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.
1/5/2019 07:38:21 pm
I had occasion to preview the pilot of Blue Book and can't say I found it even remotely tantalizing. BTW you're description of the scenery chewing Neal McDonough is spot on.
1/14/2019 10:11:41 pm
Warning! PROJECT BLUE BOOK was a FRAUD! Taken over by the CIA to use as a debunking tool to prevent the KGB from discovering our alien technology secrets we were getting from downed UFOs and captured aliens! The real alien/UFO secrets were released by a government insider in the BLUE PLANET PROJECT BOOK and can be read about here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0991494245
1/6/2019 09:59:59 am
The real news flash here is that Jason Colavito honored a press embargo. See this earlier post, especially the comments by Joe Scales - http://www.jasoncolavito.com/blog/the-history-channel-revoked-my-press-credentials-when-i-tried-to-review-project-blue-book
American Cool "Disco" Dan
1/6/2019 11:13:53 am
No News Flash at all here, Steve. As the link YOU provided shows, Jason said on July 25 of last year that he would honor the embargo.
1/6/2019 10:58:08 am
Oh, wait. Of course, Jason is NOT honoring the press embargo. Shocker.
American Cool "Disco" Dan
1/6/2019 11:25:11 am
"A+E Networks, the parent company of History, has asked critics not to discuss the material in the Blue Book series screener until closer to the show’s air date." But they wouldn't tell Jason HOW much closer.
1/7/2019 11:50:56 am
As bad as this show may be, it still looks better than the CW’s “Roswell, New Mexico.” The new CW show is a teen focused soap centered on Aliens living undercover in Roswell. I assume love, teen angst, and hijinks ensue. It looks like it might just be a re-boot of “Roswell”, a similar show in the late 90s.
1/7/2019 01:06:40 pm
Ya think? "The series is the second television adaptation of the Roswell High book series by Melinda Metz."
1/7/2019 07:23:24 pm
Thanks. I've never heard of the author or the books before. I wasn't into teen fiction even when I was a teen.
1/7/2019 09:22:51 pm
Have you heard of Wikipedia? Or "the kiddie table"?
1/7/2019 09:45:15 pm
Dark Skies was actually quite good, and I were not aware that it was propaganda?
Homey Don't Play That
1/10/2019 12:11:18 am
It's propaganda because Jason says its propaganda. It's his blog so he gets to be as nutty as he wants. Blue Book is propaganda, X-files is propaganda, Star Wars is propaganda...
1/8/2019 02:16:22 pm
"Press embargo"? That would only apply to the press. This blog is an opinion site, is not official or licensed by any news magazine, newspaper, or television wire service, and therefore not the press. It may act like the press, be featured in press articles, but it is not the press itself.
1/8/2019 02:51:32 pm
Kal, you are an imbecile.
American cool "disco" dan
1/8/2019 03:18:46 pm
SMFH. "television wire service" says it all. Ozzy Osbourne had a solution for Kal decades ago. He should pursue it.
American Cool "Disco" Dan
1/8/2019 08:29:24 pm
Remember that time a few weeks ago when Kal posted that he knew everyone's IP address and had bothered a colored family because he objected to the name I use? Jason deleted it (not at my request) but those were good times. Kal is another mental patient.
American Cool "Disco" Dan
1/8/2019 08:38:46 pm
Dammit! I forgot to point out that it's...
1/9/2019 10:25:39 am
Is that what happened to that moniker? How can a musical piece bother anyone? But I would have went with Americanegro Sweet. String player, yes?
1/9/2019 02:29:28 pm
This isn’t what I thought it would be...within the first minute, am I the only one wondering how machine guns got on a t-6 trainer? In addition, he was supposed to be flying in a P-51...annnnd go!
American Cool "Disco" Dan
1/9/2019 04:04:59 pm
"am I the only one wondering how machine guns got on a t-6 trainer?"
1/15/2019 03:10:05 pm
No you are not alone. Gorman was indeed flying a P-51. The aircraft in the episode appears to be a T-6 Texan. The T-6 has space for up to three 7.62mm machine guns, but these were employed primarily by foreign air forces in the later 1940s and early 50s.
1/15/2019 04:20:19 pm
I guess anything is possible as far as the Texan...I guess my sentence should have read how did guns get on HIS T-6...I admit I am only 37 and have only been to about a dozen museums, airshows, WW2 weekends..but only in America, so no, I haven't seen guns installed on a T-6....but I did know there were provisions. And I did know they were used for other conflicts in which they were later armed. I guess my originial point was that it took a minute to see that they already got the aircraft wrong. I guess we all wanted more out of this, but in all, it is different than the same documentaries we have seen over and over...I don't want to fact check every thing, but at least get some big things correct.
1/9/2019 06:08:56 pm
Triggered by there being a press embargo? Why? Jason is not tha famous, is he? Resorting to immediate ad hominem attacks speaks of a weak minded anti intellectual lacking in cooth.
American Cool "Disco" Dan
1/9/2019 06:32:09 pm
Another post from a "client" in the day ward at the sanitarium.
1/10/2019 06:29:27 am
For what it's worth even Roswell proponent Kevin Randle is not impressed by the show. To quote his blog post on the first episode:
1/14/2019 08:21:04 pm
I expected "Project Blue Book" to be fictionalized, of course, but its true awfulness exceeded my expectations. It had about as much to do with the actual people and events as "Raiders of the Lost Ark" had to do with the scientific expeditions of Roy Chapman Andrews (the purported "model" for Indiana Jones).
1/16/2019 03:11:48 pm
My problem with the show is not that it's ridiculous (I took that for granted going in) but that it's boring, dull, and tedious.
American Cool "Disco" Dan
1/16/2019 04:22:07 pm
As I tried to gently point out above, a T-6 being outfitted with machine guns and yes, live ammunition was not unusual.
1/17/2019 08:23:53 am
If configured to be used on a combat mission, I agree; but not for a routine raining flight over a populated area. This was an AFNG flight; it was not, as far as I know, dispatched on an "intercept" mission. Even if "armed", aircraft on training flights don't carry live ammunition; usually they are just intended to give the pilot some flight hours to maintain their status. So that part rings pretty false.
American Cool "Disco" Dan
1/18/2019 09:05:33 pm
Since Gorman was flying a Mustang and the producers went with the cheaper T-6 the question is moot.
1/30/2019 11:40:23 am
Spot on!!! Pilot would have been court marshaled for such asinine behavior!
Cylon Ambassador Klink
1/30/2019 11:31:38 am
Historys Project Blue Book .... yawn. The Jack Webb series from the 60’s was more entertaining. I’ve tried to watch with some optimism but alas after 4 episodes .... BOMB!
2/3/2019 12:29:41 am
Worst! Episode! Ever! My God, what a collection of Comic Book Guys. Who gives a flying f if the show isn’t ‘real’ enough or had guns on the wrong plane? It’s all atmo and weirdness and Hynek’s wife Is a babe. It’s like sci-fi noir. It’s kind of fun. ‘Propaganda for those who hate government etc etc.’? Uh-huh. See ya.
2/6/2019 12:27:47 am
Everybody is missing that TIME TRAVEL is involved here! How else could characters in 1951 be using words not yet coined: UFO (1953), in-house (1956), database (1965)? There are either careless time travelers or else writers with no sense of the HISTORY of their own language and too lazy to google a few words.
2/8/2019 03:30:29 am
If you want to watch the Project Blue Book - 'TV Series' (Season 1 Episodes. 1-5) in full screen FREE go here. (Check it out you will enjoy it)
2/14/2019 09:26:39 pm
All the above comments not withstanding I think the audio quality in the series is pathetic.....my wife and I, sitting 10 feet from the TV have the volume maxed out and still have trouble hearing what is being said, then when a commercial comes on it rattles the walls...this is the worst quality sound track I have ever experienced and certainly enough to deter me from sitting through any more episodes.
5/2/2019 11:23:23 am
You are quite right. I've been watching it on British T.V., and have great difficulty with a lot of the dialogue.
2/25/2019 08:21:08 am
What a load of crap. ‘History’ channel should simple change its name WooWoo Conspiracy Theory Nonsense Channel. It don’t really mind watching these fantasies, it’s the premise of truth i find disturbing. Grow up America.
5/25/2019 07:31:14 pm
I am saddened that project blue book was not better.
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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