Just what the title says. I’d give a more detailed summary, but I have a train to catch.
The History Channel’s new sensational story, “Project Blue Book,” plays fast and loose with the historical account of J. Allen Hynek, an American astronomer who acted as a scientific advisor to the US Air Force on three different projects studying the UFO phenomenon: Projects Sign, Grudge, and Blue Book. In the series, Hynek is played by Aidan Gillen, better known as Lord Petyr “Little Finger” Baelish on the HBO series, “Game of Thrones.” Captain Michael Quinn, portrayed by Michael Malarkey, is the Dana Scully to Little Finger’s Fox Mulder as they set out to debunk famous UFO sightings from the 1950s, recorded as actual case studies from Project Blue Book, which was the code name of the US Air Force’s UFO investigation from 1952 to 1970.
While the History Channel series is based on actual historical events, it is very, very loosely based on those events. At this point, it seems the FCC should step in and order the channel to put the word “History” in quotation marks, or follow it with an asterisk to a footnote that reads “Does not reflect actual history.”
The series at the time of this writing is three episodes deep, and has dealt with historical UFO and alleged alien encounters like the Flatwoods Monster and the Lubbock Lights. While the main actors give admirable performances (I do like Aidan Gillen and hope to see him in greater works in the future), the hammy performances of the guest actors are what make the show truly enjoyable. In nearly every episode so far, there is a confrontation between the main characters and a mob of ignorant and terrified “simple folk” in the grips of the UFO paranoia that was apparently rampant during the Cold War. Commies? Aliens? Commies from Outer Space?! Where will the madness end?! Why, at the end of my baseball bat-or-shotgun, until I am manfully disarmed by the Air Force officer who claims he works for the gub’mit.
Thrown into this mix are a Russian spy who is quite possibly trying to seduce Hynek’s wife, Mimi, while he is off chasing UFOs, and mysterious trench coat-clad figures known as the “Men In Hats” (What, could they not get permission to use “Men In Black”?) who lead Hynek to mysterious rooms with strange symbols projected on the wall while spooky recordings of children reading numbers play in the background, and who also occasionally toss crazy old ladies out of windows a-la James Forrestal.
While the series depictions of actual encounters are blatantly and entertainingly embellished, they are made all the more enjoyable by the aforementioned hammy guest star performances, and also for the clumsy story-telling gimmicks employed. Take, for example, the pairing of our investigative duo. You know someone at the History Channel wanted to pair Hynek with a female counterpart, and that would have been fine, but historically inaccurate. It’s the 1950s, after all, and back then women didn’t investigate anything outside of Good Housekeeping magazine, at least according to prevailing stereotypes of women’s roles from that era. While someone may have made a solid case for a female counterpart, someone else at the History Channel probably shot it down with the reasoning that they did not want to seem like an exact copy of the more famous “X-Files” series.
The side-story of Hynek’s wife and her new confidant, the mysterious and possibly bisexual Russian spy posing as the new girl in town, is also used as a vehicle to take shots at the patriarchal pecking order of the times. In this week’s episode, “The Lubbock Lights,” a conversation about bomb shelters with a less-than-hospitable next-door neighbor wife inspires Mimi Hynek (Laura Mennell) to purchase a bomb shelter of her own.
What’s sadder than the plywood above-ground bomb shelters is the chauvinistic attitude of the guy at the hardware store who tells Mimi to send her “hubby” around so that he can explain how the bomb shelter works to him, because, after all, she is a woman and wouldn’t understand the complex intricacies of plywood. She deftly replies, “Unfortunately, the hubby is out of town, and the wifey would like to surprise him when he gets back, so why don’t you ring one up and deliver it by morning, so I can build my own bomb shelter before he gets home? Did I explain that clearly enough for you?” Regardless of gender, however, building a thin-walled shed in the back yard is more fun as a duo project, so the Russian spy lady with an implied homosexual undertone shows up in a later scene to help her build it. She says her name is Susie Miller, but there is enough evidence to suggest that we will later find out that her real name is Ingrid Ivanovich or something likewise Russian-y.
During her visit to the hardware-cum-bomb shelter store, Mimi spots a suspiciously shady character in a coat and cap who later turns up to spy on her as she begins her new carpentry project, but he is chased off by her and her new pal, the secretly-Russian and possibly lesbian suitor, Susie. So there is a solid sub-plot, don’t worry. Spooked by this sketchy character, Mimi changes all of the locks on their doors, much to the surprise of “Hubby” when he returns home from Lubbock, Texas. She tells him about the man, and he asks “Fedorah hat? Trench coat?” to which she replies, “OK, Allen, what are you talking about? You’re scaring me!” Now let’s go look at the new plywood bomb shelter. THAT’ll keep us safe!
Best of all, though, are the little gimmicks the writers use to keep the slower viewers up-to-speed on the plot (or for those who just can’t be bothered to stop playing games on their cell phones and pay attention to the details). For example, at the end of this week’s episode, we see a thoughtful J. Allen Hynek in his study, sipping a scotch on the rocks and marking notes in a notebook. Now, keep in mind, he’s a PhD., so you’d think any notes he would need to jot down would be pretty detailed. But I’m watching TV. I don’t want to read! So here are his scientifically detailed notes: “”Rolling power outages…. Radar coordinates… Stressed metal… Conclusion? Possible government cover-up.” Oh, so THAT’s what’s going on! I thought he had been trying to figure out how plywood could successfully deflect a nuclear blast.
It’s a roughly-hewn family tree with a central part of UFO lore at its trunk, roots in actual historical facts and branches that stretch to the absurd. Its sweetest fruits are the hoping-for-a-big-break actors portraying eyewitnesses with a penchant for the overly-dramatic, fed by the steady sunlight of heavily retroactive stereotypes of the 1950s. Last week, Susie the Russian spy took Mimi to an underground jazz club, where “negroes” sang jazz and smoked the “reefers” and homosexual men kissed openly. It was all just too much for Mimi. Her husband is a respected professor at the local university, after all. What would the community think? She ran out of the club while her beautiful Russian (romantic?) interest was getting them drinks. But thankfully, Susie is not one to give up so easily…
All in all, the show is a delight. For me, it checks all the boxes. If you know your UFO history, and have a foreknowledge of the details of the cases investigated, the show is an entertaining and unintentionally humorous take on an already fascinating subject (if watched correctly… think “Mystery Science Theater 3000”). If you are new to the topics of UFOs and the real Project Blue Book, the show is a terrific opportunity to learn about some of the key accounts. Just make sure you check the versions depicted by the misleadingly-designated “History” Channel against the actual historical reports. Interesting stuff, and you might be surprised about some of the actual details the show occasionally gets right.
Oh, and this week, the character of famed UFO author Donald Keyhoe made his first appearance! They stuck a gun in his mouth.