January 31, 2011

The Omega Factor

The Omega Factor was an unusual drama for the BBC: a paranormal thriller produced by BBC Scotland, it sparked a sudden controversy upon release before being essentially buried by the broadcaster for more than two decades. It has only been since a recent DVD release that modern audiences have had the opportunity to discover it.

The series was created by George Gallacio, a former production manager for Doctor Who who had moved to Edinburgh to take up a permanent position there as a staff producer. Gallacio was initially commissioned to produce the second season of The Standard, a 13-part newspaper drama that had been launched in 1978 with great fanfare. With that series facing flagging ratings, however, Gallacio was ordered to abandon pre-production for that show and instead develop a new drama series himself.

Gallacio took inspiration from the current craze for all things supernatural, particularly Arthur Koestler's The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe. Koestler's book detailed experiments in telepathy, levitation and other apparent psychic phenomena. The idea of a government organization devoted to investigating such phenomena seemed a logical idea for a television drama. BBC Scotland's Head of Drama Roderick Graham agreed, and commissioned a 13-part series based on Gallacio's notes.

Having experienced the problems making science fiction on a standard BBC budget when working on Doctor Who, Gallacio persuaded Graham to reduce the new series' episode order from 13 to 10 - but with the original budget still intact. This provided Gallacio with a little extra money each episode to afford the innovative new series.

Gallacio quickly hired a writer, Jack Gerson, who drafted the producer's notes into a 50-minute pilot episode. Gerson, a Glasgow-based scriptwriter who had written for Z Cars and Sutherland's Law, based his script around journalist Tom Crane. Crane's latent psychic abilities led him into contact with Department 7, a shady government agency tasked with investigating the supernatural and psychic phenomena. Gerson titled the series The Undiscovered Country, after a quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet. In early 1979 this was changed to The Omega Factor, after a concept expressed in the series' pilot episode.

With a truncated production schedule leading into production, Gallacio was forced to hire a large number of writers to develop scripts concurrently. Early scripts distributed around BBC Scotland were met with ambivalence - some producers and department heads liking the idea, others finding the scripts to be unrealistic.

In the leading role of Tom Crane, Gallacio cast 31 year-old actor James Hazeldine. As Crane's investigative partner Dr Anne Reynolds he cast actress Louise Jameson. Jameson had recently resigned from her role as Leela in Doctor Who after two seasons, and was keen to make a break from that character. As Department 7 scientist Roy Martindale, Gallacio cast stage actor John Carlisle.

Location recording began in Edinburgh in February 1979. The director of the series pilot was Paddy Russell, one of the BBC's first female director and an experienced hand at directing science fiction (she had directed Doctor who on several occassions, including the Tom Baker classic "Pyramids of Mars"). The exterior scenes for the series were shot using outside broadcast video cameras, rather than 16mm film as was the norm. This gave the series a distinctive and cohesive look, unlike other BBC dramas made at the time. In the mid-1980s the BBC would abandon combining film and video on the same programme altogether - The Omega Factor was at the forefront of this change. Studio scenes were shot in the BBC Scotland studios in Glasgow.

The series premiered at 8:10pm on 13 June 1979 to some acclaim. Much praise came from Scottish TV critics over how the series refused to exaggerate its Scottish setting, which was then a regular problem with TV dramas shot in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Audiences were solid, if not sensational.

Trouble began with the broadcast of the series' fifth episode, "Powers of Darkness". Immediately after its transmission the BBC received a string of complaints, most notably from Mary Whitehouse - General Secretary of the National Viewers and Listener's Association. The NVLA was a lobby group of concerned television viewers, who pressured British television networks to maintain what they saw as socially reasonable standards of morals and public decency. Mary Whitehouse, who had made headlines in the mid-1970s for her crusade against violence in Doctor Who, was incensed with The Omega Factor. "I want to complain about The Omega Factor being shown in prime time," she would write, "It contained scenes of hypnosis, the supernatural, and a man apparently burning to death. It is one of the most disturbing things I have seen on television." Roderick Graham personally replied to Whitehouse, noting her objections but arguing that the episode was simply "good hocus pocus".

Two weeks later the NVLA's attacks on the series returned, this time over scenes where a possessed woman murdered her husband with a bread knife. This time there was a major problem: the BBC's own Guidance Notes on Violence, which dictated permissable levels of televised violence, specifically mentioned that television dramas were to avoid violent acts that would be easily copied - such as the possessed woman's use of a bread knife. Soon after The Omega Factor's first scene had concluded, Roderick Graham again wrote to the Whitehouse and the NVLA. In his letter he admitted that the BBC's own standards had been breached, and that "the point has been forcibly made to those who were responsible for the programme".

With less than outstanding ratings, and accusations of excessive violence hanging over its head, The Omega Factor had no chance for a second season - despite the open-ended conclusion of the final episode. Never repeated and never released on home video, the series remained locked in obscurity until it was finally released onto DVD in 2006. Gallacio returned to London, where he was offered a choice of producing either Doctor Who or a character drama titled MacKenzie. Gallacio chose the latter, with the reins of Doctor Who passing to what would become the original series' final producer, John Nathan Turner.

Watching The Omega Factor today, it is sometimes difficult to determine what the fuss was all about. Viewed in its historical context, it is stunning - inventive and dramatic, it's quite simply one of the finest supernatural thrillers ever made for television. Granted it has an unusually slow pace, which I find tends to make modern viewers a little impatient with it, but the ideas are strong and the performances by Hazeldine and Jameson are top-notch. Ultimately the series is a little like watching The X Files, only 20 years too early and made by the BBC. If you get the chance, and you're a fan of BBC science fiction, absolutely track it down. It's one of my all-time favourites.

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