History's upcoming drama kicks off next month, and as the name implies, it's inspired by the past. But as ET quickly learned during a visit to the show's Vancouver set in March, the new series is anything but old-fashioned.
The show, created by David O'Leary, follows Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a family man, college professor and astrophysicist, as he's thrown into the United States Air Force's new initiative called -- you guessed it! -- Project Blue Book. The real Hynek died in 1986, but not before leaving behind a legacy worthy of a TV recreation. Once a skeptic, Hynek devoted his career to UFOs and explaining the unexplainable as the only civilian on the Project Blue Book investigation, which lasted 17 years, from 1952 to 1969.
Stepping into Hynek's shoes is Game of Thrones' Aidan Gillen, but he's not the only reason to tune into the new series, which O'Leary describes as "X-Files in the time of Mad Men." Get the lowdown on everything to expect from Project Blue Book -- and why you should watch -- below.
1. The Cast Is Out of This World
O'Leary knew as soon as he saw Gillen in Game of Thrones that he had what it took to play Hynek -- while the characters are worlds apart, they share one particular thing in common: "The wheels are always turning," he noted.
During an interview with ET, however, Gillen said he was looking forward to keeping the similarities at a minimum. "So many people saw Game of Thrones and a character that's cold and manipulative," he said. "It'd be nice to be known, hopefully, for not as a scheming evildoer."
And if GoT wasn't your cup of tea, maybe The Vampire Diaries was. Michael Malarkey stars in Blue Book as Hynek's partner, Captain Michael Quinn, while Laura Mennell, Ksenia Solo, Neal McDonough and Michael Harney also star.
2. It Stays True to the Time Period
"I think our mantra is, always be as authentic to the time period as possible, to be as accurate to the time period as possible. But we also want to tell a great story," O'Leary shared, noting that while the first season takes place between the fall of 1951 and the summer of 1952, there are a few instances where they grabbed details from the slight future or past.
"The most important thing, for me, is that people, in every episode, they can look back and be like, 'Oh my god, This is what that was!'" he continued. O'Leary, who also co-executive produces the series alongside Robert Zemeckis, insisted that the show works in several areas to "make sure people get we're not making this stuff up." "This stuff really happened."
3. And It's Based on Real Cases
Over 12,000 sightings were reported to Project Blue Book during its time, and O'Leary intended to make use of as many as he could -- or at least the "juiciest." "All the headlines in the script are just real-life headlines," he told ET. "We try to keep as much of the details of the UFO event as accurate as we can to what was really reported."
"I think that's part of what we want to do, constantly remind people that while we're dramatizing aspects of the show, obviously, for the human storytelling and things like that, all the cases, all the weirdness and all the spookiness is rooted in real-life historical events and real-life reports and physical, tangible things you can find online and in history," he continued, pointing out abduction cases and the panic during the summer of 1952, when mysterious orbs of light appeared over two consecutive weekends in the Washington, D.C. area. "[We're trying to] bolster it and ground it in reality."
4. But It's Not Just About UFOs
"It's a saucer drama," Gillen told ET -- but it's a whole lot more. Adding an additional component to the story is Malarky's character, Captain Michael Quinn, who is based off of a real-life Air Force captain who was in charge of Project Blue Book. O'Leary changed his name to dramatize certain aspects of his character, molding him into the perfect on-screen partner for Hynek. "He's a straight-up Air Force-type guy," Gillen said of Quinn, compared to the curious, somewhat eccentric Hynek. "[But] they play well off each other, you know?"
In addition to the drama at work, there's some drama at home for Hynek, during which his wife, Mimi (Mennell), takes the lead.
"She isn't the normal wife character you see in a lot of these period shows, where she's maybe the sidekick, a 1950s housewife. I love that she has her own arc, and as much as she loves her husband and her son, I think she feels a little stagnant in her domestic duties of that time period -- like a lot of women would have," the actress teased. "She's missing something, and maybe feels a little bit lonely."
That's where Solo's character, Susie, comes in -- bringing a bit of a Cold War and Russian spy element with her. "Susie is the catalyst for so much change in Mimi. Susie is the ideal woman of the 1950s. She's so many things that Mimi isn't. She's confident, she's glamorous... [but] she helps Mimi come into her own and feel stronger and more assertive, despite the chaos around her," Mennell shared. "They just have a lot of fun, and [Solo and I] do in real life, too. It's been great."
5. The Costumes Are to Die For
It wouldn't be the '50s without a little vintage fashion, and Project Blue Book has that in spades, thanks to costume designer Carla Hetland. "Carla does an amazing job. The costumes are beautiful," Mennell raved. "Right from the start, Carla and I had a really good rapport, and we were able to find a common viewpoint on who Mimi should be. And we certainly had a lot of fun in the process."
Hetland pulled real, vintage pieces in-person and online and custom-built others for Mennell's looks, but the Canadian actress isn't the only one who worked with the costume designer to craft her character. "Every actor has input, and we were just on the same page, which is great. The producers and the director, it was a collaboration that everybody was happy with the direction we were going in," Hetland said during a tour of the show's massive costume closet. "And it's not just a costume. It's more than that... it helps them get into character."
Gillen, in fact, stands out to Hetland as the series star who perhaps transformed the most once in costume. The Irish actor was extremely involved in creating Hynek's look, emailing Hetland early on in the process with his ideas. "We decided that Hynek has a thing for ties, and so that's kind of his little signature piece. It's all about the tie," she revealed.
"He's also got one of Hynek's original ties," O'Leary divulged, adding that channeling Hynek went deep into the details. "We did a lot of research into like, what kind of tobacco did he use? What kind of pipes did he use? And I think we were pretty accurate on that."
6. And The Sets are Unreal
Working with O'Leary to bring the early '50s to life was production designer Ross Dempster, who essentially rebuilt the period on a Vancouver soundstage. Dempster oversaw everything, from creating buildings accurate to the time period to the "little backstories" contained in unexpected items around Hynek's home office.
"I don't recall any piece we were having trouble finding. There's still a lot [of vintage items] out there, and we know where to look," he said. "[I got set pieces from] thrift stores, certain collectors online, guys who have a garage that's completely full of junk. You just sift your way through it and find some gems."
He spent five to six weeks pulling everything together, and at the end of the process, he felt like he really found Hynek. "You stop whenever you start to feel what you've imagined the character is. You start to see that, then you know you've got it," he expressed.
7. It Has the Hynek Family's Blessing
Giving the stamp of approval throughout the process were two of Hynek's sons, Paul and Joel, who are consulting producers on the series. "For me, the most important thing was just that we had the Hyneks, and that [we explore] Allen Hynek's journey, who really is the eyes through which we see this whole thing," O'Leary said, revealing that he reached out to them early in the process of bringing the Project Blue Book story to screen.
Joel works as a visual effects supervisor, but both he and Paul understand the ins and outs of making TV, and ended up being a big asset to Gillen when he was preparing for the role. "To have that as a source is huge," he shared. "They understand that every episode is television drama, but it's based on history."
So, hitting the sweet spot between fact and fiction is Project Blue Book, which plays off some of the most wild aspects of American archives. "It's X-Files meets Mad Men, but real," said executive producer Jack Rapke. "Mad Men is more about the '50s, the culture at the time. X-Files is, of course, what the hell is going on here? Is it real? Is it a meteor? Or Is it something else?"
"Project Blue Book is fun, it's exciting and it's personally a subject that I've been endlessly fascinated by," he added, insisting that viewers don't need to believe in aliens to believe in the series. "If we could find our place in the middle of those two shows and deliver the promise [of entertainment inspired by history], we're golden."
Project Blue Book premieres Tuesday, Jan. 8 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on History.