In the US: Tuesdays, 10/9c, History
When is a remake not a remake? You could argue that History’s Project Blue Book isn’t a direct remake of Project UFO for sure, given that both are supposedly based on something else – real-life reports from the USAF’s Project Blue Book investigations of unidentified flying objects. However, they’re really so similar, I can’t help but feel that Project Blue Book should be described as a remake, even if it’s nowhere near as frightening or as interesting.
Project UFO was a scary thing. At least, I thought so watching at the time and even watching the title sequence now gives me the heebie-jeebies.
I’ve already written quite extensively about it elsewhere, so I won’t repeat myself too much here, but essentially its final formula was:
- Someone spots a UFO
- The USAF sends two people to investigate
- They spend 90% of the episode proving that there was a perfectly rational explanation for everything
- They go away
- The final five minutes reveals it was aliens all along!
And Project Blue Book isn’t that different, even if the whole thing now has a big dollop of post-X-Files conspiracy theory bolted on top.
As it’s the History Channel and although that’s a title that increasingly should be said with air quotes round it, there is a germ of real history to Project Blue Book. It sees Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones, The Wire, Queer as Folk) playing real-life university astronomer J Allen Hynek. He’s recruited by the USAF to investigate the spate of sightings of unidentified flying objects that Americans around the country have been reporting. The USAF wants him to debunk them as it’s not very helpful to have mass hysteria during the Cold War. To help him – or maybe vice versa – he’s accompanied by Michael Malarkey (The Vampire Diaries), a (not real-life) air force captain who’s been investigating UFOs by himself for some time.
Both are sceptical from the outset and prove a formidable investigatory team. Malarkey is able to use his flying and air force experience to debunk some aspects of stories and get some people to talk, while Gillen’s scientific expertise enables him to sort the ridiculous from the plausible and get others to talk.
The first episode sees the two of them investigating a (supposedly) real Project Blue Book sighting, in which a pilot collided with a ‘green orb’ but which Malarkey and Gillen reckon could well be a weather balloon. But some things don’t quite add up…
The scientific investigation of UFOs is strangely enough the show’s strongest quality. It really is interesting to see the two of them use science and expertise to investigate stories and discover the truth, with both actors providing strong counterpoints to one another.
But, unfortunately, lingering behind the scenes is the shadow of The X-Files. Despite this being ‘the History Channel’, all of the very real Project Blue Book turns out to be a cover-up run by Neal McDonough (Arrow, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, The Burning Zone, Star Trek: First Contact, Captain America) to stop people finding out the truth about the real aliens, particularly those from Roswell. Gillen and Malarkey are just patsies being used to provide a veneer of plausibility to the project.
The USAF should probably sue for libel. Certainly, it’s what ruins Project Blue Book for me. The show was already playing fast and loose with history at this point: Hynek may eventually become a believer and even invent the ‘Close Encounters’ grading system in real-life, but for the first few years of the project, he was a committed sceptic, not the easy convert the first episode suggests.
Similarly, for a conspiracy, it ain’t half clumsy. McDonough might as well be shouting at Malarkey ‘There are real aliens so stop investigating too hard or you’ll find them’ for all the subtlety the writers allow him to show and there’s only so many times that a shadowy man in a hat can follow Gillen before you wonder why he doesn’t realise someone high up has it in for him.
Unlike Project UFO, there is an attempt to give the two investigators in Project Blue Book something of a life outside of investigating aliens. However, much of it feels like just extended efforts to keep the paranoia going through other plot lines.
Laura Mennell (Alphas, Haven, Loudermilk, The Man in the High Castle, Watchmen) has a thankless role as Gillen’s wife and so far most of her storyline has focused on going dress shopping with the potentially dangerous, potentially gay Ksenia Solo (Lost Girl), who might be trying to use her to find out more about her husband.
Otherwise, though, it’s 50% conspiracy nonsense, 50% moderately interesting adaptations of real Blue Book investigations. If we turn off a) and focus on b), the show will get a lot better, as it has a fine cast, good period detail and a decent budget for recreating ‘sightings’. Having been a bit of UFO buff as a kid, it was also thrilling to see all the famous photographs I had in my scary UFO book, too, so more of that, please.
If not, YouTube has pretty much all of Project UFO on it, so I might just give that a rewatch instead. ‘Ezekiel saw the wheel…’