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Excavating the FutureArchaeology and Geopolitics in Contemporary North American Science Fiction Film and Television$

Shawn Malley

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781786941190

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: May 2019

DOI: 10.3828/liverpool/9781786941190.001.0001

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Ancient Aliens

Ancient Aliens

(p.82) Chapter 4 Ancient Aliens
Excavating the Future

Shawn Malley

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Focusing on the History Channel's popular series Ancient Aliens (2009-), this chapter examines how the (pseudo)documentary mode of representing the incredible idea that extra-terrestrial intelligences intervened in human history directs amateur experiences of archaeology towards SF conventions. Integral to these viewing experiences of Ancient Aliens are the kinds of future-pasts exposed in the series. Of particular interest is the threatening sense of the past, which capitalizes and obliquely comments on the current state of insecurity generated in all sorts of news, documentary and fictional media. This chapter contends that recurrent themes such as doomsday weapons, extra-terrestrial invasion threats, government conspiracies, genetic tampering, the rise and fall of civilizations, the Mayan calendar, and the insistent focus on the Middle East as the origin of civilization and setting for the (imminent) apocalypse cast palpable contemporary geopolitical anxieties into challenging narratives of cultural origins. As such, the ancient alien topos, though pseudo-archaeological, is a significant cultural expression of the dialogic relationship between archaeology and SF film and television as popular and imaginative expressions of historical identity and geopolitical mediation.

Keywords:   science fiction film and television, archaeology, geopolitics, ancient astronaut theory, pseudo-archaeology, Mayan calendar, apocalypse, Ancient Aliens

‘I’m not saying it was aliens … but it was aliens.’

Meme attributed to Giorgio Tsoukalos

[S]pecial effects in mainstream SF have been transformed from signs of a rational and objective science and technology to representations of a joyous, and ‘sublime’ intensity—thematically linking postmodern culture’s new ‘detached,’ ‘free-floating,’ and ‘liberated’ sense of emotional transcendence with the transcendental.

Vivian Sobchack1

Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) opens in medias res with James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban) fleeing the very small indigenous population of a crimson forested planet. In an effort to lure them from their temple, which is about to be destroyed by a volcanic eruption, Kirk steals their sacred scroll. When the natives are out of danger, Kirk abandons the scroll and returns to the U.S.S. Enterprise, which is concealed underwater. In violation of the Prime Directive (non-interference in the development of pre-warp civilizations2), Kirk is forced to reveal the ship when it leaves the planet. The natives immediately toss aside their scroll and kneel in worship before the rapidly ascending Enterprise. When the ship warps away, the group’s elder scrapes an outline of the Enterprise in the soil as the rest of the tribe looks on in excitement. The crew of the Enterprise save the planet from certain destruction, but in the process steer its inhabitants toward (p.83) a potentially dangerous evolutionary path. For the descendants of this world, Kirk and McCoy will be ancient aliens.

The scene in fact makes an overt reference to a famous chapter in ancient astronaut lore. The planet is question is known as Nibiru, named after the world Zecharia Sitchin describes in his best-selling book, The Twelfth Planet (1976). A self-taught Sumerian scholar, Sitchin created from his reading of Sumerian mythological texts an alternate history of the solar system, in which a ‘twelfth planet’ on a vast elliptical orbit around the sun intersects with Earth’s orbit every 3,600 years. The film inverts Sitchin’s theory that the technologically advanced inhabitants of Nibiru, known to the ancient Sumerians as ‘Annunaki,’ were responsible for kick-starting human evolution. Purported to be on a collision course with Earth, the ‘wandering planet’ Nibiru (Fritze, 211) was one of the most popular doomsday conspiracies coinciding with the ‘end’ of the Mayan long-count calendar in 2012. As evidenced in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes and Transformers 2, ancient astronauts afford a broad canvas for imagining world-ending scenarios. The opening scene of Star Trek: Into Darkness illustrates, furthermore, that the digital special effects that leave the awestruck natives of Nibiru gaping in wonder are constitutive of the ancient astronaut topos of technologically superior beings interfering in human affairs. As a technological medium, the History Channel’s pseudo-documentary Ancient Aliens (2009–) likewise inundates the viewer with spectacular images that blend venerable SF tropes of extra-terrestrial intervention and invasion with the visual conventions and rhetorical strategies of documentary television. This chapter examines the cinematographic methods through which Ancient Aliens produces alternative archaeological knowledge at the intersection of digital effects, documentary rhetoric and SF storytelling.

Elana Gomel’s Postmodern Science Fiction and Temporal Imagination (2010) is useful for considering the cultural concerns to which this hybrid form responds. Her work is founded on the bold premise that SF is the realism of postmodernism.3 Unshackled by the ‘chrono-logic’ constraints of realist fiction, SF ‘documents,’ she says, the ‘explosive growth’ (3) of postmodern temporalities through particular narrative figures she terms ‘timeshapes.’ A special case of Mikhail Bakhtin’s chronotope and reminiscent of Gary Wolfe’s SF icon, timeshapes are flexible metaphors that accommodate ‘new forms of time’ generated by a broad array of (p.84) contemporary scientific and cultural discourses, including ‘evolutionary theory, quantum mechanics, cosmology, cyberspace, globalization, and resurgent religious fundamentalism’ (3). Gomel identifies three distinct timeshapes, each corresponding with a particular SF narrative. The first and most recognizable is time travel, a conceptualization of time as space that forecloses against temporal interference at the risk of invoking the dreaded time paradox or ‘chronoclasm.’ The second, alternative history, opens existence to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics. Both time travel and alternative history refute chrono-logic realism, because time and space are conflated in the former and multiply in a web-like multiverse in the latter.

Gomel’s third timeshape is the most compelling for the present reading of Ancient Aliens: that is, apocalypse, a complex rendering of the end of time with the ‘advent of the millennium’ (18), a time beyond time itself. Apocalypse, she states, is ‘a one-way road to eternity which is the salvation of the chosen few and the damnation of the discarded many. It is perhaps the most ideologically potent and dangerous timeshape—and the most popular’ (18). A postmodern shield against time’s arrow, apocalypse accords SF a coherent vision of ideological affairs that makes the end of time inevitable and even desirable in a world of global conflict: a world in which, she says, ‘apocalypse has become mega-entertainment and mega-war’ (21). Though entirely suspect epistemologically, Ancient Aliens is in Gomel’s sense a ‘realist’ postmodern fiction of the end of time within the cultural paratext of post-9/11 SFFTV.

Ancient Aliens disrupts narrative space-time by investing static artefactual markers of the past with the kind of futuristic agency Wolfe attributes to the ‘venerable’ icons of SF. The programme outwardly imitates familiar documentaries of archaeological discovery, wherein objects are ‘unconcealed’ as pro-filmic images in a visual field saturated with similar images emerging into the light of day: as Timothy Clack and Marcus Brittain state in Archaeology and the Media, of ‘presenting a fiction [of discovery] through an unsteady camera, a crouching trench level shot, the scraping of the trowel’ (49). Ancient Aliens takes a step further by ‘science fictionalizing’ these discovered object/images into figures of alternative archaeology. The modus operandi of revelation (of exposing hidden messages about the future buried in the past) is the series’ central thematic concern: timeshaping material remains into an alternative archaeology of the future, a documentary of the possible or even inevitable return of our extra-terrestrial ancestors. The show’s ‘revelatory’ apparatus for uncovering secret knowledge, moreover, persistently aligns archaeology with Scriptural revelation of the signs of the end of days.

(p.85) Ancient Aliens emplots discovery as apocalypse through a distinct televisual style developed in the series’ inaugural season. Over the course of five two-hour episodes, the show methodically erects an eschatological framework around archaeological referents. The first episode ‘The Evidence’ (20 April 2010) establishes the claim that the material imprint of ancient peoples is actually an arcane blueprint of modern and futuristic technologies. The teaser opens with a ‘cosmic perspective’ of the Earth from outer space then plunges into a kinetic montage of heavy construction equipment and transportation and power systems girding the planet. Ancient sites and artefacts are then introduced: dynamic framing and lighting effects invest the inanimate past with the contemporary purpose of machines. Sound effects accentuate the visual comparison. Camera zooms ‘swoosh’ towards artefacts. Drums beat out tension. A series of minor crescendos anticipate bold narrative statements. ‘Are these examples of modern technology, or is there evidence that these incredible achievements existed on Earth thousands of years ago?’ Time for expert testimony. The prolific lost Atlantis author Graham Hancock avers, ‘You begin to ask yourself, “Are we missing part of the story?”’ The drums surrender to spooky piano and vocal phrasing reminiscent of The Omen or X-Files themes. The narrator wonders, ‘Could ancient man have possessed knowledge far beyond that of our own century? And if so, where did it come from?’ The tempo surges to the fully orchestrated main theme as two-dimensional panels of artefacts crash towards us from the cosmos—all very reminiscent of Richard Donner’s rendition of the Phantom Zone in Superman (1978)—then settle into the main title. Multiple levels of sound—drums, piano, synthesized voice, orchestra—build tension and a palpable sense of threat.

While old objects and expert testimonials impart documentary perspicuity for the ancient astronaut premise, the kaleidoscopic visual and tonal fields transform objects into ‘the evidence’ of an otherworldly past through low-budget special effects culled from the repertoire of ‘B’ SF. The teaser displaces artefacts into an epistemological register that is not museological but decidedly cinematographic. Special effects have a crucial function. They do not merely supplement the documentary narrative, they carry ‘truth’ in familiar and unsettling images and storylines cobbled together from disaster and invasion films. Spectacle is not a substitute for narrative; rather, it is a form of storytelling that bridges logical gaps in ancient astronaut rhetoric. The privileged form of narrative is the montage, the loose connection of images culled from science fictional claims on the ‘real’ world. Archaeological objects engender multisemic forms of address that resist narrative closure (McClean, 164) by consigning them to the spectacular plausibility (and (p.86) circular reasoning) of ancient astronaut thinking. The viewer is accorded momentarily the privileged perspective of the extra-terrestrial, then is bombarded from space with a meteoric revelation of an unsettling truth.

The episode chapters themselves develop at a slower pace the argument introduced in the teaser. The narrator invites us to consider the evidence, in the first instance of an unpresuming bird figurine discovered at Sakaara, Egypt, in the nineteenth century. The opening shot tracks a scorpion skittering across a burning rock, then pans up to a soft focus of the step pyramid of King Joser in the distance. The camera pans around the pyramid and tombs at its base, then dissolves to a display case at the Cairo Museum. A close-up of a simple wooden bird carving on a stick is juxtaposed to an animation of a papyrus manuscript unfurling. Purportedly discovered alongside the carving, the scroll bears the phrase ‘I want to fly.’ Having established an archaeological gaze and museological context, the object undergoes several transformations. The shape of the wings suggests to researchers that the figurine represents a flying machine. The artefact is measured, digitized on CAD/CAM software, replicated in a scale model, tested in a wind tunnel, then ‘flown’ in a flight simulator. Physical modelling and digital imaging hold the archaeological and the technological in suspension. Watching the model of the bird actually fly (with the minor addition of an elevator) is quite compelling evidence of our own mastery of the skies. The object becomes a sign of the very technology to which it is subjected.

While simulations suggest aerodynamic integrity for gliding, there is however no obvious means of propulsion. The documentary apparatus furnishes evidence through exclusively cinematic techniques: a short animated scene of the bird-plane and its pilot being catapulted into the air. While the integration of animation into the documentary matrix is a common practice in history and science programming in order ‘to bring to life objects and events that are impossible to capture with the live-action camera’ (Roe, 9), the rather anticlimactic cartoon of what is strangely evocative of a children’s carnival ride is a rather bizarre opening salvo in the campaign to uncover extra-terrestrial influence in human affairs. Far-flung examples of sculpted flying-saucer-like turtles from Guatemala and tales of magic carpets from Persia bear witness to the extensive grasp of ancient alien activity—and the tautology of the Paleo-SETI imagination. The quiet corner of the Cairo Museum is made to bear witness to an integrated global network of airports (including the Nazca ‘runways’), power plants (the Giza pyramids harness microwave radiation) and wireless electrical grids (obelisks around the world broadcast energy like Tesla towers). Disparate remains of an ‘Ancient Airlines’ coalesce in an animation of a spaceship collecting energy from (p.87)

Ancient Aliens

Figure 11. Ancient Aliens, ‘The Evidence’ (Prometheus Entertainment, 2010).

the surface. While an extreme example of the techniques by which documentaries ‘aid and supplement our vision,’ the spacecraft hovering over Giza clearly demonstrates that the ‘world shown in the actuality or documentary film is presented as knowable, and the terms of its knowability are organized by the film, not by reality’ (Cowie, 2, 13). In the case of Ancient Aliens, actuality is self-consciously allied with SF cinema, whose narrative commitments are both discovered in and shaped by special effects technologies (cf. Landon).

A palpable sense of threat builds over the course of the season. By episode 3, ‘The Mission’ (4 May 2010), the audience is prepared to learn about a sinister extra-terrestrial agenda. The authoritative index of the (male) voice-of-God narrator commonly folds the a priori conclusions of ancient astronaut researchers into either/or hypotheses that impart an air of scientific scepticism. ‘According to the ancient astronaut theory, aliens may have come for many reasons: to excavate, to breed, to conquer or simply to explore.’ Sumerian sky-gods known as the ‘Anunnaki’ genetically modified early humans into a slave labour force for mining operations. Rapacious aliens were also responsible for mass extinction events recorded in Scripture: ‘Was the intent to clear the way for colonization or invasion, and if so what sort of technology would be needed to effect such a widespread change?’ Are crop circles (p.88) ‘futuristic clues guiding us to our ultimate destiny or ancient symbols paving the way to our ultimate destruction?’ Ancient Aliens regular David Childress speculates that traces of a continuous extra-terrestrial presence are all around us. Indeed, aliens may be watching us from the moon, which he postulates could be a ‘Death Star … capable of destroying a planet.’ Episode 4, ‘Closer Encounters’ (11 May 2010), transfigures the central conceit of alien visitation in Spielberg’s 1977 film into an apocalyptic alternative history of human civilization. Medieval painting and literature record UFO sightings around the time of the Black Death. Post-war atomic weapons testing reiterates biblical accounts of doomed cities. The deluge was engineered by aliens dissatisfied with their genetic experiments. Ancient Aliens elicits an emotional response to the investigation by investing aliens with the terrible power of God recorded in Scripture.

The final episode of the first season, ‘The Return’ (25 May 2010), closes the circle on ancient ET speculation: ‘But what if extra-terrestrial beings came to Earth tomorrow? Would they signal the birth of a new age of peace and prosperity, or trigger a war of the worlds?’ The first season emplots ancient astronaut research within a mythic version of history, in which we can anticipate after a time of tribulation the promise of unification with the creator. Joseph Campbell Center archivist Jonathan Young, who is a frequent visitor on the show, considers ancient astronaut lore as a bone fide manifestation of Campbell’s monomyth of the eternal return. The most ‘ancient and most durable’ version of temporality, myth is a deterministic ‘image of time that denies temporality,’ a space-time pattern that is, like Christian fundamentalism or the Mayan calendar, often ‘giving birth to apocalypse’ to complete its cycle (Gomel, 19, 20). The teaser highlights apocalyptic overtures of the return through direct reference to SF: ‘Spaceships over Los Angeles. Body-snatchers controlling our minds. ETs making contact. These and other alien-based scenarios have been the plot-lines of countless science fiction movies and television shows.’ Orson Welles’s radio production of The War of the Worlds (30 October 1938) is cited as a possible invasion scenario. ‘The Return’ explores in essence the central issue occupying the protagonist of The War of the Worlds, who at the time of the Martian invasion was ‘busy upon a series of papers discussing the probable developments of moral ideas as civilization progressed’ (9). In the novel, morality is judged wanting and humanity escapes extinction only by accident. But treating SF media productions of alien invasion, nuclear annihilation and body-snatching as inevitable future histories of the return, Ancient Aliens insistently filters reality through the determinate lens of apocalypse, a worldview in which H.G. Wells’s nightmarish vision of uncontrolled (p.89) evolution was uncannily affirmed by a neurotic nation tuned into the Columbia Broadcasting System in the autumn of 1938.

Another culturally expedient manifestation of the apocalyptic imagination in Ancient Aliens is its participation in the cultural frisson of the so-called end of the Mayan long-count calendar. The subject of at least 18 individual shows on the History Channel, including Mayan Doomsday Prophecy (5 August 2006), Decoding the Past: The Other Nostradamus (28 November 2005), The Lost Book of Nostradamus (28 October 2007), Nostradamus 2012 (4 January 2009), Apocalypse Island (3 January 2010) and the six part miniseries Countdown to Apocalypse (2012),4 the ‘overall emphasis of the 2012 phenomenon as portrayed on television,’ Kevin Whitesides relates, ‘is clearly on apocalypse rather than utopia’ (2013, 90). In his article ‘The Mystique of the Ancient Maya,’ anthropologist David Webster wonders, ‘Why do [the Maya] exert such a powerful hold on the imagination of the public, as well of some archaeologists?’ The basic reason, he argues, ‘is the commonplace human impulse to appropriate ancient cultures as the repositories of our hopes, or fears, or fantasies. But why the Maya?’ (129). Whitesides and Mayan archaeologist John Hoopes suggest that as a ‘polythetic set of romantic beliefs that derive from eclectic assertions about the ancient Maya calendar,’ the 2012 phenomenon offers ‘a new mythology for our time to allay the angst that accompanies rapid technological, social, political, and environmental change’ (50). The Mayan end of days is a flexible myth that accommodates the kinds of technocratic anxieties normally reserved for SF and dystopian literature. Accredited scholars have themselves contributed to the millennial mythology of 2012.5 In his influential book The Maya (1966), archaeologist Michael Coe calculated a long-count date, ‘associating it with the concept of universal annihilation’ (Hoopes, 2011a, 190). Coe associated warfare themes in Mayan inscriptions with the Christian concept of ‘Armageddon’ from his reading of the post-conquest creation myth, the Popol Vuh. According to John Carlson, Coe essentially ‘planted the “meme” in global popular culture of a destructive “apocalyptic” 2012 completion of the Long Count’ (20011a, 5).

Carlson also notes that the Dresden Codex, the oldest and best-preserved Mayan manuscript, is often cited as the source of an apocalyptic promise that a great flood will engulf the world (Carlson himself contends this is simply a fable about the annual return of the spring rains)(Carlson (p.90) 2011b, 171–76). Likewise, the theory of a ‘rare’ and life-altering galactic alignment on 21 December 2012 proposed by New Age groups like Harmonic Convergence stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the Mayan biannual observation of the alignment of the Earth, sun and galactic equator (Hoopes, 2011a, 195; cf. Hoopes, 2011b; Sitler; Webster). The ‘2012 phenomenon is,’ Hoopes asserts, ‘an astrological and cultural event, not an astronomical one’ (2011b, 245), whose associations with Armageddon, Whitesides adds, ‘arose amid Cold War fears of nuclear annihilation in the 1960s, becoming firmly rooted in the countercultural milieu of the 1970s and 1980s predominantly as a hybrid apocalyptic/utopian narrative representing hopes of great change as a result of some radical disruption of the norms of modernity’ (74). Firmly located in the context of fundamentalist Christian and countercultural New Age millenarian ideology,6 the 2012 apocalypse was alien to the Maya. Rather, ancient disaster scenarios like ‘the biblical deluge, the destruction of legendary Atlantis, the Old Norse Ragnarök myth, and even [those of] extraterrestrial and UFO cults’ form a ‘solid backdrop to popular mythology about 2012’ (Carlson, 2011b, 5).

Given their exposure to world ending events in popular and even academic discourse, the Maya are easy pickings for Ancient Aliens’s brand of syncretic millenarianism. Season four opens with a special two-episode tribute to 2012, ‘The Mayan Conspiracy’ and ‘Doomsday Prophecies’ (20 February 2012). The episodes uncover evidence of extra-terrestrial visitation encoded in Mayan calendrics. ‘The Mayan Conspiracy’ opens with a pastiche of archaeologists, astronomers and astrophysicists speaking admiringly about a people who developed sophisticated means for charting long periods of time and the complex reasons for so doing. Enter David Childress, who directs us to the smoking gun of the Mayan conspiracy: the sarcophagus lid of King Pacal discovered in the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque. While the consensus among Mayan scholars is that the artefact depicts the king’s journey to the after-life, Childress furnishes the von Däniken reading of Pacal operating a space capsule. The monarch, Childress observes, was the ‘original rocket man.’ Similar to the Saqqara bird, the Palenque artefact undergoes no less than three stages of semiotic abstraction. We are presented with a replica of the sarcophagus lid in situ, revealed after a performance of discovery by Childress who, sporting an Indiana Jonesesque fedora and khaki safari shirt, descends in wonder to the burial chamber. The lid is digitally enhanced to reveal the basic workings (p.91)

Ancient Aliens

Figure 12. Ancient Aliens, ‘The Mayan Conspiracy’ (Prometheus Entertainment, 2012).

of the cockpit controls, breathing apparatus and exhaust system. Giorgio Tsoukalos, the much-memed spokesperson and consulting producer of the programme, brings us to the workshop of a U.S.-based model-maker, who constructed a scale version of the loin-clothed rocket man at the helm. Tsoukalos is very pleased with the result. A ‘dream come true,’ he especially ‘loves’ the addition of NASA-inspired engine bells to the bottom of the module. The artefact retains an indexical relationship to the archaeological world while functioning as a classic icon of SF. Tsoukalos’s haptic play with the model invites the viewer to ‘explore the past, present and future of the world out there of shared experience and the world in here of subjective experience’ (Roe, 40).

The episode follows with ‘inkblot’ or prima facie correlations between NASA technology and Mayan glyphs and sculptures. The serpent god Kukulkan (or Quetzalcoatl), who is often depicted emerging from the mouth of a snake, is an astronaut in a cockpit. The false dichotomy sets up the ‘Mayan conspiracy’: the alien kings and priests used their technology to control the human population. While archaeology may provide insights into ostensibly sinister relationships between temporal and secular power, there is little physical evidence of a Mayan conspiracy at work. Rather, the episode advances its arguments within, as Ian Reyes and Jason Smith put it, an ‘aesthetics of conspiracy rhetoric.’ They argue that ‘[c]onspiracy theory is a genre unto itself’ (400), a paranoid style emanating from an ‘epistemic lacunae’ wherein conspiracy is ‘premised on the leap from identifying/constructing a (p.92) mysterious absence to assuming that absence is actively produced by governments, scientists, media, or a different powerful other’ (404). Typically, in conspiracy thinking ‘leaps unwarranted by the evidence’ are ‘enthymemes consistent with conspiratorial tropes’ that promote ‘entelechial formations’ (401) within the genre (i.e. they are self-evident). In this way, ancient astronaut advocates argue that their investigations expose forbidden knowledge withheld from the public, a rhetorical gesture that simultaneously refutes while appealing to orthodox scientific discourse to authenticate its doomsday predictions.

As the title suggests, ‘Doomsday Prophecies’ amplifies the apocalyptic interpretation of the 2012 meme introduced in ‘The Mayan Conspiracy.’ The teaser weaves dire predictions with CGI disasters. ‘Ancient calendars forecasting a deadly countdown’ (giant cogs of the Mayan time machine grind inexorably to the fateful end). ‘A galactic alignment triggering a wave of natural disasters’ (seas flood inland and buildings topple in mega-earthquakes). ‘Could our planet really be headed for extinction?’ (meteors bombard the Earth and glaciers crumble into the ocean). ‘Or is there another agenda, one even more profound?’ Animation supplements the testimony from a battery of academic experts who speak about Mayan conceptions of cyclic time; testimony that is truncated and fed back into the entelechial formation of the Mayan conspiracy supported by the visual and aural rhetoric of apocalypse. In the opening chapter a throbbing rhythm of bass and drums accompanies a montage of high-and low-angle shots of Mayan temples, evoking sensations of mystery, danger and a whiff of melancholia for a vanished world. Tension mounts as an intricate set of animated cogs churn out calendar rounds. Pan flutes transport us back in time to historical re-enactments of the Maya making astronomical observations and chiselling their secret wisdom in stone tablets. The aural establishes aura in the televisual appropriation of the Maya’s astronomical achievements into the alien conspiracy to decimate human civilization.

‘Doomsday Prophecies’ revisits the serpent god-cum-ancient astronaut Kukulkan. The narrator posits, ‘Was it possible, as some ancient astronaut theorists suggest, that Kukulkan was in fact a flying spacecraft engineered and piloted by otherworldly visitors?’ The answer comes in the form of an animated snake-like spaceship landing on a ziggurat. Corroborative evidence may be found at Chicenitza in the Yucatán Peninsula, a site with direct links to Kukulkan’s celestial being. Tourists and pilgrims gather each solstice to witness a shadow play cast on the temple steps of the ‘serpent’ descending to Earth and then returning to the heavens. For Giorgio Tsoukalos, his fixation with flying deities impels him to conclude that the solar event commemorates the ancient (p.93) Maya observing the contrails snaking behind their gods’ flying machines. Again, animation manufactures ocular proof relative to postmodern rather than Mayan questions about the nature of time and progress.

The final chapter of the episode, ‘The Return,’ affords viewers through a series of flyover shots of mountains, streams, forests and cities the global perspective enjoyed by extra-terrestrials like Kukulkan. ‘Planet Earth […] Mankind’s existence on its surface is relatively recent and fragile.’ A montage of the tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes that have recently racked the southern U.S. and Asia are marshalled into illustrations of the imminent fulfilment of the Mayan prophecy. The apocalyptic timeshape is rhetorically powerful because, as Jeannie Chapman relates, ‘allusions to natural disasters [are] embedded in a general perception that the current historical moment is one characterized by crisis and disorder.’ Re-contextualized as the work of ancient astronauts, these documentary events and images nourish the threatening diegetic environment Ancient Aliens promotes by naturalizing ‘signs of the times’ as ‘common knowledge’ (49) available to ancient astronaut researchers and to anyone persuaded by their claims. The televisual documents of the real are never far from the SF imagination of the possible. Reminiscent of the conclusion of the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘The Tomb,’ ‘The Return’ ends with a meteor obliterating the Temple of Kukulkan. The world so carefully constructed in the opening scene is razed to the ground as a spectacular testament to the arcane knowledge hidden within the ziggurat.

A final voiceover affirms the veracity of a Mayan conspiracy in the form of pointed questions:

Will December 21st, 2012, signal the end of civilization as we know it? Or are the dire predictions nothing more than a myth, a misinterpretation of an even greater truth? Perhaps what awaits us is not the end of our world, but a new beginning. What if it would reveal the celestial origins of man?

While the question simply circles back to the premise that the Maya predicted the end of life as we know it, the aesthetics of doomsday articulate an enigmatic ‘greater truth,’ a Sphinxian riddle whose referents lead us into the maze of ancient astronaut lore where SF is the privileged sense-making apparatus for a neurotic and fragile world. While many archaeological documentaries celebrate the recovery of objects of historical value, Ancient Aliens addresses broader human concerns that, while unquestionably subcultural, are, as their constant reference to mainstream SF film suggests, connected to problematic issues and debates (p.94) about the nature of time and civilization in an age whose information technologies are themselves symptomatic of heightened global crisis. Just as Ancient Aliens is careful to couch its conclusions in questions, the History Channel was evidently careful to foreclose against the possibility of the very truth it purported to uncover. The network did not air any 2012-themed programmes on 21 December 2012. Perhaps the producers feared the lesson of Orson Welles’s radio play. Yet the decision not to broadcast this kind of material re-inscribes its potential truth—like the suspicion that high-rise hotels have a 13th floor—through erasure. Absence of 2012 material on that potentially fateful day testifies to the power of television to shape beliefs, in this case by bearing silent witness to a Mayan conspiracy. ‘What if it were true?’ was possible, but only for a day.

The next two chapters examine relationships between ancient astronaut lore, alternative archaeology and apocalypse in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Smallville. Though very different incarnations of SFFTV, the film and television series share certain concerns with the History’s Channel’s commentary on global affairs through the figure of the ancient astronaut. The fourth instalment of the Indiana Jones saga conflates tensions of the Cold War epoch with Mayan apocalypse and shapes them into a commentary on contemporary global insecurity. Steeped in storied history of comics, television and film, Smallville also excavates a new, culturally vibrant myth for its hero. From the archaeological genius loci of the ‘Kawatche’ Caves, Clark Kent emerges to save the world from the multiple threats of extra-terrestrials and the dark forces lurking within Homeland Security. It is this nexus of concerns that the following chapters address.


(2) Cf. McGeough’s examination of the imperial logic of the Prime Directive.

(3) Gomel echoes Brian McHale’s Postmodernist Fiction (1987): ‘Science fiction, like postmodernist fiction, is governed by the ontological dominant. Indeed, it is perhaps the ontological genre par excellence. We can think of science fiction as postmodernism’s noncanonized or “low art” double’ (59).

(4) Discovery Channel likewise offered 2012-themed disaster programmes such as Decoding the Past: Doomsday 2012—The End of Days (2007) and Apocalypse How? (2008).

(5) For studies of the development of 2012 mythology see Hoopes 2011a, 2011b.

(6) Cf. Campion, and Restall and Solari for studies of the role of religion and myth in the 2012 phenomenon.