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
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam