What do UFOs have to do with it?

I’ve noticed recently how those sincerely interested in the UFO mystery can at the same time dismiss the idea that the phenomenon might possess a more general import. Here and elsewhere I’ve read comments such as, “the UFO culture is now purely entertainment,” “the number of people who actively engage with the UFO topic on a frequent and regular basis (go beyond merely occasionally watching a video clip, listening to a sound bite, or scanning an article) represents a small percentage of the US population,” and that the “real UFO conspiracy [is] why the UFOs have become a joke and such an embarrassing subject in ‘serious’ conversation,” all in stark contrast to the unabashed and breathless enthusiasm of those fascinated by the idea of  Disclosure (that at least one of the world’s governments has been in contact with extraterrestrials (ETs) for decades and has been gifted or back-engineered their technology).

“The UFO topic” that that “small percentage” of the population engages with is approximated by, for example, recent stories concerning U.S. Navy encounters with apparently anomalous aeroforms and History’s latest series Project Blue Book and Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation. As has been the case since Donald Keyhoe wrote his books, in this arena the UFO is invariably imagined to be either an extraterrestrial spaceship or maybe a domestic or foreign aeronautical breakthrough, even for those not unacquainted with Jacques Vallée’s Magonians, John Keel’s ultraterrestrials, or even Mac Tonnies’ crypoterrestrials, or more recent speculations concerning other dimensions and times. The demographic represented by this “small percentage” is imaginably very slight (though one does wonder just what empirical research would in fact show).

On the other hand, since 1947, consistently roughly half the population in North America and Europe believe “flying saucers are real” (however seriously), and, over the same time, the UFO and the ufonauts have invaded and colonized popular culture, so that the UFO as a cultural phenomenon now has a higher brand recognition than, say, Odysseus and Ulysses. It is precisely this liminal ubiquity—being both everywhere but hardly at the centre of attention—that empowers the UFO and ET to express something of, and thereby illuminate, if not overtly influence, the culture at large.

The UFO-as-sign (as a vehicle of meaning) functions both factually and fictionally, regardless of whatever reality the UFO might ultimately turn out to possess. As something taken as real, it has clearly reflected the anxieties of the times. Jung, as is well-known, argued the flying saucer functioned as a compensatory mechanism for the anxieties provoked by the Cold War. On one hand, its circular, mandala shape symbolized the unity absent from a sundered world, while, on another, its seeming a spaceship from a technically-advanced society made it a deus ex machina, an otherworldy, salvific intervention into what seemed a perilous, humanly insoluble crisis. His insight was confirmed by the pacifist messages delivered by the Space Brothers of Adamski and the other Contactees of the 1950s. Decades later, with advances in reproductive technologies, such as the Human Genome Project, the potential for human cloning, and in vitro fertilization, little wonder the hypnotically-induced fantasies of women who believed they’d been abducted by aliens should express the anxieties proper to their time and gender, or that abductees in general sometimes claimed they were shown images of global, often ecological, catastrophe by their abductors just at the time ecological consciousness was dawning toward the glaring near-noon zenith it has reached today.

Given the spontaneous significance attributed to “the visionary rumour” of the UFO and ET contact, it should come as little surprise, likewise, that the creative imagination should find in it an endlessly fecund figurative resonance. Cinema (as Robbie Graham would likely agree) and to a lesser extent television perhaps more than any other media have made the most of this material, as, for example, a metaphor for race (in the films The Brother from Another Planet, Alien Nation, or District 9), global warming (The Arrival), mass extinction (The X-Files episode “Fearful Symmetry”), and the insatiable rapaciousness of capitalism (Independence Day).

For example, the remake of the classic The Day the Earth Stood Still twists together the anxious and the hopeful. On the one hand, the alien Klaatu is sent to earth to oversee the destruction of every trace of humankind and its civilization that are rendering the planet uninhabitable for complex life; however, nonhuman, animal organisms are taken up by spherical craft that serve as arks to preserve them from the cleansing process so they may be reintroduced after its completion. Fortunately, Klaatu is persuaded to avert the eradication of human life and, instead, brings to a standstill the technology whose destructive effects brought about the crisis. (The credits roll too soon, though: the results of a global cessation of mechanical technology would doubtless prove catastrophic, resulting in, among other things, mass starvation, with the paralysis of transportation, food processing, and agriculture, a far more cruel, drawn-out process of eradication than the one initially proposed by Klaatu’s civilization!).

The ecological focus and critique of “development” are clear; the imagined solutions, however, are, ironically, hopeless:  humankind itself is incapable of collective action to avert ecological destruction; it, therefore, stands in need of an external, overpowering intervention, whose only proposed solutions are the elimination of homo sapiens (in line with the biocentric ideology of EarthFirst! or the more recent philosophy of anti-natalism) or of the technologies of the so-called developed world. The film’s solutions to our very real problem are less acceptable than the premise of the film as a whole, framing the urgent crisis at its heart as insoluble, inspiring either a resigned fatalism, or, more charitably, a reflective search for alternatives to the unacceptable dilemma posed by the film itself.

The cinematic versions of 2001:  A Space Odyssey and 2010:  The Year We Make Contact develop the theme of the deus ex machina, but along a slightly different trajectory. Both are stories about the guided development (mental or spiritual if not morphological) of anthropomorphic life, from the proto-, to the human, to the meta- or hyperhuman. The genius for tool-use, from a bone-as-club to interplanetary spacecraft and AI, is sparked in the genus Homo by an extraterrestrial agent, represented by an enigmatic, black monolith. One such monolith discovered on the moon, prompts an exploratory expedition to Jupiter, where astronaut Dave Bowman is “evolved” to a superhuman being. In the sequel, a subsequent expedition to discover what happened to the first sets in motion the transformation of Jupiter and its moons into a miniature solar system, a supplementary space for human habitation and resource extraction intended to ease tensions on an overcrowded earth that narrowly escapes nuclear war.

In this fictional universe, the Promethean spirit of technological ingenuity (and power) is posited as a kind of divine spark. Striking it in the protohuman creates a being in the image of the mysterious makers of the black monolith, who guide and shape humankind to ever higher technological achievement and biological/spiritual development ultimately, one might suppose, with the goal of having us attaining their level. It is difficult not to detect a value system underwriting this narrative. Ironically, technological sophistication (e.g., the capacity to invent and build weapons of mass destruction) is not accompanied by a moral or social sense equal to governing the species-suicidal potential of our technical know-how, so, otherworldly intervention is needed. Two problems present themselves. First, if technological savvy is not accompanied by the collective intelligence necessary to control it, then how did the makers of the black monoliths survive this impasse? Secondly, the solution they provide is stop-gap: the essential problem of infinite growth in a finite environment that characterizes the economic system of capitalism, whose advent underwrote the Industrial Revolution, is only temporarily solved by adding more Lebensraum and exploitable resources. The solution to earth’s problems in 2010 seem in hindsight a metaphor for the planned exploration and resource extraction within the solar system and the asteroid belt, the setting for the television series The Expanse and an important assumption in Aaron Bastani’s manifesto, Fully Automated Luxury Communism. In this case, the imagined solutions to our real problems amount to either faith (indistinguishable from the Christian’s that all works out in God’s plan for humankind) and/or more of the (doomed) same.

In both fact and fiction, then, the UFO and ET appear within the horizon of, and expressing, the existential crises of our time, solving by means of their superiour technology the dire problems the development and deployment of our own have brought to pass. The human being, moreover, plays a singular, special role:  the ufonauts spontaneously recognize homo sapiens as their earthly counterpart among all the other species of life on earth, because of a shared Promethean character, due either to their having implanted it in us or to its being natural to intelligent life:  intelligence implies tool-use, which is merely nascent technology. In the real world, even in arguments offered for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), the mere fact of an existing, vastly more advanced technological civilization is evidence that ours can navigate the impasse that threatens to destroy our own, either by following their example or, as in the cinematic examples above, through their direct intervention.

It is precisely, however, the way ET mirrors ourselves, is a projection of ourselves, that gives the game away and reveals an important, if not the primary way, the UFO mythology works in society at large. As I have argued repeatedly and at length here and elsewhere, positing anthropomorphic intelligence, tool-use and technology as natural (universal) propensities to life-as-such is to treat as universal one very geographically and historically local and contingent social formation, namely that of the so-called “First” or “developed world”. This megalomaniacal projection of the aleatoric trajectory of one portion of the population of one form of life on earth finds a mythical legitimation in, for example, the book of Genesis wherein God creates Man in His own image and a science-fictional one in the universe of 2001 and 2010 wherein an extraterrestrial agent plays both a Promethean and parental role. In either case the destiny of humankind is imagined to be fated, necessary, and, divinely or otherwise, ordained.

The solutions to humanity’s problems proposed in both The Day the Earth Stood Still and 2010 drive this point home all the harder. Either humanity and all traces of it need disappear, or its technology must cease operating, or it must stay the course. None of these are workable. This apparent impasse however results from the assumed inalterability of the status quo:  the unspoken (because unspeakable) solution is social change. As Fredric Jameson put it so well:  “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” In its affirmation of existing society, in both its factual and fictive forms the UFO-as-a-sign functions ideologically, maintaining the status quo by occluding the possibility of imagining that things might be otherwise.

Ironically, cinematic pop culture performed this ideology critique already in 1988, in John Carpenter’s They Live!. In this film, the earth has already been colonized by a malevolent alien race that maintains its power by means of a technology that creates an illusory world, that of North America in the late twentieth century. The protagonist has his eyes opened to this reality when he dons a pair of sun glasses with the power to reveal the subliminal messages of advertising and entertainment, etc. that keep humanity in its virtual chains. The deliciousness of this plot is double: the capitalist ruling class is shown “in reality” to be a repulsive, cowardly alien race, thereby inverting the motif of the ET-as-benevolent-saviour in Jung, the Contactees, and 2001 and 2010.

[Interested parties are invited to hear philosopher Slavoj Žižek present his reading of They Live! as ideology critique in his own, inimitable manner!]

Because the UFO mythology is both ubiquitous and liminal, the actual percentage of the population that might admit to consuming either documentary or fictional UFO material is beside the point. The myth is “in the air”, vaguely familiar to everyone, but hardly considered by anyone, a status that enables it to function just below and at the edges of conscious thought. When it does intrude on consciousness, as either fact or fiction, the UFO-as-sign mirrors back to us after its fashion not an Otherness but an insidious Identity. It signifies in this way through no fault of its own; a mirror can only reflect what is in front of it, and, in this case, that is the world capitalism and technology, industrial or otherwise, have made. That the UFO should appear in this way, enlisted in the maintenance of an ecocidal order, is a crime against humanity in particular and life in general, that something that should be out of this world and therefore throwing that world into relief, estranging it through difference, revealing it in all its contingency and alterability, becomes something pitifully, pathetically human, all-too-human.










A Short Take on Ryan Eslinger’s UFO

Most movies inspired by the UFO phenomenon have been and remain B-grade, generic science fiction or horror (not that such artefacts aren’t without their abyssal significance, either), but recently, at least in my media bubble, richer, more thoughtful films have appeared, among them some that have received publicity, such as Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, and others, less celebrated, that have slipped under the radar, namely Jason Stone’s At First Light and Ryan Eslinger’s UFO, which is understated, smart, and dramatically complex.

[I’m writing about Eslinger’s film from the point of view of someone who’s viewed it, so, if you haven’t and don’t want the whole plot revealed, read no further!]

The film begins with a UFO sighting over Cincinnati airport, inspired by the famous O’Hare International Airport sighting of 7 November 2006, which catches the attention of the film’s protagonist Derek (who witnessed a UFO as a small boy) and an FBI agent Franklin Ahls, who seems a one-man UFO investigations desk with the entire agency’s resources at his beck and call.  The plot is driven, at the narrative level, by Derek’s (primarily mathematical) investigation into the sighting and the social fall-out of his actions and Ahls’ parallel investigation and suppression of the event, while, thematically, by the question (in its many senses) “Are we alone?”.

Despite the impression left by the trailer, the plot is much more cerebral than cloak-and-dagger, dealing for the most part with Dereck’s efforts to decode the message from the film’s titular UFO that he discovers in recordings of air traffic control communications during the sighting. One of the most delightful moments in this narrative arc is Dereck’s debunking of an official debunking of the sighting, which identifies the observed object as a small drone:  the audience witnesses the process, diagrams, numbers and all, by which Dereck calculates the approximate diameter of an object “about the size of a dime held at arm’s length” hovering at about two hundred feet below that day’s cloud ceiling. The plot doesn’t have so much a heart as a brain, one cracking itself over the complex mathematics of the numerical message sent by the UFO’s pilots, the solution to which ultimately involves considerations drawn from the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and physical constants of, e.g., hydrogen. This is a gambit as daring as satisfying, evoking as it does some of the real, hard problems of putative communications with a technically advanced, nonhuman species.

Mathematics and physics do not lend themselves to the run-of-the-mill UFO cover-up movie, frustrating viewers with an insatiable appetite for that same old same old. Eslinger’s script is both more daring and more complex than that, delving into Dereck’s character as a way into even more profound thematic depths. Derek’s obsessiveness and mathematical genius render him a bit of a sociopath, causing him to betray his friends and inspiring his wearily understanding mathematics professor Dr. Hendricks to compare him to Thomas Edison at his worst. By the end of the film, the attentive, reflective viewer will likely be struck by the manifold irony in Dereck’s wondering if “we are alone.” At least twice, through brief flashbacks, Dereck’s lonely, if not traumatic, boyhood is revealed: his mother refused to believe him when he told her that he had witnessed strange lights in the sky, and it is suggested he was the only child of a single parent whose lives were materially precarious. He is able to attend university only because his high intelligence secured him a prestigious scholarship, but his selfish single-mindedness alienates him from those around him. Little wonder someone so isolated should wonder about being alone in the universe.

But the real thematic pay off of the film comes at the end, which has mystified or disappointed some reviewers. Franklin Ahl’s investigation into this and other UFO sightings is driven by a growing anxiety about the fate of humanity. Invoking a certain strain of SETI speculation about different levels of technical civilization, at one point during a meeting with a panel of scientists, he wonders out loud if “the eerie silence” SETI has met with is not caused by all civilizations’ self-destructing as they approach the threshold ours is. If, however, the UFOs he is chasing are indeed spacecraft from distant civilizations, then these have solved the problems that threaten to snuff ours out and learning to communicate with them might win us access to this direly needed information. When Dereck does decode the aliens’ message, which reveals the location of their next appearance, he witnesses the UFO and is immediately taken into custody by Ahls. The agent reveals that the aliens have been communicating in this way for some time and in increasingly complex ways, presenting problems whose solution seems to be leading along a path of research and discovery that imaginably leads to that know-how that saved them from the self-destruction that threatens us. Ahls recruits Dereck, who learns that we “are not alone”, in the literal sense that the universe is indeed (perhaps) inhabited by other technological intelligences, but also, unconsciously, that he is not alone in his obsessions, that finally he has found a place in this world.

But such an emotional resolution would be cheap if larger stakes were not in play. The Fine Structure Constant plays an important role throughout the film, right from its very beginning. At one point, discussing the constant with two scientists, it is suggested that the constant may in fact be the same throughout space, but not time. That the constant might be variable proves important to possibly solving the much more complex communications received from the aliens, which, in turn, suggests, though this is never spoken by any character, that the aliens are not from a distant point in space, but in time, namely our own future. Dereck, then, is representative of today’s youth whose ingenuity is required to solve the questions that lead to solving the problems that threaten our future. But not only that:  that mathematicians make their breakthroughs only in their youth is a cliché invoked at least twice. However, when Dr. Hendricks gives him this spiel, he immediately contradicts her, supplying as many examples of older mathematicians who have made important contributions. Thus, the intelligence of all generations is presented as being up to the task of facing down the world-threatening problems that loom before us. None of us are “alone” in this world or what threatens it. Young, old(er), and even future generations have a stake in the game and a role to play.

Eslinger’s is a sly sleeper of a film because of how, like Villeneuve’s Arrival, it deploys the UFO as a material, weaving it together with emotional and social matters to address larger but no less related concerns. The result is, from this point of view, an original, refreshingly pleasant and emotionally satisfying movie. Within the larger context of the UFO phenomenon, however, it doesn’t quite escape one of the central and most compelling suppositions in the reception of the phenomenon, that our technical ingenuity, which got us into this perhaps suicidal mess, will be what gets us out. It does, nevertheless, leave one with a sense of hope.

Imagine That!

Rich Reynolds at UFO Conjectures has complained, rightly, I think, about the uniformity of the alien in both recent science fiction and in the contact reports ufology chooses to scrutinize compared to the early days of the modern phenomenon in the 1950s. Any reader of Skunkworks will know too the consistent criticisms I level against the obsessive anthropocentrism of ufological speculations. As I commented myself on Reynolds’ complaint, recent cinematic and televisual incarnations of the Alien Other came to mind that strike me as strange enough to begin to approach just how uncanny a truly alien entity might be. (Though none compare to this real world report out of Japan, here!).

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

A thematically complex film, Arrival‘s depiction of the alien Heptapods is as creative as https _i.ytimg.com_vi_ghgfg2iqpd0_hqdefaultits plotting and its probing the relation between language and consciousness. Its first virtue is how the aliens resemble octopi or squid more than human beings. Recent discoveries concerning the genetics and intelligence of octopi harmonize nicely with this conception. Despite their being linguistic, tool-using (technological) creatures—an anthropocentrism I often criticize here—the radical difference of their language due to their profoundly different mode of temporality and the way their ships resemble stone more than metal and dissolve in mist rather than shoot away into the sky also set their depiction apart from the stereotypical Little Grey Man in his Flying Saucer. The cognoscenti will recognize in that fading away a correlate to real-world sighting reports.

Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

Like Arrival, Under the Skin is more than an alien body-horror film. Still, its version of the alien is even more cunning.  The aliens seem to be fluid, a witty metaphor, capable of filling the role of a human being, whose skin they don. https _blogs-images.forbes.com_markhughes_files_2015_10_under-the-skin-1940x1035.jpgEven when this disguise is finally ripped off in the movie’s climax, the audience sees only an impersonal black form, as featureless as the liquid form is amorphous. By refusing to actually depict an alien, it employs a visual metaphor that is all the richer for its being nonliteral.


The Mothman Prophecies (Max Pellington, 2002)

Though strictly more about ultraterrestrials than extraterrestrials, Pellington’s cinematic version of John Keel’s classic book includes one of the most compelling representations of what would otherwise seem a UFO encounter experience:  an indistinct, blinding orange-red light, which seems as much an interdimensional portal as a UFO, an uncanny dread or calm, and a vaguely-human figure, communicating in a weird, whispering hybrid of telepathy and speech. https _medialifecrisis.com_files_images_articles_201712-popgap_mothman-prophecies-2002_mothman-prophecies-2002-00-10-21The figure of the Mothman not only appears as a dark, indistinct, red-eyed menacing silhouette, but pareidolically as a mark on a car’s radiator grille, tree bark, and, most wittily, in a brainscan image.

The X-Files (Chris Carter, 1993-2018)

For all its inconsistencies, when The X-Files was good, it was very, very good, however unconsciously. On the one hand, it presents us, rather wearily, with varieties of Greys; nevertheless, the ETs appear also, more provocatively, as hybrid clones, shapeshifters, and a black oil. https _upload.wikimedia.org_wikipedia_en_6_68_vienen_txfThese latter imaginings share the strengths of those in Under the Skin and The Mothman Prophecies in being more suggestive than literal. As hybrid clones, the alien is as much a monstrous DNA as nonhuman being. The shapeshifting variety (however anthropocentric) wears its protean, unclassifiable Otherness on its sleeve, as it were. And the black oil combines alien-as-infection body horror, the fluid identity of the shapeshifter, and a metaphorical resemblance to petroleum ,all in a single, tour de force image.

Solaris (Tarkovsky, 1971)

Based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, Tarkovsky’s arthouse film Solaris is a richly suggestive cinematic work that transcends mere genre. The title’s planet, which mirrors and conjures the desires of the humans sent to explore it, is a vivid metaphor for the projective character of human understanding in general and how we place as much as face objects of perception, especially the alien Other. Lem’s metaphor encapsulates much of my critique of the ETH and its implications.


Science Fiction, Folklore, Myth, the UFO, and Ufology: a note

Commenting on my review of Gerald Heard’s The Riddle of the Saucers: Is Another World Watching? (1950), part of an on-going series “Jung’s Ufological Bookshelf”, Martin S. Kottmeyer generously provides extensive cultural context to Heard’s speculation that the flying saucers were piloted by super bees from Mars. Kottmeyer concludes:  “Heard may seem prescient, but he was part of a tradition of science and science fiction speculations that was quite orthodox within the genre he was part of” (my emphasis). This sentence is curious:  what genre does Heard’s book belong to?

The beginnings of a rigorous answer would evoke genre theory and reception theory; a prima facie materialist answer would trace the way Heard’s book was marketed and  how librarians catalogued it over the nearly seven decades since it was published.

Kottmeyer seems to group Heard’s book, one of the first on flying saucers, with a  “tradition of science and science fiction speculations,” which seems paradoxical. Science writing, even when it is popular or speculative, makes a claim to being true, while science fiction, as a kind of fiction, does not (or, more accurately, it makes a claim to an artistic truth…). However much A Brief History of Time and The Time Machine might have the same word in their titles and be science writing and science fiction, respectively, they surely belong to two different genres.

Today, and surely for some decades before, ufology is a liminal, paradoxical genre. On the one hand, it makes claims to being true, but in a way that is difficult to pin down. Some ufological volumes, e.g. Jacques Vallée’s Anatomy of a Phenomenon (1965) would make a claim to being true, in a provisional sense, in the same way any other sufficiently speculative science book might. Others, such as Desmond Leslie’s Flying Saucers Have Landed (1953) stake a different truth claim, one more akin to that of a religious work.

However much the truth claim of that paraliterature ufology is oscillates between the natural and spiritual, it can’t quite claim to belong to the same genre as, e.g., Carlo Rovelli’s Reality is Not What It Seems:  The Journey to Quantum Gravity (2017) regardless of how speculative the later chapters of Rovelli’s book might be. As many have pointed out, ufology is a pseudoscience (perhaps a genre all its own), though, as Vallée has cogently remarked, no problem is scientific in itself, only the approach to the problem can be properly called scientific.

For these reasons, perhaps, the literature about the UFO that is not explicitly fictional has been read as a kind of folklore in the making or mythology, not that either term in its  generality gets us much further. But this middle way has the advantage that it can make its truth claim and bracket it, too. However much folk wisdom might possess a merely heuristic truth, that truth is still practical and uncannily modern:  however much depression might be ultimately a result of brain chemistry, the folk psychology that underwrites meditative practice prescribes an effective therapy, and stories of faeries are as age old as they are contemporary (just ask highway builders in Iceland). A mythology, likewise, following Levi-Strauss, can claim an effective truth, just of a different kind than that of the natural sciences:  regardless of whether an axe is made of stone or steel, it’s still an axe. Myth, like folklore, in the case of the ufological literature, is possessed of a weird reality, as daemonic as those entities and situations it deals with.

For these reasons, I tend to take the pseudoscientific ufological paraliterature as belonging to a genre neither scientific nor science fictional, as its truth is neither one that is subject to experiment nor calculation nor one that invites us to only imagine the world as other than it is or was. Its truth, like the flying saucer, hovers between the two; like the UFO, it is both/neither material and/nor immaterial; nevertheless, like its namesake, it leaves traces, in the culture and its imaginary.

http _www.tierslivre.net_spip_local_cache-vignettes_l340xh407_arton96-87198

Poor Object Blowback: on History’s Project Blue Book

History’s new series, Project Blue Book, has inspired among the ufophilic a range of reactions, from the tepid to the boiling, from “interesting, give it a chance” to outrage. Every response I’ve heard or read is more an example of ufomania than ufophilia, obsessed with the facts of and the truth behind each case the series (putatively) explores and the historical personalities involved, neglecting what the show, in fact, is, a cultural artifact.

Of course, History’s marketing of the series is directed at this ufophilic hunger for facts and truth, an appetite History cunningly toys with, simultaneously teasing and frustrating this desire with vacuous series and documentaries about Ancient Aliens and unsolved UFO mysteries. A glance at the channel’s description of the show reveals this bait and switch. First, History makes it seem like the series is a documentary:

Project Blue Book chronicles the true top secret United States Air Force-sponsored investigations into UFO-related phenomena in the 1950’s and 60’s known as “Project Blue Book.” … Each episode will draw from the actual files, blending UFO theories with authentic historical events from one of the most mysterious eras in United States history. [my emphasis]

Only after this disingenuous opening gambit is the series’ virtues as a television drama played up,

a drama series about the Air Forces’ 1952-1970 investigation into the UFO phenomenon. Blue Book is Mad Men meets the real life X-Files as it follows Dr. J. Allen Hynek and Air Force Captain Ed Ruppelt as they confront the very real possibility that we may be being visited and they may be pawns in a nationwide disinformation operation. … By 1970, Hynek will transform from ardent skeptic into avid believer, convinced that we are not alone. [my emphasis]

Here, History not only makes the unfulfillable promise that this series will somehow rise to the level of Mad Men and The X-Files, but mixes in a dash of conspiracy theory for X-philes with a dollop of never-fail ufophile bait, “the very real possibility that we may be being visited” and the satisfying transformation of an “ardent skeptic into avid believer, convinced that we are not alone.” This hitherto successful mix of fact and fiction is a volatile one, however, exploding in the face of History’s promotional department in the ufomaniacal disgust with the dramatic license the series takes with those “authentic historical events”.

Regarding the series from a perspective that tries to balance the contradictory claims the series make for itself reveals both its virtues and its eyeroll- and sigh-inducing failures. The opening scenes of Episode 1, “The Fuller Dogfight” are illuminating.

The opening shot is promising in its initial ambiguity:  midair, at night, two lights, one red, one green, appear in a cloud. These first seconds present an image reminiscent of several from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. What are they? For a moment, we don’t know. Quickly, however, two training aircraft appear; the lights are theirs. The pilots have a brief conversation, and the trainee returns to home base. That Fuller’s plane then dives to buzz a football field disturbs the suspension-of-disbelief, as one would imagine that air traffic over an urban area, especially at night, would be carefully controlled. When the UFO does appear, its appearance is satisfyingly fresh: an indistinct, somewhat amorphous blue light, instead of the all-too-common “nuts-and-bolts” spaceship all-too-often depicted by special effects departments. But this surprising pleasure is quickly spoiled by the light’s being given a recognizable sound (however “weird”) that evokes alien technology; silence, rather, would have heightened the overall suspense. When Fuller opens fire on the light playing cat-and-mouse with him, the scene’s believability is again sacrificed at the altar of popular science-fiction. The scene reaches its climax with Fuller’s plane appearing to be lifted straight up in the light of the UFO, the plane’s wing suffering some mysterious damage in a shower of sparks, and Fuller screaming, in an uncontrolled descent.

If, for the sake of a broader perspective, we pull back from the Gorman Dogfight this scene allegedly alludes to, we might be struck by how much its final shots bring to mind the 1973 Coyne Helicopter UFO Case, wherein a military helicopter, too, experienced a sudden, uncontrolled climb, seemingly under the influence of a UFO. Moreover, Fuller’s plummeting downward brings to mind the crash of Thomas Mantell. These associations suggest the writer is subordinating history to drama. That, as we’re told before the episode begins, “The cases depicted are based on real events” is at worst misleading and at best ambiguous, and just how this ambiguity is resolved determines the amount of disappointment, frustration or outrage a ufophilic viewer will feel, for “The Fuller Dogfight” is not a representation of the Gorman Dogfight, but an amalgam of USAF pilot-UFO encounters, an archetypal ufological story. The writer’s creative license opens the space between historical and artistic truth, between the real events and the archetypal stories that make up the UFO mythology that is the real material of the drama, a space viewers apprised of this distinction can relax into or, ufomaniacally demanding the plot adhere to the facts, plummet into wailing like the damned.

The next scene, in the words of one its characters, is “compelling”. We cut, or segue, from Fuller’s plane in a twisting, uncontrolled descent, into a bright, white-yellow light, the pilot’s fate suspended, as the camera pulls back to reveal this illumination is a head-on shot into the blinding lens of a film projector (a segue repeated later in the first episode to interesting effect). This is the first in a dizzying sequence of reflexivities whereby the series foregrounds its own fictionality in order to comment on itself, an artistic device going back to Helen’s weaving a tapestry of the scenes she witnesses on the fields outside the walls of Troy in the Iliad, an image of the rhapsode’s weaving his tale. In this scene’s first reflexivity, the unseen television camera’s perspective is lost in the film projector’s light. The cameras’ respective perspectives might be said to fuse, establishing an equivalence between the two, and thereby between the televisual fiction we are viewing with whatever cinematic fiction is being projected, i.e., foregrounding their respective media foregrounds the fictionality of both the TV series and the film.

What is being screened, we see, is the closing of the The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), at least until, as the camera pans out, a character I’ll call Air Force General 1 (AFG1) irritatedly orders it stopped. The plot of our modern UFO TV series frames that of a classic flying saucer film, a device that serves to foreground, again, the televisual fictionality of Project Blue Book; the overt fictionality of the film reflects back the tacit fictionality of the series, a fictionality otherwise repressed by the viewer in their suspension-of-disbelief, at least until they are nudged to reflection by just such instances of (generic) self-referentiality.

Next, an overhead shot shows a round table with twelve seats, most occupied by military men. The character at the movie projector I’ll call Mr Secretary addresses AFG1: “Truman assembled this group to control the narrative on this issue, not Hollywood, and we are losing that war.” The reference to “this group” assembled by Truman invokes the mythology around MJ-12, a clandestine dozen recruited to manage the extraterrestrial reality of flying saucers after the crash of one at Roswell (at least) and the retrieval of its pilots, dead and alive. More interesting, though, is how the fiction, again, folds onto itself: the fiction of the TV series presents a cinematic fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still) as intervening in, governing or forming, “the narrative on this issue” (“this issue” supposedly the mystery of the flying saucers), competing with the the narrative the group puts forward in its own attempt to control or guide public perception of and reaction to rumours about flying saucers. That is, within the fiction of the series, the official fiction (the official lie that there is no such thing as flying saucers) is posed as competing with Hollywood cinematic fiction; a fiction that suppresses its fictionality (the official lie) wars with a fiction that stages its fictionality, the various filmic fantasies of Hollywood, all within the frame of the governing fiction of the series itself.

This war between the official story and the Hollywood story is curiously asymmetrical. The official story is one, while the Hollywood stories are many; but, more importantly, the former makes a claim to truth, while the latter is overtly fictional. That the two are staged to struggle in this way reveals how the mystery is answered in the real world by authority and imagination, the two woven inextricably into one tapestry of public ideation. Within the fictional world of the series, the war is between the claim there’s no such thing as flying saucers (as Captain Quinn tells Hynek when they first meet) and the speculation, however imaginary, that they are real and that they pose a threat to national, if not planetary, security. However, the Secretary’s words are comically ironic in how they juxtapose the spin of the series as a TV series and the spin of Hollywood. In other words, the war is not only one between the official version and the movie version in the fictional world of the series but also a kind of Oedipal agon between the Father of ufological entertainments, represented by The Day the Earth Stood Still and other classic flying saucer films, and the televisual Son, this latest iteration of “the narrative on this issue.” Regardless, if we grant that fictions, cinematic, televisual, or otherwise, can compete with the truth the way that so worries the Secretary, then the expression of his worry is also a confirmation of the social power of the fiction of which he is a part, namely Project Blue Book.

The third scene, Quinn’s office at Wright-Patterson AFB, is, most charitably, another instance of the pattern of reflexivity developed in the previous one that introduced Truman’s group. Quinn’s office is reminiscent of Agent Mulder’s, with all manner of pictures, maps, clippings, etc. on the walls. As Kevin Randle has noted, “some of the material there is out of place. It shouldn’t show up for years.” A case in point is a photograph of the Lubbock Lights to Quinn’s right just as he comes through the door into his office from the filing room. As we know now, the Lubbock Lights don’t appear until Episode 3. Either the continuity director has made a snafu, or, given the complex sophistication of the preceding scene, the articles tacked on the walls might refer to upcoming episodes. If the remainder of the first season bears out this hypothesis, then what would seem sloppiness is, in fact, a sly, aesthetic choice. And this is, strictly speaking, an hypothesis, as it admits of falsification!

I turn, now, from a close reading of the first episode’s opening scenes to a more general appreciation of Season One’s first three episodes.

Given the dilemma the series poses for itself, to be both a historical “chronicle” and a TV drama, the first episode (“The Fuller Dogfight”) is relatively successful, setting up the middle way the series will fictionalize the “actual files” (making of each case an archetypal rather than an historical moment), assembling the dramatic machinery that will drive the series (the conflict between Quinn’s duty and Hynek’s quest for the truth, the secrets hidden and manipulated by Truman’s group, the Men-in-Black, the mysterious blonde Susie, and the nature and purpose of the UFOs themselves), and establishing character (Hynek and Quinn already demonstrating a pleasing chemistry) and atmosphere (America in the Cold War Fifties).

Where Episode One explores the air force / UFO encounter scenario, the second episode (“The Flatwoods Monster”) stages the Crashed Saucer Retrieval myth, Hangar 18, and physical effects associated with close encounters. Again, its relation to the actual case of the The Flatwoods Monster is peripheral. But, where Episode One was a fairly intriguing, competent work of script-writing, Episode Two crashes and burns like the meteor / flying saucer that opens it. The behaviour of the townspeople is unmotivated, and the explanation Quinn offers (“fight or flight”) is nonsensical. Susie’s smoking in her darkroom is a volatile breach of verisimilitude almost as egregious as the ahistorical racial mix of citizenry in small town West Virginia. And a laugh-out-loud moment occurs when the mental patient Evelyn Meyers refers to the Men-in-Black as the “Men-in-Hats”, as if every man didn’t wear a hat at the time or the audience hadn’t by chance read any of the reviews of The Adjustment Bureau that make the same joke. The scriptwriter, not Evelyn, should have been thrown out a window for that howler. Nevertheless, the development of the Men-in-Black subplot (with Hynek’s guessing the string of numbers given him in Episode One maps co-ordinates to a location in Antarctica, and Evelyn Meyer’s passing him a photo of a mysterious obelisk) affords a small pleasure, along with the wit of explaining the monster as an owl, an important animal in later alien abduction accounts, regardless of the same explanation’s being offered in fact five decades after the actual incident.

The third episode, “The Lubbock Lights”, takes up the circumstances of the actual case to push the series’ narrative forward and to map further ufological archetypes, electrical interference (either vehicular or systemic), physical effects (burns and photophobia in Episode Two, paralysis here in Episode Three), and UFO radar returns.Where Episode One was fairly competent TV, and Episode Two catastrophically bad, Episode Three is middling. On the one hand, it handles its archetypal matter with some agility, and the (presumably) electromagnetic effects on the ruined truck are vividly imagined and, most importantly, original. On the other hand, no few snafus creep in, though less deleteriously than in Episode Two: that the lecture hall of witnesses is interviewed all together is serious breach of forensic protocol; there’s a serious plot hole that no ads can fill between Hynek’s and Quinn’s facing down the Lubbock townspeople on Hollister Street and their driving to the countryside; Susie’s toying or forcing the knob of the Hyneks’ front door makes little sense; and even though a witness claims the lights were silent, each time they fly over they do make a stereotypical alien spacecraft sound.

However much the show so far is a mixed bag, it does, happily, get some things right. It captures the trauma or stigma associated with a UFO sighting, as in Fuller’s obsessive derangement or the violence directed against the Downing family that reported encountering the Flatwoods Monster. That official air force involvement was an exercise in debunking has been understood since the earliest days of the phenomenon, as Donald Keyhoe’s first book reveals. The writers cunningly hide Easter Eggs for the series’ more vigilant fans. Fuller’s call sign is “Cooper”; Quinn refers to him as “Coop”, both a funny pun and, in the wake of Season Three of Twin Peaks, a sly allusion to Agent Dale Cooper’s nickname. General Harding’s chess partner is played by Steven Williams, the actor some viewers will recognize as one of Mulder’s Deep Throat informants, Mr X. More striking are the many allusions to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, inescapable given the material the series deals with and its archetypal approach to weaving it into its various plots:  the song Fuller can’t get out of his head (“How High the Moon”) brings to mind the contactees’ obsessive visions of Devil’s Tower; the latitude and longitude given Hynek are reminiscent of the analogous communication received by earth’s scientists pinpointing the landing site of the ET Mothership; the burns the Downing children suffer is a close encounter effect they share with Roy Neary; the power outage in Lubbock is another shared plot element; and Quinn’s electrifying experience in his car is analogous to Roy Neary’s close encounter in his truck. Finally, along with reflexivities noted especially in the second scene of Episode One, is the running motif of the game, whether football, Scrabble, or, more prevalently, chess, harmonizing with and amplifying the various games played by the air force, the Men-in-Black, Suzie and her accomplice, other mystery figures, and the flying saucers and their putative pilots, themselves.

Whether or not the show’s failings utterly ruin it is a serious question. In one regard, it gives away too much too soon. An MJ-12 analogue appears in the second scene of Episode One, establishing immediately the series will concern itself with government cover-ups and conspiracies. By the end of Episode Two, we know already that Susie is a Russian spy, and the final scene of Generals Harding and Valentine in the show’s version of Hangar 18 in front of a crashed flying saucer under a tarpaulin introduces another all-too-worn cliché of the genre. By the end of Episode Three, it becomes clear the writers can hardly keep their story straight:  the Secretary threatens to reveal all General Harding’s secrets to the President, the same General who reminded the gathered members of Truman’s group at the beginning of Episode One that “we don’t know what the hell we’re dealing with.” And the greatest irritant is the Roswell motif: everyone seems apprised of a flying saucer’s having crashed, its pilots’ being recovered or captured, and the air force’s clumsily covering it up. In Episode Two, when Hynek asks Quinn if aliens have been reported before the Flatwoods Monster, Quinn replies, “Not since Roswell.” In the same episode a local growls back to Quinn’s explanation for his and Hynek’s visiting the Downing household, “Like you boys did with Roswell, eh?”. And in Episode Three Donald Keyhoe exclaims to the radio studio audience gathered to hear him interviewed about his famous True magazine article, “The Flying Saucers are Real”, “We all know what happened in Roswell!”. Supposedly, the writers are taking up Roswell as an element of the myth, in the way they incorporate archetypal narratives and situations. Nevertheless, the sensibility of any member of the cognoscenti must be offended by this perversion of the actual development of the story around Roswell, a relatively unknown incident at the time and one that didn’t gain fame or reference to aliens until the 1970s. Here, the creative team seems to have opted to appeal to the ufophilic fascination for crashed saucers, captured aliens, and government cover ups, that Crash/Retrieval Syndrome with which the name Roswell has become representative and synonymous. Overall, the writers seem to have lacked the nerve to create and maintain mystery and suspense and the imagination to do anything different with the material, all of which leaves viewers possessed of any discernment suspicious the series is nothing more than another coarse ploy to cash in on a known commodity, despite its increasingly diminishing returns.

History faced a choice in producing this drama. Either, on the one hand, follow the facts very closely, resisting at every point the temptation to impose the ETH avant le lettre, recreating the process whereby the ETH was posited and finally abandoned (by Hynek, at least), to thereby refresh the received, sedimented version of the history of the mystery, creating in the process the suspense that might hook an audience made up of both believers and viewers new to the story, while assuaging the vigilant ufomania that has inspired the most vehement criticisms of the existing show, living up to its own insight that “Blue Book is the origin story of everything we know about UFOs and aliens in pop culture,” or, on the other, create an absolutely new scenario with new characters, one capable of aspiring to a synthesis of both the flavour and complex drama of Mad Men and The X-files, reinventing the origin story and subsequent mythology of the UFO, gambling alienating that existing demographic obsessively eager to have its alien and government conspiracy buttons pressed yet again to win a whole new audience and produce a whole new franchise. Instead, Project Blue Book attempts both and achieves neither. Being the History channel, it made sense to bait its existing audience dangling before it a series that “chronicles the true top secret United States Air Force-sponsored investigations into UFO-related phenomena,” basing each episode on the “actual files” and “authentic historical events,” a promise best kept by a show like the first option sketched above. However, both to satisfy the expectation of spectacle aroused by a UFO drama set during the Cold War and to grow the audience by tossing the ufophilic the Alien & Conspiracy bone, the series had to veer from the more austere but interesting docudrama it promised to be upfront, into the timidly confused and impossibly compromised version it seems to be turning out to be.