Saturday, August 23, 2014

Ancient Aliens Buries the Lead

"The Great Stone Face," 1957

Ancient Aliens is now in its seventh season. I DVR it, but don't really watch it that often. It's gotten to the point where it's not telling me anything I don't know already, and having been on the other side of the camera a number of times I know how the game is played. 

What is very clear with the Ancient Aliens style of interviewing is that the producers are looking for soundbites. They will prompt the speaker to repeat the question in their own words and then give the required answer. And anyone who's watched a number of episodes of Ancient Aliens probably can recite the answers along at home.

I've sometimes defended Ancient Aliens, not out of a great love for the show, but because so many of the people who've attacked it are doing so on behalf of the Fundamentalist/Creationist/Theocrat axis, a fact they fail to disclose to their audiences. But the fact of the matter is that I have a lot of problems with it, and only took down my critique of it when Filip Coppens passed away (I've since put it back up).

But I'm mature enough enough to realize that any criticisms I have of the show are irrelevant. It is what it is, as the people say. It wouldn't be on around the clock if people weren't watching it and it wouldn't have been renewed six times if it wasn't making money.

But compared to the original two-hour specials (which I do think were very well done), the show is running on fumes, content-wise. It makes for pleasant enough background noise from time to time, but hasn't told us anything new for a while (The Satanic Conspiracy episode, while misleadingly titled, did have some good information on the Watchers).

But this latest episode was something else. Not only did you have the stock answers that you could hear on any episode on any topic, they blew the lede here in a major way.

"Jacob Wrestles the Angel", portfolio piece, 1980 

As I've been writing about since this blog went live, comic book superheroes didn't just materialize from the ether like tulpas -- as the Ancient Aliens cast of regulars repeatedly suggested-- a good many of them were created or co-created by Jack Kirby. And the ones he didn't create or co-create, he had a hand in, like Iron Man and Spider-Man.

And Jack Kirby is a guy who was not only doing stories about ancient astronauts long before Erich Von Daniken (there's practically enough of those to fill a stadium by now), he was using AAT as the basis of the superheroes he was creating, beginning with The Inhumans in 1965.

Kirby was so obsessed with AAT that it consumed the latter part of his career; three of his titles for Marvel in the 1970s were built around the theme and he did a number of other AAT projects after he left comics for animation.

What's more, his prescient "Face on Mars" story from the late 50s showed a distinct Theosophical influence with its ancient extraterrestrial civilizations, demonstrating he may have been exploring the same material that inspired Edgar Rice Burroughs for his own Mars material.

But aside from Kirby, you also have Otto Binder, who was not only one of the great writers of the Golden Age of Comics, he was also a prolific sci-fi writer, editor of Space magazine, and the co-author of the classic AAT text, Mankind, Child of the Stars. 

Binder is not as well known as Kirby today but he worked on Captain Marvel, which at the time was Superman's #1 rival on the stands, selling upwards of a million copies a month and inspiring a number of spin-offs.

It's really too much to ask at this point; a tiger doesn't change its stripes. And in a way I'm glad Kirby wasn't drawn into the reductionist POV of Ancient Aliens, a show which does its best to make none of these old stories seem alien, as in god-damn-what-the-fuck-you've-got-to-be-kidding-me alien. 

It's just more naturalism, more materialism, more shopping-mall American midnight.

More despair.

You see, materialism doesn't lead to a nation of scientists, rolling up their sleeves and boldly pressing at the frontiers of human knowledge. It leads to a nation of YOLO hedonists, drinking J├Ąger shots from each others' navels while running the Visa bills into the red at Cabo and Ibiza. Materialism gives us Kardashians, not Carl Sagans.

The evolution of Giorgio into Internet laughing stock- cui bono?

I could be wrong, but Ancient Aliens comes across as a show for people who've never had an alien experience, for people who've never tripped balls and ripped at the coffin lid of infinity, or for people who've never had such an experience forced upon them.

It's just the same old, same old; mind-blowing mystical experience (which nearly all of those ancient texts describe) reduced to a 1980s Saturday morning cartoon.

It comes across as a show for people who haven't had their worldview shaked and baked and then been thrown back and had to pick up the pieces again. As a show that takes the magical and makes it mundane, that takes the psychotronic and makes it pseudo-scientific.

I want to defend Ancient Aliens, really I do. But I won't. This was a golden opportunity- a major architect of today's pop culture who was also obsessed with ancient astronauts- and they blew it. Just blew it. I'm sure Gerry Jones told them about Kirby, I'm sure their other comics guests probably did as well. But what do we get? The same soundbites you hear on every episode.

Go back and watch all the AAT documentaries from the 70s, with Rod Serling and William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy and so on and so forth. Even if you don't believe a word of it, that stuff still holds up and still kicks ass. And you definitely get the feeling that those motherfuckers were experienced.

Note: I know it's spelled "lede", but it looks weird as a headline.


  1. I appreciate this post. Like yourself, my wife and I often put the show on for background noise when we fall asleep, or are cleaning house, etc. and I couldn't agree more that they jumped the shark a while ago. One main point, and the source of my appreciation, is something that has bothered me about a lot of modern programming, but shows concerning our ancient past in particular. Instead of digging deeper, and/or giving the subject(s) the respect they demand (IMO), they take the sacred and render it profane, common, and essentially rob it of its power and true mystery. This image of unimportance and impotence then inevitably carries over to believers and practitioners. The things I've learned about Jack Kirby and folks like Phillip K. Dick from my association with the blog, the facebook group, and my own research are fascinating! To not include Kirby's story strikes me as laziness at best. It's another opportunity to enrich humanity that amused the mob and enriched a few instead. At a minimum, they could have done better than the continual recycling. Great post, really engaging and an enjoyable read. Comics, Kirby, AAT, tulpas and the holy trinity of Sterling, Shatner, and Nimoy...make mine Secret Sun!

  2. Cheers, David- you're right on. I also love what Tristan wrote on the BBQ: "They don't make these things like they used to - the more recent Ancient Aliens series on the History Channel rehashed much of the same material but with all the otherworldly atmosphere of a late night infomercial for exercise equipment." The way AA kept making it sound like these heroes just popped out of the ether- ugh, I was livid.

  3. Yeah, I'm kinda over it myself. They just never go anywhere with AAT. For myself, I *do* believe that Humanity was uplifted or something, in prehistory, and I *do* believe that there was some kind of great culture that left only traces - like the Vedas and the megalithic structures - but that Ancient Aliens has reduced it down to a boring sermon. with no mystery or awe to be found.

    I do love that Ancient Aliens is asking the question, and getting certain people's panties in a twist. I just wish it was "more".

    1. I think "more" is too much to ask of commercial TV is 2014. "More" seems to be too much to ask of commercial publishing these days. Having been through the commercial publishing grinder I can tell you that publishers don't think you can handle a meal of information, you only want a snack. Like an airplane meal. Which is why self-publishing is the only way to go if you want to seriously discuss these kinds of issues.

    2. Thank goodness that the self-pub option exists. To me, Ancient Aliens started as a good intro to these ideas, but they are still "stuck" there. I guess I thought we'd get something like the old Nimoy-hosted "In Search Of", but AA just hasn't hit that spot for me. Maybe it was Nimoy, himself, that made that happen? Anyhoo, "In Search Of" was an excellent intro to these mysterious things, and it had a way that made me want to follow up for myself. I'd say that "in Search Of" was like a delicious appetizer, but "Ancient Aliens" is more like franchise fast-food. Does that make any sense?

    3. I've got a box of ISO. It was an intelligent show, even if the subject matter was sometimes kind of iffy. But that was a different America. Today, major magazines read like comic books. Tabloidism has taken over network news. Dumbing down has been deliberate and devastatingly effective. Check out another Leonard Nimoy project- the 90s remake of Brave New World. It's way too familiar.

    4. Agreed RE: dumbing down. It's sad to see. I'll take a look at that Brave New World. I think Nimoy is one of us, as far as he's always felt like an outsider, and I think he's always brought that to his works.

  4. "Shopping-mall American midnight" -- beautiful.

    As for 1980s Saturday morning cartoon shows, well, Thundarr the Barbarian was designed by Kirby with scripts by Steve Gerber, so let's add the caveat of "mid to late '80s". ('70s Saturday mornings were weird; after '82 it was Reagan America banal.)

    1. You're right. And there's a great documentary about Thundarr where the guys at Ruby-Spears recoil in horror at the crap they were forced to make in the Reagan years. That's why Steve Gerber unleashed such venom in Destroyer Duck on that kind of cutesy-poo animation and the mind-rotting effect it had on a generation.

  5. At 3 this morning I couldn't sleep. Turned on the tube and there was "the face" of AAT - Giorgio something-er-other. He was traipsing around New Mexico trying to uncover the reality of a "Roswell rock." I felt like I was watching that bleach-blond tubby guy on the Food Network. Sad.

  6. Ancient Agenda Theory- Commandeer genuine inspiration and rather than increase the yield, fractionalize the principle until it is spent- Or, since the pennant races are heating up, let a shaman like Billy Beane visualize the great workings and then have the Yankees and Red Sox throw money at it, forcing Beane back into the sweat lodge to find another path- (repeat ad nauseum…)

  7. I was gunna use the line: "...for people who've never tripped balls and ripped at the coffin lid of infinity, or for people who've never had such an experience forced upon them."

    You are talkin' right to me with that line...

    This, for a talk at an upcoming UFO conference, a conference specifically for UFO abductees. I stole that line, pasted it into my notes, and then wrote some more equally heavy handed stuff as part of my talk. Then I lost power in my house for two seconds, and when i got my computer back up and re-started, all my ranting notes were lost.

    I am taking that as a sign from the universe to chill the f*ck out, at least a little bit. What I had written sounded like a fire-breathing rant.

  8. Or maybe it was the universe adding its own punctuation. You can't be too hasty with these things. UFO conferences could use a bit of fire-breathing now and then, no?

  9. Another excellent post! Sorry I've been a bit absent of late but my personal life is very complicated right now. But it really puts a smile on my face to see you posting at the Sun again, Chris. The blogosphere missed ya!

    1. Hope all is well, Raj. Look forward to hearing from you.

  10. That In Search Of box set is a godsend. Not only does it have some excellent episodes, it includes the disastrous, unwatchable reboot from about a decade ago that shows how much things have changed for the worse.

    As for the Saturday morning fare, sure, I understand your meaning. But, I'll take a moment to give due to Land Of The Lost, Mighty Isis and other live-action shows that fit in perfectly with the Kirby comics and other mind-twisters doing a good job of blowing my kiddie mind in the 70s. Land Of The Lost remains a good one, what with those weird pylons, dinosaurs everywhere and the Sleestacks who were - ah, won't spoil it for those who have yet to watch. ;)

  11. But then again, Mitch Pileggi. As to the rest of the shows, they're better off remembered than rewatched.

  12. Mr. Knowles, you are a hard act to follow. Any information about AAT is welcome. I would like you to inform the TV crowd. You have the mind of a genius. So what if a man has big hair? Most synchromystics are well informed. I think Ancient Aliens is a freshman attempt to inform many people in a medium that we all know to be flawed. Some of the data presented is well received by me, new shows are very interesting. Perhaps they could can the old shows and present it on it's own cable channel. Shine forth brave souls. Respectfully Dennis.

  13. It's been really welcome to see this new wave of material, it reminds me of 'old school' Secret Sun and it's nice to see the dialog in the comments section has become more intimate, very missed. I agree that Ancient Aliens has become more about sound bites, than anything else, which is why I don't follow it much. I do recall seeing a new spin-off on History that at least covered some more obscure topics, 'Hanger 1', which wasn't bad. The old seventies docs might not have been prefect, but at least seemed more well intended.