Shadowy Men, Shadowy Planet

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Sometimes the titles are an excuse to link to both the Kids in the Hall themeand the Kids in the Hall opening credits. This is one of those times.)

So it turns out two TV shows appear to have been made for me. Seriously. Shortly (Maybe? Right after Tim Apple‘s finished taking all the swears out?), Apple will debut For All Mankind. Joel Kinnaman! Ronald D. Moore showrunning something other than the Climate Change Denial Cosplay Power Hour! The Russians making it to the moon first and what happens next! I have no idea when I’ll see that because, well, it’s Apple TV. The other one, though, Project Blue Book, is already in motion. And gosh is this my jam.

Project Blue Book was a real thing, the USAF’s probably whitewashed investigation into the UFO phenomena. Doctor J. Allen Hynek was a real person and remains one of the vanishingly small amount of actual scientists to look into UFOlogy as a field and not a snake oil vending machine. His son Joelis a prolific special effects technician who designed the camouflage effect for the Predator by the way. The cases the episodes are based on are real too, the first two episodes dealing with the Gorman (renamed Fuller) Dogfight and the The Flatwoods Monster. In the first, a pilot engaged a UFO in something approximating combat. In the second, a family were first terrified by what they were sure was a downed UFO and second by the enraged townsfolk who refused to believe them.

We’re thrown into this heightened reality through the experiences of Doctor Hynek, played by Aidan Gillen, and Captain Michael Quinn played by Michael Malarkey. Quinn is a WW2 veteran with ambition, drive and a fascination for the UFO flap. He views it as a political stepping stone to a job in DC. His boss, General James Harding (NEAL MCDONOUGH!) is less convinced.

OR IS HE?

So, straight away you’ve got nerd and jock, Mulder and Scully, with Hynek being deeply open minded and Quinn wanting to slap the cuffs on Venus, rubber stamp the swamp gas and move on. Their dynamic is less Mulder and Scully, more Scully and Doggett, which is always a good thing. Especially as it puts the fundamental problem with conspiracy shows front and centre and solves it in a fun way. Your skeptic has to either become a believer or conveniently pass out every time the mile wide UFO with WE BRAKE FOR NO ONE on the bumper flies overhead. Your believer has to be driven and focused but, from time to time, a goddamn idiot. Here that’s avoided by simple deployment of history. This is the top of the field, years before it became a parking spot for grifters and charlatans. Both Quinn and Hynek have open minds because people haven’t lied to them for decades. It feels new and exciting, two people stumbling into a big room with small flashlights and that lifts the show immensely. It also sets up the other two cornerstones that turn it from The X-Files in period dress into something much better. 

The first of those is the show’s willingness to embrace the uncertainty at its core. The Flatwoods Monster is in no way a UFO event and the entire episode is basically Hynek and Quinn violently agreeing with one another about conclusions and arguing about method. That in turn lets the show turn its spotlight onto the America in which these events occurred. There’s a sense of barely contained panic to Flatwood, of tension not quite released. You see it everywhere in the show, from the brittle prosperity of the Hynek family  to Quinn’s deflection of stories about his war record. This is a series about people just learning to breathe out after unimaginable societal trauma and having to face down what may be the next one as it barrels towards them through the night, moving at impossible speeds and making turns no human could survive.

The second is the cast, who are all really good. Ksenia Solo and Laura Mennell are especially great, which given they’re the only women in the show is a massive relief. Mennell plays Mimi Hynek while Solo plays Susie Miller, a new arrival in town who sweeps Mrs Hynek off her feet and seems to be pursuing a romantic relationship with her. Done wrong this would stink the place out but the writing clever plays on the isolating nature of Allen’s new job and the same sense of ennui he and Quinn both feel, albeit in a different key. Mimi wants more, Susie seems to offer it and this element of the show sits very comfortably in the path of Betty Friedan’s contemporary proto-feminist writings, collected recently in The Problem That Has No Name. But as the show also makes clear, there’s more to both the romance and the emancipation than Mimi knows. Susie is an operative, working through her to reach her husband and that’s the one place the show is on dangerous territory. Done wrong, that plot is going to up end everything into a bad Man from UNCLE pastiche. So far, it’s done right.

Malarkey and Quinn are a big part of that. Malarkey does tight, buttoned down and ever so slightly angry officer very well and lets us see him warm to Hynek in real time. The soldier/scientist dichotomy is at the heart of a ton of SF but it’s always nice to see a version where they learn to get out of each other’s way. See also Captain Pike’s ‘Don’t need to know how it works, kids. Just science the thing when I say it.’ relationship with the science department on Star Trek: Discovery this year. Quinn trusts Hynek before he fully notices he does and that’s the foundation of a very compelling, and odd, partnership. It’s helped immensely by Gillen’s take on Hynek too. Diffident but not awkward, calm but honest about his weaknesses, this is Hynek as two-fisted scientist and one of those fists is always holding a pen. He’s open minded and social, a time zone or three away from the ‘HE’S A DIFFICULT GENIUS WHICH IS WHY IT’S OKAY HE’S RUDE!’ bullshit nonsense the show could so easily have leaned on.

All of which combines to make something old new again. The show feels fresh and alert in a way almost no UFO based fiction does and it’s willingness to engage with every aspect of the field is as welcome as it is surprising. Cleverer and better than you probably expected by a good margin, Project Blue Book is on the History Channel now and has already been commissioned for a second season. Here’s hoping they do the Hill case then.