How Project Blue Book Could Revive the History Channel's Reputation

TV Features Project Blue Book
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How <i>Project Blue Book</i> Could Revive the History Channel's Reputation

As U.S. Air Force investigator Edward J. Ruppelt relates it, in The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, at 9:20 p.m. on August 25, 1951, four professors from Texas Technological College, in Lubbock—one each from the departments of geology, chemical engineering, petroleum engineering, and physics—watched, startled, as a semicircular formation of bluish-green lights flew across the sky. An hour later, it happened again, only this time the lights did not appear in any particular formation.

Being the sort of men who gather on late summer evenings to discuss micrometeorites and drink tea, the professors observed the lights on 12 subsequent occasions, up to three times in a single night, measuring the angle and timing of the lights (30 degrees per second) and their cardinal direction (north to south). Friends, colleagues, and wives were recruited as fellow watchers, divided into teams connected by two-way radio to determine the lights’ speed and altitude (inconclusive). As Ruppelt soon discovered, the Texas Tech contingent was not alone: Over the course of two weeks in August and September 1951, hundreds of witnesses in and around the college town reported seeing the same lights, often at times and locations that corroborated the professors’ accounts. Theories emerged. Plovers—quail-sized waterfowl with oily white breasts—reflecting mercury-vapor streetlamps. An experimental stealth plane undergoing testing by the federal government. Interplanetary spaceships. In the Report, first published after his retirement from the Air Force in 1956 and expanded shortly before his death in 1960, Ruppelt described UFOs as a “Space Age Myth,” though of what came to be called the Lubbock Lights he offered only this, declining to provide specifics to protect the anonymity of the scientist responsible: “The lights that the professors saw have been positively identified as a very commonplace and easily explainable natural phenomenon.”

History Channel’s new drama series, Project Blue Book, ultimately prefers sexier suggestions. Rather than focusing on Ruppelt, a skeptic, it concentrates its attention on astrophysicist-turned-ufologist (and Close Encounters of the Third Kind consultant) Josef Allen Hynek (Aiden Gillen), his smug Air Force handler, Capt. Michael Quinn (Michael Malarkey), and a pair of shadowy generals (Michael Harney and Neal McDonough, both wasted) eager to close cases despite the cost to the truth. Still, in “The Lubbock Lights,” Project Blue Book hits upon one of the key insights contained in Ruppelt’s phrase, “Space Age Myth,” which is that the high point of American interest in UFOs—from roughly 1947 to 1969—corresponded closely with the fraught, panicky decades that began the Cold War. Hoping to photograph plovers darting above the streetlamps, Hynek and Quinn venture into a sleepy neighborhood at night, only to be confronted by suspicious residents wielding hard-edged voices and baseball bats. “You look like a Commie to me,” one accuses, the circle closing fast.

Though it isn’t much more than The X-Files in period clothing—a case-of-the-week procedural based on historical UFO sightings, with Hynek playing the open-minded, impractical Mulder to Quinn’s doubtful Scully—Project Blue Book nonetheless constructs a useful scaffolding around the UFO craze. In a fundamental sense, the series is not about what happened in the skies over Lubbock, or Fargo, or Flatwoods, West Virginia, but about why what happened became, as Quinn remarks in the pilot episode, the subject of “mass hysteria”: They may not generate much narrative momentum, but from references to The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing to plot threads involving fighter pilot crack-ups, above-ground bomb shelters, and mob justice, Project Blue Book ably weaves together the prospects of alien and Soviet invasion until they’re almost indistinguishable. The result is a period drama surprisingly in tune with its period’s (oft-forgotten) cultural static; this was, after all, the zenith not only of Joseph McCarthy, but also of flying saucers, brainwashing—a fear that followed Korean War POWs in particular—and the “Bad Blonde”—Nora Sayre’s term for the communist seductress of Hollywood fantasy. (For more, see Ellen Schrecker’s expansive social history, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America, and Susan L. Carruthers’ fascinating Cold War Captives: Imprisonment, Escape, and Brainwashing.)

This qualifies as something of a departure for History, which once proclaimed itself “Where the Past Comes Alive,” but long ago shifted its focus to inexpensive, largely forgettable reality programming: As early as 2011, Forbes contributor Brad Lockwood asked, “Where’s the history on History?” and was directed by a network spokesman to Pawn Stars, about a family-owned, 24-hour pawn shop in Las Vegas, and American Pickers, about a pair of road-tripping antique dealers. Among those listed as History’s most popular series, at least Pawn Stars, American Pickers, and Knight Fight, which is pitched as “medieval MMA,” retain a material connection to the past; it requires more mental gymnastics than I am capable of to see Truck Night in America as “historical.” Still, it’s the History series that more explicitly claim a relationship to history—an area in which the network has always had a frustratingly narrow field of vision, even in its “heyday” of brutally dull World War II documentaries—that run their fingers through the dregs of human understanding: The Curse of Oak Island, which suggests that a tiny private island off the coast of Nova Scotia has links to the Phoenicians, Sir Francis Bacon, the Knights Templar, and the Aztecs, among others; America’s Book of Secrets, which lends as much attention to “The Ancient Astronaut Cover-Up” and “The Mystery of Bigfoot” as it does West Point and the Ku Klux Klan; and, now in its 13th season, Ancient Aliens, which is the most ghastly fraud on television this side of Fox News, a conspiratorial Reddit thread brought to life and piped like carbon monoxide into the homes of its viewers.

In “The Alien Disks,” for instance, recently aired during one of History’s frequent, day-long marathons of Ancient Aliens, the series offers one misleading leap of illogic after another. One guest concludes that an artifact known as the “Phaistos disk,” which differs from other Minoan antiquities, must be extraterrestrial in origin; another speculates that the disk depicted in a Babylonian stone tablet is a “God button”; a third compares the (mythical) disk worn by a powerful Incan ruler to a smart phone, suggesting that it may have literally contained computer circuitry. Even the episode’s thesis statement, such as it is, connects the existence of such disks to ancient aliens through no more than a talking head’s vocal inflection: “All over the world, it doesn’t matter on what continent,” says Legendary Tales Magazine publisher Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, with an almost stereotypically high shock of black hair and the sort of stone necklace that might’ve inspired the phrase “reefer madness,” “you find ancient depictions of disks.”

The problems with Ancient Aliens are legion, not least the subtly but frankly racist implication of “The Alien Disks” that East Asian, Middle Eastern, and South American cultures to develop advanced technologies before contact with Europeans must have been influenced by aliens. From the bafflingly facile readings of archeological finds to the flagrant misuse of myths and legends as factual accounts, though, these particular problems are all component parts of the series’, and the network’s, larger problem. At its worst, History is not merely ahistorical but anti-historical, a programmatic attack on the discipline’s foundational principles—namely, the construction of an argument about or narrative of the past based on careful evaluation and interpretation of multiple primary sources. In a society that already undervalues—when it doesn’t outright ignore—historical knowledge, preferring fairy tales about democratic freedoms, economic opportunities, and the righteousness of American power to honest stories of slavery, exploitation, and empire, this isn’t merely unfortunate, it’s dangerous: The historical illiteracy promoted (and preyed upon) by Ancient Aliens and other History series is of a piece with political propaganda, social media hoaxes, the lies of omission and commission that form an atmosphere, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, in which everything is possible and nothing is true.

It’s a relief, in this context, that Project Blue Book should follow Ruppelt’s findings on (and other known facts about) “The Lubbock Lights,” or “The Fuller Dogfight,” or “The Flatwoods Monster” reasonably closely, and a cause for celebration that it should frame these as being inextricable from the intense agitation of their Cold War milieu. Whether this is reason for sustained optimism remains to be seen. Quartz’s Adam Epstein praised the network’s scripted miniseries’ Hatfields & McCoys, Houdini, and others in 2014 for better balancing the demands of historical accuracy and entertainment—a debate so central to historical fiction, as I’ve written elsewhere, that it amounts to the genre’s driving question—only for History to give us several more seasons of Vikings (charitably, equal parts history and myth) and a discredited documentary about Amelia Earhart. Still, set aside the dreadful B plot involving Hynek’s dutiful wife (Laura Mennell) and her new friend, Susie Miller (Ksenia Solo), and even Project Blue Book’s familiar investigative rhythms, buoyed by Gillen and Malarkey’s genial chemistry, assume the shape of a corrective—one History might conceivably use to live up to its name, or at least to find a fair compromise between what is possible and what is true. “The past cannot be changed, but the future is yet within our power,” Hynek explains in an Ohio State University seminar room in the pilot, as if to underscore the distinction with Ancient Aliens or America’s Book of Secrets. Just as Flash Gordon is not the equivalent of astrophysicists’ plans to launch satellites into space, he elaborates, “there is a difference between science fiction and informed speculation.” The same might be said of history’s many forms—essential distinctions, it must be said, that History should reflect, too.

Project Blue Book premieres Tuesday, Jan. 8 at 10 p.m. on History.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.