The Cold War and Altered Minds: Recalling The UFO Device in Retro TV Episodes.
There is certainly no shortage of a UFO presence throughout television’s history. There have been many programs prominently featuring UFOs and aliens, from obscure to wildly popular: My Favorite Martian, Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, ALF, Mork and Mindy, and Sid and Marty Croft’s The Lost Saucer, (featuring the wacky character actors Jim Nabors and Ruth Buzzi,) to name a very few.
Certainly, a lengthy, full-spectrum investigation of “radio, television and the UFO” is warranted, and many cultural insights could be gleaned from a thorough undertaking.
However, a shorter excursion into this world may be taken by looking specifically at non-science-fiction or non-UFO/alien-themed programs. Television is somewhat of a cultural looking-glass, especially with some happy distance; viewing UFO episodes of popular, mainstream, generic shows of the Cold War era reveals some common themes, reflective of the wider cultural anxieties and neuroses of the time.
During the Cold War, the “UFO episode” was practically a tiny archetype to be fulfilled in popular shows—inevitable and perhaps necessary somehow, a token--similar to the “beatnik” episodes of the 60s, in which the squaresville mainstream characters venture very out of place into the smoky stoned beret-laden basements of jazzhouses, or the “very special” preachy social commentary episodes of the 80s, in which a main character loses her virginity, experiments with drugs, or gets abused.
Viewing these UFO episodes of popular shows, in almost every case, a theme of “secrets” (usually military) is revealed, and personal sanity is either compromised or questioned. More generally, there is a sense of mistrust and unreliability, both intrinsic-culturally and personally. These ideas obviously reflect the Cold War mindset. It is important to note too, that in almost every case in these episodes, a mundane (opposed to magical or ‘real’) origin and solution is supplied for the featured UFO mystery.
There’s also a common thread of an induced altered state, or abnormal of mind. The characters who witness the UFOs are either mentally ill, drunk, stupid, immature, exhausted, or otherwise compromised from normalcy. This feature seems to be necessary to telling the story, but whether it mirrors some instrinsic Truth in the UFO experience, is a novel representation of liminality, or is a simple apologist type device, is up for debate.
In an episode of My Three Sons, Chip witnesses a UFO. It is revealed later that the craft was a military secret project, and he and his father must keep this secret, resulting in the miserable predicament of not even being able to tell his brothers, who must apparently continue to believe he is delusional—a tall order for a teenage boy.
Interestingly, it is often pointed out that the Roswell mythos really began forming in the 1980s. Aside from that heated and complicated argument in itself, in this My Three Sons episode, we have a fully formed component in 1965, that looms largely within the Roswell narratives—that of an overt military-imposed cover up involving a UFO and witnesses.
In the episode "Uhny Uftz", on the Dick Van Dyke Show, no one believes that an overworked, delirious Rob has heard and seen a UFO. Finally, Buddy and Rob track the UFO to a weird borderworld type office space above theirs, in which a mad scientist is revealed to be responsible for the craft. Interestingly, this episode incorporates the idea of a venture into the liminal world, and contains hints of a classic Hero Journey.
In an 4th season-episode of I Dream of Jeanie, called "U-F-Oh", Tony Nelson, wacky astronaut co-worker Bill, and Jeannie encounter problems when test flying a top secret NASA craft—which looks exactly like a stereotypical flying saucer. They have to make an emergency landing in Backwoods, USA, and are immediately taken prisoner as ‘Martians’ by a hillbilly family. The paranoid reaction of the family may typify (albeit exaggerated) a sense of the typical American angst and suspicion over the developing space program, the military, and the unknown, expanding frontiers of the time in general.
In this episode, the apparently requisite altered mind state is taken in the form of Jeannie, who manages to become intoxicated after mistakenly gulping the hillbilly’s moonshine. It might be particulary noteworthy that this occurs, since Jeannie herself—because of her ‘magical being’ status-- and unconventional, immature personality—could already be seen to possess the altered mindset apparently needed to participate in a UFO experience. The inclusion of her drunkenness seems to put an exclamation point on the idea that the experience exists outside all normal realities, even if that reality is already a magical one.
There are several other examples of Cold War paranoia and altered mind states within old television shows. In an episode of The Bob Newhart Show, one of psychiatrist Bob’s patients believes he regularly encounters UFOs. This is a rather small aside within the episode, but it is a point of jokes and much implication of the patient’s obvious craziness.
In the enigmatic Green Acres, there is a particularly surreal episode called "The Saucer Season" about a oft-visiting local UFO and its occupants. Absurdly perhaps, and against my better sensibilities, this episode is actually quite a gem of comedy and retro television. The main witness is the farmhand Eb, who is a very liminal Trickster type character. He has lucid conversations with the returning aliens, and seems to take it all in stride.
There are some high-strangeness happenings in this episode too—notably one that reminded me of an experience Whitley Strieber related in one of his books. I recall that Strieber and his friends/family had an ‘interactive’ dialogue with a voice on the radio. In this episode, while picnicking, Lisa and Oliver Douglas weirdly find their picnic experience mirrored by the a narration on the radio; “You now find yourself taking the sandwiches out of your basket, now you set out your gold plates, now you are…”
The episode continues with a military agent investigation, induced amnesiac trance by the aliens, and interestingly, a somewhat ‘twist’ of an ending in which the stove turns green, indicating perhaps for the first time in a non-sci-fi oriented mainstream television show, that the UFO and the aliens were ‘real.’ Green Acres is perhaps the most screwball, bizarre shows of its time; and it may be precisely this quality that was needed to carry the implication of the reality of UFOs and aliens.
So, while it may not be earth shattering insight, we can glean a bit of information about our collective approach to UFOs and aliens by these particular portrayals from old TV shows. While it seems a military presence, altered mind state, and ultimate mundane explanation are the standard storyline; the overriding message of the television shows of the Cold War area concerning UFOs seems to be that they exist in an undeniable border world.
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