“I’d always want to tell horror and supernatural stories on audio,” reveals writer and script editor Matt Fitton. “That’s what excited me most about doing The Omega Factor in the first place. The thing I keep saying to the writers when we send out the briefs is that ‘I just want it to be as scary as possible.’” Back in 2015, Big Finish released the first set of four adventures based on Jack Gerson’s acclaimed, if short-lived, BBC Scotland TV series, starring James Hazeldine and Louise Jameson, and originally broadcast in 1979. Across ten episodes, The Omega Factor followed the work of Department 7, a team of scientific specialists who investigate reports of psychic and paranormal phenomena. Impetuous journalist Tom Crane (Hazeldine) teamed up with level-headed physicist Dr Anne Reynolds (Jameson) to explore strange and unexplained happenings, and track the work of the mysterious and increasingly threatening ‘Omega’ organisation.
When designing the setting for the first collection of audio stories, Big Finish might have been expected to have turned the clock back four decades. “We never actually considered going back to the 1970s series, which is unusual for us at Big Finish because that’s what we do,” producer David Richardson concedes. Fitton confirms that it was decided to reset the series in the present. “What we’ve done is, we’ve brought it up to date,” he says. “With The Omega Factor, we want to conjure as contemporary a world as possible, a place that feels ‘real’. It adds to the threat once you see the ‘strangeness’ happen in a world that you recognise. It gives things a bit more of an unnerving edge, I think.”
This time-shift also meant that the relationship dynamic at the core of the show would change, as Reynolds had become a more senior, as well as a much older, figure. “I liked the idea of giving Louise the role of leader and having her character Anne be in her sixties. It gave us so much more scope,” says Richardson. The death of James Hazeldine in 2002 meant that his role would need to be recast, but in updating the series, it was decided instead to introduce the character of his son Adam Crane, played by John Dorney. “This allowed us to have the interesting dynamic of Anne in a professional partnership with the son of the man she once loved. She’s almost like a mother to Adam,” Richardson suggests. What gives their relationship additional poignancy is that Adam has been gifted some of his father’s psychic abilities, an inheritance he sometimes struggles with.
The set of four disturbing tales that comprise the first series confirmed that Big Finish would be staying true to the TV show’s defining dramatic motifs. “It’s certainly very adult,” Richardson insists. “With Doctor Who, we’re quite rightly writing for a family audience, because that’s the audience associated with the brand and it’s the ethos of the show we love. The Omega Factor was always aimed at a much older demographic, so we can just step over the line a little bit. I think, at its core, it’s deeply unsettling.”
The first series of The Omega Factor audio stories attracted praise from both listeners and critics. “It got great reviews, we were helped by word of mouth and good comments on social media. I think the series’ nomination in last year’s BBC Audio Awards was further recognition that this is a full-blooded drama,” he suggests.
Series One was conceived as a self-contained drama that could work on its own independent terms, and provide an entry point in The Omega Factor universe. “You don’t have to know the TV show to be able to go into that first audio series,” says Fitton. “It was written to re-energise this investigation team. And the mini-arc that we have running through it is that they begin on the back foot, with Anne virtually shutting the place down. Then Adam’s arrival sparks something in her, and it gains new life and they manage to convince the powers that be that it is worth the work of Department 7 continuing.”
The second series introduces something of a shift in focus. For a start, Department 7 once again has both funding and official backing. “At the beginning of the first episode, we’ve got lots of new equipment, being moved into the department,” says Fitton. “Their boss James Doyle, having heard the footage of the collapse of the church at the end of Series One, has convinced his paymasters that this is something worth investing in. So they have got a bit more money behind them.” That also means that they are under greater scrutiny from Doyle, who “plays a bigger part through this second series as well.”
“What we wanted to do was to bring the Omega conspiracy into it a little bit more, but very much begin as a ‘business as usual’ situation,” he adds. “That was the starting point, and then we wanted to seed in reminders from the past of what Tom Crane had started to uncover and what had been going on in the background for the last 35 years or so.”
The relationship between Anne and Adam remains key to the fabric of the modern Omega Factor, and the natural chemistry between the series’ two leads is palpable. “Both Louise and John are absolutely brilliant in this,” enthuses Richardson. “I’ve said elsewhere that I resisted casting John in the role for a long time because we know him so well. So I went away and looked at loads of other actors, but just kept coming back to John. And Louise I’ve worked with many times, and I know she can pull me into a scene, break my heart and take me through a thousand emotions.”
Once again, the show’s scripts explore some tough issues. “We are dealing with themes of death and of loss,” Fitton acknowledges. “The series does go to some very dark places in series two. Phil Mulryne’s opener ‘Somnum Sempiternum’ has got some horrible murders and assassinations involved. Roy Gill’s episode ‘The Changeling’, set in a prison, is extremely good and unflinching. And, in the second half of the series, Louise’s story ‘Let the Angel Tell Thee’ is much more of a character piece; an examination of Anne and her loneliness, in which other forces move in to exploit her. Then in the last story, ‘Awakening’, which I wrote, all hell breaks loose.”
One of the standout aspects of the first series is the extraordinarily immersive (and frequently spine-chilling) soundscape that runs through the episodes. The finale of series one “used sound in a way that we’ve never used before in Big Finish,” suggests Fitton. Martin Montague, who delivered the much-praised sound design for Series One, was unavailable. “We've got Steve Foxon this time, who is another miracle worker,” says Richardson. “To me, what these guys do is magic. I get to hear the raw studio recordings, and then when the edits come back to me they are three-dimensional soundscapes. That sound texture is then beautifully enhanced by Nick Briggs’ astonishing music.”
As the Omega conspiracy begins to loom large once more, there’s little danger of Department 7 being wound up anytime soon. “There will be a third series”, Richardson confirms. “And I really hope there will be more after that. I’m really happy to think that, when we have recorded series three, we will have made more audio episodes than there were TV episodes. That’s quite a feat!”
Series Two of THE OMEGA FACTOR is out now from bigfinish.com.