Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Paranormal Activity


Burning ambition: this fondly remembered supernatural series 
ignited the wrath of moral crusader Mary Whitehouse.

BBC Scotland's THE OMEGA FACTOR is a forerunner to THE X-FILES, but without the budget or pretention. Born from the ashes of the cancelled second series of journalist drama THE STANDARD, here the lead protagonist is occult writer Tom Crane (James Hazeldine). Crane's latent psychic abilities lead him into Department 7, a government agency which investigates the paranormal, where he is partnered with family acquaintance Dr Anne Reynolds (Louise Jameson, a recently resigned Leela from DOCTOR WHO). Crane joins the organisation as a means of finding rogue psychic Edward Drexel (Cyril Luckham) and assistant Morag (Natasha Gerson), both involved in the death of his wife; yet, after Drexel is killed, Tom becomes increasingly aware of another shadow enterprise, one which strives to assemble the cream of extrasensory perceptive individuals.

For a programme steeped in otherworldly abilities, THE OMEGA FACTOR feels strangely grounded because of its lack of money and threadbare effects. This enhances Hazeldine's already standout performance, mixing his drive to avenge his wife's death, to come to terms with his own powers, and the vain attempt to assimilate within Department 7 with a secretive superior, namely psychiatrist Dr Roy Martindale (John Carlisle). Like any anthology shows - here with a wide range of writers and directors over ten episodes - there is an inherent unevenness in style and quality, encompassing a heady and diverse set of topics: spectral analogue technology (VISITATIONS), sonic weaponry (NIGHT GAMES), sleep deprivation (AFTER-IMAGE), poltergeists (CHILD'S PLAY), and even astral projection to political means (OUT OF BODY, OUT OF MIND). 

James Hazeldine and Louise Jameson are the Mulder and Scully 
of BBC paranormal drama, with added intimacy. 

POWERS OF DARKNESS is the episode the show is most remembered for, infamously labelled "thoroughly evil [and] one of the most disturbing things I have seen on television" by Mary Whitehouse. History student Jenny (Maggie James) is possessed by a witch, culminating in an altar ritual involving a dead blackbird and a Demon. Mixing a seance, drug use, knife violence and human combustion, this fed into Whitehouse's disgust at any portrayal of Eucharist abstraction, and general distrust of popular entertainment. Two weeks later BBC Scotland Head of Drama Roderick Graham admitted that the BBC's own standards of decency had been breached during ST ANTHONY'S FIRE, where a woman kills her husband with a bread knife. The BBC's Guidance Notes on Violence, which dictated permissible levels, specifically mentioned that dramas were to avoid violent acts that could be easily copied. Graham stated that "the point has been forcibly made to those who were responsible for the programme".

The penultimate entry, DOUBLE VISION, is unnerving because it is so understated. Tom keeps seeing his dead wife Julia (Joanne Tope) in and around Edinburgh; in DON'T LOOK NOW fashion, when running after her, the red-coated figure darts around corners and remains constantly out of touching distance, like the dream sensation of a goal forever out of reach. For the husband to discover this was an elaborate ploy leaves an unsavory taste, as the show leads to its THE PRISONER-like conclusion. The final episode - called ILLUSIONS - ends fittingly on a closed door, leaving further adventures to be picked up in a series of Big Finish audio dramas, where Jameson returns as Reynolds, now head of the department.