How Not to Make a 2012 Documentary


John Major Jenkins. July 28, 2006.


On Thursday, August 3rd, The History Channel will air “Decoding the Past: Mayan Doomsday Prophecy”, at 9 pm ET/PT. (click on "Thursday" and "Decoding the Past" series). Also listed on the IMDb film website:


The press release write-up on the History Channel’s website reads as follows: 

The world is coming to an end on December 21, 2012! The ancient Maya made this stunning prediction more than 2,000 years ago. We'll peel back the layers of mystery and examine in detail how the Maya calculated the exact date of doomsday. Journey back to the ancient city of Chichen Itza, the hub of Maya civilization deep in the heart of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, to uncover the truth about this prophecy. The Maya were legendary astronomers and timekeepers--their calendar is more accurate than our own. By tracking the stars and planets they assigned great meaning to astronomical phenomena and made extraordinary predictions based on them--many of which have come true. Could their doomsday prophecy be one of them? In insightful interviews archaeologists, astrologers, and historians speculate on the meaning of the 2012 prophecy. Their answers are as intriguing as the questions. 

Sounds like a fairly non-biased survey of ideas, theories, and scholarship. Well, it’s not. It’s 45 minutes of unabashed doomsday hype and the worst kind of inane sensationalism. The History Channel educates us only in how NOT to make a documentary about 2012. I speak from the vantage of someone who was consulted on the script content. In addition, as a researcher into Maya cosmology and the Mesoamerican calendar systems, I was also interviewed for the documentary and appear in several segments. In fact, my pioneering work was supposed to be featured. However, the original concept for the presentation morphed through a series of executive edits to result in the error-riddled and flagrant attempt at fear-mongering and sensationalism that you can view on August 3. I’m always interested in clarity in examining how these things happen, so will share the background to the production of the documentary.


Last summer, I was contacted by the segment producer and asked if I wanted to be interviewed for the program. I discussed with him what they wanted to do. He said that their initial contact, who contributed formative ideas for the script, was a novelist named Steve Alten. He was the author of a book called Domain. This book liberally drew ideas and original research from my 1998 book Maya Cosmogenesis 2012, and combined it with science fiction and the space alien thesis of Von Daniken to offer a heady stew of fast-paced sci-fi adventure. Alten has written other best selling books, choosing scary subjects like ancient sea monsters. The end of the world in 2012 must have proven irresistible to him, and Domain was followed by two sequels. 


Alten wrote an initial two-page treatment for the History Channel’s segment producer, and it oozed with doomsday. My work, on the other hand, examines the early Maya site of Izapa, as the likely locus of the origin of the Long Count calendar (the 2012 calendar). The monuments of Izapa are thus viable sources of information on the original formulation of “the 2012 prophecy.” I also have investigated the symbolism of the Maya ballgame and the Hero Twin Creation Myth to propose a new interpretation of the Maya World Age doctrine being based in astronomy. In brief, all evidence points to a repeating sequence of World Ages. To the extent that 2012 is the end of a World Age, the idea of a definite apocalypse and cataclysm is simply short-sighted. Instead, for the Maya, period endings great and small were always met with expectations of renewal and rituals to facilitate transformation.


The producers seemed to take my perspective to heart. They decided that a point-counterpoint presentation would be the way to do it, a dialogue between the doomsday and renewal perspectives. With the inclusion of archaeologist  Dr. Arlen Chase, as a moderate grounding voice, the documentary proceeded as a non-biased presentation of different perspectives on 2012, and the viewer would be left to decide for themselves what they believed. In the run-up to the filming trip to Chichen Itza in September 2005, I was emailed many times for various facts and figures, and directions to resources. Many of the facts I offered were not included in the final cut, or were used in service to the doomsday perspective. Dr. Cobos in Mexico and astrologer Bruce Scofield were also brought in to interview. 


As many readers may know, my unique thesis about 2012 is that the ancient Maya intended that date to target a rare astronomical alignment within the precession of the equinoxes. The December solstice sun shifts along the constellations very slowly, and for thousands of years it has been proceeding backwards through the sidereal constellations of Aquarius, Capricorn, and into Sagittarius. The Milky Way crosses through the zodiac in early Sagittarius, forming the Maya Sacred Tree or “crossroads” in the sky. At  some point in time, an era defined by the alignment of the December solstice sun and the Milky Way will occur. It is an astronomical fact that this alignment of the solstice sun and the Milky Way occurs in the years around 2012, and my theory begins with this clue to examine how the astronomical features involved in this “galactic alignment” are central to various Mesoamerican institutions, including the ballgame and the Hero Twin Creation Myth. 


Envisioning and understanding the galactic alignment has often been a point of confusion, even though it can be illustrated easily with 3-D graphics. I emphasized to the producers that it would be important to illustrate this alignment clearly, and after the interviews in Mexico I made my own little videotape for them, with me explaining with flip charts, precisely how the calendar and the galactic alignment could be illustrated with great effect. I was particularly pointed about this, because in the summer of 2000 the Discovery Channel featured my work in their “Places of Mystery” series, and they used a very substandard still graphic to illustrate the galactic alignment. The producers agreed that a brief CGI segment to help viewers instantly grasp what precession and the galactic alignment are would be critically important. As it turned out, I was told that the History Channel decided to excise their completed graphic from the final cut, in favor of a completely misleading picture of the earth undulating within an amorphous blob of spaghetti-like strings which gives no sense of precessional movement or the solstice sun aligning with the Milky Way, as viewed from earth. Unfortunately, this grave error proves to be only the tip of the iceberg.


In 45 minutes of airtime, the words “doomsday” and “annihilation” are repeated dozens and dozens of times. The narrator associates my galactic alignment thesis with doomsday several times. A brief 3-second clip in which I mention hurricanes and tornadoes was taken out of context. Much of the relevant explanations and material that I offered was disregarded and not included. The sections on the mythology, ballgame, and the galactic alignment that they tried to include were handled ineptly, with the exception of my summary of the Hero Twin myth. My innovative work on the Pyramid of Kukulcan — a primary focus in the documentary — was completely neglected. German scholar Ernst Förstemann was mispronounced “Fosterman.”  And the list of factual errors goes on and on.


What should be most apparent to any viewer is that the unambiguous message is: Doomsday 2012! What happened to the non-biased 50/50 split between the doomsday and renewal perspectives? That was what was presented to me as the framework a year ago. What happened? Sleaze, hype and sensationalism happened. For this to happen under the auspices of the History Channel is disappointing, to say the least. Once again, even allegedly reputable documentary media outlets are hungry to have their way with the 2012 topic, to the continuing detriment of clarity and discernment. The History Channel’s documentary is a classic example of how NOT to make a 2012 documentary. And the onus of responsibility is placed squarely in their office, because the segment producers at MatchFrame 1080 had to abide by the editorial mandates of the HC execs, each time demanding that it be dumbed down, dumbed down. And hyped up, hyped up. This even got to the point where, just a short time ago, the title was revised to “Mayan Doomsday Prophecy.” Where’s the non-bias in that? Strangely, the press-release, pasted above, is carefully crafted to give a sense that the documentary is indeed un-biased. So they want to have their cake and blow it up, too. Viewers expecting something new and interesting will be sorely disappointed. It’s the same old hype and disinformation that under-informed and sensationalized media sources have been shoveling out for decades.


One thing that the media execs at HC don’t seem to understand is that clichés and stereotypes don’t sell, and the public doesn’t buy them. Does Mr. Whipple sell toilet paper anymore? No. If making it sensational is really about a bottom-line profit motive, then the HC should take a clue from marketing & advertising gurus, who know that you can’t keep using the same selling gimmick year after year. Doomsday is an old, old, marketing gimmick. The consuming public is too wily for that, and will quickly flip the channel. What needs to take place is a negating of the clichés and stereotypes. And in many instances the antithesis happens to be the truer position. One annoying cliché is “the Maya disappeared.” No they didn’t — there are still millions of pure-blood Maya living in the Guatemalan highlands. Who dictates that the public will find this uninteresting? Or another malapropism: "Quetzalcoatl was a tall, bearded white guy." Give me a break. Another cliché reveals modern values misapplied to ancient Maya calendar science: “The Maya calendar was extremely accurate.” Well, perhaps, but that misses the whole point of the Mesoamerican calendar being designed as a holistic system of nested cycles that harmoniously embrace the commensuration of planetary and eclipse cycles. It’s not about precise accuracy, it’s about comprehensive comprehension. The Mesoamerican calendar embraces not only different astronomical cycles, but different dimensions of human experience, from human biology to agriculture to astronomy. THAT is the wonder and miracle of Maya time philosophy. Mere accuracy is an irrelevant offshoot of the grand cosmovision attained by the Maya. To drool over the observation that the calendar is “accurate” is like saying that The Glorious and Radiant All-Compassionate Mother of the Gods is “cute.” No, it’s worse than that—it’s like saying she has a nice ass. 


We must raise the bar in how Maya traditions are presented, and in how cutting-edge research is treated. In regards to the Maya, the media hasn’t progressed at all since Leonard Nimoy’s “In Search Of…” circa 1972. As far as I can tell, it’s not all still a mystery. Answers are being found; solutions and theories are being offered. And the History Channel has done a great disservice to the evolving discussion. In the end, they aggressively emphasized the doomsday perspective of Steve Alten, a novelist who cherry-picked a few odd tidbits of superficial horror. The HC prioritized the doomsday perspective of a novelist whose goal was to entertain and make money, and neglected or misrepresented facts and careful research. If this is the kind of hype that is going to inform the public as we get closer to 2012, then we are in trouble. The problem is not with the viewing public, it's with the clueless producers.


For an example of a forthcoming documentary on 2012 that DOES raise the bar, produced independently without the benefit of $350,000 worth of wasted corporate funding, see


I will also be discussing the Hysteria Channel’s debacle on the night of August 3, after it airs, on Mitch Battros’s Earth Changes TV internet radio program:


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