A few months ago, I finished the series of posts on the TV series of Sapphire & Steel. If you will recall, they ended in 1982 and were consigned to the television history books. It’s worth noting that although it was somewhat different from most other shows of the time, UK television was pushing the boundaries of what had been possible and were really flexing their artistic muscles. There were shows such as “Play for Today” which started any number of now well known writers and actors on their path to stardom. Was there a real, single, reason for the end of Sapphire and Steel? Probably not, there were any number of factors involved and any creative endeavour will suffer them. The ideas were left on the shelf and became largely forgotten.
In 1998, Big Finish Productions was founded. The company began with the licence to produce audio plays based on the Professor Bernice “Benny” Surprise Summerfield character. These were popular enough that the company were able to expand their range, moving into Doctor Who plays (being the main output of the company to this day), plays based on the 2000AD comics, the Tomorrow People and others. They also produce, of course, the Sapphire and Steel audio series starring David Warner (Steel) and Susannah Harker (Sapphire). They began the series in May 2004 and continued producing them until the end of the third series in 2008. These audio plays are notable for their high production values and the fact that they have been able to have many of the original actors from the TV shows reprise their roles – particularly in the Doctor Who series. Read the rest of this entry
Well, it’s taken me around 10 months to write up these posts and we’re now at the end of the television series. This series was a big part of my childhood and pretty much spoiled me for “normal” sci-fi or horror. Not for me the joys of “pew pew lasers!” shows or simple non-psychological horror. No, I want my shows to be a little unusual and thoughtful.
Hopefully, I have ignited a small spark within you to find these shows and watch them to see what I’m on about. I am completely serious about wanting these to be returned to the small screen and updated. With the new Dr Who shows, Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, The X Files, Lost, Heroes and so on the audiences of today have also shown that they want shows that are not strictly mainstream and that do interesting things within the genres.
So here we are, after almost a year we are now at the final episode of Sapphire and Steel. I really thought that this wouldn’t take me all that long to do. For such an inventive television series, six series seems very short. Many other shows ran on for much longer and stand the test of time (no pun intended) far less well. We have seen them solve problems in an isolated farmhouse, a railway station, a stately home, an antiques shop and a futuristic invisible living space. And now, for this final showing, we are at a lonely service station just off a British motorway. This is fitting as all of these shows are set in innocuous locales where that sort of thing just doesn’t happen.
Silver (the ever smooth David Collings) the technician, is already there. The three adjourn to the cafe attached to the service station to wait developments. A couple drive up in their car. However, despite the service station being located in the present day, the car and the couple are both from 1948 and they seem to have little interest in anything that is from their future. Later, they see the station as it was in 1925 and a traveling musician from 1957 arrive. S&S quickly realise that this is a trap set for them: technicians always arrive after operatives, the service station is stuck in a time loop lasting a few seconds and all the people who should be there have disappeared.
Assignment Five has it’s detractors. It’s one which, oddly, doesn’t entirely fit in with the rest of the series. As we have seen with the other Assignments, they are all set “today” with an outside force opening a door to a previous era to allow someone or something to come through. In this one, the force opens the door to send things back. Normally, in a longer running series, we would be able to see this as an escalation in tactics and would have time to get used to the idea. Because of the nature of S&S, rather than a steady escalation this is thrust upon us.
Lord Arthur Mulltrine is throwing a party to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his business partnership. His partner, Dr George McDee, had died some years previous. As a part of the celebrations, Lord Arthur recreates the era by insisting that all the guests dress in period costume, by removing all “modern day” appliances and replacing them with antiques from the time. Can anyone say “trigger”? Sapphire and Steel arrive just before the whole house is sent 50 years back in time.
During the party, the guests notice that they have begun to speak of events that happened then as if they were happening now; before long they are fully subsumed into the time period. Our operatives soon have to act as detectives as people who were not born in the earlier period start to be killed. Soon, the events of the night being celebrated start to recreate themselves as Dr McDee arrives at the party. On that night, he had created a lethal virus but was shot by a jealous lover before it could be released. Time has taken over the lover’s body in order that the virus can, this time, be released.
As ever, and with the benefit of hindsight, we can look at this as a piece of televisual nonsense. But the fine acting from our players mean that it is easy to believe in the events. This Assignment suffers from the same malady a lot of older television does: it does look very much like a stage play. In fact, I would go so far as to say that visual effects aside, this could be transported to the stage with very little change to the script.
There are some lovely touches, one of the guests realises that S&S are not who they say they are and, further, realises that they can speak telepathically. They enlist his help, even going so far as to give him his own name: Brass, and to enable him to communicate with them. There is also some wonderful flirting by the ever lovely Joanna Lumley to the wonderfully stiff David McCallum.
The finish of this Assignment is very well done, the horror that is touched on in other episodes is well realised in this one. The finale is touching and chilling at the same time. Again, as with other Assignments, S&S will move on leving the victims to pull back the pieces of their lives. And yet, with all the great parts of this Assignment, it just doesn’t work as well as others. I think it’s because there are just too many people in the show. S&S is a very intimate, secret thing and it’s easy to imagine the one or two victims carrying on and being believed to be a little odd. In this one, all of the guests are respectable and, presumably, well known people and if they started to discuss the events they would be believed by many people. As well, the dead people would have to be explained away to the modern day police force. Even though there are potentially many many plot holes and loose ends in all S&S episodes, this one has far too many.
Although it fits within the S&S mythology, it doesn’t fit as well as earlier episodes and stands out as a script that was calling out for a different show to be part of.
One of the things I noticed when I started writing these posts was that, although Sapphire and Steel were popular shows with my friends and that I watched every episode avidly, some of the season were less memorable than others. Possibly this is because Assignments One, Two and Six were so powerful that they overshadowed the middle of the run. Sapphire and Steel is now around 30 years old, so the fact that any of it is memorable is a real testament to the power of the writing.
It’s a real shame that I only recalled this particular Assignment once I was watching it as it is probably the most creepy of the series. If this were a stand alone horror genre TV play it would have spawned a number of copies, as it is, it is one of the excellent episodes that non-S&S fans just don’t get to see. The episode opens with a number of children playing in an enclosed, walled off back yard. Their dress is old and there just seems to be something not right about them. The back yard is attached to a junk shop and it seems that the owner has disappeared. Steel notes that the whole shop is full of triggers and that it would be impossible to isolate the one causing the problems (if you’ll recall, a trigger is something that “triggers” the outbreak – it is usually something which conflicts with the present time, such as an antique). We next see that the shop has a couple of flats above it and that one of the tenants has disappeared from there. A mysterious man is seen within the building, but despite talking to him, no one actually sees his face.
As expected, thing begin to escalate. S&S are attacked within the shop and realise that the children are made of photgraphic paper. They come upon a mysterious device attached to a camera and work out that this is what has created the children. This is confirmed by seeing a number of photographs with the focal point being a blank area. From this they conclude that there should be a child in the picture, but the child is now in the shop. At this point in the story, we see the face of the mysterious man – he has no face! He can also move between photographs. How can you capture a being that can be in any photograph anywhere in the world? S&S notice that in a window in one of the older photographs there is a person who shouldn’t be there – it’s the missing tenant. Horrifyingly the man with no face sets it alight, killing the woman. S&S realise how much of a disadvantage they are at – if they enter a photo to chase him, or if they get captured, they could be killed in the same way.
As ever, they figure out a way to capture him and return everyone to their correct photos, they then transport the “prison photo” to a ship that is destined to sink. This should give their organisation enough time to formulate a way to stop him properly. Unfortunately, the missing people are lost for ever.
It is difficult in a short précis to properly put over the general horror theme of this Assignment. The shop and connected flats are small and cramped and dark. The villain of the piece has no face and elicits no sympathy at all – even though he seems to have real feeling for the children he releases from the photographs. Even the children themselves, once they are revealed as less than human become, not sympathetic, but things to be put back in their proper places. Again, the episode is set in a time that is no time – the clothes are not quite contemporary and with the changing fashions and return to fashion of some clothes could be almost any time. We never see anything outside of the main sets, so it could be set today, yesterday or any time in the last or next hundred years. This is a fantastic mechanism to draw us in – this could be happening now!
The only drawbacks of the show are, as usual, purely technical. The man with no face is created through make up rather than CGI – this means that instead of simply wiping his features or overdubbing them, they had to create a flesh coloured mask which would cover his face but allow the actor to speak. The results are … unfortunate to say the least. Otherwise, this is a pretty flawless episode and we should be forgiving of the limitations of both the technology available and the budget.
The episode does give the opportunity for later runs to include this villain as a recurring character. Again, I must lament the fact that this series was never revived or remade. Sapphire and Steel also make mention of Mercury, adding to the list of possible characters we could see – Jet (seen in Assignment One), Silver (seen in Assignment Three), dour Copper, Mercury and Jet. The list can also be drawn from the list of elements. If we were to take these first six assignments as the trial run, further Assignments could expand on these possibilities.
With this Assignment we have crossed the halfway mark and we’re now on the way to the end of the run.
This is the most maligned episode of the series. I believe that any failings are not down to the actual episode itself, but are down to the limitations of the technology at the time. We can see this is any number of science fiction series from the era. As with, arguably, the whole concept behind S&S, it was just ahead of it’s time.
This episode is great for two reasons, in my opinion. Firstly, we meet the fantastic character of Silver (the wonderful David Collings). Through him we learn that there are several tiers of agent – investigators (such as S&S) and technicians, such as Silver – as a technician, he can manipulate metal and transform and earing (for example) into a key with his special powers. For the first time we get some small background on the universe of the series and an idea of the wider organisation that the characters work for. Secondly, Silver and Sapphire indulge in a fair bit of flirting and it is implied that they have had a relationship. Suddenly, S&S are no longer merely ciphers who drop in to solve a problem, but real characters with a life beyond the series.
The story behind this episode is that our heroes are called to a tower block to deal with an incursion from the future. Couples from 1000 years ahead of “now” have been sent back to observe our present and to live as couples do now – a real nuclear family. However, very quickly things begin to go wrong and S&S must act before things begin to affect the present. We see much of the story in flashback, however the flashbacks have been cleverly written as if the characters are reacting to things happening in the story’s present. So when Steel bangs on the outside of the capsule, we see the characters inside the capsule react to banging noises. When S&S arrive though, these characters are already dead. The couples are menaced firstly by hallucinations of their meat dishes coming alive and reenacting the horror the animals felt when they were slaughtered. Then by a breakdown in their communications. And finally, they are killed. Their baby is left alive and is aged until it becomes an adult male. With Silver’s help S&S gain entrance to the capsule and the horror can begin. It transpires that in the future there is no eating of meat and all animal cruelty has ended, except that most of the technology is based on meat and the animals want their revenge…
As with the majority of the series (and a good number of light entertainment and more serious plays) this was quite a dark story. Even though only in flashes, the scenes of the animals are very vivid and bloody and we are given a real taste of the horror that has happened. The performances are, as ever, outstanding – Silver as a suave lounge lizard type character is a wonderful contrast to the dour and serious Steel. Despite the “rightness” of the creature’s wrath, it still needs to be stopped by our heroes and the time stream restored to it’s correct progression – dead things must stay dead!
The let down, and why it is so well known, is in the character of the artificially aged baby, played with gusto by Russell Wootton. I mean, just how do babies artificially brought to adult age actually act? I don’t know and would probably have gone with the same results as Wootton. The problem for the character is that he has very few lines to say, so everything has to be done through the power of mime and this, really, makes the actor look a little ridiculous. If you think I’m being unfair, take any piece of TV or theatre and then take away all the spoken parts of one character. No matter who the actor is or how good they are, they won’t look good.
The “bad parts” are fairly small in comparison to the whole. The three heroes are as heroic and argumentative as ever, Collings was an extremely good addition to the cast and served to strengthen it. The flashback sections were very well played, the actors brought out the idea of people out of time extremely well. The main characters progressed in terms of development and story. The overall tale fit with the canon and gave us the required sci-fi/paranormal mix. If this had been produced now, the effects would have been obviously more superior and more could have been done with the baby/man character.