment, also in Chile, brings viewers to the Very Large Telescope in the Atacama Desert. I guess this is interesting if you like technology, but it was never clear to me which shots showed the telescope shooting real lasers into the sky and which were CGI approximations. The lasers are aiding researchers in searching the sky for exoplanets, though the segment never manages to actually connect the work to the hunt for aliens in a meaningful way. How many earthlike planets have been found? Do any show signs of life? That will have to wait for the after-show because we are en route to the desert to meet with a UFO investigator to look at more videos of lights in the sky, with the assumption that lights in the sky translate to alien spacecraft. Gates goes on an overnight UFO hunt in the Atacama Desert, recalling his long-ago stakeouts of various monsters on Destination Truth. Gates practically orgasms over his excitement at using night vision goggles, and the show manufactures some drama by implying that interference in the equipment was due to aliens. For all the sound and fury, they never bothered to actually look for a cause. On a different Travel show, it would be ghosts, and in reality there are countless electromagnetic possibilities. Gates also claims to see a light in the sky, and we end with a “to be continued” tag followed by a promotion for the second hour, which promises “new revelations” that “you have to see to believe.” Since the first hour contained none, I doubt it.
One of the problems with the series appears to be the difference between the producers’ original conception of it and the network’s. At one point, Gates, in speaking to astronauts in an interview seemingly recorded early in production, says that the show is a “big” program about “space exploration.” But by the time it came to air, it was about space aliens. It sure sounds like the marketing department decided that aliens were sexier than prototype spacecraft. Gates never asked the astronauts about aliens, the titular topic, and I admit that I found it inappropriately amusing that talking to astronauts on the International Space Station reduced him to tears.
I also cringed a bit when Gates asked the astronauts about their bathroom habits and drinking recycled urine. This was not just because it was distasteful, but also because it brought up bad memories of an early encounter I had with the media. When I was 11, an astronaut came to speak at my middle school, and the local CBS station, WTVH, sent a reporter to cover the story. The principal selected me to speak with the reporter because I was well-spoken and articulate, and it seemed like a great honor. The reporter spoke to me for about ten minutes and asked a number of questions. At one point, he asked me what I thought of the astronaut’s discussion of space toilets, and, trying to be polite, I told him that it was interesting to learn about them. I waited all day for my story to air on the local news, which it finally did at 11 PM. Since it was past my bedtime, I had to videotape it. Watching it was horrifying. They had extracted from the entire interview only the sound bite of me saying I found space toilets really interesting. It was a terrible embarrassment, and it soured me on the media for a long time. You can imagine how unpleasant it was to be so embarrassed as a middle schooler.
Out of the entire hour, there was one part, at the very beginning, that I found interesting. In his introduction, Gates confesses that his interest in the outré, first displayed in Syfy’s Destination Truth many years ago, was born of his childhood love of Star Trek and Star Wars, citing science fiction as his entry point into the study of myth and culture, and calling himself a “card-carrying geek.” “I spent my childhood in the darkest corners of the Twilight Zone and lost in the pages of Ray Bradbury,” he said. “I love science fiction, and like so many others, I am obsessed with the question of whether there’s something else out there.”
We have heard similar stories many times before, and it explains a lot. Perhaps science fiction shapes the imagination in a different way than other genres. I came to question of aliens at an oblique angle. Yes, I did read most of the science fiction classics, but I never had an emotional attachment to them. I have always found so much of science fiction to be either didactic, moralizing, or pointlessly technical. Before you complain, there are plenty of masterpieces I have enjoyed immensely, but overall the genre of space opera where aliens stand in for nonwhite human cultures leaves me cold. I can’t help my emotional response. I have always been much more in tune with the weird fiction and horror genres, but they overlap with science fiction in many places, from The War of the Worlds to The Thing. But I guess it is in my nature to be drawn to the darker side, and it is probably also a circumstance of local culture that I was never the “card-carrying geek” described above, if only because genre reading was only a portion of my omnivorous reading habits, which encompassed most genres and a good chunk of the Western canon. Similarly, I too loved the Twilight Zone—though I often preferred The Night Gallery—but I’m pretty sure I watched just about every TV show that aired between 1992 and 1999, every piece of animation from 1932 to 1992, and most of the classic shows on Nick at Nite, which back then were from the 1960s. That isn’t really something to be proud of, but it did mean that while I had my preferences, I never really developed a strong overriding interest in any one subject or genre. That’s probably why even on this blog, with its relatively narrow focus, I still ricochet around an absurd number of topics.
Anyway, it was interesting to see that once again we find that childhood exposure to science fiction seems to be a precipitating factor in developing an interest in aliens and the unexplained. I wonder how much those media depictions of aliens shape perceptions of what lights in the sky are “supposed” to be. After all, there is nothing to connect lights or shapes in Earth’s sky to interstellar craft piloted by space aliens except for the science fiction that inspired the first interpretations of flying discs in the 1940s.
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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