The early 1970s was obsessed with black magic and devil worship; by the end of the 1980s, this had somehow given way to the dolphins, rainbows and crystals of the New Age. Somewhere in between (at 8:10p.m. on the 13th June 1979, to be exact), the BBC began a ten-part series about a secret government agency, Department 7, whose task it was to look into ESP and the paranormal — telepathy, telekinesis, past lives, ghosts, séances, brainwashing, the power of sound to evoke the terrors of the past, and out-of-body experiences. It could be seen as a round-up of all the 1970s’ more outré preoccupations, with its best episode (‘Powers of Darkness’) in full occult mode (opening with a ouija board, ending with a blood sacrifice on a church altar), while ‘Visitations’ brings out the full scientific ghost-hunting toolkit last seen in Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972), and ‘Child’s Play’ has a super-powerful psychic child just beginning to understand his powers (a sort of private school mix of Stephen King’s Carrie with The Medusa Touch) — all served up with lashings of government/corporate paranoia (as in ‘St Anthony’s Fire’, about a big company testing dodgy new foods on ex-hippies).
The first episode has freelance journalist Tom Crane (played by James Hazeldine — later the dad in ITV’s Chocky) researching some Sunday supplement articles on the paranormal by arm-twisting a bibulous, plummy old satanist called Oliphant into revealing the current whereabouts of ‘the man that Crowley wouldn’t meet’, Edward Drexel. Drexel (played by Cyril Luckham, the White Guardian in Doctor Who the year before) is currently posing as an antiquarian bookseller in Edinburgh, so Crane goes north to try to get him to give a demonstration of psychic power. When Crane picks the case of a missing local woman as a possible subject, Drexel says Crane ought to be able to find her himself. Soon after, Crane wakes from dozing over his reporter’s notepad to find he’s written, in his sleep, a couple of names, which, along with a dream-vision he’s just had, lead him to the woman’s body. Crane, it seems, has mental powers of his own, and Drexel isn’t the only one to have sensed this — it turns out Crane’s wife’s best friend, Dr Anne Reynolds (Louise Jameson, a year out of Leela-leathers) is part of Department 7, and they’ve been trying to awaken Crane to his psychic powers for some time.
At the end of the first episode, Crane is recruited to work for Department 7. By this point, he’s out for revenge on Edward Drexel, who he blames for the death of his wife (at the end of the first episode), after Drexel’s mediumistic young woman companion, Morag, suddenly appeared in the middle of the road in her nightie/wooly dress, making Crane swerve his car into a tree. At this point, I thought I knew how the series was going to play out: Drexel would be the arch-enemy, popping up from behind each week’s supernatural escapade, while the dead wife would never be mentioned again, except to give our hero some motivation and a bit of emotional depth; meanwhile, the coast would be clear for a romance with Dr Anne. But, to my surprise, the show had a bit more depth and character than that. Drexel does pop up again, but is soon dealt with once and for all. And there is a slow-developing romance with Dr Anne, but Tom Crane takes a lot longer to get over his wife’s death than your average TV series hero, and Anne also has undefined feelings for the other main character of the series, Dr Roy Martindale (John Carlisle). Crane and Martindale’s relationship, meanwhile, is almost as interesting as Crane and Anne’s, as Crane is constantly refusing to do what Martindale asks him to do, not to mention questioning Martindale’s methods and morals, which gets the otherwise urbane and assured Martindale into the occasional tizz.
I have to admit, Roy Martindale is my favourite character in the series. All of the main three are well-realised. Tom Crane, perhaps because he’s the hero-figure, is the least three-dimensional. He has his principles and sticks to them, meaning there isn’t really another side to his character (apart from the way his free-spiritedness constantly rubs against the institutionalised nature of Department 7), but I think James Hazeldine’s earnestness and on-the-level portrayal adds a warm dose of humanity to the hero figure, making him constantly likeable. Anne Reynolds, on the other hand, is always able to see both sides of the (many) arguments between Crane and Martindale, and as much as she’s on Crane’s side, she’s also on Department 7’s, and is often telling Martindale when Crane’s gone off on his own — as he does pretty much every episode. (Towards the end of the series, I wondered how he kept his job; he refuses on principle to do what he’s told, often spending half of each episode sulking on Anne’s sofa, before running off to investigate something he’s been warned away from.) Roy Martindale is the most flawed of the leading three, and perhaps that’s what makes him the most interesting. He’s totally focused on the new ground they’re breaking in psychic research, and is always being brought up short whenever Crane reminds him of the moral issues he’s blithely overlooking. Martindale tries to educate Ann Reynolds’s tastes in music towards the more experimental and modern (while Tom Crane can be heard playing Dark Side of the Moon while standing in front of his brother’s Uriah Heep poster), and obviously assumes, for the first half of the series, that she’s more interested in him than in Crane. Even towards the end of the series, when we’re starting to feel Martindale must have a shadow side, he can occasionally be found defending, to his own bosses, the very views he’s just been arguing against with Crane. Plus, I like his rat-like grin.
Throughout the series, there are rumours of an organisation known as Omega who might be looking to use people’s psychic powers for some more nefarious purpose than Department 7’s ‘defence of the realm’ mandate, and the final episode brings them into the open, ending with enough of a hint that a second series might have been in the offing.
But it wasn’t. The Omega Factor had just one series, and one showing of it, and doesn’t seem to be mentioned much in discussions of 70s horror/SF TV. Despite being around at the time it was shown, I only heard of it recently. It is, of course, often compared to The X-Files, but I think it’s more the sort of thing I’d have liked The X-Files to be: a bit more subtle, and with more dramatic development of its characters. Big Finish audio have just started releasing a series of new stories featuring Dr Anne Reynolds, though sadly without Tom Crane, of course, as James Hazeldine died in 2002.