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Exclusive: Inside History's new sci-fi series Project Blue Book with creator David O'Leary

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Jul 16, 2018, 3:30 PM EDT

If you think the world is strange right now, wait until you watch HISTORY's new series, Project Blue Book.

Blue Book chronicles actual U.S. Air Force-sponsored investigations into the reported sightings of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) in America during the 1950s and '60s. Some 12,000+ cases were reported, and close to 10 percent of those cases remain unexplained today. And they're fodder for some great television: documented government investigations on UFO sightings makes it a real-life X-Files, complete with conspiracy theories, Russian spies, and military coverups.

Game of Thrones alum Aidan Gillen plays the main character in the series, Dr. J. Allen Hynek. He's an astrophysicist, family man and UFO skeptic who is appointed as the Chief Scientific Advisor to Project Blue Book.

Hynek encounters a variety of Air Force Generals, who each have their own agenda including his partner, decorated World War II hero, Captain Michael Quinn, played by The Vampire Diaries' Michael Malarkey. Quinn's instincts and impulsive behavior clash with Hynek's scientific mind.

SYFY WIRE visited the set of Project Blue Book in Vancouver for a close-up look at the production and to learn about the series with creator David O'Leary. We are also revealing one of the first images used to promote the series, an image of Hynek and Quinn, that's going to wrap one of the walls of Petco Park by San Diego Comic-Con. We've also got one of the early looks at Gillen as Hynek below.

Project Blue Book Petco Wrap

Project Blue Book Petco Wrap

Setting the stage:

The government began looking into UFO studies under Project Sign at the end of 1947. A year later, it launched Project Grudge, which was more of a debunking operation. But to the dissatisfaction of United States Air Force generals, Project Blue Book replaced Grudge in March 1952 and ran through 1969. History's Project Blue Book begins in the fall of 1951.

"The conception of the show was always like Mad Men, beginning in the 1950s and ending in the late 1960s and every season we would move forward in time a little bit," O'Leary told SYFY WIRE. "All the cases we explore (this season) happened in 1953 and before. By the 10th episode, the Season 1 finale, we're definitely planting seeds for future story, we're closing some loops while opening and expanding other loops."

X-Files came up again as a way to describe the series, but during this earlier era, there was still an innocence to the idea of UFOs. Fortunately, Project Blue Book doesn't have to fill 22 episodes and do odd one-off episodes, like the long-running Fox series. It can stay focused. "Blue Book could go deeper, and not be forced to do vampires. Don't get me wrong, I was a big X-Files fan, but I always thought it was at its best when it felt real and plausible," he said "I love that we're doing 10 episodes in this first season, because we're able to craft one large mystery. Then there's a dark undercurrent of something mysterious, like a David Lynch-ian, tweaky X-Files thing happening underneath. It's like a grounded sci-fi noir."

Real people, real stakes

The historical aspect of the series sets the show apart. These are real people, or amalgamations of many real people, living real lives with real consequences; scientific minds trying their hardest figure things out but finding things beyond the limits of human knowledge. Members of the military acting on morals, others following orders. There are plenty of gray areas explored in Blue Book, where the government wanted to define it as black or white.

Nearly 1,000 cases were left officially unexplained, and even that number is hard to verify as there was pressure to explain cases, whether or not facts could actually do so. O'Leary tells me that the official explanations of many cases never sat right with those investigating it. They didn't sit right with Hynek, who would eventually conclude two things over the course of his time working on the project:

"One, that Bluebook became a misinformation campaign, a government front used to control the public perception to UFOs. And two, something of intelligence of an unknown origin — and he never said 'alien' definitively — but something unearthly, something that is not mankind is flying in our skies."

Aidan Gillen as Dr. J. Allen Hynek encounters alien subject

Aidan Gillen as Dr. J. Allen Hynek encounters alien subject. Photo by Eduardo Araquel / HISTORY.

The work of Dr. J. Allen Hynek

Hynek was also the father of the close encounter classification system, creating the terms, creating the first, second and third kind rating. Appropriately, he was the consultant on Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and made a cameo in the film. One of his five children, Joel, grew up to become a special effects supervisor and was part of the Oscar-nominated team that created the camouflage effect in Predator.

"Hynek was born amidst Haley's Comet in 1910 and died when it returned in 1986," O'Leary shared. "So there's this cool cosmic something with him, which we touch upon a little bit, like he was destined to do this work. He was the father of what we know as the language of UFOs. If you look at his books, he's a detail-oriented guy. He's meticulous, with just endless sightings and pages of data, looking for patterns."

Hynek wrote five books after Project Blue Book closed, delving into his studies on UFOs that he pursued on his own. The scope of Blue Book, should it continue to run, is vast considering how long the actual project ran, the number of historical and legendary UFO sightings, as well as Hynek's gradual change in belief.

"We were pretty good about sticking with history," O'Leary explained. "For example, there would be a case that we would love, but it happened in 1956. Fortunately, there were so many great cases that it wasn't hard to find some really good ones in that little slice. If we were to get a second season, maybe we advance our scope to cases from 1953-1957. As a writer, you then just have to figure out how to take that framework and build the spookiest thing, inside of what was reported, known, and documented."

Living History

There's a natural curiosity from viewers, who want to know how much of what they just saw was real and seek out more knowledge. HISTORY has taken this approach first with Vikings, Six, Knightfall, and now Blue Book. The title of each episode will be named after an actual case, so viewers can go back and look these cases up. There is also potential for HISTORY to track down people who are still connected to these cases for new specials.

Another influence on the series is FX's The Americans, in the way that series had multiple layers. It was a family drama, a contained spy drama, with the backdrop of the government and military, and an attention to detail from the set design to prop generation. "That sense of paranoia, conspiracy, that sense of, 'can I trust my neighbor?' – all of those elements we try to layer into Blue Book," O'Leary said. "My hope is that people feel like it's real. Our production team has made authentic, accurate, and time-appropriate sets and props."

Other supporting cast members include Laura Mennell (Alphas, Man in the High Castle) who will play Mimi Hynek, Allen's wife who goes from being a stay-at-home wife and mother to something much more; Ksenia Solo (Lost Girl, Orphan Black) is Susie Miller, Mimi's friend; Michael Harney (Orange is the New Black) is General Hugh Valentine and Neal McDonough (Justified, Minority Report) is General James Harding who may or may not be allies to Captain Quinn.

Changing minds

Besides creating the show, O'Leary co-executive produces with Sean Jablonski (Suits, Nip/Tuck) the showrunner, and with Robert Zemeckis (Contact, Back to the Future) and his partners Jack Rapke and Jackie Levine of Compari Entertainment. The first two episodes are directed by Robert Strongberg (Maleficent) and the last two are directed by Alex Graves (Game of Thrones).

"The biggest goal of the show is that people take a real hard look at America's history with UFOs as much as I did and many other people before me, when researching the show," he said. "That's when I realized that there's something here. I believe. We're dramatizing it as a piece of entertainment but it is also this weird, strange era of American history that if half of this stuff is for real, it changes the nature of the reality we live in. It could be a huge story."

In this current era of "fake news" and the government trying to control the narrative of truth and misinformation, Project Blue Book is a study into a moment of time when the control of information was as relevant as it is today. Even though UFOs are not making headlines in sheer quantity like they once did in the 50s and 60s, new sightings are still being reported and hastily recorded on cellphone cameras. The curiosity about our place in the vast universe remains healthy, and whether or not we are alone is intrinsic to our very nature.

Stay tuned to SYFY WIRE for more exclusive stories about Project Blue Book and the series in the near future.