There are three things I love in this world: conspiracies, SciFi and buddy shows. History Channel’s Project Blue Book checks off all three boxes with a bonus atomic era setting that makes it pretty much everything I’ve ever wished for in a TV show.
The series was “inspired by” the tales of real-life astrophysicist J. Allen Hynek and his work with the real Project Blue Book. Back in the early 1950’s, Hynek was called in to help deal with a sudden rise in UFO sightings that were plaguing the nation. Why? Because when weird things happen, people panic and when people panic (according to our own Captain Quinn) “communication lines jam, police can’t do their job and the border patrol literally chases the moon.” Bringing in a learned and respected authority figure to prove to the world that it’s all just — geese, planes, delirium – seems like a great idea. Especially when there is a real threat of nuclear war hanging in the air.
Only one problem, it seems that maybe one, or two, or two dozen sightings might be the real thing.
Every episode of Project Blue Book is based, however loosely, on an actual case which adds an extra layer of spooky to the series. But this is a drama not a documentary, so don’t expect the facts and nothing but the facts. And can I say – thank you for that. It’s not that our history with unidentified flying objects isn’t interesting but there are only so many times you can visit the ‘I saw lights in the sky’ well before it runs dry.
To keep viewers coming back week after week, History’s Project Blue Book has developed a high-level conspiracy arc that includes mind control experiments, secret labs and a few bits of alien technology that we may or may not be using correctly.
The story begins with Air Force pilot Fuller taking a few liberties in the air. He buzzes a local football game in support of his team then suddenly he’s overwhelmed by fast moving balls of light that, according to him, take control of his plane. They communicate with him through a song – one of my favorites – How High the Moon. As Fuller crashes to Earth (don’t worry, he survives), we jump to a top secret meeting at the Pentagon. But the boys in blue aren’t making battle plans, they’re watching The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Hollywood is controlling the narrative and it’s making the government look bad. Secretary of Defense Fairchild is worried that the more they try to bury the story, the bigger the chance of it coming back to bite them all.
Enter General Harding (played with great confidence and smarm by Neal McDonough) who believes in the power of smoke and mirrors. For the moment, the government is willing to try it his way – which always makes me wonder if Harding has more than just a plan. At times it seems like he’s got something on Fairchild, something so damaging that a man who is his superior is willing to let him do it his way.
I’m glad he gets to do it his way because otherwise, there would be no show.
Time to introduce our heroes, starting with stalwart Captain Michael Quinn (Michael Malarkey from The Vampire Diaries). He’s going on ten years in the service. A fighter pilot in the war who – we will come to find out – has had some iffy experiences that surely have shaped the man he is when we meet him.
He’s been promised a prestigious post in Washington DC if he agrees to spend a little time in Ohio running the Project Blue Book team. Quinn doesn’t do anything half-way. He’s decked out the office with a wall of weird and has been checking the “nope” boxes on every case to come his way. Just following orders. Good boy but it’s not enough. Quinn needs a partner. An “egg-head” who can deliver a plausible, scientific explanation for all the mayhem in the skies. One thing though, Quinn has to use his talent for persuasion to get the man to agree.
Don’t worry, Quinn’s got it covered.
Apparently, they filmed a scene with Quinn going to meet Hynek at the university where he works. A tiny bit of this made it into a promo for the show’s debut in Australia. Quinn flashes his most charming smile at Hynek and says “you’re coming with me”. Sadly, this is NOT in the aired version of the show. What we get is Hynek at the Blue Book office trying to say no to the good Captain.
Good try, doc but nobody puts Quinn in a corner. He uses his psychology studies along with some military training that we’ll learn more about later, to use Hynek’s own curiosity and pride against him. In the end, Hynek agrees to investigate this ONE case. Yeah, right. We all know better.
I really like the recruiting scene. At this point, Quinn is totally convinced that every sighting is a phony but he’s not calling people liars. The war is still fresh in everyone’s minds and now kids are doing duck and cover drills in school – it’s a scary time. Something I don’t think we fully appreciate these days.
This is the early 1950’s. Suburban homes have television but much of the US is still relying on the radio and the town gossip for their news. Technology is at a tipping point so it’s just as easy to believe that a hovering craft is of alien origin than to believe we’ve invented it in secret. Look at what Oppenheimer and his team did at Los Alamos. They built a bomb that could have destroyed the whole world and still managed to keep it a secret for years.
Back to the story. Hynek goes home to tell his family that he’s taking on this new job and we get to meet Mimi Hynek (Laura Mennell) and their young son Joel (Nicholas Holmes who once played a young Norman Bates in Bates Motel).
The highlight of this scene is when Allen explains that proving UFO’s aren’t real (seems hard to prove something DOESN’T exist, but okay) might bring him the kind of recognition as a scientist that he’s always wanted. He desperately wants people to see the world as he does. To understand the power of the stars and the beauty of a night sky. It’s very compelling.
It’s time to jump into the fire and we quickly see how things are going to go down from here on in. Quinn is the lead. He does all the talking. Hynek is there to observe and agree. Plausible explanation. Sign the report. Move on.
Yeah. That’s not going to work.
The boys split up when they get to the airplane hangar. Quinn sits down with Fuller and gently tries to get him to admit that might have made the whole thing up to cover up his break in protocol. No. The kid is sticking to his story.
Meanwhile, Hynek checks out the rip the airplane’s wing, the lingering crackle of radioactivity and he even slips into the cockpit to get a feel for it. Portents of things to come.
Quinn is pretty sure he knows what Fuller ran into in the sky. It was a weather balloon and not a UFO.
A what? That’s right. Up until this point in time (in real history), the term UFO wasn’t even being used. It’s one of Professor Hynek’s linguistic inventions like the close encounters scale – which we’ll get to in another episode.
For short, UFO. Snappy.
Sure says, Quinn, anything that cuts down on the time it takes to type up the report. And he does mean type. No computers, people!
Quinn takes Hynek (and us) out to see the ghostly glowing orb that is a weather balloon and it’s easy to see how Fuller could mistake such a craft for something more otherworldly. But Hynek isn’t convinced.
Which leads us to another favorite scene: the diner.
Hynek spends his time scribbling calculations on napkins while Quinn eats pie and has a conversation with himself. Then the Captain confidently convinces the locals that there are no aliens in Fargo right now – maybe oddly, maybe on purpose – stops to select a song on the jukebox. How High the Moon.
The scene sets up a scenario that will reoccur throughout the series – Quinn ready to stamp the file closed while Hynek wants definitive proof before signing his name to the page. In this case, it means recreating Fuller’s flight.
“You want to play chicken at 3G’s just to prove a point?” Quinn agrees but the annoyance in his tone should make Hynek think twice about jumping into a fighter plane with this guy. Actually, the look on Hynek’s face as the scene fades to black makes it clear that he just stepped way outside of his comfort zone.
(There is a second storyline going on during this episode involving Hynek’s wife and her new friends Susie, but we’ll get to that later. Let’s stick with one storyline at a time.)
The locker room scene that follows is one of the most talked about among the fans because of two quick moments. To the reporter who said there was no chemistry between Malarkey and Gillen – have you watched this scene?
It begins with Hynek struggling to zip up his flight suit while Quinn casually makes it known that they’re in for a rough ride. When he sees the struggle, he lays on his best cocky pilot attitude while easily zipping up Hynek’s flight suit for him. The professor’s reaction is like that of a 12-year-old boy who just made a fool of himself in front of 12-year-old girl. Quinn slips on a pair of aviator frames that make him look even more Top Gun while Hynek counters with the announcement that he’s already memorized Fuller’s account so they can retrace his steps.
“Are you sure you’re not the alien?” asks Quinn.
“Well, maybe I am,” says Hynek with a quirky smile and an eyebrow waggle that makes Quinn laugh.
That exchange is the first to land in the fannish top ten. What’s next? I’ll give you a hint. One has to do with Hynek’s refusal to stay in the car and another involves bacon.
Stay tuned for part two of my overly lengthy review of The Fuller Dogfight. Coming soon!