'Chasing UFOs' Tries Very Hard to Make Something Out of Very Little

Gareth James

Chasing UFOs joins a lineup of shows on the National Geographic Channel that hover somewhere between taking an earnest look at unusual phenomena and making mild fun of marginal American subcultures.

Chasing UFOs

Airtime: Fridays, 9pm ET
Cast: Erin Ryder, Ben McGee, James Fox
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: National Geographic Channel
Air date: 2012-06-29

Chasing UFOs is being promoted as a high tech investigation into unidentified objects in the skies. But -- as sometimes happens with such investigations -- it tries very hard to make something out of very little.

The eight-part series follows a team of investigators as they follow up on UFO sightings and alien abduction stories around the United States. For the show's purposes, apparently, open-minded skeptics Erin Ryder and Ben McGee, and UFOlogist James Fox are disinclined to debunk stories outright. As a result, Chasing UFOs is notable for its mostly straight-faced attempts to cover up a lack of substance, and its unintentional humor. It also runs the risk of feeding paranoia amongst the townspeople that the team interview, if only in a way in which most of the eyewitnesses provide good humored, but largely tongue in cheek accounts of their ‘sightings’ that indicate a deeper mistrust of government activities.

Premiering on 29 June, Chasing UFOs joins a lineup of shows on the National Geographic Channel that hover somewhere between taking an earnest look at unusual phenomena and making mild fun of marginal American subcultures. Like Alaska State Troopers and Doomsday Preppers, it mixes procedural logics with offbeat interviews and far-flung destinations. In its own quasi-scientific way, Chasing UFOs both confirms the obvious and insists on its subject's significance.

Just so, two early episodes of Chasing UFOs focus on repeat sightings of objects in the sky. In Fresno, California, local people report seeing strange lights over a nearby airbase, while in the Texas towns of Stephenville and Dublin, multiple eyewitnesses claim to have seen triangular lights passing over town. Some witnesses claim to have been physically affected by the UFOs, others link their sightings to a large-scale military cover-up. Ryder, McGee, and Fox collect the statements and stake out sighting areas, which means they set up cameras to monitor any physical effects of the sightings they mean to have.

To increase our anticipation, the program here offers a rapidly edited combination of landscapes, UFO sighting reconstructions, and eyewitness videos. The chasers have their own ways to up the dramatic ante, making use of Geiger counters and night vision goggles for reconnaissance missions, and describe themselves with official job titles like "Tech and Recon." It’s hard not to raise an eyebrow the first time you see such labels, and indeed, any sense of militaristic urgency they insinuate is soon dissipated.

Such dissipation is due partly to the show's rather disappointing lack of evidence and partly to Fox's unflappable stated belief in UFOs, regardless of the possibility of more mundane explanations, say, low-flying aircraft. Ryder is at least prepared to describe herself as a "skebeliever," and McGee keeps tightlipped through early segments, before he repeatedly provides the most rational explanation. The show seems Fox's passionate belief -- usually aligned with that of a witness -- is repeatedly contrasted by the downright silliness of the so-called investigations. Herein, the team scrambles around at night over mountainsides, down into ravines and through the woods, all the while filming with their night vision cameras: they generally end up scaring each other.

These sections are the most amusing parts of the show because the team strains so visibly to conjure suspense -- as when McGee and Ryder scale a rock face or Fox becomes worried that he is being pursued by a pack of wild hogs. The mystery of the hogs is one that’s left unresolved, but serves to demonstrate how much the show consists of the chasers doing very little chasing. They do, however, sneak around old government bases and remark that their NV cameras remind them of The Blair Witch Project.

Apart from this occasional hilarity, Chasing UFOs does give voice to some interviewees' suspicions that they're being followed by the government; as one local UFOlogist puts it, "I believe that I’m getting very close” to proving that his work is being monitored by the military. If nothing else, the show reminds us that some communities see shadowy earthly forces and government surveillance as likely occurrences. The show doesn’t question this casual paranoia overtly, and sometimes actively encourages it, turning its cameras on town hall meetings and interviews. More often than not, Chasing UFOs appears to be "chasing" the slim possibility that its mysteries have even the slightest basis in fact.


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