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“Alien Autopsy” Show-and-Tell: Long on Tell, Short on Show

Media Watch

C. Eugene Emery Jr.

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 19.6, November / December 1995

There’s nothing more maddening than having someone invite you to make up your own mind about a controversy, only to have them refuse to give you the tools to do it.

That’s precisely what the Fox television network did August 28 and September 4, 1995, when it presented a one-hour special “Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?” that was billed as the network premiere of a 17-minute film purporting to be the autopsy of a space creature found near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. [See also the SI Special Report on Roswell by Philip J. Klass in this issue, and Joe Nickell’s column.]

Instead of simply showing the 17 minutes, viewers got to see maybe three, four, or five minutes of footage chopped up into MTV-sized snippets that were repeated throughout the hour.

Instead of a tough skeptical analysis of a film that has been kept tightly under wraps by its owner, executive producer Robert Kiviat — whose resume includes being a coordinating producer on Fox’s pseudoscience newsmagazine program “Encounters” — “Alien Autopsy” tended to showcase interviews from people who seemed convinced that the footage was either real, or a complicated hoax that would have been extremely difficult to pull off.

“Alien Autopsy” was far from one-sided. Kiviat repeatedly had the host, “Star Trek” actor Jonathan Frakes, note that the movie could be a hoax, and Kiviat addressed some key criticisms. But other important criticisms were muted, ignored, taken out of context, or simply brushed aside.

It’s understandable that some people would be impressed by the film. The snippets the producers chose to air looked convincing in many ways. Scalpels seemed to cut flesh. A skin flap from the skull seemed to be pulled over the face. Dark innards were removed from the brain area and the body cavity, and placed into pans. The tools and equipment seemed to be from the right era.

Yet when it comes to exposing a clever fraud, the devil is in the details.

By failing to show the entire film, one was left to wonder whether Fox was leaving out the portions that might have flagged the movie as bogus.

“Alien Autopsy” comes at a difficult time for UFO enthusiasts. Today’s cutting-edge UFO tales have become so extraordinary, they're often met with derision, even by people in the increasingly sensationalist media.

That’s why the focus seems to have shifted to Roswell, where the details are still intriguing enough to fire the imagination, and the facts and recollections have been polished bright by the passage of time. With its simple tale of a crashed saucer, a few space aliens, and a government cover-up, the Roswell story seems far more plausible (relatively speaking) than today’s tales of aliens passing through walls, millions of Americans being abducted by sex-obsessed space creatures, and extra- terrestrials who create alien-human babies.

UFO believers thought they had the Roswell affair pretty well figured out. “Alien Autopsy” has shaken things up because the images in the film don’t always conform to the picture the believers have painstakingly constructed over the years. The creature on the autopsy table is tall, its eyes are too small, it has too many fingers and toes, and it looks too humanlike, complete with humanlike ears and toenails.

Some enthusiasts had expressed the fear that “Alien Autopsy” would discredit some of the work that has gone into uncovering the truth at Roswell. Such fears may be justified. In the media, it’s the images, not facts, that shape public attitudes and debates these days. Long after people have forgotten the details of a Roswell book or article, they're going to remember the video of this six-fingered “alien” undergoing an “autopsy.”

The film snippets that were shown raised all kinds of questions, and provided few answers. Some examples:

The fact is, an autopsy on a creature this extraordinary wouldn’t be done the way this one was. The being would have been turned over so the back could be examined (in fact, the “doctors” seemed reluctant to move the body much at all). The skin would have been carefully stripped away to examine the pattern of the musculature. The origin and insertion of individual muscles would have been documented. Samples would have been taken, weighed, recorded and photographed. Only then would the people behind the protective hoods have gone deeper into the gut, repeating the documentation process.

When critics have questioned the quick removal of the black sheath on the eyes, the argument has been made that this was the third or fourth alien autopsied, so the procedure was becoming easier. The argument doesn't wash. Unless this was one of scores of alien bodies, researchers would want to handle each case with excruciating care so they could compare and contrast the individuals.

Unfortunately, the people who were skeptical of the film — ironically, including people prominent in the UFO movement — were given little time and almost no opportunity to explain their skepticism, making them appear to be little more than debunkers. Kent Jeffrey, who argued months earlier that the film is a hoax, only got to predict that it will probably eventually be exposed as a fraud. The criticisms of one Hollywood filmmaker, who thought the movie was bogus, were quickly countered by a cameraman from the era who said it wasn’t surprising that this autopsy cameraman would allow his view to be blocked or parts of the movie to be out of focus.

Then there were things the show didn’t tell viewers.

“Alien Autopsy” quoted Laurence Cate of Kodak, who said the markings on the film indicate it was manufactured in 1927, 1947 or 1967. The program didn’t make it clear that Cate is not an expert in authentication, according to the Sunday Times of London.

Paolo Cherchi Usai, senior curator at George Eastman House, a photography museum, based his observation that the film would be difficult to fabricate on seeing the 17 minutes of film and about five frames of leader film that carried no date coding and was supposedly clipped from the beginning of one of the rolls of film. Conclusive tests on the film had yet to be done.

The Hollywood special effects team led by Stan Winston gave the most impressive testimonial. But I got the impression they were being asked to gauge the difficulty of staging a bogus alien autopsy back in 1947. Winston and his associates said the special effects were good, even by today’s standards, but from the clips shown on “Alien Autopsy,” this television program didn’t seem to come close to rivaling the quality of films you could rent in any video store.

The bottom line is that if the film is legitimate and this is the first solid evidence of life on other planets, it deserves real authentication, not the casual checking the program provided.

Independent experts need to pinpoint the date of the frames, then examine all the reels to be sure the entire film has the same date code. For all we know, most of the film is from contemporary stock. Checking the whole film would dramatically narrow the range of possibilities for a hoax.

The cameraman needs to be identified and questioned to confirm that he exists, that he was in the military, and that he really was the cameraman. There’s been talk that he wants to avoid being prosecuted by the government for keeping a copy of the film all these years. That’s claptrap. If the film is a hoax, why would the government bother him? If the film is real, dragging a more-than-80-year-old military veteran into court would be an admission by the government that the footage is real, and that would spark some tough questions about who or what was on that examining table. The government, not the photographer, would be on the hot seat.

But instead of insisting on authentication first, Fox seemed intent on milking the movie for every penny possible. The network repeated the program one week after its original showing and tried to drum up renewed interest for the rerun by promising more footage from the 17-minute film. Those who turned in saw about three additional minutes of footage, but Fox still didn’t show the whole 17-minute film. In all, the autopsy sequences were only on the screen for 13-1/2 minutes and, once again, that total included clips that were shown repeatedly.

It was not what you would expect from a major network that thought it was broadcasting a history-making film.

It was, however, what you would expect from a network trying very hard not to spoil an illusion.

C. Eugene Emery Jr.

Gene Emery is a science and medical writer. His weekly computer software column appears on the Reuters news service. His address is 46 Highland Street, Cranston, RI 02920.