Notwithstanding the recently released and much anticipated third series of The Curse of Skinwalker Ranch, the glut of UFO-related programmes on UK television has in the main done the rounds several times and are therefore nothing new. Whilst interest in unexplained aerial phenomena persists, one cannot help at times feel that the likes of Alien Files: Unsealed and Hangar 1 are filler programmes for channels which specialise in repeating output rather than producing their own.
UFO Hunters is currently being regurgitated on Blaze, the tacit go to channel for UFO and paranormal programming. Similar to Frasier, The Simpsons, and The Big Bang Theory, UFO Hunters seems to be on permanent rotation – albeit with some breathing space between airings.
The William ‘Bill’ J. Birnes-fronted investigative series ran for three seasons, which in my mind is standard fayre for a programme that isn’t sufficiently poor to be hooked after one outing, has developed an approach than can justify a follow up series, but arguably said all there is to say after season number three. Whilst the UFO phenomenon is a live, ongoing conversation subject to continually shifting sands, there can only be so many ways in which it can be approached. It will therefore be interesting to see if season three of The Curse of Skinwalker Ranch is a step too far.
Rumours abounded that UFO Hunters was pulled from producing further output by outside agencies. Did they get too close to the ‘truth’, and had the programme’s interest in Dulce and Area 51 rattled a layer of command within a recognised department or one working in a theoretical shadow government that operates abstractly to the public face of US democracy?
Without any inside knowledge I have my theories, but they are just that. The programme’s core was undoubtedly Birnes, the latter-day publisher of the US version of UFO Magazine and author with a broad field of knowledge and expertise. There was no doubting that Birnes was fully signed up to the presence of aliens within the universe, and that they had visited Earth in the past and continued to do so. At times appearing to be so dialled into the subject that he forgot to listen to his thoughts before imparting them, in one-episode Birnes memorably declared that a former member of the US military who repeatedly saw UFOs must be a hybrid (half human, half alien). After all, what else, could explain bearing witness to so many different sightings of unexplained aerial objects?! Driving the narrative of the individual episodes, Birnes was a man who liked to hold sway and be in possession of the dominant hypothesis but his assertion to a somewhat bewildered interviewee that he may not be fully human was too much for fellow programme stalwart Pat Uskert, who firmly upbraided Birnes for imparting such a theory without anything tangible to prove it.
Uskert was it seemed another piece of the UFO Hunters furniture who ‘believed’ but kept his emotions and theories in check. Whilst having more than one foot in Birnes’ camp, he also managed to counterbalance any wild ideas with an approach which disassociated himself with anything that could label him a crank.
Ted Acworth, an MIT-educated scientist and engineer lent the programme genuine academic authority, but far from being a default sceptic seemed on occasions to be convinced that for example the propulsion systems required by alleged alien crafts could not be explained by science and technology as we know it. With a calm, ‘let’s do the math’ attitude diametrically opposed to Birnes’ at times attitude of crashing into arriving at unsubstantiated conclusions, it should not be forgotten that Acworth actually risked his professional reputation by appearing on the show but left after season two with his good name squarely intact.
Whilst Birnes, Uskert, and Acworth represented the constancy and generally the firm anchors on which the first two seasons were based, some of the supporting cast of fellow ‘hunters’ left much to be desired. Appeared to be fresh out of college, wide-eyed and completely out of his depth, Jeff Tomlinson contributed next to nothing and was not seen again after the first season. At times it seemed that Acworth would look at Tomlinson and think ‘why are you here’? It was difficult to not feel sorry for him but unless he contributed heavily behind the scenes, his presence was as baffling as it was unnecessary.
Series three perhaps hoisted the whole UFO Hunters project on its own petard by the arrival of Kevin Cook. Who was/is Kevin Cook? I don’t think anyone knows to this day. Was he an actor in the same way Dwight Equitz seemed to be nothing more than a visual narrator on Hangar 1, despite being labelled a UFO Researcher? The introduction of Cook destabilised the programme and if anything brought about its demise, such was the effect he had upon it. Conspiracy theorists will suggest that Cook or someone of his bent had to be put into the programme at the behest of shadowy and anonymous agencies to debunk anything and everything UFO and alien-related, and whether or not that was the case he certainly entered the fray with a default ‘deny everything’ mindset. This just succeeded in making Birnes seem more isolated and outlandish, whilst Uskert looked perplexed at Cook’s continual stonewalling.
I have often wondered how such a disparate group of people came together to front a genre of programme which undeniably occupies a niche of albeit widely held interest but is nevertheless a byword for ridicule and dismissiveness. It seems that Uskert became interested in the subject and put out a self-made video on the phenomenon which Birnes just happened to see. Bringing Ted Acworth into the equation was a masterstroke but perhaps in the name of balance the producers sought a yin to Birnes’ and Uskert’s yang in the shape of someone without Acworth’s towering credentials, but arguably this proved to be the series’ undoing. Perhaps that was the plan all along, but Kevin Cook’s level of scepticism was hardly what one would call healthy. As for Jeff Tomlinson it is hard to say what opinion if any he actually had, which were not obviously betrayed by an appearance of having landed in a symposium on particle physics when he only wanted directions away from it.
I am not sure what the correct title of the programme should have been, but UFO Hunters depicts an image of an intrepid band of protagonists inexorably trailing anomalous craft across the American countryside before snaring their quarry and solving one of the biggest mysteries of our time. That obviously didn’t take place, nor do I recall, but am happy to be corrected, that any UFOs were espied during the episodes. Investigating what has already long gone is in many ways a hiding to nothing, where little if anything can be proven either way but is at the mercy of outlandish theories and outright debunking. The angle of mistaking UFOs for aircraft is multifaceted, what with secret projects unknown to the aviation cognoscenti and the general public potentially being regarded as alien craft. In this sense they are unidentified flying objects, but that of course does not automatically mean that extraterrestrial biological entities are aboard. It is therefore also part of any credible investigator’s work to rule out the sighting actually being a conventional (and known) aircraft, a balloon, or even Venus. It is all well and good the UFO Hunters travelling to Stonehenge, but ancient standing stones and a water diviner is not sufficient to suggest that the site must therefore be an alien hotspot.
After research both desk-based and in the field had been exhausted, conclusions are therefore arrived at which depending on who is espousing them will wildly differ. That is where the frustration of the ‘hunters’ and viewers will be shared – nothing can be proven. On the surface it all makes for good television, but when Birnes is so desperate for it all to be true and for example Cook is for it to not be, the middle way but with an open mind sought by Acworth is what gave the programme oxygen.
What followed in the aftermath of UFO Hunters being cancelled was an array of ‘talking heads’ programmes dedicated to the subject, but that lacked the raw data of sightings and video evidence of as such. The UFO Hunters approach blended several compelling and diverse characters but whilst there is probably an inexhaustive amount of material to make an indefinite number of series, a format that promised much but delivered only frustration perhaps brought about its own demise that would otherwise just be repeated in any future series.
I will continue to watch the repeats of UFO Hunters, although series three in which Cook plays an infuriating stick in the mud is a hard watch. Does Blaze and other channels keep showing the programme as it is cheap to do so, because of constant demand, or the hope that it will be rebooted? As with the real reason why UFO Hunters bit the dust, it is impossible to say. It would though be unfortunate if Birnes and Uskert never collaborated again on the subject, but sadly the latter has all but disappeared from public view.
There was something unique about UFO Hunters, but it wasn’t and still isn’t easy to say what that intangible quality was. The recent series of Unidentified, based upon the events witnessed from the USS Nimitz has moved along the narrative and exposed the existence of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Programme (AATIP), an entity funded by the US government to do what it says on the tin. This may well represent the next generation of UFO-related television programmes, but anything released on the subject to the public by any government is more likely to be a red herring than drip-feeding a reality that we are not alone in the universe. For all the fascination surrounding UFOs, aliens, cover ups, black projects, and governments within governments, it is unlikely that a 42-minute programme on an obscure television channel will supply more answers than questions.
To shamelessly borrow a film title from my formative years, series 1 and 2 truly were Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, more than ably assisted by Pat, whilst season 3 was sadly a comparative bogus journey lost in a maze of its own making.