“Ezekiel saw the wheel. This is the wheel he said he saw. These are Unidentified Flying Objects that people say they are seeing now. Are they proof that we are being visited by civilizations from other stars? Or just what are they? The United States Air Force began an investigation of this high strangeness in a search for the truth. What you are about to see is part of that 20-year search.”
So begins producer Jack Webb’s (Dragnet) voice-over and the opening montage of UFO sketches on the new show, Project UFO. Premiering on February 19, 1978, as a mid-season replacement, this fictionalized anthology of some of the strangest cases in the USAF’s Project Blue Book, could not have come at a better time. In 1978, NBC was in third place and desperate for a hit show. Project UFO was the network’s fledgling entry into the current Science Fiction trend. Close Encounters of the Third Kind was number one at the box office that week, and with it came a resurgence in UFO mania. Talk about perfect timing!
Each episode featured one investigation inspired by an actual account from the real Project Blue Book. The “just the facts, ma’am” style is realistic as far as Air Force investigations go. Major Jake Gatlin (William Jordan) and Staff Sgt Harry Fritz (Caskey Swain) traveled across America investigating reports by ordinary citizens who experienced a strange encounter with a flying saucer. Gathering physical evidence from these sightings involved no whiz-bang gadgets. The show stuck to the actual tools used by the Air Force. Investigators simply charted the path of alleged objects and took soil samples at alleged landing sites. The fanciest tool was the penetrometer, used for testing soil compaction done by heavy objects, like landing prints left by a supposed landed flying saucer.
If this sounds dead boring, taken by itself, it is. Special effects are primitive, limited to blue screen chromakey and miniatures. If the UFOs look like cobbled-together models, that’s what they are. Brick Price Movie Miniatures (now Wonderworks) raided several hobby shops and discount department stores to build the UFO miniatures. Strangely enough, good storytelling, suspense, and giving viewers a glimpse of the “alien of the week” kept viewers on the edge of their seats. (Sorry, no little grey aliens. They didn’t enter UFO mythology until 1980.)
For such a low-key, low-budget show, Project UFO did surprisingly well for a mid-season replacement. Finishing the first season as number 19 in the Nielson top 20, NBC ordered a second season. As networks usually do, several changes were made, which helped doom the show.
First, Jack Webb’s eerie over-voice and the Blue Book UFO montage vanished. A new introduction using the cobbled-together miniatures started the episodes. For reasons unknown, Major Gatlin became Captain Ben Ryan, with Edward Winter cast in the part. Winter, already well known as the bumbling, paranoid Colonel Flagg on M*A*S*H, added nothing to the show. Though some episodes still referenced actual Blue Book cases, scripts became more fanciful. The second season settled into a perplexing pattern where, even though our intrepid Air Force investigators still found a logical explanation for the wildest sightings, the last five minutes became a negating reveal – aliens were behind the encounter after all. Worst, though, was NBC’s decision to move the show from its Sunday night spot to Thursday. The move to 8 PM Thursday pitted Project UFO against ABC’s runaway hit, Mork and Mindy. Model kit UFOs didn’t have a chance against the spontaneous comedy of Robin Williams. Though the show retained its loyal core following, ratings fell, and NBC canceled the series after 13 episodes.
Given the budget and scope of the show, casting is good. Caskey Swain is perfect as Sgt. Harry Fritz. He’s an absolute natural and acts precisely as any airman I’ve ever encountered in real life. Each officer is as wooden as a real officer while investigating people, but William Jordan’s Major Gatlin at least is likable. My unsung hero is Aldine King’s Libby. Libby is excellent as the clerk typist who kept these guys on schedule while handling the phones and typing all those reports in triplicate on a manual typewriter. She adds a dash of personality. I bet Libby is a Clerk Typist V, as OPM called back the job in 1978. A Clerk Typist V is the necessary cog keeping the wheels of the world’s greatest military machine turning with letter-perfect reports sent to a disinterested Lt. Colonel somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon. I’ll grant you Libby is a G.S. 5-step 5, taking grad courses at night at Wright-Patterson, just waiting to blow that hamburger stand of a job, transfer to D.C., and into a position with an alphabet agency. Her character needs to be incorporated more. That she vanished for most of the second season makes me sad.
Let’s face it – for all its whispered infamy, the actual Project Blue Book was a dull assignment. Instead of captured UFOs and aliens in the freezer, the sad reality is Blue Book consisted of a storeroom full of files. Hapless airmen from Wright-Patt’s Foreign Technology Division sallied forth and interviewed a cross-section of Americans. From wild-eyed kooks, true believers, and confused observers to little old ladies in tennis shoes, they reported and analyzed thousands of observations of misidentified terrestrial craft, missile/space tests, hallucinations, hoaxes, and meteor showers. Upon retirement, the officer in charge of the project published a blistering summary and called it a huge waste of the taxpayer’s money. On the upside, selected airmen at least got a TDY and the hell out of Ohio at the taxpayer’s expense. But it was not an exciting assignment. The fact that Jack Webb in his last TV series took something so plodding and made it an enjoyable, believable, one-hour-long weekly show deserves some recognition.
Viewing 44 years later, I still find the show watchable. The special effects are terrible, but they do impart some 1970s charm. The second season is still clunky, marred by the alien reveal at the end. It makes the viewer feel like they’ve wasted the previous 55 minutes. There were never any high-profile special guest stars. However, Leif Erickson, Marta Kristen, Dr. Joyce Brothers, and Robby the Robot do make appearances.
Sadly, due to a copyright dispute, no official DVDs and no rebroadcast rights are available. The only existing episodes are on YouTube. Here are my picks from Season One:
- Episode One-“Sighting 4001: The Washington D.C. Incident.” Loosely based on the Washington DC UFO incident and the Mantell UFO incident.
- Episode Three – “Sighting 4003: The Fremont Incident.” Based on the real-life Lonnie Zamora incident. We get a lot of Libby in this episode! Yaayy!
- Episode Four – Sighting 4004: The Howard Crossing Incident.” Based on the Hopkinsville Goblins/Kelly’s Little Men incident. One of my favorite UFO stories and a real-life mystery. Guest stars Leif Erickson.
- Episode Ten -“Sighting 4010: The Waterford Incident.” Based very loosely on the Cisco Grove UFO Encounter from 1964. Guest stars Dr. Joyce Brothers and Robby the Robot.
- Episode Eleven -“Sighting 4011: The Doll House Incident.” Based on the Joe Simonton and the pancakes from space UFO sighting. Guest stars Marta Kristen.