This is a spoiler free review.
I’ve been writing about UFOs for over a decade now, but real-life UFO events are still a bit taboo for mainstream media. So when History announced a show based on actual U.S. Air Force investigations into flying saucers, I thanked my lucky stars I write for Den of Geek and would have an opportunity to break down the fact versus fiction for our readers.
Project Blue Book is History’s new historical fiction drama series based on actual UFO investigations conducted by the U.S. Air Force in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Although the show is heavy on the fiction, the characters are compelling, and the narrative covers UFO incidents based on real cases that demonstrated the Air Force’s UFO investigations were much more mysterious than they let on.
In the first couple of episodes, we get to know the main characters, Dr. J. Allen Hynek (played by Aiden Gillen of Game of Thrones), his wife Mimi (Laura Mennel, The Man in High Castle), and Air Force Captain Michael Quinn (Michael Malarkey, Vampire Diaries). Hynek is a professor who gets recruited by Quinn to be a consultant for Project Blue Book, a program set up to investigate flying saucers.
Hynek and Mimi, a young couple starting a family, are hesitant to take the offer, but Hynek has ambitions and sees this as an opportunity to help his career. Quinn is also ambitious, but it becomes clear his directives from above are not to discover the truth behind the flying saucer phenomenon, but to help Hynek conclude the sightings are simple misidentifications of mundane objects such as aircraft, stars, planets, or other things commonly seen in the sky.
Conflict arises when Hynek finds that the cases they are looking into are much more mysterious than Quinn would have him believe. The mystery regarding the true intentions of Quinn’s superiors offers an ample amount of intrigue.
Of these three main characters, Hynek and Mimi were real people. Project Blue Book was also a real project, and the cases they cover in the show were real cases. There was no Captain Quinn, but the character does accurately represent an attitude within the Air Force at the time that the whole subject was ridiculous.
The UFO cases are brilliantly reenacted. The real events might not have been as spectacular, but the UFO scenes elicit the fear, awe, and wonder one would imagine feeling witnessing such events. Gillen’s Hynek is also a great antagonist. He is intelligent, but relatable, and approaches each investigation with pure, open-minded, curiosity, as a good scientist should.
Hynek’s appeal makes Quinn’s dogged skepticism, and demands for mundane conclusions that much more frustrating, and leaves the audience wondering what the Air Force is hiding.
Hynek really was a college astronomy professor who helped the Air Force investigate UFOs, although he thought the entire subject ridiculous when the investigations began. Eventually, he found the issue to be worthy of serious scientific study and continued science-based research into the UFO phenomenon long after Project Blue Book was closed.
Hynek has claimed he also really did feel pressure to close cases without being allowed to conduct a thorough scientific investigation, saying he began to resent the Air Force’s “negative and unyielding attitude” that “everything had to have an explanation.” He once lamented, “I was a thorough skeptic, and I’m afraid I helped to engender the idea that it must be nonsense; therefore it is nonsense.”
The Air Force apparently wanted to put the kibosh on extraterrestrial musings because they felt there was nothing to the UFO phenomenon and it created a public relations nightmare. However, in the show, the Air Force appears to have something more to hide.
Again, IRL Hynek did not indicate he believed there was a group behind the scenes keeping information from him, even though there was some reason for him to believe this. When Project Blue Book was closed in 1969, a memo was put together by U.S. Air Force Deputy Director of Development Brigadier General C.H. Bolender listing the reasons why the Air Force should close the program. Towards the end, he added: “reports of unidentified flying objects which could affect national security are made in accordance with JANAP 146 or Air Force Manual 55-11, and are not part of the Blue Book system.” In other words, all of the best cases go somewhere else anyway.
The number of cases escalated above Project Blue Book, the nature of those cases, and the results of any investigations that the Air Force may have conducted have not been shared with the public. In the show, however, it appears Hynek will risk it all to find answers to these questions.
The extraterrestrial intrigue, the shadowy characters with unknown intentions, and the good cop/bad cop lead characters investigating mysterious paranormal phenomena lead to comparisons with the X-Files. However, the feel of the show is less X-Files and more historical fiction. It reminds me of a series from the late ‘90s called Dark Skies. Dark Skies was NBC’s answer to X-Files and was sort of historical fiction, but perhaps more accurately mythological fiction.
In Dark Skies, the main character is a congressional aide who in the first episode gets mixed up with Project Blue Book and an influential group of secret keepers called Majestic-12. Dark Skies relied heavily on existing UFO conspiracy mythologies, such as the legend of Majestic-12, which some believe to be a group of secret keepers brought together by President Harry Truman in 1947 to manage our UFO and extraterrestrial invasion problems. The portrayal of this group made of military officials, academics and leaders in the defense industry is similar to the group of secret keepers in the series Project Blue Book, although, besides military involvement, the makeup of the group of secret keepers in Project Blue Book, the show, is still a secret.
Whether or not Project Blue Book will delve into this UFO mythology is yet to be seen. There is a photo being circulated by History of Gillen’s Hynek viewing an alien in a container through a window. I asked the series creator, producer, and writer David O’Leary about this image, and he told me it is not what it appears. Since the show is based on reality, it is nice to know, for accuracy’s sake, the show will likely not go that far off into the deep end of alien conspiracies.
There are a few other facts that are off on the show, for instance, Hynek joined the U.S. Air Force’s UFO investigations in 1947 during their first foray into UFO research, Project Sign, not during Blue Book. He continued through their second UFO program, Project Grudge, and the last, Project Blue Book, which began in 1952. In the show, Hynek coins the term Unidentified Flying Object (UFO). Although the Air Force created the phrase at the beginning of Project Blue Book, the man who takes credit for it is Colonel Edward J. Ruppelt, Project Blue Book’s first chief.
Beyond a few relatively minor tweaks to history like these, the most exciting aspect of the show is that it is dramatizing UFO cases in which investigators did not all feel there was a simple explanation. Despite the narrative the U.S. Air Force often portrays, even the military has never had a consensus on the UFO question. In fact, according to Ruppelt, the staff of Project Sign determined one explanation for some of the unidentified objects observed by credible witnesses might be extraterrestrial spacecraft. According to the Air Force, at the time of Project Blue Book’s closing, there were over 700 unsolved cases.
The minor deviations from reality in the first couple of episodes are not sufficient enough to cause me concern. The insertion of some of the smaller facts, even if they are tweaked, is exciting for a UFO nerd like me. I am curious where the storyline with Mimi’s mysterious friend is headed. Hynek, nor those close to him, ever indicated there was any real-life intrigue involving his family. I am hoping this is just a tool to represent some other aspect of reality.
In the end, even if the show begins to deviate from reality drastically, Hynek and Malarkey are such intriguing characters, and the mysteries sufficiently fascinating; that I think they show will do well. For those history nerds who want the facts, History has fortunately posted a host of articles on the real-life situations being covered on the show.
Watching History’s version of Dr. Hynek attempt to solve UFO mysteries and potentially uncover vast conspiracies should be fun. As with any good historical fiction, it will hopefully also inspire viewers to learn more about a fascinating part of American history. Hopefully, would-be civilian researchers will stick to credible sources for information, such as Den of Geek, who will be guiding readers through the real-life history behind the Project Blue Book episodes.