By now, San Diego Comic-Con is far more than a series of reveals for high-profile film and television projects and a giant, geek flea market. Over the years, it’s increasingly become home to immersive pop-up activations that bring to life a tiny sliver of a world for fans. This year, the History Channel brought with it a declassified bunker experience to promote its upcoming scripted UFO series Project Blue Book.
Some backstory: At the height of the Cold War, the United States Air Force began a project to document and investigate sightings of Unidentified Flying Objects in an effort to determine if said unexplained sightings posed any sort of threat to national security. Over the course of the study, between 1952 and 1969, it collected more than 12,000 reports. That project is the basis for History’s new show, which dramatizes some of the sightings reported to the Air Force. This year’s activation transported us back to the Cold War — or at least, into the bunker where it all went down — to allow us to report our own unexplained sightings to the government.
UFOs and alien abductions are both long-running staples in science fiction and fantasy circles, running the gamut from Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind to the SCI FI channel’s 2002 miniseries Taken. In recent years, we’ve seen a number of channels that traditionally focus on documentary programming take the jump into scripted dramas that draw heavily from history or nature: the Paramount Network is currently airing Yellowstone, the National Geographic Channel created Mars and Genius (and ordered a series based on Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone), the Discovery Channel aired Manhunt: Unabomber and Klondike, while the History Channel has produced Knightfall, Six, and Vikings. Its latest drama, Project Blue Book falls under the same umbrella: a series rooted somewhat in history. It’ll star Aidan Gillen from Game of Thrones and Captain America: First Avenger’s Neal McDonough.
In San Diego, our first stop was to file our report to the project’s intake personnel. We were issued clearance badges, and sat down in an army tent modeled after those of the 1950s. From there, we were asked to describe our encounter, filling out a standardized form — one that a rep noted was nearly identical to the forms used by Project Blue Book operatives for civilian and military UFO sightings — that was then handed off to a sketch artist. I recounted an experience of being lost in the woods, surrounded by bright lights in the air, before blacking out and waking up surrounded by fire.
From there, we were ushered into a clean room where we were briefed on some of the reports from the project’s vast files: sightings from across the country, just a handful of stories of lights in the skies. Once informed of the various sightings from across the country, we were ushered into a busy facility. White-shirted government agents poured over papers, while a bank of computers lined the opposite wall. We were invited to type out a message, which we were told would be beamed out to space, to try and contact the aliens that we described in our encounters. The activation takes down your phone number, and after the event, I received a text confirming that my message — ALIENS, Y U DO? — had already traveled 10,974,000 miles from Earth.
Exiting the facility, we were approached by a shifty “man in black” type who conspiratorially pulled us aside to stress that we were “not being told the whole truth” by the officials inside, that hundreds of the reports contained in Project Blue Book remain classified to this day, because many just “couldn’t be explained” by the operation. After he let us go, we were handed the illustration that had been drawn up by the earlier room full of agents sketching out the sightings that con-goers had reported to them.
The entire experience wasn’t as extensive as some of the other activations that we’ve seen — like last year’s Westworld and Blade Runner 2049 activations, for example — but they do highlight how companies or studios can bring their projects to life in a neat way. History’s Project Blue Book stood out because it’s not just something that you walk through (though the initial “scanning” process and subsequent viewing room, where real accounts were projected on the walls and accompanied by sound recordings and effects, had a very Disneyland Haunted Mansion vibe): you inject yourself into the story by recounting an experience you really had, or make one up, which is then turned into a neat memento that you can take home after the convention.