Eric: You start. I can’t even.
Joe: I LOVED THIS EPISODE! It’s wonderful. It’s even better than the previous episode. This one is all about the idea of Ancient Astronauts visiting primitive cultures and leaving their mark in art and traditions. Okay, here are five things I thought were awesome, and I hope you also take a moment to think of five wonderful things.
First, I loved the fascination with body modification to mimic these supposed “ancient astronauts.” Where we saw examples of figures from history and tribes altering their bodies to look more “alien”. Now, let’s set aside the crazy interpretation for a moment. Okay, I think that this is the stuff that you don’t find in other documentaries about the history of the world. The “story” of history as presented on shows does not talk about how the first Pharaoh looked kind of funny, and had a weird-shaped head. What other show would be rude and brazen enough to talk about how weird that guy looked? Not many other shows would go in detail to demonstrate the strange lengths tribal cultures went to get to a distinctive look.
Second, I loved the Kachina doll section. I grew up for a couple years in El
Paso and then New Mexico, and I remember as a little kid seeing those dolls everywhere and wondering about them. I loved the rock art, and the interpretation that is just way out there. I mean, it almost makes sense, right? These sky beings that look like aliens in weird suits coming through a portal from another part of the universe could be a culture trying to comprehend what we would call aliens.
Third, Buzz Aldrin is hilarious. He appears early in this episode along with a few NASA scientists that all seem to be really enjoying themselves explaining what they study through a wild lens. Buzz Aldrin really stands out like he was trying really hard to contain his sense of how ridiculous this show is while still providing thoughtful and useful answers to questions. I applaud his efforts.
Fourth, I loved the Dogon, and how their belief was resolved rationally by an anthropologist, and their knowledge of the stars is explained with a perfectly reasonable truth about their oral traditions, and the show both presents it and then aggressively tries to refute it. Basically, the Dogon are an African tribe with interesting costumes and an oral tradition of faith narratives that somehow picked up knowledge about the invisible star Sirius B. Not many shows about history would even take a moment to talk about the Dogon tribe of Africa, much less to take their beliefs so seriously and literally.
Fifth, I am a huge fan (though not a believer) of the Panspermia theory. This moment, where they relied on a Nobel prize winner’s belief in Panspermia as evidence that it must be true. I am reminded of the Nobel Prize winner who invented vitamins as a kind of cure-all to prevent death (who died fairly soon after his huge pronouncement about vitamins). Nobel prize winners are not immune to magical thinking, after all. I love the idea of Panspermia, wherein life starts at some place in the universe, only once, and then these living beings actively seed life throughout the universe. I love it because I believe we should be doing it, ourselves. All known, confirmed life in the universe currently exists on a single, increasingly fragile skin of a rock hovering in a very tiny place in the vast universe. We should be actively seeding life to other planets that lack it, terraforming Venus with microbes, and Mars, and anything else we can find that has no life but could potentially have something.
Eric: Okay, I love the panspermia (a ridiculously masculine term, if ever there was one) idea as well and agree that we should be doing it. I once read that for life to spontaneously generate as it has, RNA to DNA and single celled organisms to where we are now as complex, sentient beings, is like winning the million dollar lottery a million times in a row. It makes sense, in an odd way. God as an astronaut? Sure. That checks out. Sort of.
The second thing I love about this episode is how it starts with all the experts that keep going on and on about how Aliens really do, probably, ahem most likely, exist. They spent five minutes proving why they might, could, possibly, exist because literally everything about their argument hangs on the fact that the audience has already willfully suspended disbelief or bought into the theory that we are not alone in the universe completely.
And that sets up my third favorite thing. The language they use. “Some see similarities” “could be” and “possibly explain” are the dead giveaways for a logical fallacy. They also love using big numbers. Things like fourteen HUNDRED years later are emphasized in a way that makes me, as a teacher who primarily is concerned with research and rhetoric at this point in my career, sit up and take notice.
Fourth, the idea that this pharoah’s depiction and notoriety as a reformer of religion earned him any kind of credence as an ancient alien. Modern history has been absolutely full of religious reformation since the Americas were colonized. How many different sects of Christianity are there? Most of them have their own prophets, people who claimed to be visited by God in one way or another (Seventh Day Adventists and Mormons spring to mind). Were any of them inspired by ancient aliens? What about someone claiming to be visited by a god who commands monotheism is remarkable?
Fifth, and this is a relatively simple one, they go on talking about craniums and body modification. It’s fascinating, but it’s no more bizarre to have someone modify their cranium by bonding that the mummification that Egyptians used to preserve their dead. People do ridiculous (to me) things now in the name of beauty and fashion at an attempt, I think, to be an individual. The show also undermines the argument by showing examples of Chinese foot binding and neck elongation. But that’s not what made me laugh. The side-by-side of Alien meme guy saying that this had to be evidence of aliens next to a modern, color picture of an African tribe performing the same modification almost put me over the edge.
Joe: The best line, though, had to be the section where the “experts” were trying to explain away the primitive cultures’ religious and mythic explanations for what were obviously alien astronauts by explaining that these primitive cultures were using the language tools and symbols they had available to them to describe extremely complex things for which their language lacked words. I love it because these “experts” were doing exactly that, and could not see the irony! Trying to explain away the complexity of human experience with the alien astronaut theory is, itself, doing exactly what they claim the ancient cultures were doing by masking the alien astronauts in mythic language!
What did you think of the Dragon as UFO theory? What did you think about their theory of alien/human hybrid sexytime?
Eric: Well, Jay from Jay and Silent Bob said that he wanted to be the first to find an alien species and fuck it, so yeah I believe that alien sexy time could have been possible. But all because someone looks funny doesn’t mean that they actually need to have alien DNA to explain it. Ever heard of Marfan Syndrome? Trisomy 21? There are hundreds of diagnoses that explain physical abnormalities, which is of course, discounting the previous argument that body modification was imitation of aliens.
I’ve got to be honest, at this point, I have some serious teacher PTSD going on from watching this. It’s like reading a bad high school research paper from a bright, arrogant kind who just won’t take feedback because he knows better (funny how this is always a male pronoun). All of the evidence is poorly interpreted.
Joe: I think you have to be in the right frame of mind to watch this show. Like professional wrestling is fake, but people still see great enjoyment in it. What I love about this show is how it zooms in on things that many other documentaries don’t even think about. History, as a field, is a storytelling field. It’s trying to construct the narrative of human history. Seeing the same tools used to construct a wild, zany, out-there kaleidoscope of nuttery is a wonderful reminder to all of us to constantly examine our own narrative bias.
Eric: Oh absolutely. You do have to be in the right frame of mind to watch this and in June for a teacher is probably not the right time.
Joe: Realistically, the historical narratives we’ve received are often just as out there. Imagine being a student in the South, learning the history of the south, and having to see how proud southerners explain human slavery to a class full of children who have no ability to process the horrors that happened so casually. Is it weirder to imagine ancient alien astronauts rode dragons around and altered the DNA of early human society than it is to imagine slavery as a thing we’ve long ago gotten over and let’s all move along, thank you very much, happy MLK day, children!
Eric: I think a better example than slavery there might be the idea that Christianity is basically one God sending their son down to die for all of our sins that were codified by him. That notion to me, has always been pretty wild. Or that the earth was made in a single week. But no, you’re right. I like the idea of dragon-riding alien alchemists much better than the narrative that the world was made in a single week. I just wish we had dragons that we could ride.
Joe: I just do want to point out, though, that the absolute worst thing in this episode was their interpretation of the Biblical “we” in the Old Testament as some kind of reference to multiple divine beings. I mean, glossing over centuries of Biblical translation and re-translation aside, Jewish leaders decided what went into the Torah and what didn’t, and why. It seems to be a collection of multiple narratives that an editor collated together into a whole. (If you’re into the Documentary Hypothesis…) You just can’t go that in depth about a translation of a translation of a translation of an accumulation of oral traditions written down into text by Jewish elders to collect their cultural and religious narratives… Heck, what we think of as “The Bible” was really handed down to us by Christian scholars in the 4th century, and the debate still hasn’t ended (Hello, Apocrypha!). Like, I can take interpretations of the Prophet Muhammed or the Book of Mormon that intensely and minutely because there was a moment and a person and the angel spoke and okay, cool. But, Christian biblical tradition is so messy with so much errata and apocrypha and loose ends wandering around the edges. Christian literalism, even used to entertainingly imagine it as a proof of alien astronaut god kings, is just way too far.
I still love this goofy show, and I want to keep watching it. THERE IS A SEASON 13!
Eric: Well, I’ll give you one more episode. I made my wife watch this one and the eyeroll was real. Since there are so many episodes, shall we chose one at random and–
Joe: No… Let’s finish Season 1, then we can check in with the latest ones. The first season had to be so carefully constructed, and really sell itself hard. Subsequent seasons probably start to coast on their laurels a little. Probably. (I’ll find out!)
Eric: Can you hear me laughing down there in Texas? Okay.