Three episodes into Project Blue Book, the frazzled, bespectacled astrophysicist Dr. J. Allen Hynek (Aidan Gillen) scribbles “possible government cover-up” into a notebook and then underlines it twice. This is the subtly of storytelling we’re dealing with in History’s “based on true events” 1950s-set UFO thriller that takes off as clunky as a Sputnik satellite and never quite reaches orbit. Project Blue Book underlines everything twice; character motives, plot, subplots, pseudo-science, mysteries, all repeated over and over to create a deep mystery show that also somehow holds your hand through the proceedings. It’s not all bad; there are some out-of-this-world performances happening underneath this show’s period-appropriate fedoras, and for a History Channel original, the production value is consistently sleek and impressive over the six episodes I saw. But ultimately, the series is much less a new X-Files and more something you can throw on the “next” pile.
Project Blue Book was very much a real series of scientific investigations carried out by the U.S. government between 1952 and 1970, and Dr. J. Allen Hynek really did serve as the project’s scientific consultant. Hynek literally wrote the book on unidentified flying objects; his 1972 work, “The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry,” coined the system that classifies different kinds of “close encounters” with unexplained phenomena from the night sky. You may be familiar with the Third Kind, which Steven Spielberg notably turned into a pretty influential sci-fi film. (Hynek served as a consultant on that, too.) Over its 18 year run, Project Blue Book collected more than 12,600 UFO sighting reports, all so that the United States could figure out just what was going on with all those lights in the sky and whether they posed a threat to the human (see: American) race. The whole thing is both fascinating and FOIA’d, so you can read most of it here.
That’s also the issue with the TV series. The “true events” are fascinating, and you often find yourself wishing the creative team—which includes first-time series creator David O’Leary and executive-producer Robert Zemeckis—had stuck closer to the can’t-make-this-up truth than the sensationalism of something closer to, say, that dude with the hair from Ancient Aliens. The episodes of Project Blue Book that use real-life reports of UFO sightings—”The Fuller Dogfight,” “The Flatwoods Monster,” and “The Lubbock Lights“—are the show at its most interesting. It becomes close to Mindhunter, but for aliens instead of serial killers, as the eccentric, eager scientist Hynek and his skeptical, grizzled military partner Captain Michael Quinn (Michael Malarkey) tour the U.S. and debunking wild theories while also introducing a rough draft of a concept most American minds simply weren’t ready for yet. (“Hasn’t caught on yet,” Quinn says at one point, referring to the term “UFO.”) The potential here is great—there are more than 12,600 cases-of-the-week to choose from!—and the writing team, especially O’Leary and Thania St. John on Episode 4, “Operation Paperclip,” do a deft job balancing the general Red Panic paranoia that hung over everything in the 1950s, with the innate uncertainty over whether Hynek and Quinn are caught in something larger.
But Project Blue Book wants to have its conspiracy and solve it, too. The overall “mythology” of the series makes it clear that there is, in fact, a government conspiracy going on, and you better believe it goes all the way up to the Oval Office. Neal McDonough (Legends of Tomorrow) and Michael Harney (Orange is the New Black) co-star as two high-ranking generals tasked with making sure Hynek and Quinn tell the public the “truth” about UFOs, but not the truth truth. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this overarching plotline, there’s just not a single part of it that hasn’t already been seen in any Area 51-esque story worth a tinfoil hat. Shady fedora-wearing stalker smoking mysteriously in the shadows? Check. The crackpot who says vague things like “You have no idea” and “We’re all in so much danger” without ever elaborating? Oh, hell yeah. Is there a blonde Russian spy with a radio in her basement posing as an American housewife? да, comrade. Because Project Blue Book wants to sustain intrigue while using these cliches as a backdrop, the scripts, again, have to work overtime to explain and re-explain what exactly Hynek is supposed to be doing. UFOs aren’t real. But they are. Or are they?
And hey, that might be extremely your jam. As a conspiracy-lite slice of nothingness, Project Blue Book is fun for anyone who enjoys the jukebox trappings of Eisenhower’s America—brought to wonderful life through costume and set design—mixed with the loonier parts of Reddit. Gillan, who cycled through roughly a dozen accents over seven seasons on Game of Thrones, still hasn’t quite mastered an American tempo, but he does put in a marvelous performance here all the same. Hynek is the type of character that other characters call “eccentric” but who is actually just smart, so it’s up to Gillan to instill that college-prof peculiarity into the role. He does so quietly but effectively, using averted glances and near-whisper line readings to demonstrate a sort of low-key, bookish confidence. It’s endearing, and a shame that the rest of the cast—especially Laura Mennell, who only gets to stop being Hynek’s ever-concerned wife after six episodes—largely fades into the background. Harney is a proven MVP bit player and McDonough is one of TV’s finest scenery chewers, but they’re both mostly confined here to making threats from the same military base back room. Always game, they both make the most of it.
But overall, the show squanders a fantastic, real-life premise by trying to patch together its own flimsy mythology. Sometimes there’s a deeper meaning behind those lights in the sky. Sometimes it’s just lights. Project Blue Book is just lights. Case closed.
Project Blue Book premieres Tuesday, January 8 on History.