Extraterrestrials have long been a staple of pop culture—and, especially over the past decade, of the History channel. If you can believe it, Ancient Aliens has now run for 13 seasons and nearly 150 episodes. How Giorgio A. Tsoukalos—a.k.a. the Ancient Aliens meme guy, who is a consulting producer and recurring guest for the series—and his conspiracy-laden peers can conjure up that many crackpot theories about divine alien intervention throughout the course of human history is perhaps the show’s single greatest mystery. Entertaining and bizarre as Ancient Aliens may be, its place on the History channel is more than a bit paradoxical.
One right doesn’t make up for 13 seasons of wrongs, but at least History’s latest alien-centric series is trying to provide a genuine historical spin on our obsession with potential visitors from outer space. Project Blue Book, which premiered Tuesday night, is based on the eponymous studies by the United States Air Force that began in the 1950s, spearheaded by astronomer J. Allen Hynek (played in the series by Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen). Hynek is, by all accounts, the forefather of credible scientific research into UFOs and created the “close encounter” system of classifying potential extraterrestrial encounters. (Among other things, Hynek also consulted on Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)
Hynek and his decade’s worth of work with the Air Force is a compelling subject for a historical drama. Look no further than The X-Files—the gold standard for extraterrestrial-based storytelling on the small screen, and one of the defining dramas of the ’90s—to see what Project Blue Book strives to be under the right execution. Indeed, from the onset the History series goes for a Mulder-Scully dynamic—albeit without the potential for a romantic subplot, unless future episodes head in a very different direction—by pairing the open-minded Hynek with a skeptical counterpart in Captain Michael Quinn (played by Michael Malarkey, and not based on an actual person). And like The X-Files, the show is structured to follow a different extraterrestrial case of the week to keep the proceedings moving—with the caveat that the events Hynek and Quinn investigate are all based on real incidents from the ’50s onward.
Again, it’s great subject matter; I’m not sure whether Project Blue Book necessarily wants me to keep pausing the show to dive into a Google wormhole about the Lubbock light show in Texas or a mysterious fighter pilot incident in North Dakota, but it proves the series is founded on some fascinating historical material. The problem with Project Blue Book is, perhaps, another paradox for the History channel: The show doesn’t know whether to lean toward the cold, hard historical facts or the fictional grandeur of unequivocally stating that aliens are real, and is instead stuck somewhere in an unsatisfying middle.
Ideally, Project Blue Book could either be a documentary series—there’s enough material and theories to build around the incidents, even if Hynek is no longer alive to provide new commentary—or a highly fictional drama that jumps a bit off the deep end with actual aliens for the sake of campier entertainment. (Admit it: You’d be so down to watch a show that pits Littlefinger against a bunch of aliens and the government.) As it stands, however, Project Blue Book is a pale imitator of prestige TV like The Americans trying to marry America’s extraterrestrial hysteria with Cold War–era anxieties about Russia and the threat of Communism, without providing the kind of nuance this subtext requires. The Cold War stuff is mostly there to allow the characters to sow suspicion over whether the lights in the sky are really thanks to visitors from another planet—or just another Red scare tactic.
What, exactly, would be the best approach for History to take with Project Blue Book? A more fictional, campier drama would probably elicit higher ratings and earn the kind of success that’s allowed Ancient Aliens’ absurd, objectively stupid high jinks to thrive for more than a decade. But wouldn’t an actual, grounded docuseries about Hynek’s research ideally reflect the History channel’s ethos? Regardless, what History probably doesn’t need is its own half-hearted swing at prestige-inclined television; the current landscape has plenty—and arguably, too much—of that already. If it’s becoming harder for even good-to-great shows to maintain a sizable viewing audience, why should anyone care about a solid but unspectacular historical drama from a channel that’s rarely associated with that kind of material? Perhaps it would be best for everyone involved if Project Blue Book were locked away in a vault, like many a mysterious aircraft could very well be right now in Area 51.
Should You Watch It? Not unless you are getting really tired of rewatching old X-Files episodes on Hulu, or are such a sci-fi devotee that you don’t mind sitting through a by-the-numbers extraterrestrial procedural. If nothing else, the post-episode Google searches on the show’s real-life incidents are excellent reading and will take up a lot of your time.
Does Aidan Gillen Hide His Irish Accent Well As an American Astronomer? My man’s accent is too thick to be contained—so, um, no. Much like his vaunted, highly memeable cameo in The Dark Knight Rises as “C.I.A.,” you can hear the Irish poking out with every syllable.
What Is the Most X-Files Moment of Project Blue Book? Other than the Scully-Mulder dynamic, probably whenever a character flirts with saying “the truth is out there.” (For example: “The truth is like the sun, the closer you look the more it blinds” and “Our job is to find the truth.”)