Friday, January 13, 2006

The Omega Factor: Paranormal boogie

Finished watching the DVDs of The Omega Factor last night.

For those who don't recall, this was a BBC Scotland drama production from 1979, which concerned a mysterious government department investigating paranormal phenomena. The key characters were Tom Crane, a journalist with psychic tendencies and Anne Reynolds, a physicist. Got it? Open-minded male, hard-nosed scientific female, conspiracy theories, weird goings on... That's right, "borrowed" lock, stock and cliche by The X Files about 15 years later.

Anyroad up, I remember being gripped by the show when it first went out (indeed, the only time it went out, but more of that later). I was 11 at the time, and coming back to it there's the inevitable frisson - am I reviewing the show, or am I reviewing the development of my own critical abilities?

Well, let's say first that The Omega Factor has not aged well. Almost entirely shot on VT, and a lot of it in very obvious studio mockups, it seems endearingly cheap from the perspective of a quarter-century. And that's not even considering the special effects, which often look like some kind of failed demo from Tomorrow's World. Look! Look! That man has gone mad! Let's superimpose glowy pink blobs on his eyes to make him scary. Woooooo!

Moreover, individual shows seem baggy and formless. I don't know whether this is a problem of scripting, direction, editing or what, but there seem to be rather too many long shots of cars pulling up, or closeups of James Hazeldine looking pained and earnest, all for no particular reason. And the final episode stutters to a halt in a manner that's probably meant to be enigmatic and open-ended, but in the end feels as if nobody could quite decide how to bring matters to a close. No second series was commissioned, and the show was never repeated; the notes accompanying the DVD suggest this was because of the stink kicked up by Mary Whitehouse and her dysfunctional freaks, but I reckon it was because the show was just a bit lame.

Indeed, many of the best bits, sadly, fall into the so-bad-it's good camp. Louise Jameson's costumes, for example, hideous confections of polyester, often topped off by big tinted specs and/or mumsy felt hats, brought back a frisson of horror. And in one episode, we get the tantalising glimpse of that most BBC of entities, the made-up pop group (cf Dross in The Archers, The Banned in EastEnders, Fresh 'n' Fly in Grange Hill, John Smith & The Common Men in Dr Who). This time it's the appropriately kitted-out Terry and the Pirates, who are about to serenade the residents of a disturbingly twee Highland hotel when all hell breaks loose and destroys their chance of nationwide fame. I did note that one of Terry's Pirates (maybe Terry himself) was wielding a double-neck guitar, suggesting that punk hadn't permeated this far, even by 1979. Maybe that eyepatch was a Dr Hook reference...

But best of all was that other staple of desperate drama, the fake nightclub. Earnest young persons boogying in a defiantly sexless manner, and Louise Jameson nodding her head in approximate time. Suddenly, Tom sees his apparently dead wife, dancing in a manner that suggestive of advanced Parkinsons. "That's her," he announces. "I recognise her dancing style!"

This is then topped by the appearance of Philip Locke (who I remember as a respected member of the National Theatre company) in the role of a comedy Russian academic. "You're surprised to see me in a place like this?" he barks. "But I like dancing. I like pop music." He then attempts to prove it by shaking his funky whatnot in a manner that screams UNCLE/WEDDING. Sublime.

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