Posts Tagged ‘Assignment Two’

There was a point in the late summer and autumn of 1979 when the UK went down to having only two TV networks in operation, something which is almost literally unthinkable now. Both of them were operated by the BBC, the commercial network having fallen victim to industrial action by the unions. This happened partway through the transmission of the second Sapphire and Steel story, and when broadcasting resumed the decision was made to start the serial again from the beginning, presumably on the grounds that the story was quite weird and abstract enough already, without forcing the viewer to try and remember exactly what had been going on.

This being the second story in the series, there is a subtle shift of emphasis in that Sapphire and Steel, not the more typically human characters, are the audience’s point of identification as the assignment gets underway. Despite that, we still meet the main guest character first: Tully, a middle-aged amateur ghost hunter played by Gerald James. We learn very little about him – he lives alone, has a cat – but James establishes that despite his slightly fussy and pompous demeanour, he is a decent and compassionate man, motivated by a genuine desire to help what he perceives to be spirits in distress.

He is naturally a little nonplussed when the two agents turn up in the middle of his own investigations into what appears to be a haunting at an old railway station and the hotel attached to it. As far as Tully is concerned, the station is being haunted by the spirit of a soldier from the Great War, but Steel naturally suspects something more complex is going on and with Sapphire’s help begins to unravel the mystery.

The ‘haunting’ is the work of an entity which manifests itself as a cloud of darkness, and which feeds on anger and resentment. Whether this is another of the things which normally exists outside of Time but has managed to break through into the conventional world is not made clear, for Sapphire and Steel mostly limit their discussion to terms of reference which Tully accepts: spirits, and so on. It is the darkness which has summoned up the young soldier, and other victims of the two world wars, and is drawing sustenance from them.

If the darkness has an agenda beyond this, or just plans to keep attracting and leeching from other resentful dead men, is not clear. Certainly the spirits are initially very hostile towards the two agents and Tully – they seem to have the ability to force others to experience the circumstances of their own deaths, with potentially fatal consequences. Sapphire and Steel don’t appear to have any special resistance to the powers wielded by the darkness’ pawns, and indeed show little sign of having unusual powers themselves, beyond Sapphire’s usual extra-sensory perception. They use a traditional seance at one point, and when they resolve the problem – whatever it exactly is – it is through negotiation, not force or trickery.

I am reluctant to spoil this story for anyone who hasn’t seen it but may potentially do so in the future, but (as ever with this series) it raises more questions than it answers. Who or what are Sapphire and Steel working on behalf of? What is their agenda, their overall objective? In the first story it seems to be that they are working to preserve the integrity of Time and minimise disruption to the lives of human beings. Here things seem to be quite different: Steel is so determined to rid the station of the darkness’ influence that he contemplates a serious disruption to the flow of future time. This is before we even contemplate the ruthlessness of his methods. The conclusion of the story manages to be both shocking and anticlimactic (the story resolves off-screen; all the audience is aware of is a sound effect), and the viewer is left off-balance: so little exposition has been delivered that it’s difficult to know whether Steel’s actions are justified or not – we just don’t know what the stakes are.

More than in the first assignment, the story does take on an abstract, almost theatrical air. I have to confess I approached this story with a certain degree of trepidation: my experience of these short SF/fantasy serials is that it takes something quite exceptional not to drag at six episodes in length. Assignment Two clocks in at eight episodes, meaning it is well over three hours long. Throughout this duration there are just the three main characters, plus the soldier and a couple of other ghosts who play minor roles; it all takes place in and around the same large set. It sounds like a gruelling prospect when you consider it that way, but – provided you don’t do something silly like trying to binge the whole thing in one sitting – the sheer measured spareness of it is quite engrossing. It’s true that the narrative of the thing advances only incrementally from episode to episode, but even on videotape, with minimal special effects, it is a genuinely atmospheric and rather creepy production.

This is the story I had at the back of my mind when I found myself obliged to write a Call of Cthulhu scenario at quite short notice last year, although I will confess to mashing it together somewhat with Assignment Six (which I had actually seen at that point). I kept the old country railway station in the middle of the night, and the apparitions from the past (also the future, just to do something a bit different), and in place of the darkness I had one of Lovecraft’s deities manifest in the form of a rather unsettling railway carriage which it was a very bad idea to board. It all turned out quite enjoyably for all concerned, but it was probably for the best that I only had the vaguest ideas of the actual plot of this story. ‘All right, let’s explore the spooky old railway station,’ said one of the players, as the plot got underway, ‘and hope we don’t meet Sapphire and Steel.’ I must try to make my influences a bit less obvious.

Well, whatever. I have a growing belief that, whatever else it is, Assignment Two is quietly rather brilliant, for managing to do quite so much with such unpromising raw material. Assignment One may have stronger individual moments, but this one is more consistent, and not afraid to really challenge the audience. One wonders if the programme makers already knew that further episodes would be made – certainly, if they did, what they do with Steel’s character in particular is very radical and surprising. But then one watches Sapphire and Steel to be challenged, and to experience the uniquely peculiar atmosphere of the thing. Assignment Two does what you want this series to do.

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