Tuesday, 25 January 2011

the omega factor

BBC Scotland's occult 1979 adult thriller The Omega Factor has been described as a forerunner to the X Files, Medium, Supernatural and Sea Of Souls, with elements of The Prisoner. However, it lasted only one series of 10 episodes, was never repeated and it was buried among the sci-fi DVD releases when it finally reappeared in 2006. It was also, despite the original BBC press release claims of "a stunning new thriller" which explored "the night and darkness of human experience", never going to match up to the hype. Produced on a minimal budget with lo-fi (though at times stunningly effective) special effects and shunted into the summer filler viewing schedules, it also came out at the end of a decade of apparently paranormal-obsessed TV. It definitely still has its moments though, and I can't believe that, among the search for 60s and 70s supernatural dramas that I was too young for, I missed this (thanks Clare Campbell), especially since I'm Scottish.

Shot mostly in Edinburgh, The Omega Factor makes full use of the city's inbuilt gothic ancestry and atmosphere - claustrophobic alleyway closes, oppressive stone buildings, dark streets, moody hills and crags - and Edinburgh zoo. (Those penguins - I always thought they were a bit spooky.) The story is of a secret government psychic unit, a newspaper reporter with psychic abilities and a conspiracy to take over the world using mind control. James Hazeldine is Tom Crane, a features journalist whose latest line in supernatural stories, powers of the mind, leads him to Edinburgh and a rogue psychic called Drexel, "the man that Crowley wouldn't meet", who is hiding out under an assumed name as an occult bookshop owner with a ghost-like assistant called Morag. Drexel's sinister warnings to Crane to leave town seem to result in the death of Crane's wife, but when Crane returns to confront them, the shop has been cleared out and Drexel and Morag have disappeared, leaving only a pentagram drawn on the floor.

Back in London, after the funeral Crane is approached by Roy Martindale, aka 'the man who looks like Gordon Burns from Krypton Factor'. Martindale is the head of Department 7, an Edinburgh-based government offshoot exploring psychic phenomena - ESP, telekenesis, poltergeists, out of body experiences. Department 7  want to make full use of the Omega factor, the ultimate potential of the human mind, and Crane has psychic abilities they can use, but Crane only agrees to join up because both he and Martinsdale want Drexel. Crane soon discovers that no one, especially Martindale, is what they appear, as all of them meddle with forces that, typically, they don't understand.

What follows are a mismatch of episodes and narrative covering everything from haunted houses that incur demonic possession to a military experiment that triggers off visions of Pictish soldiers dancing on a hill. There's plenty of slow-moving scenes, awkward dialogue and unconvincing acting, but there are ideas and scenes that are genuinely inventive, thrilling and chilling among them. Hallucinogenic cut-up visions, including a spectral Morag popping up in Crane's dreams, mix with stark shots of a burning man or a woman dead in a car and a creeping sense of dread, of things out of control or controlled by someone else. 

Mary Whitehouse called the fifth episode, Powers Of Darkness, "thoroughly evil" and "one of the most disturbing programmes I have ever seen on television" for its depiction of a student seance and hypnosis session which results in a girl convinced she's a 16th century witch, enacting a satanic ritual with a dead blackbird on a church altar, and Crane battling the devil to free her. Even though Whitehouse's longstanding campaign to rid TV of its sinful ways was on the verge of being treated as a ratings booster and source of jokes, in 1979 her organisation's view of The Omega Factor was still taken seriously, and helped to put the seal on a second series. Behind the scenes stories of supernatural goings-on on set - a ouija board falling over on its own, disappearing costume and clocks stopping simultaneously - were good PR, but also added to the mystique of the series when told on the documentary accompanying the DVD release.

By the way, the Koestler Parapsychology Unit in Edinburgh, which was set up in 1985, is a real-life psychic study unit, but it's not secret, or the root of any government conspiracies that I know of.

1 comment:

  1. Looks great. Any objection from Mary Whitehouse usually guaranteed that the object of her disapproval was doing something right :)