By Jerome Clark
I was told that my UFO encyclopedia was a major resource, especially when the ABC News people were educating themselves on the subject and trying to figure out what was there and where to proceed. Through an assistant Jennings asked me for a personal, signed copy of the two volumes.
The show began as Life in the Universe, presumably with a SETI focus. UFOs were to be a part of it, though I suspect a relatively minor one, essentially depicted as silly pop-culture obsession as opposed to the science of SETI. As staff and crew members began to dig into ufology, they were taken aback to learn how much substance was there, and UFOs began to overwhelm the project, which finally became UFO-centered and got a different title.
My dealings with these people suggested they are serious professionals. I wouldn't have dealt with them if they weren't; I have come to abhor UFO presentations on television, which are generally moronic and exploitative, and consequently I don't do them anymore. After long discussion with the producer, I agreed to this one, and I have no regrets.
Overall, despite obvious shortcomings, I thought the show was pretty good, certainly the most pro-UFO primetime documentary by a major broadcast news operation that we are likely to see in our lifetimes. The limitations of time and the documentary format forced certain emphases (and, in the worst moments, distortion and misimpression). People who keep complaining about the neglect of this or that element fail to grasp the reality of the format. This was, after all, about 81 minutes, not eight hours. Moreover, to be watchable, a documentary requires dramatic momentum. If you want the whole story, there are some good books for that, but reading them is going to consume a whole lot more than 81 minutes of your time. Or, for that matter, eight hours of it.
From one point of view - pure good sense - the Roswell and abduction segments were a mistake. These are deeply complex subjects which, if dealt with at all, ought to have been subjects of their own documentaries. My suspicion is that they were there to give Jennings cover from potential criticism of the show's clearly pro-UFO slant. Jennings had to demonstrate that he was hostile toward more outlandish UFO claims in order to make his curiosity about the rest palatable and even credible. I think, of course, that this was unfortunate, resulting in segments that were, at best, highly simplistic and, at worse, unfair, inaccurate, and grossly misleading. To me the
very worst was the depiction of Roswell investigators such as Friedman, Schmitt, and Randle as cynical money-grubbers, which was both false and cheap. Accuse them of being wrong, if you wish; but going beyond that to accuse them of being bad human
beings is beyond the pale.
The SETI people were essentially set up. I can't imagine that they are very happy about their portrayal. The documentary makes clear that they know practically nothing about UFOs except that they don't like them - which was the show's larger point about science and government's response generally. Frank Drake appeared to be going out of his way to validate his critics' longstanding contention that his is essentially a mystical, religious quest. He talked like a zealot about how a message from space would change the world, just like some primitive awaiting word from the sky gods. Jill Tarter looked ridiculous when she admitted (boasted, even) that - as an astronomer yet - she failed to recognize what any Joe Doakes has no trouble identifying instantly: the moon partially hidden by clouds. Even more amusingly, this came in the context of smug assertions by her and her colleagues that anecdotal testimony is worthless - except, I guess, if it's anecdotal testimony by a clueless UFO disbeliever. At the end of the show, physicist Michio Kaku gets the last word, rejecting the SETI people's wishful and silly myth that ETs can't be visiting because they can't get here.
I don't blame Stan Friedman and Budd Hopkins for being upset about their treatment on the show. The Roswell and abduction segments are indefensible.
They aren't, however, the end of the story. I don't know what, if any, long-term effects will fall out from the show's airing, but if there are, they are more likely to be positive than negative.