Thursday, June 29, 2006

CULT TV REVIEW: The Omega Factor: "The Undiscovered Country"

I've read little bits and pieces about the enigmatic BBC horror TV series The Omega Factor for a long, long time now. Created by Jack Gerson, the series lasted a scant ten episodes back in 1979, was a great source of social controversy in London (since the grandmother of the video nasty debate of the 1980s, Mary Whitehouse protested the series' supernatural/paranormal themes...), and has been heralded far and wide as the one of the fathers of genre television, with The X-Files named as a frequent and primary offspring. Thus I've been...curious.

Now, courtesy of DVD Box Sets, "the BBC's groundbreaking supernatural series" is available to view for the first time in twenty-five years, and, well, I couldn't resist. It was about a year-and-a-half-ago that I re-discovered Sapphire and Steel on DVD, another 1970s British TV classic, so I figured I couldn't go wrong with The Omega Factor.

And so far - more or less - I don't think I have; though right off the bat, The Omega Factor is neither as narratively crisp nor as visually confident as the glacial, assured Sapphire & Steel. Like many BBC productions of the day (the disco decade), there is virtually zero on-screen in terms of good production values (though that's just fine with me, honestly...), and the special effects can only kindly be referred to as such. More like modest effects than special ones, actually. But again, that's fine. The Omega Factor boasts other strengths.

Still, the opening credits of The Omega Factor open in cheesy 1970s fashion with a bleeping sine wave, a negative image of our protagonist running in the woods (apparently)... and a kind of kaleidoscope vision of his head, rendered pink or purple and colorized to look scary. Later in the first episode, the limitations of the primitive video technology are revealed several times. To wit, light sources actually "bleed" on-screen whenever a camera moves away from a light source. I owned an early home video camera in 1987 that did the same thing; so I'm all too familiar with this drawback of the early format. If you didn't want to catch the bleed, you couldn't move your camera within the composition, which seriously hinders your ability to craft mise-en-scene.

Still, I maintain you don't watch Blake's 7, Sapphire & Steel, Doctor Who or - I now know - The Omega Factor for gee-whiz, Hollywood-style special effects and production values. Instead, there are other virtues to be enjoyed (exquisite dialogue, provocative themes, etc.) and after the first episode, "The Undiscovered Country," I think The Omega Factor probably deserves to be ranked with these other British series, even if (at least in its premiere...) the show tends to be stagey and overly sedate.

The Omega Factor is the story of Tom Crane (James Hazeldine), a British journalist who has been experiencing bad dreams of late, and - though he's suppressed it - is a so-called "sensitive," a man capable of psychic visions and the like. Research on an article about the paranormal takes Tom to Edinburgh, and he becomes embroiled in a criminal case to find a missing woman there. At the same time, he makes contact with a gloomy fellow named Drexel (Cyril Luckham), a man who claims to be a powerful psychic, and is always accompanied by a strange, silent female. Drexel feels threatened by Crane's repressed telepathic powers and tells him to leave Edinburgh immediately...or else. "Don't loiter," Drexel suggests menacingly, "you won't like it if you do..."

But Tom does loiter, and follows a series of psychic clues (rendered to him through the paranormal art of automatic writing) and locates the missing woman's body in a tense scene that nicely resolves the mystery. The only problem I saw with this corpse-discovery sequence is that The Omega Factor temporarily forgets the importance of a very non-paranormal sense: smell.) Kathryn pointed this out to me while we watched the show. Tom's nose would have detected the corpse even before his eyes did.

Anyway, despite Drexel's warning, Tom does linger in Edinburgh and is joined there by his wife, Julia (Joanna Tope). One night, while Tom and Julia are driving about on a country road, the evil and powerful Drexel makes good on his warning. His mysterious female companion suddenly appears on a dark stretch of road in front of the automobile, and Tom swerves to avoid hitting her. A car accident ensues and Julia is killed. At the funeral, the strange siren appears again, unnoticed...

Sometime later, a frightened and mourning Tom is contacted back in his flat by a civil servant, Andrew Scott-Erskine (Brown Derby). Erskine tells Tom that Julia, his dead wife, was actually an agent for the government's Department 7, and that her assignment was to monitor her husband for signs of psychic activity. Furthermore, Erskine wants Tom himself to join up with Department 7, a branch which examines "The Omega Factor in life...the potential of the human mind." Understanding that "no man is whole until he understands himself," and that Department 7 is his key to catching and punishing Drexel, "a dangerous man" responsible for Julia's death, Tom agrees to sign on with the mysterious experimental unit. He'll work side-by-side with a psychiatrist named Dr. Anne Reynolds, a "scientist" (a la Scully...) character...played by Louise Jameson (the actress who played the fetching Leela during a season with Tom Baker on Dr. Who). His boss is psychiatrist Roy Martindale (John Carlisle), a bit of a cold fish.

"The Undiscovered Country" (directed by Paddy Russell) is not exactly earth-shattering television, but it is highly compelling and smart. Almost to a fault, actually. The pacing is...how shall I put this? It's...British. Still, there are some trippy visuals at the start of the episode involving an odd man sitting in a doctor's chair, surrounded by pure white background, focusing on a bizarre M.C. Escher-type painting. This sequence is ultimately explained as a "test" for Tom. Crane receives the images of the paintings in the form of a nightmare, and proceeds to meditate on the idea of "the terror of whiteness." Personally, I think this is a trenchant horror notion that I've only rarely seen explained in horror film or television. Much of the terror generated by Michael Myers in Halloween, I believe, is based on the concept of "the terror of whiteness," the concept of a blank, white slate, emerging from darkness. We project all of our fears and horrors onto that white mask, onto that abyss of ivory staring back at us, and in some small way The Omega Factor registers this idea of "mirrors reflecting mirrors."

There's also a nicely frightening scene (utilizing a hand-held camera...) in which Tom is pursued by something ominous in the dark, in the middle of the night. We see him walking alone on a street as a the night lights begin to deactivate, one-at-a-time behind him, until he seeks refuge in a telephone booth (not a TARDIS, alas). Then, he is overcome by what appears to be floating jigsaw puzzle pieces, and the image of Drexel's black eyes. It's primitively rendered, but expressive cinematically in a way that CGI just isn't.

But "The Undiscovered Country" isn't all hugs and puppies either. Early in the episode, there's an extended dialogue sequence in a pub involving a character named Alfred Oliphant (actor Colin Douglas), and Douglas is so over-the-top, so theatrical and florid, his voice so booming and grand, that his performance nearly sinks the credibility of the entire enterprise, which seeks to gaze at mind power, thought-transference and other psychic phenomena. The Omega Factor does so through the rubric of real research and science in the field. Hence the aura of scientific detachment is broken by this performance. Also, Tom Crane is not the most interesting or vital-seeming series lead (and his mourning seems particularly stiff-upper-lippy), and Louise Jameson is given virtually nothing to do in this pilot.

Still, best not to judge a series by the first episode alone, and what I see in "The Undiscovered Country" is mostly commendable. The focus is serious and dedicated; the dialogue is intelligent, and I'm not bothered by the fact that the show is mostly talky (I've been known to write talky dialogue, myself...). Perhaps most importantly, despite sub par effects, "The Undiscovered Country" captures the chill and fear of the supernatural with grace and simplicity. I never cracked a sweat or a chill watching the freshman season of the underwhelming WB scare series Supernatural, but The Omega Factor is wonky, unnerving and on some level, unsettling. The sequence in which Tom drives that country road at night, his car's headlights the only illumination, is pretty fear-inducing. We anticipate the worst happening, and it does, in a splendidly staged car crash that is highly realistic (and highly brief...).

Obviously, I'm only one episode in here, but I can see how The Omega Factor has resonated over the decades and across other genre series. The new Night Stalker (not the original Kolchak...) that aired briefly on ABC this year featured Kolchak as a journalist (like Tom) whose wife is killed in a car accident (like Tom), and who uses this tragic incident as the catalyst to investigate the paranormal (like Tom). None of those touches came from the original Kolchak, except the character's vocation, and they had to come from somewhere. On the other hand, I didn't see a whole lot of The X-Files here...at least not yet. That series' bread-and-butter was the twin world view, the twin lens of science and "belief" and I didn't find that material in The Omega Factor. Also, The X-Files depends on strong characterization and the chemistry between Mulder and Scully to drive many episodes, and there's no such chemistry here between Crane and Reynolds. They hardly seem to notice one another. Maybe that will change.

Next episode: "Visitations."

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