Suppose that the truth really is "out there," as The X-Files postulated, but not exactly where you might expect. In other words, rather than a vast government conspiracy to conceal proof that aliens have visited Earth, perhaps the real plot lies elsewhere. The entertainment industry, for instance, is constantly putting out films, TV shows, and pseudo-documentaries suggesting that Americans are being visited or even abducted in droves by gray-skinned, strangely kinky spacemen—and that the government wants to keep it all quiet. Dark Skies, Roswell, Fox's Alien Autopsy special … Could the real conspiracy be on the part of the mass media and designed to make people believe in UFOs because it helps ratings?
If such a plot exists, Steven Spielberg would have to be the ringleader. After all, Spielberg planted the seeds of modern UFO obsession with 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which he quickly followed up with E.T. (1982). And now it appears that Spielberg was just getting warmed up. This Dec. 2, the Sci Fi Channel will air the first installment of Taken, a 10-part fictional miniseries about alien abductions, for which Spielberg served as executive producer.
A 20-hour epic, Taken blends all the staples of our modern UFO mythology into a multigenerational tale of three families torn apart—and brought together—by aliens and the government's ruthless quest to understand them. In the first generation, Air Force pilot Russell Keys and his crew are saved by flashing blue lights after their plane is shot down over France in World War II; Army intelligence officer Owen Crawford investigates a crash at Roswell, N.M.; and Lubbock, Texas, waitress Sally Clarke is seduced and impregnated by a charming stranger who appears one night, wounded, in her barn. Two generations later, Keys' grandson Charlie and Clarke's granddaughter Lisa struggle to protect their gifted part-alien daughter, Allie, from Crawford's granddaughter Mary, who also works for the military. The final conflagration reveals nothing less than the UFOs' true intentions for humanity.
With its slogan "Some secrets we keep. Some are kept from us," Taken brings the conspiracy-mongering of The X-Files to its logical conclusion, all but demanding that the feds come clean about Roswell and other UFO encounters of the classified kind. Still, Taken, which was four years in the making, may represent the swan song of 1990s UFO culture. As Aliens in America author Jodi Dean pointed out to me recently, following 9/11, America's UFO fixation seemed to dwindle; with real invaders to worry about, it was hard to care about alien ones. With its allusions to government cover-ups, alien implants, the Roswell crash, and alien-human hybrids, Taken almost seems like a time capsule made especially for television.
The Sci Fi Channel, however, is treating aliens more seriously than ever. The network, which now reaches some 80 million homes, has billed Taken as a breakout premiere that will prove it's a "television powerhouse." Sci Fi has also prepared a slew of tie-ins: a Roper Poll announcing that three-quarters of Americans are prepared for the discovery of extraterrestrial life; pseudo-documentaries titled Abduction Diaries and The Roswell Crash: Startling New Evidence; and public events featuring UFO-abduction gurus John Mack, Bud Hopkins, and David Jacobs. All this might seem an odd accompaniment to a fictional TV series, but Sci Fi has gone even further. It has launched an advocacy group called the Coalition for the Freedom of Information, which plans to sue and file Freedom of Information Act requests to make the government come clean about UFOs. Of course, if the outlandish UFO information requests received by the National Security Agency are any indication, the coalition's chief achievement may be to drive a lot of bureaucrats up the wall.
Such activities certainly do suggest that Sci Fi and Spielberg are out to make people believe in UFOs. Indeed, Sci Fi's excavation of the Roswell crash site and other gimmicks threaten to drag Taken into a sinkhole of purportedly factual UFO-mongering. The evidence about Roswell overwhelmingly suggests that what crashed in 1947 was a government spy balloon; similarly, close examination of UFO-abduction claims overwhelmingly suggests they're best explained by sleep paralysis and other conditions. Those who already believe otherwise, however, will never accept these explanations. That makes battles over UFOlogy worse than pointless, especially if they're conducted by a network like Sci Fi, rather than through serious scientific channels, and presented in the context of promoting a fictional drama.
Neither Taken nor its various tie-ins present us with any new truths, but at least the series has other merits. In a fictional format, Taken deftly historicizes the UFO lore that our culture has churned out since the late 1940s, in a sense merging The X-Files with something like Forrest Gump. At times Taken even seems aware that with UFOs, what we're actually dealing with are the modern analogues of fairies and fallen angels.
What's also impressive—and characteristically Spielbergian—is how the momentous events of Taken unfold against thoroughly mundane backdrops. Sally Clarke's bizarre contraption to contact her alien lover recalls E.T.'s "phone home" gadget. When Owen Crawford, head of a top-secret government UFO project, attempts to kidnap Clarke's half-alien son Jacob, the song "Purple People Eater" comes on the radio as they drive away. In yet another scene, we learn that one useful technology the government acquired from the UFOs was Velcro. The concept of "taken" is itself a double entendre—characters are abducted and abused by UFOs, but also by the government.
The one aspect of Taken that doesn't come in for a sensitive, historicized treatment is the UFO itself—and its supposed activities. In one installment, a highly complicated crop circle appears in the United States in the year 1969 or 1970, even though the crop circle phenomenon really only got going in the mid-1970s in southern England. Similarly, Taken's aliens are short, black-eyed, huge-skulled humanoids known as "grays," yet it was only in 1961 with the Betty and Barney Hill "abduction" that aliens began to be described this way. As an "Alien Time Line" by the paranormal investigator Joe Nickell demonstrates, up through the 1970s, people were seeing blobs, insectoids, hairy dwarfs, robots, reptilians, and other types. In other words, the way that UFOs appeared to Americans was itself historically contingent on, and highly influenced by, media representations.
Granted, if Taken admitted this, it would also have to admit that Spielberg himself generated much of the lore that the series has now repackaged and dramatized. But at least the Taken crew seems willing to joke about it. In a recent interview, Taken screenwriter Leslie Bohem noted that Spielberg once said to him of alien abductions, "If this isn't true, then why are all these stories the same?" To which Bohem replied, "Maybe because of your movies?" That's not exactly fessing up to the existence of a vast media conspiracy—but it's a promising start.