The Omega Factor was a short-lived conspiracy thriller set in the murky world of psychical research, broadcast by BBC Scotland in 1979. James Hazeldine played Tom Crane, an investigative journalist specialising in the occult and paranormal. Keen to interview Drexil, an ageing black magician with suspected historic connections to the Third Reich, Crane travels to Scotland. There, his wife, Julie, is killed in a car crash brought on by Drexil's psychic powers, or those of his mysterious, silent assistant Morag.
Crane finds himself developing psychic powers, and is recruited by a sinister secret servant, Scott Erskine into Department 7, secret government research unit exploring ESP and the paranormal, headed by Dr. Roy Martindale. Crane also develops a close professional and personal relationship with the physicist, Dr. Anne Reynolds, played by Louise Jameson. Fans of Dr.Who will remember her as the barbarian warrior woman, Leela, one of the companions of Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor. Crane also finds that his brother has also been recruited into the organisation.
As Crane and Reynolds pursue their investigations, with Crane intent on tracking down Drexil, they uncover another, far more secretive and sinister organisation, Omega. Omega are taking Department 7's research and using it to develop systems of mind control that threaten human freedom across the globe. They are ruthless, killing, abducting and destroying their opponents minds and bodies. And their power reaches to the heart of Department 7 and at the highest levels of the civil service.
During its 10 episodes, the series referred to and explored a variety of paranormal topics, including hypnosis, sensory deprivation, poltergeists, witchcraft demonic possession, the Ouija board, mind control using drugs or ultrasound, the 'stone tape' theory of ghosts, Findhorn and intelligence in plants, witchcraft, doppelgangers, astral projection and out of body experiences, telepathy and the Ganzfeld experiments, psychic conditioning and assassination, and Street Lamp Interference.
Drexil seems partly based on the notorious Aleister Crowley. As well as being a black magician, Drexil also, like Crowley, has founded a series of occult groups. One of these was the Golden Light, whose name clearly harks to the Golden Dawn. And a members of these groups, including a woman, have died in mysterious circumstances, rather like the death of one of Crowley's female disciples at his 'Abbey of Thelema' in Sicily.
In the documentary on the programme included in the special features, the creators, producer, director and writers state that the programme was based very much on 'what was in the air at the time'. The '70s were a period of increasing interest in the occult and paranormal. It was the decade that saw the launch of the magazine, The Unexplained, edited by Magonia's long-term friends and contributors, Peter Brookesmith and Lynn Picknett. American astronauts had performed ESP experiments in space during the Apollo missions, and it seemed that parapsychology was on the verge of becoming an established, respectable science. The programme's producers were also friends with the late Prof. Archie Roy, an astronomer, formerly the leading members of the Society for Psychical Research. Roy also wrote thrillers containing parapsychology, and agreed to look over the scripts.
Edinburgh is the Gothic city of R.L. Stevenson, but its university was also the home of the Arthur Koestler parapsychology laboratory. Gerson also had an interest in history, and the episode 'Powers of Darkness', in which a female student is hypnotically regressed to a past life, in which she was a witch, was inspired by his research into the North Berwick witches and the Bridie Murphy case. The series was also strongly influenced by the superpowers' interest in psychic abilities as a tool for espionage. Two of the foreign psychical researchers in the series are eastern European. One is an East German defector, while the name of another, Vashevski, seems to reflect the Russians' own military psychic research. I also wondered if the character's Russian-sounding name may have been partly inspired by the SPR's John Beloff, who sadly died a few years ago.
The blurb on the back of the DVD sleeve states that since the programme was first aired, it has 'been lauded as the show which inspired other iconic thrillers such as The X-Files. I'm not sure if the programme was an influence on the latter series, as I understood Chris Carter based his show on Kolchak: The Night-Stalker, a series about a newspaper journalist investigating cases of the weird and paranormal. Nevertheless there are parallels between the two. In both series, the conspiracy reaches into the heart of the departments in which the heroes work. Crane, like Mulder, infiltrates army bases and secret laboratories in pursuit of the truth. Also like Mulder, Crane is in constant trouble with his immediate boss, Roy Martindale, and is on the verge of being thrown out of the organisation. And Erskine is also the source of secret information, rather like the X-Files' Deep Throat and X.
There are also differences as well as similarities. The Omega Factor concentrated very much on the paranormal and psychic, whereas the X-Files also included weird science – Artificial Intelligence, genetic engineering, cryptozoology and, famously, UFOs and alien abductions. UFOs were also very much in the news in the 1970s. The Travis Walton case was also reported on British television in 1976, as well as local news programmes on the Warminster Thing, and various documentaries, including one which attacked and demolished Erich von Daniken's ancient astronaut ideas. However, the X-Files' story arc about UFOs and alien infiltration was strongly based on the abduction scare which emerged later in the 1980s. As I recall, television in the '70s was rather more sceptical. The programme I recall about UFOs from that decade was Project UFO, a children's series broadcast around 5 o'clock in the evening. It was an American import, based on the US Airforce's Project Blue Book. It featured two men investigating UFO sightings, all of which turned out to be, or were strongly hinted as, cases of misidentification.
The Omega Factor also differs from the X-Files in that it's much less violent. The X-Files was set in the FBI and was also strongly influenced by the Silence of the Lambs, so that serial killers were also among the other weird and sinister characters hunted by Scully and Mulder. Each episode featured grim, violent, and very often multiple deaths. Violence and murder also occurs in The Omega Factor, but it's far more low-key than the X-Files. Some of this might be due to the different standards over the level of violence considered acceptable on television, and especially in British television in contrast to America in the period, as well as budgetary constraints.
The programmes' time slot was also a factor. Over here at least, the X-Files was put on after the 9 o'clock watershed. The Omega Factor, by contrast, was shown before it. The creators and producers were determined that the series should not be a children's show like Dr. Who, and so should not have over-the-top violence and plenty of bodies. And this may well have been a contributing factor in the controversy the series caused. Mary Whitehouse and her Viewers' and Listeners' Association included the series amongst the number of other TV, films and plays they believed were a threat to wholesome British values. Whitehouse herself wrote to the network heads demanding its cancellation, and publicly declared that it's producers 'must be made'. The producers speculate that the low level of violence in the Omega Factor, far from making it less frightening, actually made it more so by making it more believable. Whether this is the case, viewers can judge for themselves.
As well as the series' ten episodes, there is also a documentary, 'Inside the Omega Factor', an audio commentary for the episode 'Powers of Darkness' and a photo gallery. -- David Sivier