Project Blue Book
US TV

Review: Project Blue Book 1×1 (US: History)

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:

  1. Someone spots a UFO
  2. The USAF sends two people to investigate
  3. They spend 90% of the episode proving that there was a perfectly rational explanation for everything
  4. They go away
  5. 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.

Project Blue Book
© History

History?

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…

Neal McDonough

Darkhness

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.

Blue Book

Home

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…’

1983
Internet TV

Third-episode verdict: 1983 (Netflix)

Available on Netflix

As I’ve remarked before, globalisation is paradoxical, particularly when it comes to TV. On the one hand, it can bring us together and help different countries to understand others’ cultures; on the other, it can lead to homogenisation, with TV shows developed to appeal not to that country’s viewers but to viewers around the world.

The latter sounds bad, doesn’t it? Certainly, I’ve stopped watching UK TV almost completely because either the shows are all the same or they’re yet more ethnically cleansed period dramas geared up for international sales. Yawn. Show me something new.

Yet at the same time, watching the first three episodes of Netflix’s first ever Polish original, 1983, I did yearn a little for a bit more cultural homogeneity. Or maybe even a guide book. Perhaps Lonely Planet could start a new market for Netflix boxsets.

1983

2003

The confusion starts with the title. Despite its name, 1983 is actually set in 2003. However, it’s not the 2003 we know. Even if we knew what 2003 was like in Poland.

Instead, we’re in a parallel universe. Al Gore is the president of the US and Poland is still under Communist Party martial law thanks to a terrorist incident that took place in 1983.

Again, confusion since unless you’re well versed in the histories of various Central and Eastern European countries, what exactly the new state of affairs is and whether it is new isn’t obvious. It probably is to Polish people, but to me, at least, not so much.

As much as I can glean, the Soviet Union has fragmented, with Poland having risen up to form a new Second Republic that’s independent of the still viable Soviet Union – or at least not quite under the same degree of control from Moscow as there was. There’s still an East Germany and an East Berlin; there’s still an Iraq war; there’s still a West Germany occupied by the West.

But despite being 2003, everyone in Poland has flat screen monitors, uses Linux with well developed GUIs, and there’s a burgeoning social media app development ecosystem in Poland that’s got both China and Vietnam excited and investing in the country. There’s also a burgeoning market economy, too, by the looks of it, with all the queues of communism only there in flashback.

Was that true in 2003 for real? Is that even true now? Is there even now a police force called the Milica (or maybe Milicja)? I don’t know.

Or is this all supposed to be a highly nuanced, intricate examination of how Polish society might have evolved, reflecting inherent cultural trends? I don’t know.

1983

Conspiracy

Against that backdrop, we have a law student (Maciej Musiał), descended from one of the victims of the terrorist incident, who’s given a photograph by his law professor, who’s then killed in mysterious circumstances. In that 1983 photo are a whole bunch of people, including scientists and soldiers, who quickly ascended to power following the terrorist incident.

Meanwhile, police detective Robert Więckiewicz is investigating the mysterious epidemic of teenage suicides, which may be linked to a new underground rebellion. He quickly runs afoul of the authorities on his own side, as well as the Vietnamese, but soon he and Musiał start to work together to see if their two cases are linked. And there probably is a link in the shape of Michalina Olszańska, who’s a family friend of Musiał, the girlfriend of one of those suicidal teens and a big name in the underground rebellion.

All of which is reasonable enough, but it’s not exactly clear what sort of scenario or even genre we have here. Is this basically SS-GB, in which we’re sat in an alternative universe watching a regular old conspiracy thriller, or are we in The Man in the High Castle, watching a sci-fi parallel universe engineered by some Cold War-era scientists?

Neither is it clear why we should care. At least, if we’re not Polish. It’s certainly interesting to watch a “What If?” piece of television made by people in country who had to go through some terrible hardships and are now asking themselves “What if we never escaped that hellhole of a life?” – it’s different at least from “Here’s what would have happened if that hellhole of a life had happened to us, so let’s count our lucky stars.”

But with so little explained, from the history through to the culture to the political implications, it feels like an answer only Polish people might want to know. There wasn’t even actually a terrorist incident in Poland in 1983, so it’s not like it’s even a “What if?” in the style of SS-GB.

Instead, I’ve just watched three, quite slow-moving hours of drama, in which people talk about a photograph a lot, while I wonder if there’s a reason all the women in Poland are topless all the time, or whether that’s only in sci-fi. Is Olszańska’s character called Ophelia to reference Hamlet (girlfriend of a suicidal teen…) or is Ophelia a popular name in Poland? Was Amazon’s Comrade Detective actually a surprisingly accurate satire of Central European TV, judging by 1983‘s dialogue and the direction?

1983

Conclusion

1983 is at least different from the normal fare we get on Netflix. But seeing as it’s hard to tell:

  • What things are supposed to be different from modern/2003 Poland and what’s supposed to be the same
  • Whether the fact everything looks like it’s Equilibrium fan fiction is deliberate
  • What exactly the point of it all is

I can’t exactly recommend it. The acting’s fine. The dialogue might be brilliant, just not in subtitled English. The plotting is slow. Nothing so far has revealed itself to be ‘paradigm shifting’. I might stick with it, but I get the feeling that unless you’ve got a decent baseline of Polish cultural, geographical and historical knowledge to start from, 1983 is going to be its own biggest mystery.

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