Judge Adam Arseneau can kill you with his mind. Well, you know...if he wanted to. Of course, he'd probably need a good night of sleep first.
"The Omega Factor. The end and beyond the end."
Broadcast only during its initial run in 1979, BBC Scotland's campy science fiction drama The Omega Factor was promptly banished to a dusty vault and forgotten about by the masses en large, staying alive only in the minds of cult fanatics and conspiracy buffs over the last 25 years. Combining the supernatural and paranormal investigations of Kolchak: The Night Stalker with The Prisoner-esque government paranoia resulted in a show that was years ahead of its time, predating similar-themed shows like The X-Files by a solid good decade.
Rescued from said dusty vault and restored onto DVD, it is now up to a new generation to determine whether The Omega Factor: The Complete Series is truly the groundbreaking television show it was hyped up to be or merely a campy sci-fi serial better left to the annals of history.
By "new generation," of course I mean me, in this review, right now.
Facts of the Case
Journalist Tom Crane (James Hazeldine, London's Burning) lives a fairly normal life by all standards. He has a beautiful wife, a well-paying job, and gets to write about subjects of his choosing, like witchcraft and the paranormal, writing articles for occult magazines. Crane finds the subject interesting, but like a journalist, remains skeptical about the phenomenon he researches.
During his research, he tracks down a reclusive man named Drexel in Edinburgh, a so-called clairvoyant and telekinetic with a dangerous reputation. Crane tries to get Drexel to recount his story, but Drexel is reluctant to discuss his past life with a reporter. When Drexel unintentionally reveals a possible link between himself and a missing woman, Crane jumps on the lead, but is warned in no uncertain terms by Drexel to drop the issue.
Meanwhile, Crane is plagued by recurring dreams of strange white rooms and visions of events he does not understand. The images seem to be guiding Crane towards the discovery of a missing murdered woman who Drexel seemed to know a little too much about. Believing Drexel to be the genuine article and shocked by his own actions, Crane is unsure how to proceed next until he finds himself "accidentally" discovering the murdered woman's body. He tries to confront Drexel, but the man has vanished.
Driving on a lonely road at night with his wife, Crane is haunted by the images of the dead woman and, in a panic, crashes his car. His wife is killed instantly. Overwhelmed with grief, Crane abandons his story and leaves Edinburgh, but after his wife's funeral, a secretive experimental government unit dedicated to researching the paranormal show up at his door.
To Crane's astonishment, the mysterious and classified Department 7 believe Crane's visions are in fact psychic abilities, powers that the agency have long been aware of. The agency is in search of the "Omega Factor," the ultimate potential of the human mind through calculated scientific analysis and experimentation. Crane is unable to believe anything he is being told, that is until he makes the connection that his fatal car crash may have had something to do with Drexel …
Determined to learn the truth about his own abilities and his wife's death, Crane joins the government agency and begins investigating all forms of the paranormal. Along with Dr. Anne Reynolds (Louise Jamison, Doctor Who), the pair investigates everything from ghostly hauntings to brainwashing, from psychokinetics to unexplained phenomenon. However, the more Crane experiences, the more he detects the tell-tale signs of strings being pulled behind the scenes, of secret conspiracies and plans within plans …
All ten episodes from the show are included:
• "The Undiscovered Country"
There's nothing better than a show with a reputation. The production story behind The Omega Factor is almost as mysterious and enigmatic as the show itself.
After only a few episodes on television, The Omega Factor came under immediate attack by watchdog groups. Fearful of the growing "moral collapse" in British society, Mary Whitehouse, a British morality and Christian value campaigner and founder of the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association attached herself to The Omega Factor like a leech. Through a grassroots campaign lobbying the government, the public at large, the media, and anyone who would listen, Whitehouse cited endless examples of human burning, supernatural overtones, and hypnosis in The Omega Factor as "thoroughly evil."
That, as they say, was that. After a single season of only ten episodes, the BBC grudgingly gave into pressure and bad publicity and retired the show to its dusty vaults and it has not been aired in any form since its original broadcast.
Ah, but it doesn't end there. Despite the relative obscurity of the show, the conspiracy theories immediately kept the memory of the show alive throughout the years. Taped copies of the original broadcast became a cult favorite traded around throughout the various science-fiction fan communities. Some even went so far as to suggest that the show's disingenuous cancellation was symptomatic of political pressure unseen by the general public, particularly over the spooky issue of government mind control. Though no hard evidence exists, many speculated the BBC was pressured from within the government to cancel the show, which was not pleased at some of the suggestions the science fiction show was making about the government's more "experimental" endeavors. Poppycock, no doubt, but such rumors kept the show alive in the memories of many who would otherwise have forgotten the show.
The comparisons between The Omega Factor and its American spiritual brother The X-Files are immediately apparent in both subject matter and tone: a government agency researching the paranormal, the developing relationship between the conspiracy-loving male and the red-headed scientific female agent that always hinted romance, the dark and enigmatic governmental conspiracies, etc. However, given Omega's intercontinental obscurity and complete lack of syndication, it is doubtful the show had any direct influence over similar shows that would develop naturally over the years. This makes The Omega Factor all the more fascinating. Truly years ahead of its time, the show simply came too early for any audience to appreciate its quirky charms, its mysterious and enigmatic obsession with the otherworldly, and the show's morose, brooding style. The fact that similar shows developed a decade later in completely unrelated fashion only illustrates that the creators of The Omega Factor were truly onto something fantastic. A shame the way things turned out.
Like all science-fiction themed BBC shows of this age, production values were something of an oxymoron. Drenched in synthesizers, campy special effects, and primitive camera tricks, watching The Omega Factor is like being trapped inside a Doctor Who episode acted out by stern-faced accountants in measured, mature tones. Tom Crane's fantastic hair and eccentric posture has a Tom Baker-esque "Fourth Doctor" quality to it, minus the stylish hand-knit scarf, and having Leela (Louise Jamison) as a primary cast member only adds to the TARDIS-esque similarities.
What works about Omega Factor is the ever-present sense of dread and paranoia that oozes into each of the ten episodes. The special effects at times are amateurish and dated, but clever combinations of archaic techniques like stop-motion, negative colors, and hand-held camera work mixed with creepy electronic music creates an atmosphere that borders on the macabre. It only takes an episode or two before the show stops feeling dated and becomes gripping and conspiratorial, the solid writing driving the show towards an enigmatic conclusion. Sadly, it is a conclusion that will never come. Sandwiching layers of political intrigue, espionage, mind control, cover-ups, government agencies within agencies, and a secret organization known only as "Omega," The Omega Factor is surprisingly gripping. I lived and breathed the show until the last episode, fascinated by the conspiracy. It's a real page turner. Err, a disc turner.
Unique for a BBC show from this time period, both interior and exterior shots were shot on video, giving the production a nicely uniform (but admittedly dated) appearance. The transfer to DVD is a rough one, full of chromatic flares, soft and blurry detail levels, washed-out black levels, distracting analog lines and image defects, and a general murkiness. The quality goes in and out, generally passable for the majority of the series, but at its worst, this is abysmal stuff.
The audio is a simple mono presentation that does the job well enough, with weak bass response, fairly clear dialogue that occasionally gets lost in particularly poor recorded environmental noises. For the time and budget of the production, it is entirely serviceable. Most of the show is scored on variations of the show's theme, a nightmarish string and synthesizer sequence that Brian Eno could have come up with staying up all night getting drunk with David Bowie in the 1970s, but would probably toss in the bin after some sleep and a solid breakfast.
Extras are thin but fairly solid. A 16-page booklet gives a great synopsis of the show's creation, controversy, and eventual cancellation, and is required reading for anyone watching. Episode writer Anthony Read, series producer George Gallaccio, and episode director Eric Davidson join film and television historian (and liner note author) Marcus Hearn to discuss "Powers of Darkness" on a DVD commentary track, which was the episode that rankled the ire of the watchdog group. A moderate featurette entitled "Inside the Omega Factor" rounds out the material. Not a lot to go around, but what is present is of good quality…no fluff.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It doesn't take long to get hooked by the mysteriousness of the show, but the campy and dated production values will probably scare most away. Boy Scouts could pitch a tent on the camp in this show.
After ten episodes, it is hard to judge the theoretical potential of a canceled show, but for every question answered by the resolution of The Omega Factor, two more are brought up to be answered in Season Never, making appreciating this box set a frustrating occupation. Why bother getting intrigued and hooked by a show that will never materialize its answers?
It seems to me that the type of person who would dig a show like The Omega Factor is the kind of person who yearns for answers. In a sense, getting into a canceled show on DVD is kind of masochistic.
It is always a pleasure to see obscure, unearthed gems resurface unexpectedly onto DVD, even more so when they involve gigantic government conspiracies. The Omega Factor looks every single day of its age, but will feel immediately comfortable to fans of British science fiction like Doctor Who and The Prisoner. It has that claustrophobic paranoia thing going nicely for it.
It's a shame we'll never get any answers, though. Be okay with that before you get into Omega Factor, and you will not have any problems with it.
This Judge does not challenge the BBC's decision to give The Omega Factor an early parole. Enjoy your freedom.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
• "Inside The Omega Factor" Documentary
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