By Matthew Kresal
Seventy-five years ago today, the press office of the US Army Air Force's 509th Bomb group released a press statement. In it, the world's only nuclear-armed military unit announced to the world, "The many rumors regarding the flying disc became a reality yesterday," as they had been "fortunate enough to gain possession of a disc" thanks to a rancher locating wreckage on a nearby ranch. The press release was the public starting gun of an event that would make the name of the base and the nearby town famous in the decades to come, with a legacy that has extended even into the realms of alternate history: Roswell.
Ironically, the story of the Roswell Incident, as it's become known thanks to the 1980 book of the same name, almost ended before it began. Within 24 hours of the press release, as the story was making national and soon to be international news, a hastily convened press conference was held at the Army Air Force base in Fort Worth, Texas. In front of the press, Brigadier General Roger Ramey had the 509th's intelligence officer, Jesse Marcel, hold up the supposed wreckage, revealing that, as far as the US government was concerned, the crashed flying saucer was a weather balloon. Even as the first wave of flying saucer sightings continued across the summer of 1947, Roswell faded into obscurity.
Until the 1970s, at least. It was then that, as so often happens, history turned on the seemingly innocuous. In this case, nuclear physicist turned UFO researcher Stanton Friedman giving a TV interview in Louisiana to promote an upcoming lecture. After finishing the interview, one of the station employee's mentioned the now retired Marcel as someone Friedman should speak to, having claimed to handle one of the craft. By the end of the decade, Marcel's testimony would form the backbone of the first book on the event and even be interviewed in the Leonard Nimoy hosted series In Search Of.. . If not for an off-hand remark, perhaps Roswell would have remained a footnote in the burgeoning field of ufology.
Instead, Roswell would spend the 1980s and early 1990s worming itself into wider culture. Thanks to notionally factual series like In Search Of... and Unsolved Mysteries, the events at Roswell became more widely known, enough so that authors and those making both film and television began to incorporate it into their narratives. By the mid-1990s, as UFOs once more became part of the pop culture zeitgeist, the US Air Force would seek to squash what British writer Nick Redfern has called the "ufological Jack the Ripper." Namely, the Air Force would explain the events as a combination of an errant classified balloon project in 1947 and subsequent crash-test dummy tests conducted throughout the 1950s and 1960s. By then, however, Roswell had inspired what has become an overlooked alternate history television series.
Co-created by future Sidewise Award winner Bryce Zabel, that series was Dark Skies. Premiering on the American NBC network on the 21st of September 1996 and airing on Channel 4 in the UK, Zabel and co-creator Brent Friedman used the events at Roswell and the burgeoning UFO lore as the basis for their series. More than that, Zabel and Friedman would blur the line between the perceived sub-genres of alternate history and secret history in their series, launching it not in the 1940s or 1950s but in the early 1960s.
It is in the early 1960s that young congressional staffer John Loengard (played by Eric Close) and his White House aide girlfriend, Kim Sayers (Meagan Ward), learn that, to quote the series Emmy-winning title sequence, "history as we know it is a lie."
As they and viewers learned, the events at Roswell in the summer of 1947 marked the opening shots in a secret war between a shadowy US government agency called Majestic and a ganglion like extra-terrestrial intelligence known as the Hive. A war waged by Navy Captain Frank Bach (the late J.T. Walsh in one of his final screen roles) that would encompass events ranging from the 1960 U-2 incident to the JFK assassination, the first US TV appearance of the Beatles, and the 1965 Northeast blackout. One which not only tied in those events but real-figures as well, including Robert Kennedy, Jim Morrison, Carl Sagan, and Howard Hughes. By design, the pair had created an alternate history of the recent past, tweaking events and adding a ufological subtext with the inclusion of things such as the supposed cover-up group Majestic and a number of real-life UFO events.
Zabel and Friendman had created an ambitious series, even more so that might appear here on the surface. As the series bible revealed, and which I got to explore more deeply in my 2020 book on the series for Obverse's Silver Archive range of Cult TV guides, the pair had planned a sweeping multi-decade story arc playing out against the canvas of five seasons. One that would take Loengard, Sayers, and the shadowy conflict through the Moon landings, Watergate, the computer revolution, Reagan's dreams of "Star Wars," and, finally, a confrontation at the turn of the 21st century. Plans that weren't to reach fruition thanks to a combination of studio and network politics combined with an early Saturday evening slot where it faced frequent pre-empting. The series aired its final episode at the end of March 1997, retaining a cult following among genre fans and those interested in ufology.
Roswell would also play a role in a blockbuster film released in 1996 that, thanks to a belated sequel, has become a retroactive work of alternate history. Fox's Independence Day famously lost out on official US Department of Defense co-operation with filmmakers Roland Emmerich and Dean Deviln due to their incorporation of Roswell and the Nevada military facility known as Area 51 in the film's plot, but the film's use of both in its climax helped cement both into popular culture at large. Meanwhile, part of the promotional blitz for the film's release included Dirk Maggs' BBC Radio 1 "audio movie" Independence Day UK, which presented the events of the film's opening act from a UK perspective, beginning with a series of in-universe radio broadcasts that included an appearance by astronomer and media personality Sir Patrick Moore playing himself. Modeled on Orson Welles' 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, it offered the events of the film not only from an international perspective, but (for its opening half or so) from an alternate 1996, as well.
In some ways, Maggs' "audio movie" set the tone for what was to come. While the original film was vague on the year it took place beyond something in the approximate near-present, when Independence Day became a franchise, it nailed events retroactively to 1996. Spin-off novels such as Silent Zone detailing early efforts to reverse engineer the Roswell craft and its technology followed suit, but it wasn't until the 2016 sequel film Resurgence that the franchise slipped so far into alternate history. Promotion for the sequel and sequences in the movie itself played up "The War of 1996," including a viral website and video clips from an un-universe documentary that put the film's fictional President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) alongside real-life 1996 world leaders.
The results of this were arguably mixed. On the one hand, it offered opportunity for spin-off writers and promotional material to exploit, filling in two decades of history between the events of the films. Among them was Greg Keyes novel Independence Day: Crucible, which explored much of the social, political, and technological ramifications of the 1996 film while setting up plot elements for the sequel, including the abscene of Will Smith's character of fighter pilot Steve Hiller. Yet the choice of 1996 date created continuity issues, including the fact that now former President Whitmore was mentioned as having served as a fighter pilot during the 1991 Gulf War and later as a Senator in the original film, something which made his being elected President in 1992 per the timeline unlikely. Independence Day, however, being far from the only franchise to suffer from the flaws of retconning, as Tom Anderson has noted elsewhere on this blog with his Prequel Problems series, for example.
Roswell and alternate history might intersect once more. For those who believe that whatever came down in the New Mexico desert seventy-five years ago was more than a balloon and test dummies, one of the lingering question has been what might have happened if the presumed cover-up had instead given way to openness. Or even if the RAAF press release had gained enough traction it couldn't be so easily swept under the rug. In a full circle moment of possibility, the original 2013 Mill City Press edition of Zabel's Sidewise Award-winning novel Surrounded by Enemies mentioned two planned follow-up books in the same vain as part of the alt.Worlds strand. The latter of them was entitled In the Shadow of the Saucers: What if Truman Disclosed Roswell? with the military response getting off to a later start. As of July 2022, the sequel novel has yet to appear, though a version of the first of the planned books involving the Beatles staying together longer appeared (as well as a reprinted and slightly revised version of Zabel's earlier novel) as Once There Was a Way, part of the Breakpoint strand from Diversion Press in 2017, winning another Sidewise Award.
Until if and when Zabel's novel appears, works such as Dark Skies and the retroactive alternate history of Independence Day have given Roswell a proverbial seat at the table. A place that might never have come if not for a rancher's chance discovery or an off-hand remark decades later in a Louisiana television studio. Whatever fell out of the New Mexico sky in 1947, its legacy lives on even in histories that might have been.