It's better in the first half than the second, but that doesn't mean it's not extremely good. After all, it's traditional for this show's stories to be stronger in the early episodes, before they need to worry about the plot and can still get away with teasing us along with mysteries. It even often manages to feel old school, in a good way. P.J. Hammond managed to pull it back after all, then.
To get the obvious out of the way, it's the show's finale and furthermore it's going out with a gut-punch. I knew about that in advance, but you've still got to admire the bleakness. As with Chris Boucher on Blake's Seven, Hammond had plans for resolving it if the show had continued for further episodes, but that never came to pass since Lumley and McCallum felt they'd had enough. The ending itself is weird and so gleefully hostile towards offering explanations that it's the scriptwriting equivalent of abstract art. What happened between the garage and the final cafe scene, then? What might be this higher authority? Bloody hell, you're asking me? Naturally for Sapphire and Steel, that's standard operating procedure and the correct note on which to end.
Episode one had me from the very first shot. I love the setting. Creepy, isolated settings have been the unsung stars of this show and we get a delicious introduction to this example. They've brought in a wind machine to blow papers across the set and it looks about as welcoming as the Bates Motel. It's an atmospheric, stylish opening to something that in the script would presumably look like "Sapphire is by the window." After that I really liked the regulars' scenes, which somehow felt fresher and less predictable than we'd been seeing recently. They don't know what's happening and they're not in control. They haven't been briefed. They don't know it yet, but they're heading for all sorts of trouble. All this adds up to an episode with a bit more spark and kick to it.
It helps that Silver's here too. He's not the scene-stealer that he sometimes was in Assignment 3, but he's another factor stopping the show settling into its too-comfortable grooves. I've been harsh in the past about too many scenes of Sapphire and Steel just going about their business and yet here I thought they were great.
Then you've got the guest cast. These are rather odd roles, offering only a restricted kind of context to assist the actors, but everyone's solid in an unobtrusive, unflashy way. You'll get mildly unexpected readings ("don't answer his questions") and good atmosphere and physicality. Episode one has a piece of information regarding the marital status of the Edward de Souza and Johanna Kirby characters, for instance, after which is a shot of the actors conveying that fact to us just in the way they're sitting. I liked them. Obviously the most colourful character is Johnny Jack, but even there what impressed me was the way Christopher Fairbank was given enough screen time to give a theatre performance instead of a movie one. I really miss that kind of thing in modern TV. We're assumed to lack the attention span. It's a shame. Oh, and de Souza and Fairbank are comparatively recognisable names by the standards of Sapphire and Steel guest stars, although only to the extent that I'd kind of heard of them rather than them being anywhere near the star level of Lumley and McCallum. Doctor Who fans can no longer watch de Souza as the lead in Mission to the Unknown, for instance.
Johanna Kirby had less of an acting career, but that might be because of her slightly odd face. She has a pretty smile, but at other times she's got a mouth like a piranha dormouse. The important thing though is that she's good too.
I like the 1948-ness, such as the ration book. I like the oddness of seeing Steel searching the car in episode one, since it's the kind of thing he'd normally let Sapphire do telepathically. To me it feels like a sign of his confusion and maybe even frustration. However there are some odd choices in the second half, such as the composer's... um, electric bassoon? The smashing doors down also looks silly, although I quite liked it when I stopped to think about it. That should have been an Alan Moore's Miracleman touch, perhaps.
At the end of the day, as usual with Sapphire and Steel, it's a bit of a conjuring trick. P.J. Hammond waves gibberish in front of our eyes and pretends he has enough story for his allocated episodes. What's cool is that the story is as usual the less interesting bit and it's the gibberish that makes the series unique. Besides, he's only trying to sustain it for four episodes this time. I didn't have any pacing complaints this time. Overall it's been a fascinating series and this is a fitting ending to it, going out on exactly the right note instead of dribbling away as one can easily imagine it doing if Hammond had gone on chasing his tail in the manner of Assignments 3 and 4. It's impossible to imagine modern TV producers making anything like this show. They might easily do something as good or even better in a similar fantasy vein, but there's something slight and eccentric about the manner of its telling that belongs to a now-gone televisual era. What makes it special is the production as much as anything else, with their atmospheric studio set-ups, actor-led directorial styles and brilliantly clear geography. After you've watched a Sapphire and Steel story, you'd know your way around its chosen setting as as if you'd been trapped there for years. It's an odd series, but that's why it's great.