In the past I’ve often mentioned how, despite my life-long interest in the UFO subject, I’m not much of a fan of UFO TV series or documentary films. In fact whenever I hear about a new project in the works or about to be released, the cynical question that inevitably pops in my head is: “do we really need yet another TV show?”
After watching Small Town Monsters’ On the Trail of UFOs the non-cynical answer is: Yes, as long as the series is willing to pose different questions to its audience.
On the Trail of UFOs follows narrator Shannon Legro and Seth Breedlove (director, writer and co-producer with his wife Adrienne) as they travel across America visiting famous and not-so-famous “UFO hotspots” while conducting interviews with witnesses, researchers and witness-researchers. Shannon is the host of the podcast Into the Fray, which deals with all sorts of paranormal topics –even though Shannon’s forte is into Cryptozoology and Bigfoot. As such she dives into this year-long exploration of the wacky house of mirrors known as “UFOlogy” with a less unbiased perspective than you would get from a seasoned UFO hunter, or a hard-nosed debunker.
The fact this series is hosted by a woman actively involved in paranormal research is something that should be applauded and replicated by all future UFO-related media products –hooray for female investigators in Panama hats competing with male investigators in Fedora hats! For it is the sad reality of most paranormal fields that they tend to be male-dominated, to the point that the stereotype of “middle-aged unf$%#able white dudes” being the only ones interested in UFOs and Bigfoot gets perpetuated in pop culture. The male/female ratio of interviewed researchers –Micah Hanks, Alejandro Rojas, David Weatherly, Ron Regehr, Ryan Sprague, Greg Bishop, Lynne D. Kitei, Linda Zimmerman, Stan Gordon, Eleanor Hasken, Mark Matzke, Aleksandar Petakov, Michael Huntington, Michael Stevens, Butch Witkowski, Carolyn Larocque, etc– was unfortunately not as balanced as I would have liked (3 to 1) so perhaps this is something that could be improved for season 2 (on the other hand, the “old guard” / “young guns” ratio was more leveled).
The series comprises 8 episodes of over 30 minutes each. The overall quality production is kept high (although I did cringe a few times over panoramic scenes shot with dirty lenses) and the inevitable CGI scenes to recreate the cases reported by the witnesses were used with restrain and good taste –I particularly liked the filters employed by visual artist Santino Vitale, which somehow reminded me of the illustrations found in the old Mysteries of the Unknown book collection (a must-have for any serious paranormal fan). Kudos also for showing many of the ‘real’ videos that briefly appear in some of the episodes as “purported” UFOs.
More than a “UFOlogy 101” or “Top Ten Cases” approach, On the Trail of UFOs chooses instead to explore the ways UFOs and close encounters have shaped our culture in the past, and continues to do so as the phenomenon morphs from will-o-the-wisps to airships to flying saucers to black triangles and now white Tic-Tacs. Instead of remaining in the eternal square one of: “are UFOs real?,” the series is willing to ask deeper questions, like: “what does it mean to have an ongoing UFO presence?” (i.e. ‘it’ exists so what do we do about it?).
I should also point out, for the sake of transparency, that several of the researchers interviewed in the 8 episodes which comprises the series happen to be good friends of mine; which probably makes me partial in my judgement of On the Trail of UFOs, since the reason these people are my buddies in the first place, is because I happen to agree with their views about both the phenomenon and the field, and I would rather watch THEM offering their 2 cents in front of the camera than your typical UFO celebrity peddling their particular grand solution to the masses.
Because that is another thing which characterizes my friends –and the rest of the featured researchers, for that matter: Neither of them pretend to offer ANY ultimate answer to this mystery, and in this regard the tone of On the Trail of UFOs remains pleasantly agnostic throughout all the series. There’s no attempt to validate any particular theory over another, and all of them (ETH, interdimensional, time travelers, black projects, Earth lights, etc) are explored dispassionately, acknowledging the fact that there are problems with ALL the theories, and that putting a label on a thing is very different from actually understanding the thing –e.g. the “placebo” effect, which has been categorized by modern Medicine, yet we are still far away from comprehending how the mind can cure the body by force of will and belief alone.
If anything, the common denominator in the perspective offered by the show and its ‘talking heads’ is: the best approach to better understand UFOs is paying attention to how they impact the lives of those who have been fortunate or unfortunate enough to encounter them. Putting the focus back on the people and asking them how their sighting changed their political, philosophical and religious perspectives, how they might have strained their marriages or professional careers, might be more fruitful than continuing to fill file cabinets with reports in which only the ‘exoteric’ elements of the mystery are considered –e.g. the shape and size of the object, its color, trajectory, etc.
I wholeheartedly welcomed the neutral and grounded tone of On the Trail of UFOs, certainly not the norm with paranormal media products in which either arrogant skepticism or blind belief are assumed. The last episode (“Longer Ways to Go”) was probably my favorite, because it focuses on the UFO researchers themselves, and the reasons they keep doing what they’re doing after years or even decades of searching for ‘the’ answer and not finding it; seasoned researcher Stan Gordon, for example, has been investigating UFO and high strangeness cases in rural Pennsylvania for 50 years and he’s never had a sighting himself! Another legendary Stan (Friedman) passed away last year without having a direct experience of his own, nor was he able to unmask the “Cosmic Watergate” he was certain to be behind the official coverup and mainstream media ridicule.
“Don’t let your ego get in the way” admonishes Radio Misterioso host Greg Bishop to any would-be UFOlogist. “Get in the field and don’t sit in front of your computer” is the advice of David Weatherly. “Be wary of cults and charlatans” recommends Alejandro Rojas. “Don’t expect to make any money out of it” reveals Ron Regehr (Amen to that!). But perhaps the best comment was made by researcher and podcaster Ryan Sprague, who acknowledges the fact he may end up going to his grave like Stan Friedman without finding the answers he’s been looking for, yet he’s smart enough to recognize that in this field the journey is more important than the destination, and that investigating UFOs may not yield the results we expect, yet it will still be fruitful if we end up learning more about ourselves.