The difference between the 1970s TV series Project UFO and 2019’s Project Blue Book says a lot about the way TV changed in the decades between.
The real Project Blue Book was an early 1950s USAF investigation into flying saucers: were they real? Were they a threat? It was an officer on the Blue Book team who coined the term “unidentified flying objects” as an alternative name, one that didn’t suggest anything about the nature of the sightings (it didn’t work, as UFO became just another name for the saucers). After two years the Air Force wrapped up, concluding there was no evidence of flying saucers, though many UFOlogists claim that was just a cover-up.
In 1978, veteran TV producer Jack Webb brought Project UFO to NBC. In the opening episode (the only one I’ve seen), USAF investigators Gatlin and Ryan look into a series of UFO sightings in the DC area (like most of the cases, this was based on an actual case from the 1950s). There’s much detailed discussion in the interviews with eyewitnesses, though most of the sightings are relatively simple, like a shining disc in the sky. One woman does claim she’s seen a robot in her garden and chatted with it.
We get to see the experiences as the interviewees talk about them, which is part of the problem. When the time comes to explain them away as natural phenomena or witness error, it’s not at all credible. Seeing them as it happens, they look just as real to me as the people telling the stories; simply saying they’re temperature inversions or whatever doesn’t convince. And even Gatlin and Ryan admitted that they couldn’t explain the robot sighting. This was apparently an ongoing element of the show, some loose end that might just possibly have been the real thing.
There is no doubt, though, that the investigators were on the level. Straight-arrow types, clearly devoted to finding the truth. The exact opposite of the Blue Book investigation in History Channel’s Project Blue Book. In the opening episode General Harding (Neal McDonough) recruits astronomer Allen Hynek (a real person, the guy who coined the three kinds of close encounter) to investigate UFO sightings; in reality, as Harding tells Hynek’s new partner, Captain Quinn, the job is to disprove and discredit all sightings. Harding knows better; Quinn doesn’t but he dutifully pushes back against Hynek’s theories. It’s Mulder and Scully if the latter had a hidden agenda.
It’s not just the characters (there’s also an enigmatic Deep Throat type) but the whole tone of conspiracy and cover-up. In Project UFO we can trust our leaders; in Blue Book the government’s lying to us and not for our own good. What is the reason? What’s really going on? As of the end of S1, I’ve no idea. Nor do we have any clue what the UFOs’ agenda is. It’s another example of the gap across the decades: elaborate, complex, hidden mythologies are now standard. Lost. Manifest. Black List. And yes, X-Files.
Another difference from Project UFO is that there’s no ambiguity, no doubt: aliens exist. It’s a fact. The only question is how we handle that knowledge, and handle the ETs.
Neither show was good, though Project Blue Book certainly works better as drama, but they were both instructive to watch.
#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holder. A longer version of this post appeared over at Atomic Junkshop. last week.