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Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

It’s just possible that you may vaguely recall I started the year by looking at some of the productions from RKO’s horror unit in the early 1940s, specifically Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie. For a while I did entertain the notion of watching them all, but it proved hard to track down copies of some of the films – not being able to find a free copy of The Seventh Victim anywhere was a bit irksome, as I recall – and, well, it does seem hard to believe now, but five months ago the world was a very different place: things kept happening unexpectedly, the days were all very different from each other, and in these circumstances it was easy for a project to get forgotten about.

But anyway. One RKO horror movie which it is currently quite easy to track down is The Curse of the Cat People, released in 1944 and directed by Gunter von Fritsch and Robert Wise: Wise, as you may be aware, would go on to direct such outstanding movies as the original The Day the Earth Stood Still and West Side Story (he also ended up having a fairly gruelling experience trying to direct Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which only goes to show that nobody has a perfect career), so this is a significant movie for this reason if no other. It is, as the title suggests, a sequel to 1942’s Cat People.

Having said all that, I can quite easily imagine people taking exception to several of the assertions I’ve just made: namely, that this is a horror movie, and also that it is a genuine sequel to Jacques Tourneur’s original movie. Well, it’s a follow-up, certainly, for it features four of the cast of the 1942 film, three of whom are definitely meant to be playing the same characters.

Seven or eight years have gone by since the events of Cat People (or so we are invited to assume), and ship designer Oliver Reed (yes, yes, we went through all that back in January) – played once more by Kent Smith – is married to former co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph). The two of them are living in wholesome suburban bliss with their young daughter Amy (Ann Carter) and their butler, Edward (Lancelot Pinard, who is billed – last, despite having a significant role in the movie – under his stage name of Sir Lancelot). I would say not to let the fact that this fairly ordinary family have a live-in Afro-American servant alienate you too much, but I’m not sure that’s possible.

Well, anyway, all is well for the Reeds, except for the fact that Amy is a bit ‘dreamy’ – she makes friends with butterflies, rather than other children, and seems to find it difficult to distinguish between reality and her imagination. Oliver reveals himself to be far from the most sensitive of parents by decrying this sort of behaviour as ‘lying’ and getting quite cross with his daughter about it, without fully hearing her out or considering her situation. Alice isn’t exactly off the hook, as the pair of them have rows about their child-raising technique in Amy’s presence, which I doubt Dr Spock would approve of.

Amy’s neighbourhood wanderings lead her to make the acquaintance of a lonely old woman (Julia Dean) and her hostile daughter (Elizabeth Russell, who played a cat person in the 1942 film but seems to be a different character here). The old woman gives her a ring which Amy comes to believe can grant wishes, and in her loneliness wishes that she had a friend. And a friend comes to her, called out of ‘silence and darkness’: a friend named Irena (Simone Simon), who very much appears to be Oliver’s first wife, who died in rather mysterious circumstances at the end of the first film…

Spooky stuff, huh? Especially when you consider that Irena’s main issue was that she was a cat person, descended from Serbian witches and given to turning into a panther and tearing things and people apart when powerful emotions like jealousy were roused in her. How do you imagine she reacts when she discovers her man has married her rival and had a child with her?

Well, you may continue wondering, for the film makes only the vaguest allusions to Irena’s problem – beyond the title, the cat people are barely mentioned at all, and the ‘curse’ referred to is the shadow that Irena’s death continues to cast over Oliver and Alice’s marriage. In this film, Irena appears to be an entirely benign presence in Amy’s life, almost like her imaginary friend – but for the fact Amy recognises her from some old family photos which Oliver has rather thoughtlessly left lying around the house.

So what, then, is this film about? Well, that’s a very good question; I wish I had a good answer for you. It may seem to have a ghost in it, but I wouldn’t honestly describe it as a horror movie at all: it’s actually very family-friendly, as you might expect of a film where one of the main characters is a six or seven year old girl. I think the film is largely about being a child, and not yet fully appreciating the difference between fantasy and reality – the implication, of course, is that ghosts and other objects of fantasy do exist in some form, and people should be more open to such possibilities: it does seem that Irena has some form of objective reality (though she seems to have become much more French in the afterlife), and plays a part in saving Amy’s life before the end of the film.

But even so, this is a strange, oblique film, very dream-like itself in many ways. Even at only about 70 minutes long it doesn’t really seem packed with incident, and it almost feels like some of the different elements of the story don’t quite connect together in the conventional way: it’s not immediately clear how the subplot about the Farren family actually adds to the story – the casting of Elizabeth Russell is certainly suggestive, but is this a red herring? It’s hard to be sure. Certainly the ending of the film smacks a little of a manufactured climax, which is perhaps a shame.

‘Sequel’ really isn’t the right word for The Curse of the Cat People, though I’m struggling to think of a better one. How do you describe a film which takes a group of characters and uses them to tell a new story, almost entirely unconnected from the one in which they first appeared, with no commonalities of plot, tone, or theme? ‘Follow-up’ is the best I can think of, but even this suggests a commonality which simply isn’t there. This is a well-made and memorable film, if only for the strange oneiric atmosphere that pervades it, but it neither functions as a sequel nor could it really work as a standalone movie. A real oddity, but a classy one.

 

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I have the vague suspicion that I’ve been putting off writing about the original King Kong from 1933 for nearly twenty years (basically since I started writing about films on the internet in the summer of 2001). Obviously, it isn’t an overwhelming aversion, as I am about to do just that, but I suppose I would articulate it as a vague sense of feeling supernumerary. King Kong was released 87 years ago, was a massive success, inadvertently spawned (if you believe some sceptical cryptozoologists) the modern phenomenon of the Loch Ness Monster myth, quickly became an icon, and so on. People have been writing about this film for the best part of the century. I think I once described it as a keystone movie in the history of cinema, staking out the territory for both the monster movie genre and that of the special effects blockbuster.

It is also quite recognisably the inaugurator of the phenomenon of a great film being followed by a raft of mostly substandard follow-ups, sequels, knock-offs and remakes: if you put all the Kong films – this, the 1976 one, the 2005 one, King Kong Lives, King Kong Escapes, Son of Kong, Queen Kong, Konga, Kong: Skull Island, and so on – in a stack and then pulled one out at random, your chances of ending up with something genuinely good are – well, they’re better than if you’ve got the Hellraiser or Highlander franchises in a stack, I suppose, but they’re still not fantastic.

But here we go: the original monster movie, which I shall endeavour to find something new to say about. Directed by Merian C Cooper and Ernest B Schoedsack, this takes us back to the days when movies didn’t hang about, and you could do a properly epic adventure in under 100 minutes: King Kong is a model of economy, giving you everything you need and want, and very little that you don’t.

(Do I really need to precis the plot? Oh well, for form’s sake.) The story gets underway in Depression-era New York, with movie-making impressario Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) about to set off on his latest film-making expedition – the need to depart is quite pressing, as if the port authorities discover the small arsenal he has assembled on board. But the market has spoken and, somewhat to Denham’s disgust, the new movie needs a female lead. So he pops into the city and hustles (practically kidnaps) starving young actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) into joining the venture (no pun intended).

The ship sails off for somewhere in the South Seas (possibly the Indian Ocean – the film-makers quite rightly keep the exact location of Kong’s island a secret), and you would expect this to be one of the points of the film which marks time a bit. But no: the film-makers cheekily stuff this section with brazen foreshadowing of the rest of the film: Denham explains how the film he’s planning on making is about a big tough guy who is doomed from the moment he falls in love, and then goes on to shoot some test footage of Ann which anticipates her encountering a giant monster. What are the chances?!?

Well, they arrive at their destination, a remote island never before seen by westerners, where the key points of interest are a mountain shaped like a skull and a giant wall isolating the peninsula where the natives live from the rest of the place. Here I suppose we must address the fact that the representation of the islanders in King Kong would be unforgivable in a modern movie, but – and I’m sorry if I seem to be making hard work of this issue, but that’s the world today for you – as I have noted, King Kong was made 87 years ago, and it would be as unfair to judge its presentation of other cultures by modern standards as it would be to compare its special effects to those of a contemporary film. To be honest, the islanders in the movie come off pretty well: they’re not presented as idiots or the comic relief, and they do show up to help in the big fight at the end of the second act.

Anyway, as Denham suspected, on the other side of the wall lives a man-beast known only as Kong, whom the islanders worship and occasionally placate by giving him a woman. They are very keen for Ann to take this role, and resort to kidnapping her to this end, although not before lunky first mate Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) can plight his troth to her in tooth-grindingly folksy style (if there is a real weak link in King Kong, it is Cabot’s performance, although the actor did go on to have a respectable movie career which only concluded with Diamonds are Forever in 1971).

Ann gets offered up to Kong, who turns out to be a giant cross between a gorilla and something out of Wallace & Gromit, and he carries her off into the jungle. Denham, Driscoll and the others give chase, and from this point on it’s rollicking pulpy fun all the way – stegosaurs! Tyrannosaurs! The weird skull-crawler lizard they revived for the 2017 film! Man-eating sauropods! Serpents! Pteranodons! Thankfully the test audience thought that the giant spiders were too much and they were taken out of the movie. Even so, few monster movies, especially ones using stop-motion animation, are so packed with set-pieces as this one.

If King Kong is a classic – and I think we can agree it is – then it is because the makers seem to have hit upon the basic structure of the monster movie as a cinematic genre, and it appears here almost fully formed: not just that, but also executed to a very high standard. Once Kong appears, the films moves like a bullet, with scarcely a wasted moment or scene (something you can hardly say about the Peter Jackson remake, in particular).

Other than the fact that it was done first and done so well, is there anything else that makes King Kong unusual or distinctive? Well – a few things do occur to me, actually. The first is that the film’s influence on the Japanese tradition of monster movies may be rather stronger than it is generally considered to be – of course, Willis O’Brien’s effects inspired Ray Harryhausen, who made The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which was unofficially remade as the original Godzilla. But the engine of subsequent Japanese movies was the notion of the monsters fighting each other, and it seems to me that the fight between Kong and the tyrannosaur in the second act was the inspiration for this. Tellingly, when Godzilla took on his first monstrous rival (Anguirus, in 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again), it is also in the second act, and concludes with the same kind of graphic brutality as Kong crushing the carnosaur’s jaws (there are many quite grisly touches to this film).

The again, watching this film again for the first time in ages, it strikes me that there is something quite odd about its structure. If you look at it in terms of the traditional story structure they teach on screenwriting courses, it fits the usual pattern reasonably well: the inciting incident comes when they all set off on the voyage, with the revelation of Kong’s true nature coming around the midpoint. There’s the moment of despair when Kong kills most of Driscoll’s party, followed by a rollicking final act in which Ann is rescued, but Kong pursues her back to the village, where there is a great battle and the ape is finally defeated!

Except, of course, there is a whole other act still to come, concerning the exhibition of Kong in New York and what inevitably follows. It’s hard to imagine King Kong without its famous climax, but something still feels slightly off about the way the movie is constructed. I would almost suggest that the final act of the movie is the one which makes it, as it is here that Kong finally becomes the anti-heroic figure, exuding pathos, which has ensured the character has become so iconic – but, again, it almost seems like this happens by mistake. I get a strong sense that the fact that Kong becomes sympathetic was unanticipated by the film-makers, as it doesn’t seem to have been scripted. If we are meant to be rooting for Kong, then why is Denham presented in such a neutral fashion? He’s not the greedy exploiter he’s presented as in either of the sequels, nor does he receive any kind of comeuppance at the end of the film – instead, he gets the punchline to the whole movie.

Anyway, these are the things that occurred to me while watching King Kong again for the umpteenth time. It’s a great movie that stands up well, much better than many of its contemporaries. I believe I did once suggest that if I had to watch a version of King Kong for simple entertainment value and comfort viewing, it might be the 1976 version, flawed though it obviously is. Well, maybe that’s still the case, but it’s this one which is justly regarded as a classic. I think this is one of those movies that will be with us for as long as cinema endures.

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Box of Tricks is written by Edward Rhodes and Peter Ling – Ling is possibly best-remembered for co-creating the, erm, well-remembered soap opera Crossroads, but don’t let that put you off. Well, not entirely. This is another Venus Smith episode, although since her last appearance she has had a pixie cut and possibly acquired some sort of recreational drug habit, to judge from the way her personality has changed: perky and effervescent don’t begin to cover it.

The episode opens with a magician’s assistant turning up murdered in mid-act (a tired variation on the old ‘vanishing woman’ gag, and the fact the script repeats it before the first ad break doesn’t help), which is bad news for the nightclub where the deed takes place. Luckily, they get Venus in as a replacement act (it seems that Steed has been acting as her agent and wangled this, although the line explaining why has either got lost or isn’t given enough emphasis). Steed’s current assignment is to work undercover in the house of a distinguished elderly general as his masseur, from where it has been established there is a security leak of some kind.

For quite a long time there seem to be two plots running in parallel, in the nightclub and the general’s house, and the connective tissue turns out to be a Dr Gallam (Edgar Wreford), a plausible-seeming faith healer. Gallam’s particular schtick is to insist his subjects carry around a sealed box containing curative substances, the revelation of which marks the point at which any half-awake viewer can figure out what’s really going on in this episode. Not especially distinguished, but watchable – one is inevitably curious about what the original version of the story would have been like, as it was intended to include Steed, Venus, and Cathy acting as a troika. As it is, you can see why Steed tends to work with more capable partners than Venus, who is rubbish in a fight: he has to take on all the villains himself, and while he approaches this in his usual nonchalant style – at one point lighting a fag in mid-scrap – he ends up having to rely on a guest character to help him win the day.

Doreen Montgomery’s Warlock is a definite outlier as episodes of The Avengers go, pushing the series into areas you really don’t associate it with, but in a way this does add to its odd appeal. It also has a certain significance for being the episode originally intended to introduce Cathy Gale to the series, although it was eventually pushed back to much later in the running order and most of the duo’s scenes together refilmed – although not quite all of them, resulting in various odd little moments like Cathy calling him ‘Mr Steed’ at one point, which really does feel not quite right.

Given the title, it’s not entirely surprising that the episode opens at some kind of witches’ sabbat, although these seem to be syncretists rather than Satanists considering that their ritual includes voodoo drumming, hermetic symbols on the floor, and traditional Chinese iconography on the wall (given the famously primitive conditions under which these episodes were made, the hermetic symbols may just be the marks showing the actors where to stand so they’re in shot). The focus of their attention is a photo of a distinguished-looking older man.

It turns out this chap is a top missile boffin, whom Steed is supposed to be taking to an important meeting – but when when Steed turns up to collect him, he’s still in bed, seemingly frozen stiff and eyes frantically boggling. The doctor suggests there’s nothing actually wrong with him beyond some kind of psychological shock, and an odd plant found in the man’s hand, together with his extensive library of occult tomes, leads Steed to wonder if there isn’t some sort of occult connection.

Mrs Gale, of course, is an expert on the occult (add that to her lengthy list of areas of expertise) and Steed tracks her down to the Natural History Museum, where she’s helping out with the fossil collection (palaeontology, too) where she gives her opinion as forthrightly as ever: black magic really can have an influence over people who believe in it. One-Ten eventually meets up with Steed and reminds him of another important government scientist with an interest in the occult, who died in mysterious circumstances a few years earlier.

Our heroes’ investigations lead them to the occult bookshop of the resplendently-monickered Dr Cosmo Gallion (Peter Arne), whom we the viewers already know is the warlock leading the witch cult from the top of the episode. Gallion has hit upon a scheme to bolster his income from the bookshop by luring important government scientists into joining his coven, putting the ‘fluence on them, and then making them give their secrets away to the Other Side (what the supposedly materialistic leaders of the Other Side will make of their agents employing a magician is something the episode leaves to the imagination). Can Steed and Mrs Gale put a stop to Gallion’s rather bizarre scheme?

Peter Arne in the first of two back-to-back villainous appearances.

As I say, a definite outlier for the series, not least because it includes elements more normally associated with fantasy and horror. Never mind what Mrs Gale says about black magic ultimately being only a subjective, psychosomatic phenomenon, there are scenes here where Gallion uses his powers to great effect against people who clearly don’t believe in the supernatural – so the episode seems to be suggesting that magic is real, in Steed’s world at least! It’s fascinating to speculate how the series could have developed differently had the writers decided to follow up on this notion, rather than going with the more science-fictional elements that eventually became commonplace in the show.

All interesting stuff, and the episode opens strongly, but the episode unravels before the ending and the pacing is a bit iffy in places. Montgomery also seems to be struggling to quite get a handle on Steed’s character – he actually gets drunk at one point, which seems very out of character, and spends most of the next scene trying to get Cathy to go back to his place with him. I suppose it’s understandable, given Warlock was written when the character was still being developed, but given these scenes were mostly reshot, it’s a shame they couldn’t have been tweaked a bit too. Nevertheless, an episode with more than enough originality to make it very watchable.

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A lot of people involved in the film business are wont to get a bit precious about it, going on about artistic integrity, following their creative instincts,, stretching themselves and their talent, and so on. And this is often a laudable approach to take. The question is whether it excuses the rather disdainful approach sometimes taken to people who are quite happy to treat the business as a business and simply concentrate on maximising returns, more high-falutin’ concerns be damned.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Vin Diesel has no artistic integrity – anyone who’s seen the videos revealing the method approach he takes to playing Groot in the Marvel movies will know this is not the case – but he does seem to be an actor and producer who has figured out that his films are going to do better if he just sticks to making sequels and franchise movies. Of the twenty or so films where he’s played the lead since making Pitch Black, there are eight Fast & Furious movies, three as Riddick, and two xXx films, the balance consisting of before-he-was-famous obscurities like Knockaround Guys and A Man Apart, his mid-2000s dabble with full-on comedy (The Pacifier and Find Me Guilty), and stabs at other kinds of genre movie such as Babylon AD and the recent Bloodshot. What is perhaps telling is that Babylon AD came out in 2008 and Bloodshot earlier this year: in between these two, almost every single movie led by Diesel was from one of his franchises. It’s not that people don’t go to see Diesel in other films: he just doesn’t make other films.

The sole exception, and thus potentially quite an interesting entry in the Diesel filmography, is Breck Eisner’s 2015 movie The Last Witch Hunter. I say it is potentially quite interesting as a bit of an outlier where Vin is concerned, not because of any particular merits of the film itself, because these are marginal as we shall see.

The movie opens in the twelfth century, with a group of warriors venturing into the fabled Tree of Evil to kill the Witch Queen whose plague has devastated their land (there is a lot of Implicit Capitalisation in this movie). I was mildly diverted by the realisation that this sort of magic pagan villainess has almost become a stock character in (usually bad) fantasy movies – I was reminded of the Milla Jovovich character in the last Hellboy, and also Rebecca Ferguson in The Kid Who Would Be King – but much more distracted by the beard and hairpiece they have glued onto Diesel to make him look like a man from the dark ages.

You know, I honestly can’t decide if this is a good look for Vin or not. Initially it just seems quite funny in the same way that seeing him with dreadlocks at the start of Chronicles of Riddick draws a smile, but this may just be because Diesel is such a famous baldy. If he kept the hair for the whole movie perhaps we would get used to it, but it is just a bit of set dressing for the prologue: soon he is waving a flaming sword around and shouting things like ‘Fire and steel!’ The Witch Queen is briskly dealt with, but has the last laugh, as she curses Vin with eternal youth and immortality (not, you might think, the most onerous things to be cursed with).

Well, we skip forward to the present day where Vin has adopted his usual shiny-scalped mien and is working for an organisation named the Axe and the Cross (which looks very much like the Catholic Church, to be honest). It turns out there is a population of witches with magical powers living unseen alongside regular folks, and it’s Vin’s job as – all together now – the Last Witch Hunter to make sure they behave themselves. Already the astute viewer will be having thoughts along the lines of ‘Hang on, this is Highlander meets Hellboy meets Harry Potter meets Blade meets Men in Black.’

Such thoughts are dispelled with the appearance of Michael Caine (yes, really) as Vin’s best friend and confidante, Dolan the 36th. It is almost instantly apparent that Caine has been hired to reprise his performance as Alfred the Butler from the Christopher Nolan Batman films, but Caine does his best with the role despite the fact he is required to deliver dialogue like ‘I trust you were able to retrieve the weather runes without complications?’ It seems like Caine is just here for a cameo, anyway, as he is on the verge of retirement and due to be replaced by the youthful Dolan the 37th (Elijah Wood). However, the elder Dolan is fatally clobbered by black magic and it is up to Vin and the new guy to avenge their friend! But could there be a deeper conspiracy at work…?

It strikes me there would be potential in a horror-comedy buddy-movie starring Vin Diesel and Elijah Wood as mismatched occult cops, but sadly The Last Witch Hunter is a Vin Diesel vehicle through and through, and Wood is stuck in a very subordinate role. The Vin Dieseliness of this film is so complete that it is apparently based on one of the characters the big man used to play in his Dungeons & Dragons games. (I feel if we could get transcripts of Vin’s old RPG sessions we might gain many insights into his creative identity.) Then again, one inevitably finds oneself wondering about the quality of Vin’s role-playing, as this is not a film which suggests he has a great range as an actor which he is keeping quiet about. As a reluctant supernatural warrior and man out of time, he gives exactly the same smirking, swaggering, smug performance that seems to be his default setting when not playing Dominic Toretto. He actually makes Christopher Lambert’s turn in a vaguely similar role in Highlander look nuanced and thoughtful, and Lambert was acting in a language not his own.

That said, nobody but Caine (and, just possibly, Wood) emerges from this film with any credit when it comes to acting, nor is the rest of it any more distinguished than I have suggested: this is a hugely derivative film, pinching indiscriminately from other action-fantasy films, and not doing anything to distinguish itself. It kind of functions at the most basic level, but just trundles along without ever becoming interesting or developing a life of its own: copious use of CGI does not in and of itself make a film interesting, although it does contain a moment where Vin delivers his trademark flying headbutt to a giant wooden insect (the film sorely needs more of this kind of thing).

Only the mystifying elements of the film make it distinctive: for instance, Rose Leslie turns up as a friendly witch who ends up helping Vin out, and you think, aha, here is the love interest. It certainly seems to be written that way, but for some reason the relationship remains very understated for no obvious reason. I know it is still the received wisdom that inter-racial relationships are probably best avoided in commercial movies (cf Will Smith’s non-romance with Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Gemini Man as another example), but is that really the reason for it? I suppose it is an example of what they call creative ambiguity.

I suppose it is an example of Vin Diesel’s star power that despite all of this, and some unfriendly reviews when it was released, The Last Witch Hunter was not actually a bomb, just about making enough money for a sequel to seem like a viable option. Before the world shut down, Diesel announced they were going through with it, but I suppose we shall just have to wait and see what the cinematic landscape looks like when the current situation eventually resolves itself. Personally, my fondness for Diesel remains undiminished, but I’m not in any hurry to see more outings for these characters.

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The final three episodes of Sapphire and Steel were the only ones I watched on their original transmission (I only came across the second episode of this final four-parter by chance – we weren’t a TV Times household) and I think it is a testament to the striking originality of this series that elements and images from them have remained with me ever since. I was already aware of the programme, mainly from – I think – a Look-In annual with a heroically inaccurate guide to the series and its main characters – I kept waiting for Steel to use his power to turn his enemies into metal (this completely untrue factoid may have resulted from a misreading by the annual writer of the Sapphire and Steel comic strip, in which Lead demonstrates the bizarre ability to turn people into metal toy soldiers). Watching again now, they are amongst the most atmospheric of the series, and also the most cryptic: so not at all unrepresentative of the series at its best.

The setting appears to be a motorway service station somewhere in England in the early 1980s (the programme makers have learned their lesson and don’t specify an exact year). The reason for the presence of Sapphire and Steel (and Silver, rather unusually) is that the whole place seems to be stuck in a moment it can’t get out of: the same few seconds at 8:54 in the evening repeat themselves endlessly. It certainly looks like the kind of time anomaly they usually concern themselves with, and there is a further mystery – a couple (Edward de Souza and Johanna Kirby), claiming to be from 1948, have arrived by Rolls Royce. They seem strangely unconcerned about having inexplicably slipped forward by three decades, and are uncooperative and hostile towards the operators, refusing to give their names or any other details about themselves.

The mystery intensifies: time starts to jerk forward, ten and twenty minutes at a time. They encounter an older man (John Boswall), who says it is 1925, and a younger one (Chris Fairbank), who believes himself to be in 1957. None of it seems to make any rational sense, even to Sapphire and Steel. Other strange details take on an unexpected significance in the circumstances – why was Silver sent here six hours before them, when specialists like him are normally only assigned after a request from ‘regular’ agents? Why was their ‘briefing’ on this situation so vague and general? The suspicion dawns that nothing here is what it seems, and no-one can be trusted…

None of the participants seem to be able to agree on whether or not this was intended from the start to be the end of the series, or indeed why the series concluded: ITV franchise politics may have been a factor, along with the issue of David McCallum and Joanna Lumley’s availability. There is also a suggestion that P.J. Hammond was tired of doing the programme, but this jibes somewhat with his recollection that he originally wrote a method of escape for the characters into the final episode, only for it to be removed at the request of McCallum (it involved Silver, and McCallum felt the final scene should focus on the two title characters only).

The big twist of this story is that, as the fanon title ‘The Trap’ suggests, the whole situation has been contrived to target Sapphire and Steel (and, possibly, Silver) for death and destruction (Sapphire uses the two words interchangeably, which is curious and perhaps indicative): this is why it is so bizarre and inexplicable. Of course, the problem with this from a writing point of view is that every situation in Sapphire and Steel seems bizarre and inexplicable, so how do you communicate the special nature of this one to the audience? Wisely, Hammond chooses to do so through the main characters’ reactions: Sapphire and Steel start to smell a rat as early as the second episode, and their increasing unease and concern at what’s happening around them communicates very well to the viewer.

If this was intended to be the final story, you would expect it to be the point at which some of the mysteries of the series were explained: but of course they’re not. Quite the opposite, in fact: the creatures working against the operatives are transient beings, supposedly trapped in the past normally, who seem to be more powerful than them (one of the transients overpowers Steel very easily, no mean feat considering some of the stunts he has pulled off elsewhere in the series). The transients are apparently ‘agents of a higher authority’ which Sapphire and Steel have antagonised by refusing to work for it. While they have been marked for destruction, Silver apparently still has a chance of survival.

The questions inevitably pile up. If Sapphire and Steel are the guardians, or possibly regulators of Time, then they are surely connected with the great cosmic principles of the universe – what ‘higher authority’ can there be? (Especially one which seems to be rather malevolent.) The implication is that the operatives have an existence separate from their roles when assigned – that this is, in some way, just a job for them. It also seems rather peculiar, given the vast cosmic forces apparently involved, that the transients are so dependent on the time box they have been equipped with (then again it is, almost literally, a plot device).

It’s a different kind of story, particularly in the final episode, but this doesn’t mean it’s any more conventional than usual. It still works, of course, partly due to the performances (the leads are as good as usual, while Edward de Souza and Johanna Kirby are impressive as the main guest stars), and partly because the director understands pacing and the power of a good image: the moment at the end of the third episode, where the transient beings drop their human guises and reveal themselves to be hostile analogues to the operatives, is one of the most effective in the series (there’s something very British about the agents of higher cosmic authority appearing in the form of men in grey suits).

As we approach the end of the very tense final episode, it almost looks as if Sapphire and Steel have managed to dodge the trap their enemy has prepared for them – but, of course, there is one last twist to come. The end of the series comes abruptly, almost anticlimactically, and the final fate of the operatives is all the more downbeat for coming so abruptly and inexplicably. The ending of Blake’s 7 almost seems cheery by comparison: death is one thing, but eternity trapped in some surreal cosmic oubliette is surely much, much worse. No wonder it stuck with me so clearly. Perhaps not the ending one would have hoped for, but one which feels entirely appropriate for this series – after all, if Sapphire and Steel had been interested in routinely offering explanations, it would not have been the distinctive and memorable series that it remains.

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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 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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More than any other story in the series, Assignment Four of Sapphire and Steel seems to have burned its way into the minds of those who saw it at an impressionable age back in 1981. Even the most casual piece looking back at the series almost always refers to the one with the photographs and the man with no face. It’s easy to see why: with this story you do get a sense of a show hitting its stride and learning how to make the best use of its advantages.

This is another studio-bound production, set in a junk shop, the yard behind it, and a small block of flats above. Children are playing, but there is something curiously Edwardian about them – almost literally so. They disappear when Sapphire and Steel arrive, having been sent to investigate… well, some kind of time disruption, their information is limited on this occasion. Steel sourly assesses the junk shop, stuffed with old things, as ‘a room full of triggers’, recalling Assignment One’s idea of things from the past being weak points where things from outside time can break through into the present. Is that what’s happened here? Someone or something briefly manages to trap the two investigators – they refer to themselves as ‘operators’ here for the first time – inside photographs, which suggests a malign power is at work.

They meet a young woman lodging in the building, Liz (Alyson Spiro), who does not seem very impressed by them, despite another casual display of their strange powers (in this story they seem able to manipulate simple mechanisms and devices by a form of telekinesis – perhaps they acquired this from Silver, as there’s also a suggestion that in a crisis they can mimic the powers of their colleagues). Liz reveals the old landlord of the building was fascinated by old photographs – but she hasn’t seen him, or her fellow lodger, for ages. There is a new landlord now – but she can’t for the life of her recall what he looks like…

Soon enough the new landlord returns. The creepy children inform him of Sapphire and Steel’s presence, and he is neither impressed or intimated. At least, if he is, he doesn’t show it, not having an actual face…

As mentioned, there’s a callback to Assignment One here, but also to Assignment Two in the way the antagonist recruits shades or echoes of people from the past – not their actual ghosts on this occasion, but the images they leave behind in old photographs. This itself is a rather creepy idea, before we even come to the idea behind the Shape – a being that has somehow become inextricably linked with the whole concept of photography, capable of travelling through or manipulating every photograph ever taken. Of course, if the Shape has a wider agenda beyond simply causing chaos it is never made clear (one wonders just where he has been when he returns at the end of the first episode). Up until now, Sapphire and Steel’s opponents have always been rather abstract, but giving them an enemy who can interact with them (even break in on their telepathy) works rather well.

Another significant plus for this story is that it is one of the shorter ones, meaning that there is less of the obvious padding that has been there to fill out the previous stories. Four episodes (or about an hour and a half) really seems to be the optimum length for this kind of story, for all that longer outings may be less of a strain on the budget. I’ve seen comments that the conclusion of this episode feels rather abrupt – well, perhaps in some ways it is, but you can see why they cut it short before having to show Sapphire and Steel teleporting off to the other side of the world. Maybe the method used to neutralise the Shape is a little contrived, but given the vastly powerful nature of the character this was probably inevitable. At least the story’s end includes Sapphire and Steel’s chilling advice to Liz – to find every photo of herself ever taken and burn them all, and never appear in another. One wonders how she would cope with today’s camera-obsessed world…

Given how indifferent Steel in particular has been to human lives in previous stories, it is a little surprising to find the agents quite so concerned with the wellbeing of the Shape’s victims – both seem genuinely concerned and even outraged when he sets fire to a photo in which he has trapped two people, burning them to death. It is another surprisingly chilling moment, and again one wonders whether you could show something like this in prime time nowadays. Probably not.

In the past I have mentioned a couple of times the influence Sapphire and Steel had on a Call of Cthulhu scenario I wrote before even seeing the episodes concerned. I know that one of my players is familiar with the series, but otherwise I would certainly be looking to recycle bits of this story as a game scenario as well – it has a strong theme, an interesting gimmick, and a creepy villain. I’m not sure I would strictly call it Lovecraftian, though – the story’s references to different forms of art (as well as photography, the initial arrival of the Shape surely alludes to Magritte – if you google for ‘Magritte faceless man’, a still from this story appears!) and other imagery suggest to me no more and no less than the presence of Hastur, that most enigmatic member of the Mythos pantheon (though we are admittedly quite a long way from Robert W Chambers at this point). The situation in the story probably needs some modification, if only to prevent the Shape from TPKing the players, but this shouldn’t be too tricky to achieve.

Assignment Four is perhaps the most conventional story so far in Sapphire and Steel – it doesn’t have the longeurs of the first two, or the sheer weird angular strangeness of the third – but it manages to maintain the strengths of the series without losing the peculiar atmosphere which makes it so distinctive. It’s hard not to conclude this is the high point of the series.

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Stranger things may have appeared as primetime entertainment on a commercial British channel than Sapphire and Steel‘s Assignment Three, but I can’t imagine what they were. The first couple of stories bear a kind of familial resemblance to the classic English ghost story – Assignment Two in particular has all kinds of half-echoes of things like M.R. James, Charles Dickens’ The Signal-Man and even a touch of Nigel Kneale. Assignment Three is very different – if it owes a debt to anything at all, it’s new wave British SF (maybe J.G. Ballard or Christopher Priest), but it’s a very tangential connection at best.

The setting is urban, modern, austere: an apartment in a tower block in a British city, in the year 1980 (the year before the story was actually broadcast). The inhabitants are a couple, she rather younger than he; they have a very young child. Almost at once it becomes clear that things are not quite as conventional as they appear – the couple are really time-travellers from the 35th century engaged upon a study of life in the late twentieth century.

Soon enough, Sapphire and Steel appear – materialise? manifest? – in the building. In this story their agenda is made quite explicit: the well-being of individual people is only a secondary concern, their priority is to protect the structure of Time. As you might expect, they have no fondness for time-travellers, but the situation here is more complicated than simply dealing with the intruding researchers. Some other force is operating, one that is hostile to the intruders and might conceivably cause greater damage to the timelines.

Steel’s rather dour fall-back position is to prepare to blow up the entire block, killing over sixty people, but Sapphire is reluctant to pursue this course. A methodical search of the block reveals no sign of the time-travellers, until they visit the roof – the time-travellers are living in a perfect replica of a contemporary flat, invisible, completely sealed off from the outside. It’s so comprehensively isolated that not even Sapphire and Steel’s powers can effect an entrance to it.  (There is something undeniably odd about the fact that the observers are apparently mimicking the forms of twentieth century life but remain perfectly cut off from it. But we are still only on the outermost lip of the rabbit hole.)

Needless to say, odd things are beginning to happen within the time-travellers’ capsule. They have lost contact with their superiors in the future, and also with two other research units in other parts of the country. When the woman, Rothwyn (Catherine Hall), goes through the motions of preparing a meal, she is besieged by visions of animals in an abattoir and the sound of their frightened cries. Small loose objects begin to move spontaneously within the apartment. The climax of the first episode comes when a pillow takes flight, turns into an angry swan, and hurls itself at Steel, who is precariously clinging on to the exterior of the unit.

Well, it’s an undeniably arresting opening episode, establishing the odd, alienated tone of the thing. To be honest, for all that this is clearly being made on a slightly higher budget than the earlier stories (it’s a bit of a shock to see Sapphire and Steel on film, when they venture onto the roof), it still comes perilously close to being unintentionally funny when the soft furnishings turn hostile.

This is another six episode story, and – as is practically standard in the series at this point – the pace of the thing is somewhat languid, to say the least. All the stuff established in the opening episode does get picked up on and resolved by the finish, but it goes off down some very circuitous pathways before this happens: one might even call it padding, but it’s some of the most surreal and diverting padding ever incorporated into mainstream entertainment.

Most of this concerns the peculiar fate of the time-travellers’ child, who is transformed into an adult (a genuinely eerie performance from Russell Wootton) who has time-manipulation powers (the touch of one hand sends objects into the future, that of the other reverts objects to their primal state – so glass becomes sand, and so on). Sapphire, meanwhile, is transported against her will to one of the other research units, where she makes some grim discoveries.

Turning up to help Steel out in Sapphire’s absence is Silver (David Collings), another of the elemental creatures. It seems to be generally accepted amongst fans of this series that Sapphire and Steel are ‘Operatives’ and Silver is a ‘Technician’, suggesting some formal difference in their status, but this is no more than implied on screen: Silver has his speciality (machinery and mechanisms), but then so do the others (Sapphire’s seems to be information gathering, while Steel’s is resolving problems, usually taking a direct approach – in this episode, he ties knots in elevator cables with his bare hands to isolate the roof).

Introducing Silver is really the story’s most successful innovation, as the three-way dynamic between him and the others is very engaging (David Collings’ performance is of the sort which makes you wonder why he remained a fairly unknown character actor throughout his career). Silver clearly winds Steel up very, very badly – where Steel is dour and serious, Silver is much more of a dandy, and one with a very high opinion of his abilities. Could there be something going on between him and Sapphire? There is certainly a whiff of tension there, and also the suggestion that the elementals are more human than they sometimes appear – there is talk of Silver’s childhood, while Sapphire seems genuinely frightened and even bleeds at different points in the story.

Even so, there does seem to be something very off about the pacing of this story: an episode or two of diversion, before a return to the main plot – but in Assignment Three things get largely put on hold towards the end of episode two and the plot only really picks up again in the final episode – the elementals and the time-travellers only meet face-to-face towards the end of episode five. The concluding episode inevitably feels very rushed as a result. The overall sense and message of the thing is clear – the story is, perhaps, a very oblique piece of agitprop about animal rights, with the biomechanical systems of the time capsule spurred into revolt by the journey into the past – but exactly how things resolve is left open – is there any significance to the fact that supposedly sealed capsule apparently had a mouse in it?

There’s a lot of interesting and often impressive stuff in this story, which shows that Sapphire and Steel can function as a more obvious piece of SF. But it is slow and baggy; often it’s only the sheer arresting weirdness of it which makes it work. It’s always very strong on the what-will-happen-next? factor, not least because it soon becomes clear that the answer is usually ‘anything the budget can afford’ (this is less impressive than it sounds). Nevertheless, as weird-and-distinctive pieces of TV from the past go, this is as striking as they come.

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I first started writing about films on the internet back in 2001, and at the end of that first year announced the list of films I was particularly looking forward to – one of them was Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Well, it has taken somewhat longer than anticipated, but I am finally in a position to write about this movie. I must express my gratitude to Terry Gilliam for finally finishing it and getting it into cinemas, even with the disgracefully limited UK release it has eventually received – I could have ended up looking quite silly otherwise.

The travails of Gilliam’s Don Quixote have become legendary, helped by the release of Lost in La Mancha in 2002 – intended as a making-of film to go on the DVD, it ended up as the chronicle of a collapsing film shoot, as an already-chaotic production was sent into a terminal spin by scheduling problems, terrible weather, injured stars, and much more. It would have been enough to win The Man Who Killed Don Quixote a spot in the book The Greatest Movies Never Made – but, as I have previously noted, ‘never’ is a bold choice of words, and just as a few of these projects have finally crept out into the world, so Gilliam has finally finished this movie.

You can’t accuse The Man Who Killed Don Quixote of a lack of self-awareness, as the opening credits ruefully acknowledge the long and troubled history of the production (‘and now, after 25 years in the making, and unmaking’). This kind of playfulness continues on into the movie itself, where we encounter Toby (Adam Driver), a pretentious director surrounded by obsequious hangers-on, engaged in what looks like a troubled and chaotic production of a film of Don Quixote on location in Spain. Things are not going well, with abrasive crew-members, endless hold-ups, and a distinct lack of inspiration. The situation is not helped when Toby’s boss (Stellan Skarsgard) leaves his trophy wife (Olga Kurylenko) in his care: she turns out to be much taken with Toby, and the director finds his amorous instincts over-riding his better judgement.

It all takes an odd turn, however, when a chance encounter with a gypsy selling various wares reunites Toby with a copy of the student film that made his name, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. He realises he made the movie in the same area, a decade or so earlier, using local people in the key roles – an old shoemaker, Javier (Jonathan Pryce) as Quixote, and a bar-owner’s teenage daughter, Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), as Dulcinea. But a brief visit to the locations of the movie reveal that it has had a less positive effect on the other participants: Angelica became fixated on becoming a famous film star, which led to her being sucked into a netherworld of crime and degradation, while Javier became convinced he really was Don Quixote and abandoned his old life entirely.

Various misunderstandings from Toby’s chaotic life lead to him being arrested by the police, but he is less than entirely delighted when the old man appears on horseback and ‘rescues’ him. The self-styled Quixote addresses Toby as Sancho Panza and declares that great deeds and adventures await the pair of them…

Don Quixote defeated Orson Welles long before Terry Gilliam ever attempted to film it, and entire films have been made recounting the tortuous progress of Gilliam’s version to the screen: two of the director’s choices to play Quixote died while the film was trapped in development hell, while other cast members have shifted roles in the meantime (Jonathan Pryce was originally supposed to be playing an entirely different part). Perhaps most significantly of all, the script of the movie has been significantly rewritten since Lost in La Mancha came out: I was expecting there to be an explicitly fantastical, time-travel element to this movie, but it has been removed.

In its place is something more subtle and unexpected, and rather more in keeping with Cervantes: the novel was published in two parts, many years apart, and the second volume opens with Quixote and Sancho rather nonplussed by the fame they have acquired as notable literary figures (not to mention outraged by an unauthorised sequel penned by other hands). The Man Who Killed Don Quixote manages a degree of the same kind of witty self-referentiality – nearly all the characters in it are aware of the book, and intent upon acting various bits of it out for different reasons. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, it is also a remarkably faithful adaptation of a novel which doesn’t easily lend itself to other media.

You could argue this is a double-edged sword, for Don Quixote is a sprawling, episodic, picaresque, apparently undisciplined book, and Gilliam’s film is arguably many of these things too. The first act in particular feels slow and rambling, the story unsure of which way to go. But once Toby and Quixote set off on their peculiar exploits, it lifts enormously, and it slowly becomes clear that in addition to being an adaptation of Cervantes, this is also an engaging and affecting comedy-drama about Toby’s own personal redemption and discovery of his own inner knight-errant.

Adam Driver wouldn’t necessarily have been my first choice for this particular role, but he carries it off well: this is a proper leading role, which he does full justice too. While I would deeply love the chance to peep into the parallel quantum realms where this film was made five or ten years ago and John Hurt or Michael Palin played Quixote, I honestly can’t imagine either of them doing a better job in the role than Jonathan Pryce does here – Pryce is enjoying one of those periods of late bloom that actors sometimes have, and this is one of his best performances.

Of course, Pryce and Gilliam have worked together a number of times in the past, and I first became aware of the actor following his lead performance in Brazil. His presence here isn’t the only thing that recalls some of the classic Gilliam movies of the past: there is the way in which the present day and the medieval collide with each other (mostly figuratively, here), and also the film’s focus on the conflict between imagination and dreams on the one hand, and dreary old reality on the other. You’re never in doubt as to which side the director is on; you could probably argue that Terry Gilliam’s whole career has been building up to doing a film of Don Quixote.

I’m not sure this is quite as consistent or as impressive as some of Gilliam’s other feats of cinematic legerdemain, but neither is it far from the standard of his best films, and there are moments which are as accomplished as anything he’s done in the past. It feels like a minor miracle that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has been finished at all; the fact it is as good as it is simply adds to the sense that it is something we should be grateful for. (It’s just a shame that – true to form – the film is still entangled in legal difficulties affecting its release and distribution, which is presumably why it has barely appeared in British cinemas.) A heart-warming achievement for Terry Gilliam, anyway, and a treat for those of us who’ve loved his films for years.

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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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