"The idea of benign or hostile space aliens from other planets visiting the earth [is clearly] an emotional idea. There are two sorts of self-deception here: either accepting the idea of extraterrestrial visitation by space aliens in the face of very meager evidence because we want it to be true; or rejecting such an idea out of hand, in the absence of sufficient evidence, because we don't want it to be true. Each of these extremes is a serious impediment to the study of UFOs."
Come on, John and Nick...you know you're star children. And you are beautiful. Contrary to my two esteemed colleagues here at DVDTalk, Mr. Sinnott and Mr. Hartel, I quite enjoyed History's Ancient Aliens: Season One, a goofy, scattershot 2-disc, 5-episode look at the "pseudoscience," "pseudoarcheology," and "pseudosocio-political" evidence and theories that claim alien astronauts either visited Earth at the dawn of civilization, jumpstarting ancient man's evolution, or that we ourselves are the direct offspring of our alien forefathers, who rocketed down to Earth to mate with our gorgeous, stacked, yet slightly backward women. Of course it's all probably hokum, and yes, there's no end of huckstering going on with some of the dubious people involved in this movement, but interesting questions are raised here, and more importantly--it's all quite fanciful and entertaining...and that's what TV is supposed to be. The pilot for the series is included as a bonus for this good-looking program.
Now, just to be clear: I've never made any bones about adoring that moment in the early-to-mid seventies when so-called "pseudoscience" was all the rage. I've written about that time in several reviews of mine, and I've always maintained an appreciation for growing up during that decade when, through naked-yet-artful media and pop culture manipulation, it seemed possible to a kid growing up in the Midwest to believe that the Bermuda Triangle was swallowing up airplanes and ships whole, that the Abominable Snowman was stomping around the Andes (or was it the Himalayas?), that UFOs were constantly circling the world, that it was only a matter of time before the Loch Ness Monster was finally netted, that Noah's Ark was real and run-aground on a Turkish mountaintop, and that Bigfoot could be right outside your wooded backyard...after he was finished battling Steve Austin, of course. It was a fun time to be a kid, with a sense of wonder concerning uncharted horizons outside our "known" physical world infusing the popular culture, touched with an innocence about those so-called discoveries made uniquely and charmingly "American" because they were instantly married to crass commercial interests (go see Close Encounters of the Third Kind, buy the alien action figure at the store, go home, play with it, look out your bedroom window...and wait...). I love that in America, you can buy physical representations of your dreams, right at the local five-and-dime.
So I'm not offended in the slightest by History flogging this kind of programming, regardless of its ultimate validity. I don't feel they've lost my trust...because I never trusted them in the first place. Damn few shows, frankly, that have popped up on History (or any TV channel), meet the rigorous, painstaking, exacting standards of true scholarly investigation and study (an ongoing process that takes years, not 45 minutes), so I'm not expecting much when I see these shows. If anything, the most you can hope for is that they're colorful, entertaining, reasonably well-put together, and not totally insulting to your intelligence, and for what it's worth, Ancient Aliens: Season One hits more of those targets than it misses. As for my colleagues being dismayed by the participation of some of the more, shall we say, "shady" characters featured in this program (here's a big hint: Erich von Däniken), at least Mr. von Däniken only asks me to buy and read his books. If he's a huckster (odds are: yes), he's a charming, entertaining one (grain of salt: he hasn't stolen any of my stuff yet). And more importantly, his (lifted) ideas don't impact my life one bit. There are others out there who genuinely deserve our scrutiny and scorn. I know of quite a few "respectable" rogues and hucksters out their today--sincere, concerned politicians, and scientists with sheepskins a mile long and apparently not enough sense to stop blabbing about their schemes in emails--peddling a pseudoscience/religion called "man-made global warming." They don't force me to buy a book or tune into a TV program, but rather to turn down my thermostat in the winter until I freeze, use one square of toilet paper, buy expensive, dangerous light bulbs that don't work, deny me steaks and hamburgers from atmosphere-changing flatulent cows, and to drive an electric car that will burn down my garage, all the while paying 40% more for my tacos so they can make ethanol that I can't use in my now-torched electric car. By comparison, von Däniken is a piker next to that cabal of grifters.
As for the theories themselves on display here...who knows? Do I believe, after watching Ancient Aliens: Season One, that aliens visited Earth during the dawn of civilization? I don't even know if I believe in aliens, let alone if they visited here...but the idea doesn't sound any more "out there" than anything else I heard in my pew as a kid. Is the evidence there? Doesn't seem to be, although there are some anomalies that, put up against the established record, seem intriguing. The scorn and derision that meet these tantalizing-yet-largely-unproven theories is always somewhat startling to me, particularly when billions of people all over the world follow faiths that require--indeed demand--faith alone for their continuation. No hard scientific facts are required or needed for those tenants. And I don't have a problem with that at all (if anything, I envy that kind of faith). But if con men and scammers and shamans were the only people involved with the propagation of these ancient alien theories, their interest-factor would necessarily be severely limited. However, quite a few of the people interviewed for Ancient Aliens: Season One appear to be legitimate professionals in the fields of science and engineering. Of course they could be profitting from these theories, however spurious they may or may not turn out to be (Google "Vatican wealth"), but they certainly come off in this documentary as genuinely sincere about their thoughts and suppositions on these ideas. Is their scholarship flawed? Perhaps. Are they reading connections into ancient texts, artifacts, and artworks that exist more in their imagination than in what we laughingly call "reality?" Maybe. Or are they onto the beginnings of some kind of breakthrough in how we conceive of our origins as a planet and as a race that we may never be able to prove? Again; I'm not arrogant or well-informed enough to say "yes" or "no." But I do know this: any archeologist, scientist, or historian worth their salt will tell you (particularly if you're about to rip up their grant application) that theories are just that--theories. Even the ones in the textbooks that are taught as if they're a fait accompli, and that history and science are forever evolving, forever changing, due as much to constant re-interpretation as experimentation and newly discovered facts. So who knows? I'm open to more investigation and research, and regardless of issues of superficiality (which seem beside the point in the medium we're discussing), television shows like Ancient Aliens: Season One do provide starting points for further discussion and individual inquiry. Even if it all does turn out to be bogus.
Certainly more interesting than Ancient Aliens: Season One's wild, sometimes incoherent selections and suppositions that aren't even remotely dealt with in a serious fashion (they briefly touch on the famed Nova Scotia's Oak Island "money pit" and the infamous "Battle of Los Angeles"...in a show about ancient aliens?) are the little bits of intriguing questions that hang in the air when discussing why certain things were done in antiquity, rather than who did them. Dr. Robert Bouval, author of The Egypt Code, flat-out states he's not convinced of any evidence that ancient astronauts visited Earth...but he's open to investigation because of multiple unexplained facts--such as how did the Egyptians, without the wheel, the pulley, and iron, move granite blocks weighing hundreds and even thousands of pounds, when even today's modern equipment struggles with such tasks. Even better, other experts ask why they would choose to build with such ungainly blocks, such as in the Valley Temples with its hundred-ton stones, when the pyramids were built with much smaller stones of one to five tons? If the "how" hasn't been concretely proved, neither has the "why" (similarly with the seemingly impossibly-accurate carvings of the stones at Bolivia's Puma Punku). Ancient Aliens: Season One doesn't spend enough time on exploring similarities of building techniques between cultures that supposedly had no connection to each other (as well as cultural similarities, including the ritual of skull elongation), a proposition I've always found fascinating, while I would have liked a more detailed look at the Zuni tribes of New Mexico and their beliefs in the kachina and the "star people" (followers of P.C. dogma nervously skirt discussions of such religious beliefs in minority cultures). Of course, "detailed looks" aren't within the goals of Ancient Aliens: Season One...but the series may provide an introduction for someone who has never heard of such theories to do their own investigation, their own research, and to come up with their own conclusions.
The anamorphically-enhanced, 1.78:1 transfer is quite good, although shimmering is noticeable at times. Colors are strong, and the picture is sharpish.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo presentation is acceptable but undistinguished, with discreet separation from time to time, and little hum or hiss. It says it's closed-captioned, but as with many other History DVDs I've reviewed, it may depend on which machine you're using as to whether or not they'll pop up.
The pilot for Ancient Aliens, Ancient Aliens: Chariots, Gods and Beyond, is included as the "sixth" episode of the series--a deceptive move that will no doubt amuse critics of its subject: Erich von Däniken. I've never had a problem with von Däniken, because his motives and methods seem so blatantly obvious. He's very probably a scoundrel...and a highly amusing one.
If you're giving me a choice between rejecting anything and everything like Ancient Aliens in favor of a world that only has use for known facts and the established, accepted view of how things were (and "who" they were), then I'm going with the aliens. That's not delusional or anti-intellectualism--it's emotional self-preservation. We need a little fantasy, a little whimsy in our lives, a little magic in our backgrounds. You're probably right that we gradually evolved over time all on our own, I know. But since when has being "right" ever been fun? I enjoyed the goofy Ancient Aliens: Season One, and I'm recommending it for similar malcontents.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.