The Generation X files

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

Mark Simpson
Saturday 17 December 1994 00:02

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

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