David O’Leary and Sean Jablonski have been into UFOs since they were kids. Both grew up in New York City, where O’Leary saw the alien-abduction movie Communion at age 9 and Jablonski saw a UFO in the sky at age 10. Both events inspired an enduring fascination with the topic, which the two men are gleefully exploring by making Project Blue Book, a UFO-focused drama series for the History channel.
O’Leary, the show’s creator, describes Project Blue Book, which sees its second season debut Tuesday, as “a real-life X-Files set in the time of Mad Men, told through the eyes of J. Allen Hynek.”
Hynek, played by Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones) in the series, was a Ph.D. astrophysicist conscripted by the United States Air Force in the late 1940s to investigate UFO reports as part of an effort called Project Sign, which was later replaced by Project Blue Book.
Hired mainly to debunk sightings by providing scientific explanations, Hynek was a known UFO skeptic before spending a decade and a half investigating them with the Air Force. He left the experience convinced that such phenomena merited true scientific study—something the Air Force barely afforded him. As he said in a 1985 interview, “They wouldn’t give UFOs the chance of existing,” instead insisting that Hynek provide an alternative explanation for every case—rendering Project Blue Book a sort of public relations UFO cover-up.
“The idea of someone who is a skeptic transforming into a believer is universal,” says Jablonski, Project Blue Book’s showrunner. Both he and O’Leary point to the current “fake news” climate and the public’s resultant skepticism as key to Project Blue Book’s resonating with viewers. “We always talk about how [the real Project Blue Book] was sort of the beginnings of fake news,” says O’Leary.
The show started out as a spec pilot by O’Leary—and it was snapped up right away by History. “They told me this was the first and only spec pilot they’ve ever bought,” says O’Leary. With Robert Zemeckis, of Back to the Future and Contact fame, already signed on to executive-produce, it wasn’t the hardest sell.
On top of that, two years after the New York Times reported on the government’s secret program investigating unexplained aerial phenomena—the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, or AATIP—UFOs, aliens, and government secrecy are “having a bit of a moment right now,” Jablonski says. “Alien” was the No. 2 search word that “defined 2019” on Pornhub, and over the summer, the Internet momentarily united under the rallying cry to “Storm Area 51,” a Nevada military base rumored to house extraterrestrials.
History’s … history with UFOs
However, UFOs’ presence on History is nothing new. With more than 150 episodes, Ancient Aliens, which started off as a two-hour special in 2009, is now one of the channel’s longest-running series, says History EVP and general manager Eli Lehrer. He notes that when those at History “saw the ratings results and the audience interest, they went back to the producer [Prometheus Entertainment] and said, ‘Okay, can you do more?’”
Ancient Aliens and Project Blue Book are part of a growing arsenal of shows that Lehrer calls History’s “historical mysteries and the unknown” content, which has always seemed to fascinate the channel’s viewers. “I think aliens and UFOs are really the most iconic story in that category,” Lehrer says.
Since 2007, History has aired alien-related series like Hunting UFOs, In Search of Aliens, and UFO Hunters, as well as “historical mystery” series that delve into the alien question for an episode or two, like In Search Of, MysteryQuest, and The Universe: Ancient Mysteries Solved.
Then 2019 brought with it a flood of new UFO-related content. There was the UFOs series—each installment getting its own title, like UFOs: Secret Alien Technology—along with The UnXplained, in which William Shatner delves into mysteries such as the pyramids. Secrets in the Sky: The Untold Story of Skunk Works also debuted last year. The documentary focuses on advanced aircraft created through Lockheed Martin’s hush-hush Skunk Works program, which people believe could offer alternative explanations for some UFO sightings.
Nick Pope, an author and TV personality who used to investigate paranormal-seeming events for the U.K. Ministry of Defense, has contributed to so many History channel shows since 2009; he can barely remember which ones he’s appeared in. (UFO Hunters and Ancient Aliens are the big ones.) He’s also appeared on sister channels Discovery, the Travel Channel, and Science, as well as other programs in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.
“In the last two years, this subject has absolutely come out of the fringe and into the mainstream with revelations of the Pentagon’s AATIP program and U.S. Navy encounters,” says Pope. “Other networks are right across this, too.”
But as to whether History, Travel, or some other channel is the most appropriate home for UFO content, it’s hard to say. “Is this really history?” Pope asks. “Is this really travel? Maybe the old definitions and boundaries are breaking down a bit.”
Entertaining the ‘truth’ of UFOs
This is by no means the first wave of interest in UFOs. The X-Files in the 1990s brought with it a thirst for the unexplained, followed by the likes of sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun in 1996, and teen love story Roswell— rebooted last year— in 1999. Such interest is often cyclical. (Give it a few years and vampires will be all over TV again.)
But unlike other channels riding the current UFO wave, History has helped write the story. Its other 2019 series, Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation, helped break this May 2019 New York Times story in which a Navy pilot discusses a 2014 unexplained sighting. The pilot, Lt. Ryan Graves, spoke out publicly first in Unidentified to Luis Elizondo, the former head of AATIP who left the program in 2017 and served as the source for the Times’ original breaking story on the program. He’s now carrying out his own investigation into unidentified aircraft, which History is following in Unidentified.
Unidentified is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Ancient Aliens. While the latter relies on less substantiated claims and dramatic music, the former consists of eyewitness accounts and linear pathways to new information. It’s gotten traction on the channel, too. About 19.1 million people watched throughout the first season, according to History, warranting a second season’s debut later this year.
Project Blue Book strikes a sort of balance between the measured Unidentified and the more “out there” Ancient Aliens. It uses real historical events and witness accounts, but supplements that with ample fictional drama propelled by romance, spies, and firsthand sightings the real Hynek never had. His partner in the show, Captain Michael Quinn, played by Michael Malarkey, is a stand-in for the Blue Book director from 1952 to 1953, Edward Ruppelt.
To sort fact from fiction, every Project Blue Book episode is followed by a short documentary, which discusses the real-life case that inspired that week’s plot. Hynek’s sons, Paul and Joel, also serve as consultants on the show, sharing anecdotes about their parents to help keep their characters authentic. Hynek’s wife, Mimi (played by Laura Mennell), has a significant role in the series.
The new season of Project Blue Book will begin with UFO heavy hitters like the Roswell incident, in which a mysterious 1947 crash in the small New Mexico town sparked what many call a government cover-up (the government explained the incident as a fallen weather balloon). Though the real life Blue Book investigation didn’t look into Roswell, O’Leary is excited to get to “share details of those events.”
In making this show, O’Leary grapples regularly with packaging historical accounts as entertainment. It’s hard enough to find real information through the fog of conspiracies when it comes to unexplained aerial sightings. Yet recent disclosures about AATIP and from U.S. Navy pilots indicate that real unexplained events have taken place. (Note: The events are not to be confused with the existence of aliens or alien spacecraft—an unidentified object could be a drone or even a bird, as the real Project Blue Book sometimes suggested.)
Making a fictional show about a past alleged government cover-up on the topic of UFOs could certainly muddy the already dark waters. “We don’t want to be part of this ‘fake news’ or confusing the issue,” O’Leary says, but he still wants to entertain.
As for History’s overall thoughts on UFO programming, Lehrer says, “We work very hard on a show like Project Blue Book to maintain a certain degree of ambiguity.” Rather, he says, it’s the “dynamic between belief and skepticism” that makes the series, and others like it on the channel, so compelling for viewers who love a mystery.
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