No TV show has so effectively blurred the boundaries between UFO fact and fantasy as NBC’s Dark Skies, which ran from September 1996 to May 1997. Created by Bryce Zabel and Brent Friedman, the series presented an alternate history of 20th Century America. Its tagline read: “History as we know it is a lie.” In this case, it was a lie sprung from and built around a covert extraterrestrial presence on Earth and the US government’s quiet efforts to understand and control the alien threat.
The narrative begins with the Roswell Incident (here a deliberate military downing of an alien craft) and the establishment of the top secret working group, Majestic, which, as in the UFO literature, is tasked with overseeing the rapidly escalating flying saucer problem in the United States.
We then jump forward to 1961 when the show’s protagonists, John Loengard (Eric Close) and Kim Sayers (Megan Ward), a young couple with political aspirations, find themselves drawn into the shadowy world of Majestic 12, headed by the imposing Frank Bach (J.T. Walsh). Whereas in The X-Files’ Fox Mulder was forever on the outside of the cover-up attempting to look in, in Dark Skies, John Loengard was on the inside looking out.
Each episode saw John and Kim attempting to understand and combat not only the Gray aliens, known in the series as “The Hive,” but Majestic themselves, whose motives and actions are morally dubious at best. All of this plays out against the backdrop of real historical events of the 20th Century, including the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of JFK, the death of Marilyn Monroe, the Watts riots of 1965, and the north-east black out of that same year. Numerous cultural icons show up throughout the series, including The Beatles, Jim Morrison, Ed Sullivan, and Timothy Leary, as well as real-life figures from politics, science, and UFOlogy, such as Harry Truman, Allen Dulles, Nelson Rockefeller, J. Edgar Hoover, J. Allen Hynek, and Carl Sagan.
So, how did such an ambitious UFO show come to be? While researching my book, Silver Screen Saucers, Dark Skies co-creator Bryce Zabel shared with me the intriguing and, at times, creepy production history of his show.
Zabel and Friedman pitched their series to networks in the form of a faux “Top Secret” briefing file, modeled on the MJ-12 documents. The thick, ring-bound file, which they referred to as the “Dark Skies Bible,” contained enough rich UFO lore intertwined with official history to comfortably fuel five full series of the prospective show, which had been the original plan. The file was fronted by a one-page letter “written by” the show’s fictional hero, John Loengard. It was dated 2 January 1995 and was addressed to his real-world creators. It read:
Bryce and Brent,
The truth must be told. You have been chosen as instruments to achieve this objective.
The truth, however, must not be represented as truth. Too many people who are needed in the struggle will die.
The cover of fiction must be used to present this truth. Those who fear the light will not want to bring attention to you by allowing your death.
This is the only way.
Do not be afraid.
The fight for humanity demands your courage.
The Dark Skies Bible, and the Loengard letter in particular, exemplified the now complete inseparability and symbiosis of UFOlogical "fact" and Hollywood fantasy. Loengard’s statement to his creators that they had been chosen as instruments to tell the truth about UFOs under the cover of fiction, would later ring disturbingly true for Zabel and Friedman, as we shall see.
Before we delve into the weirdness that went on behind the scenes of Dark Skies, we first need to mention Brcye’s previous production. A made-for-TV movie, Official Denial was an ambitious exploration of modern UFO mythology, featuring MJ-12, UFO crash-retrievals, and aliens in the custody of the US government. It even anticipated reports to follow of military abductions of UFO experiencers (known in UFOlogy as “MILABs”). Indeed, it seems fair to say that Official Denial was perhaps the most explicitly UFOlogical movie ever produced at that point. Unfortunately, its ambitions greatly exceeded its limited budget, and its special effects were severely dated even at the time of its broadcast. It was not widely seen and has yet to receive a DVD release.
Official Denial was a passion project for Bryce, and so its less-than-perfect onscreen realization disappointed him greatly:
The sadness of my life is that I didn’t sell the script to a large film studio who would have spent 30 or 40 million dollars making the perfect version of it. Instead it got sold to a small company, which sold it to the Sci-Fi Channel [now The SyFy Channel], which made it for around $2 million. The result was that I couldn’t even watch the finished product. The alien was a twelve-year-old ballerina in a plastic costume, and the effects were bad, and the acting was bad. It just wasn’t on film what it was in my mind.
It was the partial failure of Official Denial that prompted Bryce to embark on his next UFO-themed project. “I just felt I needed to sell something to somebody who had more money so that we can do these aliens right,” he recalled. The development of Dark Skies began in late-1994 while Bryce was working at Universal as a writer on M.A.N.T.I.S, Sam Raimi’s short-lived TV show about an African-American super hero. “My assistant on that show introduced me to her husband, who was Brent Friedman. Brent and I started talking UFOs and it turned out he had been told certain things by a government insider.”
Friedman has described this incident as follows:
A good family friend of ours when I was just getting out of high school was working at a very high level in the Reagan administration. One night he took me aside and told me some of the things he was doing in the government, and he ended up telling me some pretty shattering stories. He knew that I’d always been into science-fiction, fantasy, and comic books, and he very casually just threw out there that ‘aliens are real, they’re here, and I’ve seen them.’ At the time I was just absolutely shocked. This was a person that I grew up with and absolutely trusted, and it just rocked my world.
With their mutual interest established, Bryce and Brent set about developing what would become their Dark Skies Bible. “Our show was really about blending the UFO phenomenon into documented, accepted world history,” Bryce told me. “Everything I had read in UFO literature ended up in Dark Skies, from Betty and Barney Hill to Majestic-12, you name it. I tried to weave it all in there.”
Here come the Men in Black
The inclusion of such intricate UFOlogical detail in Dark Skies apparently attracted the attention of real government UFO spooks. The series pilot premiered on NBC on 21 September 1996. That same night, Bryce threw a wrap party at his Los Angeles home for his cast and crew—some 200 people in total. They would watch the pilot live together. It was a private party, invitation only. All invited guests were issued in advance with a faux Majestic-12 ID badge (loosely modeled on Bob Lazar’s Area 51 ID badge) which they were required to wear throughout the evening. One man at the party that evening wore no ID badge.
“A guy showed up here,” Bryce recalled. “Nicely dressed, young. Nobody recognized him. He approached Brent and myself and he told us, “We’ve seen your pilot.” This was strange, because at that point in evening the pilot had yet to air. “Nobody else had seen it, other than a few people in Hollywood,” said Bryce. The man stated again, “We’ve seen your pilot and we think you get a lot right, but we want to help you with the rest.”
The mystery man suggested to the producers that their show could benefit from inside information on UFOs, and that he could provide them with this information. Here, then, was John Loengard sprung to life from Bryce and Brent’s fictional letter, choosing them as conduits to share the truth disguised as fiction. The producers initially suspected a prank, but their Dark Skies pitch had been private. No one had seen their Loengard letter but for a handful of network executives in Hollywood. What’s more, based on his detailed knowledge of its plot, the mystery man seemed to have really seen the unaired Dark Skies pilot, as he claimed. He even knew details about episodes that hadn’t been filmed yet.
“Who are you?” the producers asked. “That’s really not important right now,” came the reply. “But I work with people who have an interest in what you’re doing and what you’re putting out.” The mystery man then proceeded to grab a napkin and scrawl something on it. “It was a bunch of symbols and stuff,” said Bryce. The man handed the napkin to Brent, who naturally inquired as to its meaning. “The secrets of the universe,” said the man, enigmatically. “Sound, light, and frequency.” I asked Bryce where the napkin is now. “I haven’t seen it in years,” he told me. “Brent has it locked in a safe some place.”
The man and his napkin were undeniably intriguing, but this was bad timing. Bryce was playing host to 200 people: “I didn’t really have time to stand around talking to this guy. But Brent invited him to our office at NBC to come and talk to us some more at a later date.”
That meeting happened a few days later, and it would prove both confusing and unsettling.
Bryce described the meeting to me:
The guy from the party shows up with two other people, older men, who he said were his bosses in Naval Intelligence. They sat around a table with us and they spoke for around two hours. They certainly had a well-constructed alternate world. They had lots of details, and they weren’t shy. Actually they were a little condescending to us, saying things like, "You guys think you’re such hotshots because you’re in Hollywood, but the truth is that you don’t even know what you’re playing with. Yes, you’ve stumbled into getting most of it right, but there are some things that you haven’t got right."
Cemetery at midnight
Things were about to get even stranger: “At one point the guy puts a little vial on the table and says ‘you don’t have this in your show.’ And we’re looking at it and we say ‘what is this?’, and he says ‘this is what this is all about.’ It was a vial of gold, or fool’s gold, I’m not sure which.” Were Bryce and Brent meant to infer that aliens were after our gold, like the Anunnaki of Ancient Astronaut lore? Or were they supposed to think the vial contained some alien element, perhaps used to fuel a flying saucer? It is impossible to know, but certainly the mystery men were intent on confusing and provoking the producers. “Their whole tone was like, ‘You fucking idiots! This is what it’s about! You don’t even have the truth!’ It was just weird.”
Bryce asked again precisely who these men were. “So one of them said, ‘look. we’re with Naval Intelligence and if you really want us to read you in you’re going to have to meet the big guy. There’s a ship down in Long Beach right now and we can arrange for you to meet him. But you can’t meet him on the ship.”
One of the men then provided Bryce and Brent with the location of a cemetery in Long Beach, where they could meet the big guy at midnight on a given date. Bryce was now thoroughly perturbed. He’d heard enough. “That’s when I pushed back from the table and said “Okay, I’m done. I have a show to run, and I have three children, and I am not meeting you or anyone else in a cemetery at midnight. Good day.’” That was the last Bryce heard from them.
What can we make of these events? Certainly they would appear to be neatly in line with disinformative strategies employed previously against UFO researchers and through entertainment media. Did intelligence operatives get wind of a new X-Files-style TV show utilizing factual UFOlogical detail and see it as great new opportunity to sow its content with self-serving UFO conspiracy mythology, or even simply to manage and guide the show’s existing mythology? “It was very intricate,” said Bryce of the whole affair. “It felt like it was staged for us. Like it was all built around us. It seems to be that we had been targeted for some elaborate disinformation job.”
I asked Bryce if he felt the men were the real deal, and if there is any chance it was all just a prank by some amateur tricksters:
Do I think they were really going to read us into a secret UFO program? No. But it did seem like they really were part of some official organization. One of the guys said he was a SEAL, and, I have to say, all of these guys looked like very hardcore military guys. They didn’t look like soft fanboys pulling a prank on us. They didn’t look like guys you’d see at Comic Con. They looked and spoke like military guys.
I asked Bryce if he believed in UFOs at the time of Dark Skies’ development and if his intention with the show was to educate and inform the public about the subject. He replied:
Did I intend to inform? No. I intended to entertain. But did I believe in UFOs and alien visitation? Yes. I believed strongly at the time of Dark Skies that Roswell was a real event and that it was probably unearthly in nature. I still believe that today. Whether or not I believed the Majestic 12 documents were real or faked was irrelevant. I just used the name because it was on people’s minds. But I did feel that if MJ-12 didn’t exist, then another group like it by another name probably did. Somebody had to be working on the UFO problem.
Dark Skies arrived on TV in 1996, and comparisons to a certain other UFO conspiracy show were inevitable. Bryce said:
People accused us at the time of ripping off The X-Files. But actually we didn’t like what The X-Files was doing, which was teasing everybody. We wanted to do the opposite. We wanted to say ‘we’re not going to tease you about the cover-up. We’re going to take you inside the cover-up and let our character be your tour guide through these events of history.’ It was more direct than The X-Files.
Dark Skies was cancelled before the end of its first season due to low ratings, which may have been a result of its inopportune weekly scheduling. The show was dark in name, dark in themes, and dark in visual content, with violent and intense scenes in most episodes. Despite this, Dark Skies was broadcast at 8pm on Saturday evenings—peak viewing time for families (for whom the show was not entirely suitable), and peak going-out time for teens and young adults. Today Dark Skies retains a cult fanbase, and Bryce is proud of what he and Brent achieved with the show. “It’s about 90 percent faithful to what I set out to do back in 1994, and it certainly succeeds in twisting UFOlogy and history and tying them into this knot. It’s one of the most subversive TV shows ever produced.”
If you’re a fan of science fiction, and of UFO conspiracy shows in particular, you owe it to yourself to check out Dark Skies… the real Men in Black did.