The Generation X files

TV has embraced the paranormal - harmless fun or the end of civilisatio n as we know it? By Mark Simpson

Tonight that era of human history ushered in by the Enlightenment comes to an end. What's more it's the Beeb that's scheduled it. "It's a whole evening devoted to the uncanny, the bizarre, the peculiar - and the downright freaky," enthuses Michae l Jackson, Controller of BBC2, of his channel's "Weird Night".

Featured attractions include items on visions, such as the woman who "saw a troll in her bedroom" (well, we've all been there), "spine-tingling" coincidences, urban myths that turn out to be true and a review of the year by Fortean Times - "April: Heather Woods of Lincoln suddenly bleeds with the marks of crucifixion on her hands, feet and ribs. Her doctor is mystified."

What would Lord Reith have made of it all? No need to surmise - the answer to that question will no doubt be provided very shortly in the form of a televised seance.

Of course, it isn't just the BBC that has embraced obscurantism. Over on ITV, Michael Aspel, the man with the Face You Can Trust, does his best to give superstition a good name in Strange But True with "investigations" into visitations by angels, spontaneous combustion and "near-death experiences". But it is the BBC, the vehicle in the 20th century for enlightened liberalism - and the education channel at that - which has decided to celebrate the decline of reason in such a way.

Why? Why now? A clue is given by the fact that one of the featured programmes in "Weird Night" is an episode of The X-Files deemed "too scary" to show in its regular slot. A runaway ratings success for BBC2, regularly pulling in over 6 million viewers, The X-Files' phenomenal popularity marks a watershed not just in how people watch TV but how they see the world.

Apparently a cross between science-fiction and the detective genre, The X-Files in fact undermines the traditional narrative of both, confirming simultaneously the popular feeling that science knows both less and more than it is letting on. Two FBI agents, Malder and Scully, unearth evidence of paranormal and alien "happenings" but their superiors refuse to accept their reports, pointing out that they have "contravened procedure".

Programmes like The X-Files and Strange But True appeal to people's experience (or is it hope?) that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in rationalism, that the empiricism of science is undermined by empiricism of popular culture.

More than this, the show is a kind of post-modernist Scooby Doo. Scary things happen, disturbing the equilibrium, the kids investigate, but instead of discovering that behind the ghost mask all alone was nice Mr Grimaldi the ice-cream man, the FBI agentsmerely find more mystery. So, we discover that the Space Shuttle malfunction was caused by a space demon, or those gruesome murders were caused by an alien with a taste for human liver - but more questions are raised than solved; equilibrium is never restored.

And this is why this kind of show is so popular as we approach the end of the millennium. Not just because of the well-documented historical pattern of "end of the world" hysteria at such times, but because the end of the 20th century is also the end of what the French post-structuralist Jean-Francois Lyotard has called the "grand narratives" of modernity. The accounts of the world produced by the Enlightenment, such as "rationalism", "progress", "socialism" and, crucially, "science" no longe r inspire the kind of faith they did (compare the wide-eyed evangelism of the old Tomorrow's World with the current light-weight magazine format).

The new state of science in the popular mind is best epitomised by the Paul McKenna Show in which the "science" of hypnosis is presented as a near-mystical power over the ininitiated - explanation and enquiry into the phenomenon are not wanted here, justmysterious spectacle.

But obscurantism is not senseless, quite the reverse. To some extent we are all Malders and Scullys now, attempting to find our place in the world with outdated maps. We are like someone with Aids who turns to alternative remedies: they may not cure the illness but they can help to make some kind of sense of it where science failed.

Of course, the rise of obscurantist TV has another, more prosaic explanation. Leaving the viewer uneasy makes them more likely to stay tuned for the next programme: unresolved problems make for unlimited viewing. In 1951, the classic science fiction movie The Thing warned the world: "For God's sake, watch the skies!" Today the exhortation might be: "For God's sake, watch the telly!"

n `Weird Night' starts tonight at 8.35pm on BBC2

Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Arts and Entertainment
U2's Songs of Innocence album sleeve

tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men

Arts and Entertainment
Alison Steadman in Inside No.9
tvReview: Alison Steadman stars in Inside No.9's brilliant series finale Spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk