Posted by:
Byron Brewer

The Wayback Machine: Project UFO (1978)





I recall it so clearly coming from the small TV my “boys” and me watched during college days. The voice, that voice … the one I was used to saying, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

It was coming at the beginning of each episode of a new TV show and said:

Ezekiel saw the wheel. This [UFO diagrams] 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.

Let’s rev up the Wayback Machine, set it for 1978 and see what that could possibly mean!

Project UFO was an NBC series which lasted two seasons, from 1978 to 1979. Based loosely on the real-life Project Blue Book, the show was created by Dragnet veteran Jack Webb, who pored through Air Force files looking for episode ideas. This was the final show produced by Webb's Mark VII Limited, but in the case of this show it was produced in association with Worldvision Enterprises (now CBS Television Distribution); this was the only Mark VII production not produced with the two other studios closely associated with Mark VII: Warner Bros. or MCA TV/Universal Television.

The show features two U.S. Air Force investigators charged with investigating UFO sightings. The first season starred William Jordan as Maj. Jake Gatlin and Caskey Swaim as Staff Sgt. Harry Fitz. Jordan was a rather nondescript leading man, while Swaim (who had never had any significant acting experience before landing the role) added diversity as a Southerner with a pronounced accent. In season two, Jordan was replaced by Edward Winter as Capt. Ben Ryan. Aldine King as Libby was another regular. Dr. Joyce Brothers appeared in two episodes. (Brothers was everywhere in those days!)

In the pilot episode, Gatlin informed the newly assigned Fitz that, since it is impossible to prove a negative, their job was to prove that each UFO sighting was real, by researching and disproving possible alternate explanations. Gatlin also told Fitz that he himself had once seen "something I can't explain" while flying as an Air Force pilot, which led to his interest in Blue Book.

In retrospect, Project UFO anticipated many of the themes of The X-Files, though of course without that show's romantic subtext or anti-government (or for that matter, anti-alien) paranoia. As with Blue Book, many of the UFO sightings on Project UFO turned out to have conventional explanations. Some, however, were left unexplained, and suggestive of alien contact. By the second season, the investigators had themselves experienced a UFO sighting.

In an odd reversal of the Scooby-Doo dynamic, the series eventually settled into a pattern in which the investigators would spend most of the hour uncovering some conventional explanation for a UFO sighting, only for the last five minutes to reveal that UFOs (or some similarly unexplained phenomena) were involved after all.

Believe me, it sounded much better in the TV Guide in ’78. For sci-fi, a snoozefest.