Posts Tagged ‘Anthony Read’

It is a peculiarly topical thing to say, writing as I am during the Great Pandemic Lockdown of 2020 (younger readers, ask your parents): anything can become normal over time, no matter how strange it may feel at first glance. But true, nevertheless – there is something surpassingly peculiar about Sapphire and Steel‘s Assignment Five, and this is how conventional this particular serial is compared to the rest of the series.

The reason for this is fairly obvious to anyone who’s been paying attention during the title sequence: creator P.J. Hammond was apparently too busy to write this run of episodes (and may have been feeling a bit burned out), which is why it is the work of other writers, namely Anthony Read and Don Houghton. Now, I should say that I’ve nothing against either of these guys at all – in addition to both contributing good stuff to a prominent BBC fantasy series on which I do not comment, Houghton wrote some enjoyable scripts for late-period Hammer movies, and Read was responsible for the TV adaptation of Chocky (apparently the first John Wyndham adaptation which the writer’s family actually enjoyed). But it’s almost instantly apparent that their take on Sapphire and Steel is wildly different from Hammond’s.

We are in the country mansion of wealthy and successful businessman Lord Mulrine (Davy Kaye), in the summer of 1980 (oddball scheduling meant the story was actually transmitted in August 1981). Mulrine is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of his company and has invited various colleagues, friends, and family members for what’s effectively a murder mystery costume party sans the murder mystery: everyone has been given strict instructions to come in period-correct dress for 1930. Soon they begin to gather (in what may strike regular viewers as surprisingly large numbers), and as they do so come the first signs of something strange occurring – a radio seems to be picking up actual transmissions from the thirties, while the door which currently leads to Mulrine’s office is intermittently replaced by that to the laboratory of his colleague George McDee (Stephen Howard), who died almost fifty years ago to the day (the office occupies the same space that the lab used to).

Just as well that amongst the guests are Sapphire and Steel – who are, in another departure from the norm, working undercover, as a couple named Miles and Virginia Cavendish (Steel says his business is ‘futures’, which is true enough). For some reason they arrive in their regular outfits and go upstairs to pretend to change (Steel apparently has the same kind of shape-shifting powers as Sapphire, using them to grow an instant moustache). The period-perfect party is at grave risk of causing the kind of time break they are usually sent in to deal with, but it seems that something even more serious is in progress: the two time periods (1930 and 1980) seem to be merging, with the supposedly dead McDee turning up for the party, and some of the others not seeming particularly shocked by this…

You do get a sense that Read and Houghton may have seen the odd episode, or perhaps read some kind of a series bible, but haven’t actually sat down with P.J. Hammond so he could explain the premise and style of the series to them in depth. The premise of the story is quite different, for one thing – rather than the time break being the problem the operators are here to fix, it appears that it is being used as a means to an end by some other malevolent force. The power in question is seeking to change history and cause a catastrophe on an incomprehensible scale, and towards the end of the story it is suggested that this power is Time itself. Now, there are passing references in the first story to ‘Time breaking in’, suggesting a sort of hostility, but fairly soon these are replaced by the idea that Sapphire and Steel’s job is basically to protect the structure of Time. You could possibly find a way of resolving these two conflicting views – is Time their enemy or their ward? – but the series doesn’t do so.

The new writers also offer some hints as to who and what the operators are, although the bulk of this scene takes place off-camera. Felix (Jeffry Wickham), who becomes their ally in this story, sums this up by saying they are ‘an inter-planetary police force, sent down here to keep order’ (this seems so at odds with what we see elsewhere that one has to conclude Felix is being lied to) and also that they are aliens ‘in the extra-terrestrial sense’ (this does feel a bit like the kind of scene you often find in that other show to which I alluded at around this time).

This story’s other big innovation is that Sapphire and Steel, finding themselves in need of back-up, opt to essentially deputise one of the locals, giving him the codename Brass and bestowing their telepathy on him. Once again, it is an interesting and suggestive notion rather than saying anything definitive about the format; this story is also much more about human interaction than the others, which explains why they need an ‘inside man’.

As noted, this story does feature as many guest characters as all the previous ones combined, and rather than taking place in a lonely cottage, a disused railway station, or somewhere else remote, it’s in a country house full of people. I’ve discussed possible influences on the other stories before, but this story seems (yet again) to be doing something different – it’s mainly a steal from the traditional country house murder mystery genre made famous by Agatha Christie and others, although this ultimately proves to be a subversion of the form.

Whatever else you think about it, it certainly doesn’t drag or feature obvious filler in the way that many of the other stories do. I believe I read somewhere that Read and Houghton didn’t write together, and indeed structured their process as a kind of game, usually writing alternate episodes and building up to a cliffhanger which the other man would have to find a way to resolve. One presumes there was some sort of polishing up process following this, for the finished story is solid and interesting, if not as arrestingly peculiar as the Hammond-written episodes. As a Sapphire and Steel story this is definitely an outlier, but as such it is only odd in the way that it is not nearly as strange as the rest of the series.

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When people asked me: “What were your aims and ambitions for the show?” I’d say: “That the BBC did not have to show the test card at 6pm on Saturday night.”

One thing about Terrance Dicks, he’s got his anecdotes finely honed. That’s a good and funny line, but it’s not without an element of truth – it’s great to make something resonant and genuinely accomplished, it’s good to make something popular and entertaining, but when the crunch arrives, TV production teams simply have to produce something, anything, to fill their timeslot. I suppose it’s to the credit of Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts that the majority of their Doctor Who stories are so much more than simply being any old thing slung together in order to fill a gap in the schedule.

On other occasions, in less felicitous circumstances, the truth of what Terrance was talking about becomes clear: one finds oneself watching a story where all those other, finer and higher concerns have been reluctantly abandoned and it just comes down to filling the screen with something vaguely coherent and marginally interesting.

For example, The Invasion of Time from 1978, a story which I saw on its first broadcast. On paper this should have been a big deal for me: the first story I saw featuring a visit to Gallifrey, the first story featuring a returning big-name monster, and the first change in the show’s on-screen personnel I was witness to (I had been watching the series for less than a year at this point, if my memories are anything to go on). And yet the only bit of the story I genuinely recall from that first viewing is the very end, probably because I liked K9 so much.

Invasion of Time 5

Well, I was only four at the time. On the other hand, not much of it has lingered in the memory on the other two occasions I’ve watched it since (and the fact there have only been two occasions should tell you something, too). One should, I suppose, bear in mind on an intellectual level that this is a story hit hard by a number of behind-the-scenes issues – a last-minute replacement for another script, made at the end of the season when rampant inflation meant the series’ budget had effectively been savagely cut, and so on. But while you’re watching it, it’s very difficult to be so considerate.

The story opens with the Doctor in a conference with the High Command of the Vardans, an aggressively militaristic (and rather coyly presented) alien race. Obviously something is not as it seems, an impression which is only compounded when the next thing he does head straight for Gallifrey and claim the presidency (technically his by right, following up on a plot detail from the previous year’s The Deadly Assassin). Even by his usual standards, the Doctor is behaving very strangely – but can he really be planning on helping the Vardans to conquer his own home planet?

Of course he can’t. The Doctor is obviously up to something, pursuing a goal which requires him to give the impression he’s gone over to the forces of darkness, and it’s the chance to watch Tom Baker take his performance even further than normal, not to mention the central mystery of his behaviour, which is the main audience hook for The Invasion of Time. There’s very little else to keep it watchable: no imaginative central idea, no striking design work, no clever plotting, no memorable guest performances.

On the other hand, there is a sort of awful fascination in watching a group of BBC professionals trying to stage an epic tale of planetary conquest on a micro-budget. Gallifrey consists of a couple of big meeting spaces, some offices, a corridor and a stairwell (also, I suppose, a sandpit for the exterior scenes), and is for the most part remarkably under-populated. There’s no sense of a living society under threat here, nor any reason why we should really care. The Vardans, for much of the story, are represented by poorly-CSO’d pieces of tinfoil, but their characterisation is equally thin (along with that of virtually every other character).

The closest the plot gets to genuine inventiveness comes at the close of the fourth episode, where it is revealed that the Doctor has been duped – the real menace is not the Vardans, but the Sontarans, who have sacrificed the Vardans in order to breach Gallifrey’s defences (although, of course, quite how they have contrived this is not gone into in any depth). Even here, though, it’s impossible not to sense this was born out of desperation when the writers realised they still had two episodes to fill.

And fill them they do, quite literally, with interminable scenes of characters marching up and down corridors and stairwells – a sequence where the Doctor walks repeatedly through the same set is presented to the audience almost as a joke, but the desperate exigences of the production are so obvious that the humour is so faint as to be almost indiscernible. One of the traditional sticks with which this story is beaten is the supposedly ropey nature of the TARDIS scenes in the final episode – allegedly the inspiration for Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, another dodgy tale but one with fewer excuses – and while it’s true that these do at one point boil down to Time Lords and Sontarans hitting each other with garden furniture, they at least give the story a sense of scale entirely missing elsewhere. In the end the Doctor whips up a convenient plot-device superweapon to resolve the Sontaran menace, such as it is.

The Sontarans are odd old beasts: indisputably in the first division of Doctor Who monsters, but – with the arguable exception of The Time Warrior – never featuring in a genuinely first-rate story. In the past I’ve argued that they stumbled backwards into the role of recurring monster, being brought back for their second and third appearances more because the costumes were distinctive and available than because they were particularly popular monsters. Of all the dodgy Sontaran appearances, this is amongst the dodgiest, and of all the dubious Doctor Who monster performances, Derek Deadman’s turn as Stor is one of the most doubtful.

Still, it is not entirely without moments of interest, particularly in the way that – in hindsight at least – it anticipates narrative developments from the following year. By the end of this story the Time Lords come across as a pretty feeble bunch, bereft of authority or presence, and its easy to see why Graham Williams created the Guardians to replace them as the mythology’s supreme authority (other than the similarities between the Trickster and the Black Guardian, they have barely been mentioned in the 21st century series – could they somehow have ended up as casualties of the Time War?). And while I can’t remember where I first heard the suggestion that Rodan was originally suggested as Leela’s replacement as companion, it seems to me to be entirely plausible – there’s a scene at the end of episode five which seems like a deliberate dry run, while the numerous similarities between Rodan and Romana hardly need listing.

That’s about it, though. There are a couple of things that are generally true when it comes to 20th century Doctor Who: with only a few exceptions, storylines directly involving Gallifrey and the Time Lords turn out to be pretty tough going and seldom live up to expectations, while similarly, stories with the word ‘Time’ in the title are nearly always no good. The Invasion of Time had it coming two-fold, and yet it’s still hard to shake the nagging sense that it really should have turned out better.

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