As a young lad, I had a phase where I would watch the Discovery Channel almost exclusively. The reason for this was that as long as I was watching Discovery, or any other one of those vaguely educational networks, my parents would pass by and, noting that I was watching one of these stations, shrug and think “at least he’s learning” rather than tell me to turn off the TV and go outside. To my delight, most of the shows were not in the least bit didactic and were all pretty much about one of two general themes: sharks and other violent creatures, or aliens and other mysterious beings.
My favorite shows, however, were the alien ones. In comparison, the shows about aliens offer a strangely literal example of what it means to truly “jump the shark.” One could argue, after all, that shows about shark attacks are at least somewhat scientific. Biology is a real subject- one that kids even study in schools. Alien shows, however, seemed pretty much as far from science as could possibly be maintained while still technically being educational. Ufology and cryptozoology, of course, have yet to be included into grade school curriculums, but they do end in “ology,” which makes about anything sound credible.
Back then I wanted so badly to believe in crop circles, mysterious cow executions, and extraterrestrial abductions, but even more so I wanted to believe there were other, more powerful beings out there to be afraid of. Placing one’s fears somewhere “out there,” after all, is a convenient way of brushing them aside. Since watching a marathon of Ancient Aliens, however, I have concluded that there is much to fear, but that it comes from a place all too near and familiar.
From the first I find it unnerving that I can’t even think about this show without feeling like I am being stoned, and I mean that somewhere in between the meaning of “execution by rock throwing,” and “high on plant matter.” Some time after the whole stoning takes place, I arrive at the preposterous idea that somehow this show can be seriously interpreted and a sort of meaning can be taken away from the whole venture. All the while I think it would be heinous to try and take it at all seriously. Maybe the frenetic pacing of the commentary delivered by wild-eyed “experts” asserting that some ancient ruin was in fact the work of aliens stimulates the same part of my brain which develops absurd, half-baked theories of its own, or maybe it’s just the fact that such a show exists in the first place is just too big a hurdle for my mind to jump.
On second thought, I wonder why such a show would be created in the first place, and really the answer is simple: to get people to watch it in order to make money from advertisements. Today’s entertainment market incentivizes the production of television programs on which the very least effort has been expended and the very minimum value has been produced. Ancient Aliens seems an especially fitting example of this fact, because in no other case have a show’s creators so skillfully assembled something -albeit a vapid something- out of nothing.
The most striking characteristic of Ancient Aliens, and other television programs today, is how it relies entirely on editing techniques to paste random sequences together into a narrative. Visually it is utterly unremarkable. The whole show is basically a montage of wacky looking alien “scholars” giving fanciful interpretations of archaeological evidence set to images of pyramids, Mayan ruins, and clouds moving really fast over a soundtrack composed on synthesizers and Andean pan-flutes. This creates the illusion that something really deep is being said, when in actuality a man who could easily be Rob Schneider’s body double is postulating that because the Pyramids of Giza are aligned with such and such a constellation in the Sirius galaxy, they could therefore only have been constructed by extraterrestrials, because such detailed knowledge of the stars was completely beyond the comprehension of the ancients.
The editors are very clever and in between such grand and delusional pronouncements they often insert commentary by scientists from respected institutions such as Harvard, MIT, and Stanford. Actual scientists on the show always speak very generally about the theoretical possibility of a given subject, say levitation, and then their musings are followed by proclamations on said topic by the ancient astronaut theorists, with each statement becoming increasingly questionable.
Under normal circumstances this would be an unsustainable model, but ancient astronaut theorists really have a way of outdoing one another from claim to dubious claim.
The formalistic, dissociative narrative arc of each episode emerges out of this tendency, as the show can only move forward when the editors have completely run out of material and are absolutely forced to move onto something else by way of montage. A temporary trance is then induced in the viewer by juxtaposing some images of pyramids in Egypt to ones in Mexico, inserting a slew of arbitrary questions, and a commercial break. By the time the show returns, an entirely new topic has become the center of focus and nobody even remembers what was being discussed mere moments before.
The relationship between each of these segments is at best cursory. Still, the ideas the show rests on can afford to be haphazardly pasted together, because it’s better in any case if none of them have anything to do with each other. If a definitive conclusion were to be reached at the end of an episode, something truly unfathomable might happen; viewers might (somehow) find themselves satisfied with the answers the show presents, and they might stop watching.
Presented in such an utterly dumbfounding way, it’s sometimes hard to notice the conflicting and absurd premises on which this show rests. This is an intentional maneuver on the part of the show’s creators, because the implications of the ideas that this show promotes are indeed frightful.
The experts who appear on Ancient Aliens maintain that aliens made contact with our ancestors and gave them the gift of technology that they might one day mature and become a space-faring race of their own. The basis for this argument is established in the long standing historical myth that human progress is a teleological process – that is, the assumption that because ancient people hadn’t developed nuclear fission, coal-fired steam engines, machine guns, or any other potentially world annihilating, life-extinguishing technology, they were totally backwards and unsophisticated. The ancients couldn’t have thought up the Pyramids, the Bible, or Stonehenge on their own; apparently they needed aliens to help them. Inherent in such a proposition is the suggestion that mankind is headed towards a finality embodied by some kind of ultra-modern version of ourselves- aliens. The whole alien fantasy is, essentially, the product of this idea that there is or could be a civilization so advanced that it has conquered all knowledge and in effect conquered the universe. Yet the very notion that scientific knowledge alone is all that is needed for progress seems so dated that one might be tempted to think it could finally be laid to rest. Today more than ever, we must remember that no earthly paradise could ever be achieved thanks to this, the dustiest of Enlightenment principles.
In fact, what the alien myth and the faulty notion of progress embedded within it represents is the total opposite of any utopian illusion.
The premise for Ancient Aliens and every other show about aliens is an extremely dark one, for if the aliens are our future, then that future is a grave and terrible one. Aliens are tall, grey, lanky beings with no heart or soul. The aliens are so scientifically advanced that the very laws of physics bend before them, but despite their possession of such godlike powers they are numb, dispassionate, and ghastly to behold. With nothing left to behold in wonder, they are bereft of all emotion. Their technology seduces the militaries of the world’s powerful nations, but it cannot be controlled. They show up unannounced, without so much as even a knock at the door, and suck people silently into the sky. The alien fantasy represents the endpoint of our society’s twisted, uncompromising view of Western rationality.
It is a vision of what is to come if we blindly seek progress without any discussion of what progress is or what ends our myriad efforts should be diverted to; it is, in a way, as much a capitalist nightmare as it is a Stalinist nightmare.
Such ideas are embedded within vapid shows like Ancient Aliens as deeply as they are embedded within the collective unconscious of our culture. If they weren’t, aliens wouldn’t be such common figures in films and television, and our seemingly innocuous concerns about the possibility of a warlike race of advanced beings wouldn’t be so difficult to sort out. The whole alien premise may just be a convenient and low cost way to get people to watch the History Channel, but it is also an effective distraction not only from our ordinary fears and anxieties but from our fears as a society of what we may become. That, combined with the hackish editing, the carefully timed commercial breaks, and the unintelligible narrative structure is what transforms this random, poorly conceived, and incoherent mess into an entire series of intensely watchable forty minute episodes. There is something that viewers even as young as I was when I first began watching shows like “Unsolved Mysteries” recognize in the alien motif that is frightening to us on a very real basis.
Rent unrecognizable by such clever means, however, the constituent parts of alien-themed programs rarely disturb the cognizant part of the viewer’s brain. The brain is lifted, suspended, made empty and then whole again with nary a sud left behind. Like a mechanic toying with a car’s engine, the engineers of Ancient Aliens silently tinker with our thinking parts. They do this so that they may please their masters whom they call advertisers. What the advertisers want, know one can know for sure, but it seems apparent that they would like to produce more television shows. They would have us live in a silent world full of screens and static, if only we would watch them. And while there is indeed a logic behind such processes, it is a logic which gives no recourse to vitality or reason. Such logic is indeed inhuman, alien.