Posts Tagged ‘Assignment One’

I make no apologies for preferring the fantasy and SF series of years gone by over contemporary series – I say this like I actually watch a lot of modern shows, which isn’t really the case. I’m watching and enjoying Picard, up to a point at least – it more closely resembles my idea of Star Trek than Discovery does, though that’s hardly saying anything – and I must confess that I did enjoy watching the first season of Supergirl when I was briefly out of the country a while ago (it’s not on UK Netflix and I can’t be bothered with trying to keep up with the showings on Pick). Of course, the problem with limiting yourself to the past is that you inevitably run out of new things to watch – although perhaps not as quickly as you might expect. It looks like being 38 years between my first seeing an episode of Sapphire and Steel and finally catching up with the complete run.

The only episodes I saw on their original transmission were the very last ones, although I was always vaguely aware of it from the spin-off comic strip and other things. I went to a fan group meeting in 1988 supposedly devoted to the most famous of all British fantasy TV series, and one of the most memorable parts of the afternoon was a showing of the first episode of the show. At university I did eventually see the whole of that first story. In between times I absorbed synopses of the stories and other articles about the series: I wrote an RPG scenario based just on that first episode; last year I wrote another one, based mainly on a story which I had not even seen.

Given it has clearly exerted quite a hold on me, I wonder why it has taken me so long to finally sit down and watch the programme properly. I don’t know: possibly the concern that it may not live up to expectations, also the fact that this is really it – with Sapphire and Steel out of the way, I have pretty much seen (and in many cases own) all the famous British SF and fantasy shows from the 1970s and early 80s (not that anyone was really initiating new genre TV shows at that point; most of the few that did get made were hardly great successes). But one can’t put these things off forever.

So – Sapphire and Steel Assignment One, from July 1979. The story is set almost entirely in an remote old house in the countryside (the series is clearly being made on the tiniest of budgets), where a young boy named Rob (Steven O’Shea) is doing his homework in a kitchen full of clocks. Upstairs, his parents are reading nursery rhymes to his younger sister Helen (Tamasin Bridge). She insists on one rhyme after another… until suddenly the clocks stop, and his parents’ voices are gone. Not just their voices: they have vanished into thin air, leaving his sister frightened and confused.

So far everything has been intimate, domestic, understated and eerie; but the titles now roll and they are expansive (almost to the point of being cosmic) and bombastic. Weird, abstract vistas unfold as threatening music plays; a stentorian voice-over (a young David Suchet, who has since forgotten ever doing it) declaims about ‘the forces controlling each dimension’ and how ‘transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life’ – finally, that ‘Sapphire and Steel have been assigned’.

Then we are back in the house. Rob, quite sensibly, has called the police, but impossibly quickly there is a knocking at the door. It is a man in a grey suit (David McCallum), and a woman in a blue dress (Joanna Lumley): they are Steel and Sapphire, and they have come to help. Quite what form this help is to take, and indeed what the actual problem is, never becomes what you might call concretely defined: the really distinctive thing about Sapphire and Steel is its total refusal to provide the viewer with information about what is actually going on. You are left to work it out for yourself; the episodes themselves are routinely vague and – in the case of this story at least – appear to sometimes contradict themselves.

What seems to be going on is this – the age of the house, all the old clocks, and Rob’s sister’s love of old rhymes seem to have combined to make it so the room at the top of the building has more of a presence in the past than the present day. This has put such a strain on the fabric of Time that a rupture of some sort has occurred, allowing something from outside reality as we know it to penetrate the house, abducting Rob and Helen’s parents and threatening to encroach further into their home. The entity appears to only manifest in conjunction with old rhymes and pictures, though it seems to have a particular affinity for the seventeenth century.

As far as Sapphire and Steel go – well, it is certainly implied they are elemental beings of some kind (even though neither sapphire nor steel are elements, obviously). Steel seems to be the one in charge and the one responsible for getting things done; he has very poor social skills. His main ability seems to be that he can reduce his body temperature to absolute zero, which apparently gives him the power to freeze manifestations of the encroaching force (there is an odd elision between freezing things in the conventional way and freezing time itself going on here). Initially Steel seems to need to dismantle a chest freezer in order to do his schtick, which is a very off-beat touch.

Sapphire seems to be in charge of diplomacy and fact-finding; she can manipulate the flow of time to some extent, and also seems able to change her appearance at will (adding to the likelihood that the human demeanour of the two operatives is entirely illusory). She is sensitive in all sorts of ways that Steel is not, both when it comes to dealing with people and with other more abstract phenomena.

There is quite big, broad, ambitious world-building going on here, in a cryptic way: Steel off-handedly refers to his role in sinking the ‘real Mary Celeste‘, and halfway through the story the duo receive backup from one of their colleagues – the jovial giant Lead (Val Pringle) arrives, who in addition to being a genuine element also possesses superhuman strength, insulating powers, and a fine singing voice.

To be honest, Lead doesn’t actually do much beyond pepping up a story which markedly starts to flag in the middle section – the opening two episodes, setting up the premise, are brilliant, genuinely creepy and disturbing stuff. But there’s not really enough there to sustain the narrative over two-and-a-half-hours, and so by the time of the third and fourth episodes there’s a definite sense of the writer (P.J. Hammond) casting about to find new things to do with it – Sapphire gets stuck inside a picture, Lead turns up, and so on. Things pick up again as episode five starts to build towards the climax, and one again has to wonder at the fact that this was considered children’s programming, even in 1979 – Rob encounters a malevolent replica of his father, who needless to say has unpleasant intentions for him, although of course exactly what fate awaits the lad remains unclear.

The actual climax and resolution are surprisingly satisfying and even border on the intelligible: the force which has entered the house is lured down into the cellar – it is compelled to manifest when old rhymes are spoken, apparently – and forced into the oldest part of the building, a foundation stone, from which it cannot escape. Steel and Lead between them destroy the stone in the seventeenth century, resolving everything and apparently resetting events back at the point at which the whole weird chain of events began (I did say this was weird and abstract).

The story may sag in the middle, but it is always watchable, and not quite like anything else I’ve ever seen on TV: the programme is understated, thoughtful, relies on dialogue for most of its story-telling, and through the juxtaposition of the domestic setting and some vaultingly ambitious ideas it achieves a sense of scale and contrast, a breaking-down of conceptual barriers, that is the hallmark of genuinely interesting science-fiction. But it’s quite hard to pin this series down, on the strength of the first story at least – is it for adults or children? Is it intended as horror, science fiction or fantasy? The questions keep coming, vastly outnumbering answers of any kind. The one definite certainty is that this is an intriguing debut for a new series, promising a lot of potential for future stories.

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