This is a sort of 'emergency review' I'll never wedge into ST. So here goes...
'Thoroughly Evil'. It's not often you come across that phrase on the blurb of a DVD box set. It's a quote from the late Mary Whitehouse, who for many years was the self-appointed voice of decent God-fearing folk, and every bit as humourless and narrow-minded as the phrase suggests. Mrs Whitehouse didn't like The Omega Factor because one episode featured spiritualism, hypnotic regression and the like. But does the disapproval of the (now defunct) Mrs Whitehouse mean it was any good?
TOF was produced by BBC Scotland, broadcast in 1979, then disappeared without trace. It was never repeated and never released on VHS, nor did it crop up on cable or satellite. This explains why many fans of sci-fi, horror and general spookery missed it when it first aired. Seen for the first time, The Omega Factor is not half bad, albeit very much of its time.
The series opener, 'The Undiscovered Country', sees journalist Tom Crane working hard on a follow up to a series of newspaper articles about the occult. Crane is thoroughly sceptical and sees his job as uncovering charlatans. A contact points him to a mysterious figure called Drexel, allegedly a clairvoyant and dabbler in dark arts, now running an Edinburgh bookshop under an assumed name. When Crane encounters Drexel it's revealed that our hero has psychic powers of his own, and Drexel threatens him with dire consequences if he doesn't leave the city at once.
A Very Bad Thing does indeed happen when Drexel's warning is ignored. A grieving Crane is then recruited by Dr Martindale, the head of Department Seven, a government agency probing the paranormal. Our hero joins up, initially to get his revenge on Drexel who, it seems, may be part of a global conspiracy. In subsequent episodes this provides a modern-style story arc linking a number of stories that could have stood alone. Poltergeists, reincarnation, telepathy, ghosts, possession - you name it, the gang's all here.
I was going to write that The Omega Factor is rather slow moving, but given a recent spate of leisurely plotting (Carnivale, Lost) it's not really that sluggish. Its main flaw is simply that it was made rather cheaply by the BBC. The opening credits are hard to describe, but the phrase 'Here's thirty quid, we need it by Tuesday' springs to mind. Also 'Give it to the work experience lad'. The actual videotape has deteriorated to the extent that each disc begins with a carefully-worded apology for the scratchy quality.
Plotwise, TOF steers a fairly true course between two problematic extremes. Sci-fi paranormal shows can become bogged down in doubletalk and general confusion as to who has what special power and why. Outright supernatural stories, on screen at least, can fail because the flat literalness of the medium precludes any personal sense of menace and unease. Given these problems The Omega Factor works well for most of the ten episodes. Some owe a lot to classics of the genre, and you can play spot the influence. The final episode is slightly ambiguous, suggesting room for a sequel. Oh well.
The cast is strong. Tom Crane is played by James Hazeldine as a sensible man confronting both inner demons and external threats. This is never an easy role, as numerous lousy B-movies can testify. Hazeldine makes Crane sympathetic, slightly tormented, and understandably vengeful. Louise Jameson (who had recently left Doctor Who) provides the romantic interest, Dr Anne Reynolds. The department chief, Martindale, is played by the excellent John Carlisle.
All in all, TOF is a curiosity, but one worth seeking out. The DVD extras cast some light on the way the series came about despite, rather than because of, the BBC culture of the time. The series looked back to Doomwatch, Thriller and (a little) to Quatermass, but also anticipated The X-Files. Recently BBC Scotland produced a rather similar series entitled Sea of Souls. What goes around comes around.