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J.J. Abrams' new docu-series 'UFO' reopens the curious case of the 1997 Phoenix Lights: Inside the true story

By Josh Weiss

The truth is out there, and executive producer J.J. Abrams will be serving it up to us across four episodes of a new Showtime docuseries entitled — what else? — UFO. There's no better name for it.

Debuting this Sunday, Aug. 8, the show takes a deep dive into our collective obsession with the notion of alien life and the alleged cover-ups orchestrated by the U.S. government, private sector, and military to keep evidence of life beyond this planet under wraps. 

Partly inspired by a 2017 New York Times article that blew the whistle on the Pentagon's clandestine program of tracking mysterious flying objects, UFO "examines the history of the phenomenon through cultural and political touchpoints, including shocking testimony from eyewitnesses across the country," reads the official synopsis provided by Showtime.

"As the conversation grows more bizarre and reaches the mainstream by virtue of credible investigations into alien encounters, UFO confronts the most enigmatic questions of all: Why do we believe what we believe? And what is the elusive truth beyond this decades-long mystery?"

Where's Dr. Okun when you need him?

Among other things, the first episode of the docuseries takes a compelling deep dive into one of the best-known UFO sightings in the United States: a collective experience that has come to be known as the "Phoenix Lights." Head below for what you need to know about the unexplained event...

Lights in the sky

On the evening of Mar. 13, 1997, several strange and orb-shaped lights mysteriously appeared in the night sky over Phoenix, Arizona. The glowing objects, which moved in a V-shape pattern, were seen by hundreds of eye witnesses, according to Tony Ortega of the Phoenix New Times.

Matthew Hendley (also of the New Times) asserts that "there were two events that night: a 'vee pattern' of lights that flew across the state north-to-south, which crossed Phoenix around 8:30 p.m., and a second set of nine lights that seemed to hover over Phoenix, before apparently disappearing." 

The occurrences took place almost 50 years after the famous "incident" in Roswell, New Mexico that turned the American Southwest into a hotbed of alien-related conspiracy theories. Thankfully, as far as we know, the lights didn't result in any Resident Alien-esque crash landings.

The aftermath

No one in Phoenix could properly explain the source of the lights that night, though an investigation was recommended by City Councilwoman Frances Emma Barwood, who did not witness the lights herself. However, she seemed to be the only person genuinely interested in getting to the heart of the matter, going so far as to ask the late Arizona Senator John McCain to demand a military inquiry.

"I asked if anybody knew what this object was and could we check into it," Barwood remarked in 2017. "I was met by a whole bunch of stares." She added: "After the meeting, one of the City Managers came over to me and said, 'you shouldn't have asked that question.'"

The Luke Air Force Base, which is a little over 20 miles from the capital city, eventually took credit for the lights, stating that they were flares dropped at a high altitude. This did not sit well with witnesses like Dr. Lynne Kitei. "How can flares keep a formation, traverse the entire state and beyond for hours in a rock-solid V?" she asked in 2017.

A 'silly explanation'

Barwood was ridiculed for her suggestion of an investigation, finding herself the subject of a smear campaign that included the illustration of this political cartoon that ran in the Arizona Republic. Fife Symington, who was Arizona governor at the time, made a further mockery of the situation by holding a press conference where his chief of staff walked into view with an over-the-top alien costume.

"This just goes to show that you guys are entirely too serious," the former governor, who was eventually convicted of fraud related to real estate dealings, said to the chuckling reporters.

He would reverse his skeptical attitude a decade later, stating: "I'm a pilot and I know just about every machine that flies. It was bigger than anything that I've ever seen. It remains a great mystery. Other people saw it, responsible people. I don't know why people would ridicule it."

Barwood was not disheartened by the aspersions cast on her character and even ran for the office of Arizona's secretary of state a year after the lights first appeared. Per a Los Angeles Times article published in 1998, her platform involved "getting people to trust their government again. And part of that is getting the military to confess if it was responsible for the lights."

"I would now like to set the record straight," Symington wrote in 2007. "I never meant to ridicule anyone. My office did make inquiries as to the origin of the craft, but to this day they remain unanswered. Eventually the Air Force claimed responsibility stating that they dropped flares."

Like Dr. Kitei, though, he was not satisfied with this answer: "We get explanations that fly in the face of the facts. Explanations like weather balloons, swamp gas, and military flares. I was never happy with the Air Force's silly explanation. There might very well have been military flares in the sky that evening, but what I and hundreds of others saw had nothing to do with that."

The ex-governor explained that he downplayed the lights, so as not to cause a general panic.

Where and how to watch

UFO makes first contact with Showtime this Sunday, Aug. 8, at 9 p.m. ET. Subscribers to the network app will be able to check out all four episodes at 12:01 a.m. ET that evening. If you'd prefer to space out your enjoyment of the limited series, the three remaining installments are also scheduled to air weekly at the same time.

The UFO premiere will be entirely free to watch on YouTube,, and

A co-production between Bad Robot and Zipper Bros. Films, the series boasts the following executive producers: Abrams, Glen Zipper, Mark Monroe, Sean Stuart, Ben Stephenson, Rachel Rusch Rich, and Kevin Lincoln. Maren Domzalski and Paul McGuire are producers. Mark Monroe (Icarus) and Paul Crowder (Riding Giants) directed.