These days there are plenty of people speculating about these visitors in their Tic-Tacs and other strange craft. Some are all in on extraterrestrials, thinking they’re Grays, Reptoids, Mantids, Nordics, AIs, etc. Others think they may be ultraterrestrials from another dimension. Maybe they even come from the center of the Earth. And now, more commonly, some are even saying that maybe, just maybe, they’re us from the future.
This future talk makes me think of my past. I wrote the first original film for Syfy (Sci-Fi Channel back then) called Official Denial in 1993 (based on a script I first wrote back in 1988 called Progenitor). And that movie was all about the big mystery revealed in the penultimate scene in the film.
It wasn’t where they were from, you see, it was when.
In the world of science fiction, time travel stories have always fascinated writers. Of course, they usually work best when audiences don’t think about the scenario too deeply — just as Sarah Conner mused in the voice-over to her unborn child while on the run in Mexico at the end of the first Terminator film.
Should I tell you about your father? Will it change your decision to send him here, knowing that he is your father? But if you don’t send Kyle, you could never be. God, a person can go crazy thinking about this…
Well, yes, a person could go crazy thinking about this. I’m Exhibit A.
The original draft of Official Denial was called Progenitor. The classic definition of a progenitor is a direct ancestor but that’s where the time travel loop came in. We are the progenitors of these visitors in a strictly linear sense, yes, but if they’ve come back to our present from their future and altered timelines then it could be argued that they were their own progenitors.
Have a headache yet? We’re just getting started.
Working as a young writer/producer in the entertainment industry in the late 1980s, I’d created a primetime network TV series, and was having a good run and decided to roll the dice. This led to a decision to spec (write it for free and then try to sell it) a screenplay on the abduction topic. Hollywood was ablaze at the time with the idea of the “high concept,” the core idea from which all else flowed. This had a good one.
What if the government knew that Strieber was telling the truth, for example, and knew that alien abductions were real? What if our military wired up his house so the next time these Visitors came for him, it would set off electronic trip-wires, and the military could target the craft and shoot it down?
“Operation: Forced Encounter” was the plan that the feds (or, in my movie, Majestic-12) came up with to use this poor, miserable abductee (Paul Corliss in my fictional story) as bait in a cosmic game. The government was willing to officially deny UFO reality at the same time it was deeply obsessing over it. So the main character was being made to feel he was losing his mind, jeopardizing his marriage, and his happiness.
The plan was to bring down the biggest damn UFO they could find, tear it apart, and interrogate the occupants.
Their plot worked. All the aliens but one died. The one who survived was dying and refusing to communicate. So they brought in the abductee, Paul Corliss, the only person they figured this strange visitor might talk to, in order to see what might happen. The human’s mind got controlled by the alien, they escaped together, and the search was on.
Being a fan of Rod Serling and the Twilight Zone, it made sense for it to have a twist ending, something in the neighborhood of Charleton Heston finding the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes.
Given that the film was made a quarter of a century ago, I think we can do without spoiler alerts.
They were us.
My twist ending was that the aliens were not extraterrestrial at all. They were evolved (or devolved) humans, coming back in time, to cause a ripple effect in the human bloodline that could keep them from making the mistakes they’d made and keep humanity alive. Although they were trying to stay in the shadows and not screw up time, the fact that we shot one of them down, changed the timeline. Then all bets were off.
That script, Progenitor, found its way to the top of L.A. Law showrunner David E. Kelley’s reading pile. He hired me to work on that show based on it and I wrote two episodes in 1991. It was obviously not about the American legal system but Kelley said it held his attention every page and that was the top priority for his show.
From Page to Stage
It took five years after that spec script was written to sell it and get it made. For a few years, particularly after its success at L.A. Law, my agent would report what a great writing “sample” it was. It got me work. Everybody wanted to read it, but no one was ready to make it.
That changed when a company named Wilshire Court Entertainment bought the script, and then sold it to the Sci-Fi Channel which had only just launched in September of 1992. It was fast-tracked to production, becoming the first original film ever produced by them. It aired just over a year after they opened up shop.
The first shooting script was dated December 5, 1992 (it’s incorrectly written as 1993 in this title page).
I specifically remember spending many hours with executive Matt Gross up in the company’s offices chasing around all the inherent contradictions in a time travel story. One day one of us blurted out, “The future is unwritten.” It became not only a key concept, but one that allowed us to make sense of the ending we both wanted.
Official Denial was made on a shoestring budget in Australia, and while some of the special effects were passably good for the time, the core challenge was the alien.
The decision was made to use a real person inside a rubbery alien suit to portray “Dos,” the sole survivor of the crash. It could have come out better, despite the fact that everyone gave it their all — from director Brian Trenchard-Smith to the young woman in the outfit, Holly Brisley, a 15-year-old dancer in her first major role. The experience taught me one lesson — get the aliens right — that impacted strongly how we set out to visualize the Grays from the alien Hive in my subsequent NBC invasion series, Dark Skies.
Finally, Official Denial aired on the Sci-Fi Channel on November 20, 1993.
The Film’s Reception
Worth noting is that we got better reviews than we expected. Daily Variety’s Dominic Griffin said that “Official Denial marks the Sci-Fi Channel’s first vidpic, and is a promising and entertaining debut.” He wrote:
Telefilms that deal with alien abductions require a certain suspension of disbelief, and writer Bryce Zabel and director Brian Trenchard-Smith accomplish this: The mystery unravels at a nice pace so as not to overload the skepticism neurons. While no “Jurassic Park,” the visual effects are of high quality… The thesping isn’t bad, with Everett standing out, especially in the tense H.Q. scenes. Telefilm is an exciting debut into the TV movie arena by the Sci-Fi Channel and the future — assuming the world has one — looks bright.
As Robbie Graham, a man who has seen every alien film and TV series ever made, wrote in Silver Screen Saucers: Sorting Fact from Fantasy in Hollywood’s UFO Movies:
1993 saw the TV broadcast of Bryce Zabel’s small-screen movie Official Denial, an ambitious exploration of UFO conspiracy lore featuring all elements of the emerging UFO core story, from MJ-12 and UFO crash-retrievals, to an alien in US government custody. It even anticipated reports to follow of military abductions of UFO experiencers (known in UFOlogy as ‘MILABS’). Official Denial was perhaps the most explicitly UFOlogical movie ever produced at that point.
In addition to all that, Official Denial also introduced my obession with the issue of UFO disclosure. The two characters — Paul Corliss and General Spalding — represented the two polarities, both potentially true. Corliss felt that “the people have a right to know.” Spalding felt that those same people “couldn’t handle the truth.” This clip above shows a scene where they go head-to-head on that issue. In reality, I think that people in the know in Washington, D.C. are still making similar arguments today.
The Future is Unwritten
General Spalding and Paul Corliss have a contentious relationship in the film but, by the end, having been through so much together, they have come to a grudging acceptance of each other. This is their final conversation, the Twilight Zone style twist ending that changes everything.
General Spalding: Tell me where they’re from. We had a deal.
Paul Corliss: Not where. When.
Corliss: They’re not aliens. They’re us. From the future.
Researcher Robbie Graham also noted this aspect of the film in the chapter he devotes to it in his book.
The movie was also original in its theorizing that the aliens might not be aliens at all, but rather humans from our distant future. This idea had not featured prominently in UFO literature prior to Official Denial, but it would become increasingly popular in the years that followed, particularly among a number of self-proclaimed ‘whistle-blowers’ in the new millennium who would speak of multiple “timelines” relating to time-travelling UFOs and their trans-human occupants.
So, yes, rubber-suited alien notwithstanding, Official Denial became something larger than a simple, low-budget film made for a new cable network called the Sci-Fi Channel. It may have kicked the door open to consider the idea that aliens might not be extraterrestrials.
Life Imitates Art
As it further turns out, Official Denial has been highlighted as potentially having an impact on the famous Rendlesham Forest case from 1980. Writer Ian Ridpath drew the connection in a post he wrote, “Official Denial: The Source of a False Memory?” In it, he invokes the case of Sgt. Jim Penniston who was there for the RAF Woodbridge sighting.
Ridpath mentions that in September 1994 (ten months after the film’s release and four months after the VHS release), Penniston was hypnotized and claimed he’d had telepathic communication with the craft’s occupants who he said had come from Earth’s future to gather genetic material to help them survive.
In this film, an alien craft is shot down by the USAF and lands in a forest. A contactee communicates telepathically with a creature from the craft who tells him they have come ‘to get genetic material to help them reproduce because their race is dying out.’ And where are they from? ‘They’re not aliens. They’re us. From the future — our future.’
This controversy is similar to the skeptic’s charges that Betty and Barney Hill had seen an episode of Outer Limits before Barney’s hypnosis. It also invokes the idea that Travis Walton has seen The UFO Incident (about the Hill case) only a few weeks prior to his own abduction.
A few years back, I contacted Penniston to ask him about it. He stated unequivocally that he had never seen my film.
What About Time Travel for Real?
The notion of aliens as extratemporals has its own puzzles and inconsistencies. If people of the future are our visitors, then presumably there is another time stream in which we do not have a UFO phenomenon — at least in the original time stream where the decision was made to go back into the human past. Or does the whole thing go in some bizarre loop? In A.D. After Disclosure, my co-author Richard Dolan and I had this to say on the subject:
While such a left-turn makes for a dramatic surprise, it also explains why sightings increased markedly after the Second World War. That could simply be the “jump time” when the modern age began to truly unfold. It also might explain why they have been seen throughout human history. Could it be that, in a different time stream, there were no “ancient aliens” visiting our ancestors, but that future time traveling humans made the decision to appear in our past? From our present-day perspective, we would perceive these visits as ancient when, conceivably, they might be occurring at the same time as ours.
Heads spin. It’s a theory. It may be possible although it may not be probable. On the other hand, maybe the truth is close to the film’s premise. Something has gone wrong, or is about to go wrong, and they are here to assess and fix, if possible.
At the end of the day, I come back to “The Future is Unwritten,” and find hope in that phrase. Maybe it means that it’s not too late for us. We can still fix our planet and learn to live in harmony with the Earth. We can turn away from war and nuclear weapons.
The ending of Official Denial shows that Corliss and his wife, Annie, have a baby, something that was impossible for them at the beginning of the movie. Their lack of heirs was confirmed by the computer banks on-board the crashed ship. Yet Dos returning to our present had re-written his future. In that crazy time loop, Paul and Annie now have a baby together in that final scene. They name her Hope.
Because you can’t stream Official Denial, or watch it on DVD, or even find a poor quality VHS anywhere, here’s a YouTube video of the entire film at theend of this article.
A few years back, the prolific and talented director Sylvain White approached me about trying to get the film remade. As it turns out, I only sold the TV rights to Wilshire Court and the Sci-Fi Channel, and I have full rights to remake a feature film version. Imagine that. So Sylvain and I have developed that idea, and I’ve written a brand new, updated to 2021 screenplay for it, now titled Cosmic.
So, really, who knows? The future is unwritten, right?
Maybe time travelers came back from the future and somehow gave me the idea back in 1988 when I wrote that first draft. Maybe Sylvain is a time traveler himself sent back to get the film remade so we can save humanity. God, a person can go crazy thinking about this…