Psi-Factor: Chronicles of the Paranormal (1996-2000)
Science Fiction Television Series, 1990-2004: Histories, Casts and Credits for 58 Shows
by Frank Garcia, Mark Phillips
Follow the adventures of the investigative team from the Office of Scientific Investigation and Research (osir) as they probe paranormal, extraterrestrial and creature sightings.
When Psi-Factor: Chronicles of the Paranormal debuted in syndication in the fall of 1996, critics immediately labeled it as an X-Files clone. But the series’ genesis was more sophisticated than that. Film and TV actor Dan Aykroyd and his brother Peter were developing the series at the Toronto-based film production company, Atlantis Films, with Christopher Chacon. Peter Aykroyd and Chacon were members of a real-life organization called the Office of Scientific Investigation and Research (OSIR) and wanted to adapt the organization’s work in a dramatic television treatment. “Dan and his brother Peter are huge believers in the paranormal and Psi-Factor was a pet project of theirs,” explains Larry Raskin, who served as creative producer in the fourth year. “As the creative contact to Dan, I was developing the original project and acting as point person on all things Psi-Factor until I finally handed that off to James Nadler at Atlantis when Psi-Factor started to become real. It was too much on my plate at the time as I had several development projects on the go.”
One of the problems of making this translation, notes executive producer and showrunner James Nadler, was that the actual OSIR case investigations were fairly mundane in nature. “Most of the time they go and they find out, ‘Oh yes, it’s just the pipes! There is no ghost. It’s just the pipes!’ The case studies weren’t that exciting. They didn’t have stories. They didn’t have scientists mentioned within them. That’s not the most exciting television show!”
But the development continued when other production entities entered into the mix. The syndicator, Eyemark Entertainment, a CBS company, wanted to do a show with Atlantis Films. The series’ development and sale was made at NATPE (the National Association of Television Program Executives) which is an annual “buy and sell” television industry convention.
Nadler was first introduced to the series while he was on vacation and he received a frantic phone call from Peter Sussman, one of the partners at Atlantis Films, who needed a series bible in just five days. Nadler brought it with him to NATPE. “The bible was thrown together very quickly as a sales document. At the same time, Will Dixon, who was on the show’s first two years, was brought in to write a script,” recalls Nadler.
The series’ development had been a continuous series of conversations among the interested parties over a six-month period, primarily because it took a long time for everyone to get on the same page of what the show could be.
When the series finally arrived at NATPE, it came together very quickly. “That’s January  and filming began in May for the first year,” says Nadler.
The initial goal was to create a one-hour dramatic series presenting two half-hour stories about the OSIR investigators investigating things that went bump in the night.*
(*Atlantis Films, which subsequently merged with Alliance Communications in September 1998 to become Alliance-Atlantis, initially felt that two years of half-hour stories would generate 88 individual stories that could be packaged for strip syndication, but that wasn’t quite how the show eventually played out. )
The series’ focus, initially, was predominantly on the phenomenon that was being investigated, not the characters. In its first year, the OSIR team explored UFOs, demons, creatures in sewers, the Devil’s Triangle, reincarnation, possession, ghosts and psychic powers.
Dan Aykroyd served as a continuity spine as the host-narrator, opening and closing each episode with a few words about OS1R’s mission. Producers rotated the characters, with different “case manager’ team leaders. The rationale was to convey that the OSIR was a large organization. “That was an unusual thought,” recalls Nadler. “I resisted that because I have a very traditional view of television. I believe audiences tune in for the characters. There are very few shows, like Law er Order and Mission: Impossible, where it’s completely plot-driven and the recurring characters are secondary.”
This resulted in Canadian actor Paul Miller leading the series as Prof. Connor Doyle with character support from Lisa LaCroix, Elizabeth Shepherd, Tamara Gorski, Lindsay Collins and Maurice Dean Wint. The actors who eventually formed the core group-Barclay Hope, Peter MacNeill, Colin Fox and Nancy Anne Sakovich — were also present from the beginning.
Hope, who was Peter Axon throughout the series, says he was unhappy with the half-hour story format in the first year. “I don’t feel there’s enough time,” he says. “There’s Dan Aykroyd’s intro and extro which takes up a minute on top and bottom. There’s commercials and you’re left with about 18 minutes to tell and resolve the story. Find out something about the people telling the story. There’s just not enough time.
“One of the best things about the show was that it did evolve. It started out fairly dry, fairly documentary. Once we really got into it, it evolved to an extent where we were actually doing a piece of entertainment.”
As the year progressed, the producers realized their initial approach was not working out. “We were adding characters even as we went into production,” recalls Nadler, “in part, because originally the characters were not important. Some characters just didn’t work and then we found out we had too many characters. Originally we had three case managers and they were supposed to rotate. One of them, a really wonderful actress named Elizabeth Shepherd, only appeared in one episode. Tamara Gorski was the other and Paul Miller. These characters were supposed to rotate equally.”
When Maurice Dean Wint gave consistently strong performances, the producers went to Shepherd and apologized that they had to let her go because ‘we had to consolidate and get it down to a fewer number of characters,” says Nadler. “Nancy Anne Sakovich’s character, Lindsay Donner, was added very last-minute because someone else was unavailable. And we really liked her. So she ended up being a mainstay of the show.”
Dan Aykroyd and Chris Chacon felt that the investigators should be older, more “traditional” scientists. “We didn’t feel that was the most exciting or commercial [way to go],” says Nadler. He recalls that the ages of the characters became an ongoing debate among the producers. “We’d be talking about a particular actor. They would say, ‘This person is great!’ and I’d say ‘This person is great!’ and we’d go around the room, and then we’d get to Chris Chacon and he would say, ‘Too young!’ That happened over and over again. It was very frustrating.”
Nadler says that making the transition to second year was fairly easy because “we’d done well in the States. In Canada we’d always done well in ratings. In the States it was a very competitive time for first-run syndication. We were doing as well as we’d hoped.”
However, there were two major changes. The first was a cast shakeup. “We had to pare it back going into year two. Lisa LaCroix did a really good job. We never found a place for her to come back. And Maurice Dean Wint, we did find places for him to come back, but as a guest star. Unfortunately Paul Miller had to be dropped for commercial reasons. He did a great job. But we needed another name for second year.
“We brought in Matt Frewer as a new case manager and brought in his fan base also and used his character as a way of shaking up the series and the relationships between the characters. We had new ways of attracting conflict within the team, which was a big change.”
Frewer was a good choice for the new lead for the series. Professor Connor Doyle was killed off in the first-year finale, paving the way for Frewer’s entry. Frewer had a following because of previous series like Max Headroom (1987), and was able to bring a sardonic wit to the character Matt Praeger. His interaction with the team created compelling personality conflicts as he and Peter Axon often disagreed with investigative methods.
“When Matt Frewer came on, he added a whole other dimension to it. He was absolutely wonderful in not accepting mediocrity,” says Hope. “He started to demand that the scripts had more work put into them, to have a more dramatic context to it. He really pushed for scenes that were good, and not just people talking about a bunch of different things.”
Frewer said during production in 1998,” [ I was responsible for] the design of the blueprint of Matt Praeger on a weekly basis. I’m the associate producer of the show too. My contributions are largely creative on a script standpoint and continually tinkering with them and changing them, trying to make them better. Trying to make each season better than the last. It’s an ongoing process.”
Another interesting addition was actor Michael Moriarty (Law and Order), who played Praeger’s enigmatic boss Michael Kelly. The purpose of the character was to create friction and added conspiracies, “which I actually based on internal Atlantis corporate politics!” chuckles Nadler.
In the second year, the characters’ interactions were given as much attention as the paranormal investigating. This year the team looked into UFO reports, psychokinetic powers, people returning from the dead, suspended animation and people growing younger.
“We really looked for character actors that had a certain liveliness and electricity for the parts,” says Nadler. ‘That’s why the humanity, especially in year two, really comes through. These are guys going down there and seeing horrible things. But at the same time, they have these moments where the actors are warmer and have quite a bit of humor. It makes it that much more believable as drama.”
The second major change was restructuring the show from two half-hour stories into a more traditional one-hour, one-story structure and this time the emphasis was no longer just on the plots but the characters as well.
“We worked with the writers and asked them to bring a sense of life of our characters into our jobs,” says Hope. “Whereas the jobs sort of dictated the show in year one, in year two we started to bring life to the characters. In year three we brought more life which helped us stay fresh from show to show.
“If you have to deal with a UFO, for instance, you have the undercurrents of perhaps, say, a relationship with your father that adds a different element to how you play the scenes. That’s the way we try and change it. That’s what’s interesting—to see people.”
Hope offers an example of how this newfound approach was used for his character, Peter Axon. “I tried to get them to bring more life history into the character,” Hope continues. “When confronted by a situation, it’s not just the situation to deal with but also memories of the previous situation. Maybe the night before I received a call from a girl I was engaged to. And left. And maybe I had that in the back of my mind, and that context served as the means of how the character dealt with his current situation.”
Hope points to a Praeger-centric episode titled “Happy Birthday Matt Praeger” where “he ended up on a game show. It was an ethereal thing where it was all about his fears and his personality. How he would avoid emotional contact with people, and how he would push people away because that was something in his character that he wasn’t equipped to deal with. What they did was, they forced him to deal with his own emotions. It was using SF to get into the character. To make Matt Praeger be a person and deal with things.”
The second year would attack other topics inspired by the real-life case files. “I moved the show away from any hint of docu-drama,” says Nadler. “I wanted to work with specific actors and performers and develop characters that audiences could tune into. Some of our characters were popping off the screen. Viewers were saying, ‘I like him! I like Donner!’ They developed really big fan bases.”
At the end of the second year, Hope recalls the state of affairs among the OSIR team before the turnover to third year: “At the end of year two, Praeger quits,” he says. “Donner is considered a mole and is outcast. [As Peter Axon] I move up to case manager. And Anton Hendricks is missing. All that has to do with the internal workings of the OSIR people. There are people higher up pulling strings. We don’t know what their agendas are. Michael Moriarty’s character was one of the guys feeding us information about stuff going on but we weren’t supposed to know about it. Bosses in big corporations don’t tell everyone what their plans are. OSIR has bosses up there somewhere. They’re pulling strings and flying us in directions we don’t understand.”
Its this kind of material that made working on the series engaging for Hope. “It was a lot more interesting in the end to get the scripts,” he says. “They started to get into story arcs that would go from the beginning of a season to the next season. And then lead on to the following season so the stories weren’t just plucked from the thin air. The stories were quite directed towards the characters, which is always much more interesting for the actors than spaceships. That happens to a lot of shows. It happened on Stargate and The X-Files. They got away from the SF aspect and got into the lead characters and the stories of their lives. That’s way more interesting for actors.”
By the third year, it was increasingly difficult to stay focused on the real-life OSIR files, says producer Larry Raskin. “We’ve pushed the show more cinematically,” adds Nadler. “We continued with a very classic style and look. We made the stories less talky and more visual.”
One of the major themes in the third year was the Afterlife. “What happens after you die and what doesn’t and so forth,” notes Nadler. “Whether you go to heaven or hell or just nowhere.”
As an example of how the series was organized for the characters, Nadler remembers that in third year, “we divided the year into thirds,” he says. “The first third was really very much Praeger and Hendricks. The middle third was a bit of Praeger and Donner. The final third was Axon and Praeger.”
Nadler recalls how stressful the job was. “It’s the first show I worked on as a showrunner. I got pneumonia a few times! The best thing I got to do was meet [writer] Harlan Ellison. The lawyer on Outer Limits phoned me and said, look, I’ve got Harlan Ellison’s email. We’ve just optioned a short story from him. I know you’re an SF fan. Would you like to contact him?’ And I did, and I offered him a role on the show. And he said, well, he was intrigued. ‘But I think you’d better see what I look like before you do that!’ So he sent me some tape. I looked at the tape and said, ‘You know what? We can write him in. This guy can actually carry a scene.’ I got Damian Kindler to write the particular episode (“The Observer Effect”) with the instruction, ‘Write it so that if we have to cut him out, we can’t!’ Harlan came up and my wife and I went out to dinner with him and talked about A Boy and His Dog la novella that later became a 1975 film) and he was just a real gentleman. And he did a good job! That was quite a thrill for me.”
Nadler also recalls that the show once ‘lost” a snake in an Ontario library after it guest starred at the location in an episode. And it was six weeks before the production company was notified that the snake was finally found. “We had to phone up the snake wrangler and tell him, ‘You gotta go pick up your snake. You left him in a potted plant!'” chuckles Nadler. -There was another snake in year one that ran for it, and got to the roof of a garage, and our first assistant director had to hang onto the end of it.”
As the third year came to a close, Nadler realized he’d burned out. He’d written ten episodes over three years and was anxious to do something else. But he also became aware of two issues that seriously affected the life of the series. First. Alliance-Atlantis was getting out of television, so that limited the future life of the show. Alliance-Atlantis once had 350 hours of television production, but in 2007, the company was completely out of that business. “That’s a huge drop in volume and opportunities,” laments Nadler.
Secondly, because of his background as a lawyer, Nadler was involved with the series’ financing as well as being the showrunner and he looked at “the numbers” for the fourth year. “I knew the budget was going to have to be cut by about a third,” he says. “I knew that the only way you could cut the budget that significantly—we were not a really expensive show— was by firing people. And! just couldn’t do it.”
Barclay Hope sympathizes. “The further along in this business I go the more l can see how budgets dictate the outcome of a show.”
Although both the production company and the syndicator asked him to reconsider, Nadler rebuffed the offers and stepped away. “I didn’t earn any money for a year, which was probably not the best thing to do!”
Stepping in to take over was Larry Raskin, who had been busy developing Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern novels for television (the project was later aborted). He says, “With Atlantis, Eyemark, and Global [the Canadian broad-caster] in Canada all acknowledging that this would be the final year, and the budget being reduced, producer David Rosen and I discussed various ways to proceed. David had produced the previous year as well. I brought back Will Dixon and Damian Kindler, and added story editor Andrea Moodie to the mix. We brainstormed for about a week on how to approach the year, keeping in mind the budgetary constraints.”
The map that was plotted out was this: Make better use of the cast (Matt Frewer, Barclay Hope, Nancy Anne Sakovich, Peter Mac-Neill). “Previous years had started to focus stories on the investigators more and that seemed like a good thing to continue,” says Raskin. “We were paying them a lot and they were all good actors so we wanted them to carry the show more — not just investigate the phenomena but experience them as well. We felt that these OSIR investigators should be magnets for paranormal activity.”
.Due to the budgetary restraints, Matt Frewer was cut loose. “We gave him a six-episode arc and a royal send-off,” says Raskin.
“Praeger was chosen to help populate a new race tin the episode “883” where Praeger must choose between dying on Earth or surviving by helping colonize a new world and we added a new young investigator played by Joanne Vannicola.”
• Adjust the tone of the show. “We didn’t take everything so seriously,” says Raskin. “In fact, we sometimes went for high camp. Our stories were inspired by the case files but no longer so closely based on them. We pushed the envelope more in the outrageous direction but also tried to make all the characters more grounded in some reality; sometimes it was an alternative reality.
• Structure the show to work with the reduced budget. “We limited stories to fewer characters and locations and tried to adhere to a mystery-suspense structure wherein the investigators pursued various leads and angles but didn’t clue in to what was really going on until the fourth act,” says Raskin. “And, we put them in the line of fire or allowed them to get more emotionally involved.”
Raskin says the plan was successful and all the parties were pleased with the results.
One of the fourth-year episodes, ‘Once Upon a Time in the Old West,” was a favorite for Hope. “Three bank robbers from the past and also the future, came to steal some gold from a bank,” he recalls. “The whole reality of our world had shifted once they had entered our dimension. Peter Axon came back from the future as an older man in his 70s. He had invented this time ma-chine that these guys had stolen. [The bank robbers] had used it to jump around time to steal gold. That was a lot of fun simply because I got to play myself at two different ages. I had to go through a complete makeup process. It put us in a different reality. Lindsay Donner was married to this cop and she ends up dying in this episode. But at the end of the episode she’s back to life because the true reality Was restored. And I got to talk with myself. The younger self talked to the older and the older talked to the younger. We were also dealing with some great character actors who were playing cowboys.”
Having looked again at various Psi-Factor videotapes in preparation for his interview, Barclay Hope reflects, “It was a lot of fun. A lot of people really enjoyed it because people still come up to me and say, ‘Wait! Psi-Factor! I remember you!’ I find that of all the things I’ve done, science fiction seems to stick. SF fans are more devoted fans. They know more about the facts. They know the show, the storylines, all that stuff. [One time, a fan in a music store] looked at me and he said, ‘Prometheus, right?’ and that was the ship I was the captain, in Stargate. He knew the ship. He knew who I was. Then he mentioned Psi-Factor because he knew me from Psi-Factor. I think SF is an interesting genre in that respect. Fans know their stuff. I honestly feel there’s a difference between SF fans and other genres. They’re very dedicated. I don’t really know why that is, I just think its different from the genre of a movie of the week or comedies.”
In the end. Nadler says he’s proud of the show. “Given the resources we had, we accomplished a really good show,” he says. “We won the Gemini award for editing. We were nominated for some of the acting in year two and three, which for a SF show in Canada, that’s pretty good. The show did extremely well internationally. The show sold to about 150 countries. Every European country. Every South American country. South Africa.”
The international distribution and exposure of a science fiction show is a fascinating subject. Can science fiction cross cultural barriers? “There’s actually a Russian trailer for Psi-Factor on YouTube,” says Nadler. “I know some episodes about snakes never aired because of cultural sensitivities there. In the Middle East some episodes about religious icons never aired. There weren’t major controversies. I don’t think we ever did anything really offensive.
“It did well with audiences in Canada. We were put all over the map in scheduling as was every Canadian show, but the audience really found it. Occasionally I’ll wear my Psi-Factor jacket and people remember the show. It’s proof that it’s a very good show. It hasn’t inspired the cult reaction that some other shows have. I don’t think we’ll ever see a convention for Psi-Factor but I like it a lot and I had a good time.”