“Project Blue Book,” which premieres Tuesday on History, is a casually enjoyable period science-fiction series, easy enough to describe as a “fact-based” cousin of “The X-Files,” minus that series’ winking self-awareness. It is a little dumb in a way that might or might not be intentional — it’s hard to tell — and too predictable to be really suspenseful, even when nominally suspenseful things are happening. But this means that watching is also a relatively stress-free experience, and there is something to be said for that.
Astronomer Dr. J. Allen Hynek, played by Aidan Gillen — Littlefinger on “Game of Thrones” and most recently Queen manager John Reid in “Bohemian Rhapsody” — was a real person of history who in fact was hired by the United States Air Force as a consultant to Project Blue Book, its investigation into unidentified flying objects. (Commenced in 1952, it was actually the third such program, after Project Sign, begun in 1947, and Project Grudge, in 1948, I have learned in my short time as a researcher into this subject; Hynek was attached there as well.) Many years later, he originated the “encounter” scale made familiar by Steven Spielberg in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” in which film Hynek has a brief cameo. You will find some economical echoes of that movie here.
“I am going to use science to reveal the truth,” Hynek declares. “While the truth might be sometimes less entertaining than unfounded speculation, there’s safety in the certitude it provides.” The key phrase here is, “the truth might be sometimes less entertaining than unfounded speculation” — unfounded speculation being the very foundation of this narrative enterprise.
Inevitably, Hynek gets a partner/minder, Air Force Capt. Michael Quinn (Michael Malarkey, “The Vampire Diaries”), whom History press materials charmingly describes as “debonair.” They are vaguely, though inconsistently reminiscent of Scully and Mulder in their contrasting, not always conflicting, attitudes and aims.
Quinn: “It’s our job to close the case, that’s all.”
Hynek: “It’s our job to find the truth.” Which is, you know, out there.
It’s a serial with an episodic bent, each installment drawing its substance from an actual reported sighting of some sort of inexplicable something — the Gorman (here the Fuller) Dogfight, the Lubbock Lights, the Flatwoods Monster — that Hynek and Quinn are dispatched to assess as they quarrel their way into long-arc weirdness and conspiracy. Men in hats, that staple of modern sci-fi, lurk mysteriously.
We are reminded often enough that Hynek is a “genius” (he certainly seems to think so, though perhaps less so as time goes on), who as a child read the whole Encyclopedia Britannica — twice! He is handy with a sextant, can call an owl and, by this telling, at least, was the first person to think of using the abbreviation “UFO.”
Quinn: “I’m sorry, UF – what?
Hynek: “Unidentified Flying Object. I’m simply condensing the terminology that you’ve been using, added my own touch.” The Hynek touch.
The professor has a wife, Mimi (Laura Mennell), and a son waiting back in Columbus, Ohio, with subplots of their own. “Allen and I used to rhumba down at the rec center,” Mimi tells her new friend Susie (Ksenia Solo), “but he works so much now.”
You will have guessed even before Susie opens her mouth that she is not what she seems, and quite possibly what she actually is. Let’s just say if you really miss “The Americans,” you may find some comfort here.
In one memorable passage, Susie and Mimi take in a “beatnik joint” where, Mimi has heard, “they read poetry, serve cocktails in soup cans and smoke reefer.” When they arrive, there are black musicians and men kissing (one is dressed in a French sailor’s shirt, like Marcel Marceau, and wears a beret). Should you care that the term “beatnik” wouldn’t be coined until several years later? (“Database” also makes a premature appearance. ) Oh, probably not, any more than you should care that we get a Lubbock, Texas, that is hilly and wet and full of trees.
The cast is good — it’s always nice to see Neal McDonough, here playing a general with an agenda — but everything is overplayed at least a little, perhaps to give it some of that old-time B-picture gusto. (Practically the first thing we see in the series is a clip from “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”) Or perhaps not; if the creators of “Project Blue Book” (big-time film director Robert Zemeckis is an executive producer) take this material less than very seriously, they do not signal it. But I can’t picture anyone writing a line like “I told you boys it’s a local issue; we don’t need your kind here” without inwardly snickering.
Personally, I’d like a series in which heroic figures went around debunking paranormal phenomenon, though in line with Hynek’s aforementioned observation, the market for that might be limited. “Project Blue Book” plays coy for a while — six episodes out of 10 were available for review — as to whether the Powers That Be want a real investigation into the flying saucer phenomenon or just to debunk them because they aren’t real — or to debunk them because they are. It’s no more likely that “Project Blue Book” will burst that extraterrestrial bubble than the point of “Miracle on 34th Street” would be that there is no such thing as Santa Claus.
If aliens have been buzzing this planet for 70 years, they have evidently suspected we are not worth seriously bothering with. Unless of course they are already living secretly among us — in which case they know we’re not worth bothering with.
‘Project Blue Book’
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd