On 14 November 2004, the US navy had a close encounter with an unidentified flying object off the coast of southern California. Fighter pilot David Fravor was in the area on routine training when he was asked to investigate, and what he found he could not explain. Fravor reported seeing a 40ft aircraft shaped like a Tic Tac hovering above the water, roiling its surface. He attempted to fly toward the object for a closer look, and it seemed to respond in an aggressive manner, moving in a way that rattled the seasoned military veteran and defied his understanding of the laws of physics.
Fighters were later launched from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, recording the mysterious object with infra-red camera.
That recording was one of three made by US military cockpit instruments between 2004 and 2015, and together, these so-called Pentagon UFO videos would fundamentally change the way UFOs are talked about in America. A bombshell New York Times piece on the incidents in 2017 – including leaked military footage of the objects – constituted a watershed moment for those fascinated by the strange lights in the sky that have been a fixture of American popular culture since the 1950s. Long a subject of ridicule that was left to languish among the kooky fringe, UFOs were suddenly being taken seriously by the Times and the US military, two of the most levelheaded, credible institutions out there. Whether or not you believe what the military saw really represents intelligent beings from far away – or maybe they’re the next generation of Chinese weaponry, or just an elaborate misinformation campaign – it’s hard to disagree with the Times’s many insinuations that certain powerful, influential individuals know more about these phenomena than they’re willing to say.
These recordings and the resultant Times article are central parts of Showtime’s recently released four-part docuseries UFO, a joint project of Star Wars director JJ Abrams’s Bad Robot and Academy award–winning documentarian Glen Zipper. When I spoke with Zipper, he told me that, of the many inexplicable encounters chronicled in UFO, he found the “Tic Tac incident” the most compelling. “It’s very easy for regular folks to be dismissed,” he said to the Guardian. “But when it’s a guy that graduated from Topgun, that brings a whole other layer of credibility. It’s much harder to dismiss.”
Zipper, a fascinated skeptic who said that the X-Files’s “I want to believe” sums up his perspective on UFOs, wants UFO to be a series that tells all sides of the story. True to his word, the four, hour-long episodes trade off among an impressive, and often surprising, array of voices that runs the gamut from skeptics to true believers. They include former Arizona governor Fife Symington, who personally witnessed the 1997 mass UFO sighting Phoenix Lights before mocking the phenomenon at a surprise press conference. There is also a sit-down with the former Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who surprised many when he earmarked $22m to study UFOs in 2007 (giving rise to the shadowy Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, another central player in UFO). The US military itself gets plenty of airtime through both air force disinformation specialist Richard Doty and servicemen who personally witnessed flying objects that they cannot explain. Academia is represented by the Pulitzer–winning former head of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School John Mack, who broke major taboos when he undertook serious study of those who believed they had been abducted by aliens. And there are also a number of hardened investigative journalists like Peabody and Edward R Murrow award winner George Knapp.
This abundance of voices that demand to be taken seriously is something that Zipper feels is fundamentally different about the current round of UFO discourse, and the chance to give these voices a credible treatment drew him into this project. “At first blush, this series may not seem to be a fresh new idea,” he said. “The more I surveyed the landscape, the more I found a lot of sensationalistic content. But I didn’t see a premium take on it, in the same space that we make things.” The intent with UFO is to provide just that premium take – a more sober, information-driven counterpart to “alien autopsy” videos and the rabbit hole of close encounter content that proliferates on places like YouTube.
As much as UFO is packed with information, it also attends to the powerful emotions that drive much of the ongoing obsession with the UFO phenomenon. “Taking this subject matter seriously doesn’t absolve us of a responsibility to entertain the audience,” Zipper said. “You have to hide the medicine in the popcorn a little bit.” From the opening shots of Apollo 17 astronauts on the moon exclaiming “what is that!” as inexplicable lights flash overhead, to its final tempest-like swirl of voices – including Barack Obama striking an “I want to believe” stance – the show titillates with slick editing, eerie music, and hard-to-dismiss visuals of UFOs. The result is a series that often raises primal notes of fear, wonder, paranoia, mystery, and community – undoubtedly the very emotions that have made the UFO phenomenon so compelling for so long.
Invoking Pope John Paul II’s catechesis on angels, and imagining Teresa of Ávila’s famous ecstatic encounter with a heavenly being as a close encounter with an alien, UFO at times positions the mystery of unidentified flying objects alongside the mystery of religion. It’s a worthwhile juxtaposition that pushes us toward a more basic reason for why so many want to believe in something that seems to ludicrous. Despite their many differences, religion and UFOs both present us with an enduring mystery that goes to the heart of what it is to be human. Religion asks, “What happens after we die?,” and UFOs ask, “Are we alone?” Both of these questions are grounded in a very human hope that the answer will be something breathtakingly marvelous.
UFO embraces this hope and strikes an idealistic tone at many points when its participants discuss the possibility that proof of intelligent life beyond the Earth will give us something to transcend the many divisions that rule our existence as human beings. Zipper himself seemed to inhabit that same idealism when he told me that, “At the end of the day, our fascination with UFOs is rooted in hope. If UFOs were revealed to exist, that means their technology is so far in excess of anything we can understand. It would open the door to so many more possibilities for a brighter future.”
One needn’t embrace a vision of technology as salvation nor one of alien creatures somehow teaching us to be better than we currently are to believe that discovering life beyond Earth would be monumental. Arguably, just knowing that we’re not alone would introduce a profoundly meaningful difference into the quality of our existence as sentient creatures. The hope that such knowledge would vastly enrich our human condition saturates UFO, the possibility of a bigger, more compelling future driving much of the intense desire to know just what these lights in the sky really are.
UFO is now available on Showtime with a UK date to be announced
This content was originally published here.