Last night National Geographic Channel launched its high-profile new series, Chasing UFOs, which it is scheduling directly opposite H2’s Ancient Aliens on Friday nights in an aggressive attempt to thwart the H2 show’s stranglehold on Friday evening alien-themed nonfiction programming.
I regret to say, however, that Chasing UFOs is perhaps the absolutely worst UFO/alien program I have ever had the misfortune of watching, Ancient Aliens included. At least Ancient Aliens remembers that it's supposed to entertain the audience.
(Full disclosure: I am scheduled to appear in an unrelated NatGeo UFO documentary later this year.)
The program takes its cues from Ghost Hunters and other paranormal investigation shows where a small group travels to far-flung but photogenic locals for some night-vision photo shoots that attempt to capture unexplained phenomena on video. But unlike Ghost Hunters, Fact or Faked, or Destination Truth, Chasing UFOs is unconscionably boring. Its most direct antecedent is probably History’s defunct UFO Hunters program, which was also about three UFO investigators covering the same territory and similarly boring for largely the same reasons. That show's only interesting facet was the producers' ridiculous suggestion that the History Channel canceled it as part of a conspiracy when they got too close to the truth about the aliens’ secret compound at Dulce Base in New Mexico.
None of the three Chasing UFOs investigators (a skeptic, a believer, and one who pretends to be both) exudes an ounce of charisma. The believer, documentarian Jim Fox, says suitably wacky things about UFOs but ultimately has nothing interesting to add. The skeptic, Ben McGee, offers up lukewarm skepticism that goes nowhere; and the third member of the team, Erin Ryder, is supposed to be the umpire judging between the two. Her part in the first episode was mostly to scream loudly and jump to conclusions.
Part of this may be due to the program finding its footing, but the cast has little rapport. By comparison, the investigators on Fact or Faked come off as warm and friendly, and Josh Gates of Destination Truth approaches his investigations with self-deprecating charm. Though I frequently disagree with their conclusions, at least they make some effort after reviewing their findings to make sense of them. The Chasing UFOs team arrives at no conclusion, or even a discussion of the evidence. Instead, the skeptic says that the investigation yields no useful results while the others talk about how they are convinced that the case of the week is legitimate and important. But without any useful analysis of the evidence presented on screen, there’s no reason to accept any of their assertions (skeptic or believer) as actual conclusions.
I also disliked the way the show mixed footage that claimed to be real video of UFOs with computer-generated recreations without clearly labeling the fake footage as such.
The premier episode’s case was a muddled mess that presented so little information that nothing definitive really emerged. Some guy in Texas saw a UFO in 2008, so the team held the world’s least interesting town hall meeting, which they must have filled with the promise of free food, since most of the participants seemed either bored or completely uninterested in UFOs. A half-hearted attempt is made to explain the UFO by flying some planes close together, but the failure of this one experiment leads to no further tests and the incident fades away from the narrative.
Some library research uncovers that fact that in the 1890s a newspaper reported that a meteorite exploded over the area, raining down bits of stone and metallic debris. The team jumps to the conclusion that the “sighting” is the crash of a UFO and investigates it as such. No one acknowledges the fact that they read aloud from the paper that the people of the time identified it as a meteor. No one does anyone do any research to uncover the fact that meteors can contain iron, thus accounting for the metal discovered. No one tries to explain why a UFO would be made out of terrestrial stone.
A big chunk of the episode is devoted to night vision investigation, the lifeblood of these types of shows, mostly because they “look cool” and take up time that doesn’t have to be spent on research. They also usually turn up nothing. This time, however, Ryder films what she excitedly and breathlessly exclaims must be a “flying saucer.” The screen shows an unsteady image of something vaguely circular and reflective. McGee mentions the presence of streetlights in the area, and it looks to me like a reflection from the bottom of one of those cylinders attached to telephone poles. But we’ll never know because Ryder and Fox proclaim it extraordinary evidence of a flying saucer—with no understanding of the dramatic and powerful import the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence would have—and then blithely move on to the next case. A better show—even one of SyFy’s Fact or Faked or Destination Truth types—would have at least bothered to shine a light up in the air to see if the “flying saucer” was attached to the clearly visible telephone poles directly in front of the team.
The bottom line is that Chasing UFOs’ premier episode (I couldn’t force myself to sit through a second episode) was slow, dull, and remarkably information-free. For the National Geographic Channel, I expected to see more information, more depth, and better-quality investigations. If SyFy can manage the feat on its miniscule budget, it can’t be that hard. For a program striving for cultural relevance, I expected to see hosts who were interesting, compelling, and worth watching more than once. I can’t imagine wanting to check in with this crew again.
[Update 8:45 PM: Robert Sheaffer's excellent review of Chasing UFOs points out that the case investigated in the premier was actually solved in 2009 and reported in Skeptical Inquirer, something unacknowledged by the mystery-mongering show and its laughable "research."]
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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