Project Blue Book (PBB) was a string of studies conducted by the United States Air Force centered on the phenomenon of unidentified flying objects (UFOs). It’s also the name of a new HISTORY Channel series starring Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones; The Wire) as Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a real-life astronomer enlisted by the military to serve as a scientific advisor to the project.
The late Hynek served in that role throughout the duration of PBB, right until it was discontinued in 1969. As Hynek was often paired with a high-ranking military counterpart throughout the 17 years of PBB, so it goes in the series, where Michael Malarkey (The Vampire Diaries) serves in that role as Captain Michael Quinn. Not unlike its factual counterpart, the series portrays the military as wanting to control the public narrative of these emerging happenings at a time of Cold War paranoia. While Hynek was brought in to serve as a respected scientific authority, the Air Force was more interested in debunking any claims and chalking up sightings to rational explanations.
Show creator, co-executive producer and writer David O’Leary grew up on the Upper West Side obsessed by UFOs. So when he saw a 2005 documentary Peter Jennings hosted that shined a light on Hynek, the seed of inspiration was planted for the current series.
“I credit a 2005 documentary that the late journalist Peter Jennings hosted called Peter Jennings Reporting—UFOs: Seeing Is Believing. It was one of the last things he did before he passed away. It was America’s very bizarre and strange history with UFOs and in that documentary, he had a whole section on Allen Hynek. That was my first realization that the chief scientific advisor for Project Blue Book, who stuck with the program for its tenure, shifted sides and went from skeptic to believer,” O’Leary explained.
“His was a trained eye hired to give celestial explanations for what people were seeing in the sky. And he completely shifted sides. He not only came to believe that UFOs represented genuine history worthy of further study and what he referred to as ‘an intelligence in our skies that we have yet to understand,’ but he was also pretty convinced that the Air Force knew that. He also felt Project Blue Book itself was a campaign used to control misinformation and hide the truth about UFOs. For me, that was just a fascinating character on which to focus a story around.”
Providing the counterbalance to the Hynek and Quinn characters in this 10-episode first season is a pair of high-ranking brass, Generals James Harding and Hugh Valentine, played by Neal McDonough (Justified; Arrow) and Michael Harney (Orange Is the New Black) respectively. The duo operate with a personal agenda focused on controlling public perception of UFOs in the interest of national security. A subplot involving Russian operatives gives credence to the threat presented by the country’s Communist nemesis.
For McDonough, it’s a role he’s embraced with full vigor. In a career that’s found him playing a string of military characters from First Lieutenant Buck Compton in Band of Brothers and Captain Dave Severance in Flags of Our Fathers to Chief Petty Officer Jack Skinner in The Guardian, Harding has quickly become near and dear to his heart. Based on the real-life Nathan Farragut Twining, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, McDonough’s character is written with depth and complexity, just the way the Massachusetts native who plays him likes it.
“I love, love, love, love playing this character, where you at first think he’s a villain. There’s this wonderful chess scene we have in one episode that serves as a first look inside of Harding where you realize that he’s actually a good guy and is a patriot doing his job as best he can. That’s what I love about this character and where it’s going to go in the future,” McDonough said. “It’s nice to find characters where you think they’re going one way and they throw a curve ball and you realize that he’s not the villain that we thought he was going to be and he’s actually a human being underneath all those characters. The real-life character he’s based on was someone named Twining, who was the youngest general in Air Force history and in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His role was that he was going to do the best that he could for the United States government and citizenry and that’s what he did and he wasn’t going to waffle. He was fearless in that approach. That’s why all those presidents and people loved Twining so much—he did what most people didn’t have the guts to do. It’s a really great character to jump into and I’m blessed beyond belief to play this character.”
Part of what makes Project Blue Book resonate so convincingly is the fact that each episode draws from actual case files blending UFO theories with documented occurrences that include the Flatwoods Monster incident that took place in West Virginia, the Gorman Dogfight of Fargo, ND, and the Chiles-Whitted UFO Incident of Montgomery, AL.
Furthermore, each episode ends with a one-minute synopsis of the actual case, with a lengthier version of it found on the HISTORY Channel website. For O’Leary, maintaining a balance between the world of science and an explanation of the unknown is what fuels the quality of his series.
“Every week, we try to explore a slightly different angle of the phenomenon. And obviously, not every case can be something we know or have it clearly be something from another world because we don’t understand it,” he said. “We wanted to be true to the fact that sometimes, incredible accounts would yield a misidentification or an Earthly explanation or a hoax. We try to stay true to that idea, while of course, keeping the mystery going.”
Combined with the writing and the quality of the cast, that aspect of the show is what makes it so appealing for McDonough, who grew up staring at star-filled skies during Massachusetts winters near Cape Cod.
“For me, life is a mystery and that’s the great part about it. Nothing is black and white. There is so much stuff out there that we can’t fathom as human beings. I love that aspect of life and this show really brings that out. It’s not by luck that Project Blue Book is such a massive hit,” McDonough said with pride. “It’s that people love to watch TV and to think. Here’s all the drugs and bad stuff in the world on television. I don’t want to watch that. What I want to watch is, ‘What else is out there and how can we be better human beings because of it?’ That’s great television. As corny as it sounds, that’s what I want to watch and Neal McDonough gets to be a part of that show.”
With the season one finale having aired on March 12 and season two already a go, O’Leary promises more twists and turns for viewers looking to go down this extraterrestrial path.
“We pull cases from in and around that [early 1950s] era. We try to be true to what was going on historically at that time,” he explained. “Now we’re moving forward and with a pick up on a season two, that allows us to jump forward a little in time to the mid-1950s. What’s cool is that there are some great cases out there that we’d love to do and figure that we’ll do next season. We’re definitely gearing up and we want to keep the momentum going. We have a clear vision for what we want to do, so we’re excited about that.”
Project Blue Book airs on the HISTORY Channel. Check local listings.
Read about David O’Leary’s favorite sci-fi films and Neal McDonough’s favorite movie roles.