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Carl Sagan, Cosmos,
 and Everything

Barbara Mervine

Skeptical Briefs Volume 23.4, Winter 2013–2014

I enjoy researching paranormal topics, but I have to admit that while I enjoy online research, there is nothing like digging through a pile of old papers at an archive. Some researchers go into an archive with a specific goal in mind, looking for the letter or paper that supports or disproves a hunch they have. However, I like a bit of serendipity. I consider an archive like a dark, still pool. I like to give it a stir and see what pops up to the surface.

One of my favorite places to excavate is the Milne Special Collections at the University of New Hampshire Library in Durham. The librarians at UNH assure me that the Barney and Betty Hill archive housed there is quite popular, where new discoveries can still be made. The Hills, as many skeptics know, spawned the “alien abduction” craze, and their experiences set the template for many later reports.

One surprise I had was finding the fragile paper on which Barney Hill drew his conception of the UFO that he claimed abducted him in 1961. Resting unassumingly in a file, his simple drawing with his signature in the corner with the date, makes this paper one of the most important documents in paranormal history, and UFO lore/UFOlogy in particular. I found myself almost trembling when I had a chance to hold and photograph it.

My favorite surprise of the Hill Archive though, has to be the epic “Cosmos“ letters. This rather quirky bit of UFO history has a fascinating cast:

Betty Hill—Well known UFO personality, who claimed to have been abducted with husband Barney in 1961 while travelling in New Hampshire. Betty and Barney Hill were a biracial couple (quite unusual at the time), and their story was made into a book and TV movie.

John Fuller—Author of many books with paranormal themes. Wrote The Interrupted Journey about the abduction claim of Betty and Barney Hill. Not a fan of Carl Sagan.

James Earl Jones—The voice of Darth Vader and CNN’s catchphrase, but also owner of the rights to The Interrupted Journey. Starred as Barney Hill in a TV movie based on the book.

Stan Ferguson—Friend of Betty Hill. Also not a Sagan fan.

Carl Sagan—Host and creator of Cosmos, the most viewed PBS series in the world, and a world-famous astronomer, who was known to be open minded about the possibility of alien life and occasionally referred to himself as “Dr. Sagan.”

KCET—PBS station that produced Cosmos.

William Lamb—Senior Vice President at KCET Television.

Brenda Young—Attorney for Com­munity Television for Southern California.

Cosmos—Episode 12 features a short re­enactment of the Hill’s claimed abduction.

So follow along on the paper trail of the Cosmos incident.

The first hint I had was a handwritten letter to Betty Hill from her friend Stan Ferguson I just happened upon in the files. “I didn’t realize that C. Sagan had made so many errors until playing the tape back. The UFO Incident was more factual. One would think that a documentary like Cosmos would be more factual than a Hollywood dramatization. I’m surprised that Sagan didn’t have you black and Barney white!”

It took me a moment to realize the letter was talking about Carl Sagan and Cosmos. What had Sagan got so wrong, and why was Betty’s friend so upset about it?

I had only heard praise for the show, but the more I dug in the archive, the more negative comments I read about Sagan. Since he was known as a believer in life on other planets, and was an early supporter of SETI, I was surprised at all the anger. Fuller strikes first, in a letter to ICM (International Crea­tive Management). This is a talent agency. In a reply to an inquiry by Fuller, Roberta Pryor responds (dated 1/6/81): “On the PBS-Carl Sagan/Cosmos business it seems to me the easiest way would be to call up PBS and if you can’t do it perhaps James Earl Jones’ lawyer Stanley Rothen­burg would like to do it. If it is indeed a violation it seems to me that James Earl Jones, since he acquired the exclusive rights, would be the one who is jumping up and down.” At this point I am picturing James Earl Jones jumping up and down. But it seems Fuller, author of The Interrupted Journey, which Jones owns the rights to, is the one doing all the jumping.

Next comes quite a lot of confusion, as Fuller has dated a letter incorrectly. It took me a few hours until I figured this out. In a letter dated January 10, 1982 (should be 1981) to KCET’s William Lamb Senior VP “Mr. Carl Sagan’s shoddy and unscientific appraisal of the UFO subject is one thing. But his dramatization of a portion of my book The Interrupted Journey without permission is another. It is a further infringement of the motion picture rights of the book, which have been granted to James Earl Jone’s [sic] who appeared in the NBC-World Premier of the motion picture of the same literary work.”

So it appears Fuller is angry that the producers of Cosmos used the Hills’ story without his permission. Still, James Earl Jones now owns the rights, but that doesn’t stop Fuller from his quest for justice. The letter continues, “I am frankly surprised and disappointed that a public supported organization like yours would present such a one sided picture of a subject that is being studied by many scientists who are open-minded, and who find Mr. Sagan’s prejudiced and close-minded appraisal of the subject to violate every tenant of the scientific method.”

A letter dated 2/4/81 from William Lamb to Fuller helped considerably with the time line confusion: “In response to your letter to me dated January 10, 1982 (sic) re­garding the above referenced program, I must inform you that at no time did Dr. Sagan dramatize a portion of your book ‘The Interrupted Journey.’”

So, dates of letter problem solved. Fuller used the wrong year. Also please note that in these letters Sagan is always referred to as “Mr. Sagan” by Fuller and “Dr. Sagan“ by PBS.

The letter from Lamb to Fuller continues, “The Betty and Barney Hill incident is well known, particularly among UFO en­thusiasts, and has been covered in newspaper and magazine reports. There would have been no need to infringe upon your rights or upon the rights of James Earl Jones. If we were dealing with fictitious characters created by you, then I could understand your concern. However we are dealing with real people who told and retold their story of an encounter with alien beings.”

There was a paradoxical aspect to the letter: If the story were fiction, Fuller would have a case. He would have to admit it was all made up to make any money off of this. Of course, Betty and Barney Hill fully believed they had been abducted by aliens, this was nonfiction to them. How Fuller felt about aliens, being that he had a financial interest in aliens and other paranormal creatures being real, we may never fully know. (This is equivalent to the case of Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, who wrote The Holy Blood, The Holy Grail. Baigent and Leigh sued Dan Brown for copyright infringement. However, the judge ruled that since their book was presented as fact, not fiction, they did not have a case.)

The next letter is correctly dated 3/21/81. Fuller again writes to PBS: “I have just re­turned from England to receive your letter. I have to remind you and Mr. Sagan (I know of no PhD who refers to himself as ‘Dr.,’ including three Nobel Laureates whom I have met personally), that the personal story of Betty and Barney Hill is fully copyrighted, both in literary and film areas, and that any magazine or newspaper articles referring to the above either referenced to the book itself or reported opinions of the copyrighted story. At no point whatever did they dramatize even a portion of the material.”

The letter continues at the end to include this bit, where Betty Hill enters the story. Fuller claims Betty Hill is also not happy. What she seems to be not happy about is the depiction of her story in episode 12 of Cosmos “Since she is taking separate legal action on this phase of the case, I will refrain from commenting on that other than any distortions in that area are clearly a matter of litigation in addition to the copyright aspect.”

So how did Betty Hill feel? A letter Betty sent to Fuller is in the files, with commentary written by Fuller in a dark black pen. It’s a confusing letter to read, with circled words and Fullers thoughts injected here and there.

Dated 3/24/81, Betty’s letter to Fuller, with his commentary, holds a lot to wake up a sleepy researcher in a quiet library. “Thanks for the copies of the letters. Now, as for copywrite they showed a copy of my star map, which is copywrited. However they did use it on the program.”

Fuller has struck out and written “copyright,” but let the second misspelling pass. (I was pleased to see Betty makes the same spelling errors I do.)

At this point in the letter Fuller has written “NO!! The bastards! I talked with a couple of lawyers who felt that I really did not have much to complain about. They said I would need to show evidence that the presentation was harmful to me, financially, such as lectures which may have been scheduled, being cancelled out, this has not happened.” Betty Hill had a very busy career as a “UFO expert,” and my own feeling is that the Cosmos publicity would have increased her popularity as a speaker. She continues with her complaints about the depiction of her story on the show: “However, in the dramatization which was shown, the experience was false from what actually happened. Nothing was right—it was raining, we saw a light in the woods, and got out and staggered towards this. A Saganized fantasy, but using our names. Nothing was obtained from magazine, newspaper or other public materials. Mr. William J Lamb is an outright liar, in my opinion.”

I enjoyed the “Saganized fantasy“ comment, but I also felt sorry for Betty Hill. Ever since her experience, her story has been the source of endless study interest. It had to be very frustrating for her to be defending her story. She also lectured and granted interviews about her story and her subsequent UFO sightings. She was not seeking privacy when it came to UFOs. But the Sagan episode must have been a letdown, as I wonder if she possibly felt Sagan might give a positive depiction of her UFO experience. Betty Hill fully believed her UFO abduction was real.

A letter dated 6/11/81 has KCET’s Brenda Young responding: “Mr. Lamb has left KCET for a new position, and in his absence, I have been asked to respond to your letter to him dated March 21.1981. . . . Our records do not support your contention that all articles available to us either referred to your book or to opinions of the copyrighted story. However, we will be very interested in reviewing any documentation you may have supporting your claim of copyright infringement.”

The threatened lawsuits seem never to have happened. I asked a friend who works as a law clerk to look up any cases in Cali­fornia involving John Fuller, James Earl Jones, or Betty Hill. There was no mention of any lawsuit involving any of those people against Carl Sagan or PBS.

Most scientists consider life in the universe probable, though not yet confirmed. Aliens flying to Earth and abducting people is considered to be lacking in evidence. There exists a lot of eyewitness testimony from people like Betty Hill who fully believe aliens visit Earth. But, science demands more than eyewitness testimony. Scientific proof is still as elusive today as when Carl Sagan and KCET produced the first episode of Cosmos.

Still, the possibility of a lawsuit between Betty Hill, John Fuller, and James Earl Jones against PBS and Sagan makes me wonder how it would have turned out. Aliens on trial? Or copyright infringement? No matter what the outcome it would have been interesting. I look forward to watching the new updated Cosmos with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Or as John Fuller might like me to say, “Mr. Neil de Grasse Tyson.”

Barbara Mervine

Barbara Mervine runs the blog and is author of skeptic children’s books for pre­schoolers, including Fairy Tales, Fairly Told (available at She also lectures on the fun and challenges of working with everyone from alien abductees to Bigfoot hunters.