Aliens, UFOs, and two government agents investigating the paranormal amid a backdrop of shadowy conspiracies… What a novel idea for a TV show! How has nobody thought of this before?
Project Blue Book, a new sci-fi mystery procedural produced by Robert Zemeckis for the History network, is such a blatant, by-the-numbers clone of The X Files that I fully expect Chris Carter to sue for copyright infringement. The new series has only a few things to distinguish itself from its inspiration: It’s set in the 1940s, the two leads are both men, and the story is allegedly based on a real investigation that the U.S. Air Force conducted into UFOs. Don’t give that last part too much credence. From watching the premiere episode, it’s abundantly clear that the TV version is 100% fictionalized.
Aidan Gillen, recently departed from Game of Thrones, stars as Dr. Allen Hynek, a college science professor with some pretty far-out theories. After an Air Force pilot claims to have engaged in a dogfight with a flying saucer in the skies above Fargo, hard-nosed Gen. Harding (Neal McDonough, doing the Neal McDonough thing he always does) assigns Capt. Michael Quinn (Michael Malarkey from The Vampire Diaries) to recruit Hynek for a scientific investigation into the incident. The general makes it very plain that the purpose of the investigation is to debunk the story about aliens, in the hopes that the involvement of an independent scientist will be enough to quell a public on the verge of mass hysteria. Whether the aliens might turn out to be real (and Harding seems to already know that they are) is irrelevant. The American citizenry must be reassured that they aren’t.
Believing that this may finally be an opportunity to achieve recognition for his work, Hynek agrees, and travels to North Dakota with Quinn. At first, he fully expects to find a logical explanation for what the pilot experienced, and he intends to use hard scientific data to prove as much. However, the more he looks into it, the more he starts to embrace the possibility of something fantastical happening, even as Quinn tries very hard to steer him toward a cover story that the flying saucer was just a weather balloon. In the episode’s big action set-piece, Quinn takes Hynek up in a fighter plane to reproduce the details of the pilot’s alleged encounter, and winds up crashing the plane. (They both survive, of course.)
In other developments, Hynek finds himself stalked by mysterious men in black suits and hats, one of whom leads him on a car chase to an abandoned theme park, at which he discovers a bunch of weird clues involving a film strip, strange geometric shapes, and an audio recording of number patterns.
Back at home, Hynek’s wife (Laura Mennell from Haven and The Man in the High Castle) meets a new friend who turns out to be spying on their family.
At the end of the episode, the original pilot is drugged and dragged off by bad men who appear to be working for Gen. Harding.
Episode Verdict / Grade: C
Let me take a moment to express how delightful it is that one of the stars of the series is actually named “Malarkey.” The show certainly has a bunch of that.
Robert Zemeckis is not having a very good year, is he? His Welcome to Marwen is a box office flop and one of the most critically-drubbed movies of the winter season, and I doubt Project Blue Book will fare much better on television. Although competently produced, it’s simply not very good. The whole thing is very dull and derivative, and none of the characters are at all compelling. Gillen is fine (even if his American accent isn’t great), but the role is very thinly-sketched. Malarkey, meanwhile, is a total non-presence on screen.
The story is a shameless retread of The X Files with a touch of Close Encounters thrown in. (Fun trivia: The real Allen Hynek actually appears in Close Encounters, playing himself.) Nothing about it is convincing, least of all its pretense of being based on real events.