In the 60 years since the mysterious Roswell crash in New Mexico, few things have had a stranglehold on the American (and for that matter, the Western World’s) pop culture zeitgeist quite like UFO stories. UFOs pop up in movies every summer (or this fall, when a remake of seminal UFO flick The Day the Earth Stood Still, starring Keanu Reeves, hits the multiplex), and trinkets with the visage of little green aliens are everywhere. The images of UFOs and their aliens have become so ubiquitous you could argue they’re as iconic as the images of cowboys, Indians, and ghosts.
Since most UFO stories are based on secondhand accounts, and are often unexplainable, a cottage industry of TV shows populating extended cable packages (see: Discovery Channel, History Channel, Sci-Fi and National Geographic) has been created to question, and ostensibly legitimize, UFO sightings and research. The most recent show is UFO Hunters, which premiered earlier this year on the History Channel, and is collected in this paltry but well-packaged DVD set (it comes in a metal container with tiered storage, but features very little by ways of special features). (It should also be noted that the show shares a title with a nearly identical show on the Sci-Fi Channel.)
The History Channel version stars a rag-tag team of researchers (two of whom work for UFO Magazine, that completely unbiased publishing powerhouse, one real scientist who looks annoyed that he has to be there, and guy whose purpose is indiscernible) . They chase the ghosts of UFOs around the world, in order to… That’s where it gets tricky. The show’s general pull—the fact that it’s called UFO Hunters would lead you to believe that they, you know, actually find one—is more about delegitimizing evidence that says certain UFO encounters were hoaxes or weren’t caused by extraterrestrials. The show should really be called “Contrarian Evidence Hunters”.
The first episode of the season examines the main UFO case before Roswell, a UFO encounter that happened two weeks earlier at Maury Island, Washington. A fishing boat captain and his son (and their dog) were out near Puget Sound fishing when a UFO allegedly dropped molten rocks on them, killing their canine pal and breaking the boy’s arm.
The episode starts promisingly, as the UFO Hunters team descends on Maury Island 60 years too late to search for physical evidence. When it quickly becomes apparent, despite the researchers excitement, they’re not going to find anything, and probably never were, the show then becomes about testing the official reports—that nothing unusual happened, and the guy was lying—and disproving them or questioning their legitimacy.
This process is repeated throughout the remaining 12 episodes, and typically involves the same set-up: UFO Magazine publisher Bill Birnes pontificates hyperbolically about the “importance” of the new case they’re investigating (whether that be Mexico’s Roswell, Britain’s Roswell, or multiple episodes devoted to cops and pilots seeing UFOs) and repeatedly remarks how they’re going to “bust the case wide open.” His cohort at UFO Magazine, Pat Uskert, seconds Birnes’ exaggerations, but then acts like he’s a bit skeptical. Investigator Jeff Tomlinson, stands to the side, and acts confounded at all times.
Then real scientist Ted Acworth, as he puts it, “rains on their parade” as he grounds the group’s findings in real science. The show always concludes at the UFO Magazine headquarters, with Birnes and Acworth arguing about how they could debate the previous case “ad infinitum” and never agree. Acworth contends that they haven’t found anything that conclusively points to the existence of UFOs piloted by aliens, and should calm down and do more research, while Birnes argues that because they haven’t found anything to definitely prove the UFOs they are investigating aren’t being flown by little green men, then they probably are. The hard cases presented as science at the beginning of the show are thus reduced to matters of opinion, like whether we should eat meat, kill murderers in an electric chair, or support a progressive tax rate.
This would all be pretty innocuous — almost like a UFO-centered political debate show — but Birnes is always given deference and the last word, smugly asserting at the end of every episode that UFOs do exist, and the show didn’t disprove that. That’s akin to me posting here that Adolf Hitler shot JFK with help from Lyndon B. Johnson, and because no one can for certain prove me false, it has to be true.
It’s not that I’m averse to let myself believe in UFOs—I find it a self-centered notion to think that in the apparently endless vastness that is space we’re the only gang on the corner—but the entire show is making the case with very little to no physical evidence and based on eyewitness reports of people who admit they have no idea what they actually saw. To conclude that those people probably saw beings from another planet is a logical jump that requires incredible delusions, possibly assisted with illegal substances.
That’s not to say UFO Hunters is completely devoid of worth; there were a lot of episodes that showcased UFO cases you’ve probably never heard of, and on their surface, are at least semi-entertaining. But if you go into UFO Hunters expecting them to find some new evidence proving UFOs exist, an alien autopsy, live proof of a UFO encounter that couldn’t have possibly been faked, or even an unbiased look at UFOs, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
The truth is out there. Just don’t expect to find it here.