In the 1950s and 1960s the United States Air Force undertook an investigation into the UFO phenomenon known as Project Blue Book to determine if UFOs posed a threat to national security and to examine the evidence for UFOs. The study ended by concluding that there was no evidence that UFOs were spaceships from another world. This did not stop generations of ufologists from imagining that the Air Force had masterminded a conspiracy to suppress the truth about flying saucers in pursuit of nefarious agendas. The ufologists’ worst fears were dramatized in the 1990s in the 1960s-set X-Files rip-off series called Dark Skies, which sent its main characters into the heart of a government conspiracy to suppress the truth about space aliens in Cold War America.
The History Channel’s new drama from Robert Zemeckis called Project Blue Book is basically a lesser version of Dark Skies, full of plodding dialogue, turgid acting, and cliché-riddled plot mechanics designed to delight the network’s paranoiac audience while leaving those not already versed in anti-government flying saucer conspiracies somewhat baffled by the more outré elements of its wooden plot. Like most productions in the era of “Peak TV,” the show is competently shot and edited, generally blandly entertaining, and good enough to pass an hour without really rising to the level of great.
I wrote this review in July, when I watched the screener of the pilot episode, but I have not been able to publish it until now thanks to an embargo from the History Channel, which has not allowed media outlets to review the series prior to its air date. It’s not usually a sign of confidence to forbid reviews prior to air. Time magazine broke the embargo and I am following their lead since the History Channel pulled my press credentials.
Blue Book stars Aiden Gillen (Littlefinger from Game of Thrones) phoning in an uninspired performance as Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the real-life scientific advisor to the Air Force on UFOs who became a public spokesperson for UFO investigation over the years, eventually launching his own UFO research organization and advocating for the reality of the flying saucer phenomenon. We meet him as a professor being recruited by an Air Force general, played with his usual snarky side of ham by Neal McDonough, who is also a charter member of Majestic-12. Although the MJ-12 conspiracy theory alleging that Harry Truman set up a secret organization after the Roswell UFO crash to deal with aliens has long been exposed as a hoax, Blue Book accepts it as real and imagines MJ-12 secretly running Project Blue Book to calm public fears about UFOs. Indeed, we first meet MJ-12 when they screen The Day the Earth Stood Still and express outrage that Hollywood is giving credence to UFOs.
McDonough’s general pairs Hynek with an Air Force captain named Michael Quinn, played by Michael Malarkey from The Vampire Diaries as a growl with a hat—and that is actually a compliment, since it is the right choice here—and charges the captain with ensuring that he and Hynek reach appropriate conclusions for each case the pair investigate, fabricating explanations where needed, in order to suppress any hint of alien activity. Each episode of the ten-episode series sees the pair conducting an investigation of one of Blue Book’s 700 unsolved cases, running in parallel with serialized conspiracy theory elements drawn from the classics of ufology. These, however, are not smoothly integrated and more often stand out as obvious shout-outs to the show’s target audience of Ancient Aliens fans. The inclusion of a “Man in Black,” for example, in the background at the site of a plane crash is meant to be creepy, but the show quickly dissipates any otherworldly eeriness by having Hynek point at him and ask, “Who is that man?” Less is more, I wanted to scream. Show, don’t tell.
Similarly, the show’s dialogue is wooden and overly didactic. Exposition occurs in data dumps that never fit naturally into the action, and yet somehow always explain the wrong thing, as though the writers were UFO believers and forgot that many in their audience won’t be familiar with the long history of ufology and its discontents. I’m interested in ufology, but modern UFOs aren’t my area of expertise, and I confess to being somewhat lost in the pilot—and I know most of this stuff. The show also tries to establish Hynek’s scientific expertise by having him rattle off an encyclopedia entry about radiation, complete with data, and demand radiation readings “to the third decimal place.” It treats this like a triumphant moment, but the speech is overlong, difficult to follow, and dramatically inert. A lot of the show is inert where it should be snappy, compelling, or even scary.
The plot of the pilot episode similarly feels undercooked and overdone at the same time. That’s because the plot of the week doesn’t really command a lot of attention, and we never actually get to know the men involved in chasing a UFO over a Fargo, ND football field except as Bland White Guy #1 and Friends. They aren’t made into people, and we never actually feel the Bland White Guy’s fear or terror, because ultimately Project Blue Book doesn’t care about him, only about trying to use drama to give credence to UFO reports. Make no mistake: This show is propaganda, not entertainment.
Beyond this, the conspiracy theory is overdone and overexplained too early, rather than teased and revealed gradually. We enter into the show already knowing the government is covering up UFOs and that Hynek is a patsy who will eventually become a collaborator. How much better would it have been, dramatically speaking, to see the show through his eyes rather than the conspiracy’s and to let his gradual discovery of the conspiracy act as the catalyst to his transformation from skeptic to believer? Oh, well, that was not to be, for this is a show steadfastly catering to paranoid nutjobs who hate the government but worship its power and who desperately want “disclosure,” as though the seal of government would provide quasi-divine approval for their belief in space aliens, like the way the IRS gives spiritual sanction to their marriages by taxing them differently.
According to media accounts, the program’s creators want the audience to feel like the show is “real” and to seek out the “facts” behind the incidents dramatized on the show. “Our production team has made authentic, accurate, and time-appropriate sets and props,” show creator David O’Leary told the Syfy channel in July. This is true to a point. Some of the scenes look very good, but others seem to be missing the final layer of detailing needed to transform modern locations into period ones. They didn’t quite have the money for a Mad Men-style recreation of midcentury America, so in places the lack of detail shows. The quite modern Vancouver doesn’t always stand in well for midcentury America. The actors aren’t always comfortable in the period, and at times they feel more like kids playing dress-up. I will give them half-credit, though, for having MJ-12’s Pentagon conference room be inspired by the War Room in Dr. Strangelove. I will also deduct the other half-credit for lacking any sort of humor about this whatsoever.
The pilot includes a few intentionally mysterious and confounding elements that don’t connect clearly to the main plot, including what seems to be a torture chamber inspired by A Clockwork Orange, depicted again totally straight and with almost farcical self-importance. “I love that we’re doing 10 episodes in this first season,” O’Leary said, “because we’re able to craft one large mystery. Then there’s a dark undercurrent of something mysterious, like a David Lynch-ian, tweaky X-Files thing happening underneath. It’s like a grounded sci-fi noir.” I’m glad he saw it that way. What I saw was a show that was so steadfastly enamored of itself that it forgot the audience. If you are already a big believer in UFOs, you probably will feel comfortable with the asides and references and allusions to the classic hit parade of midcentury ufology, but if you aren’t already a believer, I’m sure that chunks of the show will leave you baffled by what exactly they are talking about.
Ultimately, this is a good thing because it means that Project Blue Book fails at being the convincing propaganda that it thinks it is. This is not a piece of entertainment like Dark Skies or Taken or any number of similar projects. It is specifically designed to promote the two-pronged viewpoint that Hynek developed over time, as O’Leary told Syfy Wire: “One, that Bluebook became a misinformation campaign, a government front used to control the public perception to UFOs. And two, something of intelligence of an unknown origin — and he never said ‘alien’ definitively — but something unearthly, something that is not mankind is flying in our skies.” The show leans too heavily into teaching its audience false lessons its creators have deluded themselves into believing, at the cost of creating a compelling first chapter for what they hope will be many years of storytelling.
Project Blue Book debuts Tuesday Jan. 8 at 10 PM ET / 9 PM CT on the History Channel.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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