The difference between the 1979’s TV series Project UFO and 2019’s Project Blue Book says a lot about the way TV changed in the decades between. They’re both based on the Air Force’s investigation of flying saucers, but they have wildly different views on whether the government can be trusted with an honest investigation.
I watched the first episode of UFO and a larger chunk of Blue Book as part of a new movie book project, Alien Visitors. The book looks at different stories of extraterrestrials on Earth: alien invasions, alien immigrants and refugees, aliens and kids, alien monsters, alien subversives (e.g., Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and so on. That includes the “men in black” belief that the government knows ETs and flying saucers are real but covers it up to avoid a panic (or for more sinister reasons).
Although Americans have been spotting strange flying objects as far back as the 1890s, the modern UFO era began in 1947. Pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing crescent-shaped ships skipping through the air like saucers being skimmed over water. It was the first of many “flying saucer” sightings, and the nation went slightly saucer-crazy in the 1950s. Comics happily milked the trend, as with this Murphy Anderson cover; movies dove in starting with 1950’s The Flying Saucer. In that film, there’s one flying saucer and the protagonist has to race the Russians to find its inventor; most films and comics opted for the cooler ET option.
There was serious interest in the subject too. The Air Force began investigating UFOs in the late 1940s; in 1952 the initial program morphed into Project Blue Book, which continued until 1969. It was one of the Blue Book investigators who coined the term “unidentified flying object” as a less loaded name for flying saucers. The term, as we all know, became equally loaded, just another way of saying “space ship.” The Air Force discontinued Blue Book in 1969, concluding there was no evidence UFOs represented alien technology or anything inexplicable. That didn’t affect UFO believers much.
Project UFO was an unsuccessful 1978-9 NBC series drawing on the Blue Book investigations. In the opening episode, Air Force officers Gatlin and Ryan (William Jordan, Edward Winter), investigate a series of sightings near the nation’s capital. A little old lady claims an alien robot chatted to her in her back yard. Staff at a local military base say they saw a UFO in the sky. The officers explain away most of this but they can’t quite explain why the old woman imagined seeing a robot. That was pretty much the format for the rest of the series: almost everything is explained but there’s just one little thing that doesn’t add up …
It’s not a good show. Executive produced by Jack Webb, it has a documentary style with lots of witness interviews and discussion intermixed with witness flashbacks. As we see the flashbacks ourselves, that makes the rational explanations unconvincing. I know in the real world that temperature inversions can create the illusion of a flying saucer, but when I see it on-screen it looks real. Gatlin and Ryan tellling me it’s an optical illusion doesn’t feel half as real (no wonder so many people believe in UFOs!). However there’s no question the officers believe their conclusions. They’re good guys, genuinely trying to get to the bottom of things.
That is not at all the case with Project Blue Book, which ran 2019 to 2020 on the History Channel (it was cancelled less for rating than the channel getting out of scripted TV). In the opening episode, General Harding (Neal McDonough, AKA Arrow‘s Damien Dahrk) assigns astronomer J. Allen Hynek (Aidan Gillen) and Captain Quinn (Michael Malarkey) to investigate UFO sightings (Hynek is a real person, originator of the first/second/third kind classification of close encounters). Hynek is there to give Blue Book credibility; Quinn is there to see all evidence of UFOs stays covered up. Harding already knows the truth: the military has a flying saucer in a hangar and a dead alien preserved in a jar. When the witness in the first episode proves too believable, Quinn explains everything away, after which sinister doctors give the witness sinister injections.
The idea of Men in Black covering up the truth about UFOs goes back to the 1950s. Albert Bender, founder of the International Flying Saucer Bureau (an unofficial, amateur group, despite the high-falutin’ name), claimed in 1953 that a trio of dark-clad men had warned him to stop his investigations. A few years later, Bender’s colleague Gray Barker recounted the story and coined the “men in black” name in his book They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers. 1957’s Invasion of the Saucer Men shows the Air Force covering up all trace of the little green men’s presence, but that was an anomaly. In other 1950s SF films the government frequently banned the news media from reporting but they didn’t deny that alien invasions or visits were taking place. The ban was for the public’s own good (e.g., avoiding a panic), not for any unethical purpose.
That was the attitude that carried over into Project UFO. It was not the attitude of Project Blue Book, which came out a year after the final season of The X-Files. In The X-Files, as most of you probably know, FBI Agents Scully and MUlder discovered that while “the truth is out there,” it wasn’t anywhere within the U.S. government. Our leaders know ETs and alien abductions are a thing, but they’re hiding that truth. Not for our own good but because at least some people in Washington are allied with the aliens. What really lay behind it all was often hard to say; in the world of X-Files, the man behind the curtain is usually standing in front of another curtain.
In Project Blue Book, Hynek is Mulder, the believer; Quinn is the skeptical Scully, only his skepticism is a pose. Harding’s running a conspiracy, but the CIA is running its own conspiracy and wants to shut down the Air Force as a rival. Like X-File‘s Deep Throat, Quinn and Hynek have a mysterious Man in Black giving them cryptic direction (“Officially I don’t exist.”). Unlike Project UFO the aliens are definitely real; UFO believers aren’t crackpots but visionaries. Beyond that, everything is murky. In the tradition of Manifest, Lost and other shows built around a mystery, there’s plenty of sound and fury and dramatic discoveries, but everything stayed unclear, right up to the end.
Project Blue Book is a lot more watchable than its predecessor, but I wouldn’t say it’s good. But as I’ve learned from writing film books, you can learn from bad films and series as well as from the good ones.