ghostJoanna LumleyDavid McCallum
Sapphire and Steel: Assignment 2
Medium: TV, series
Year: 1979
Director: David Foster, Shaun O'Riordan
Writer: Peter J. Hammond
Keywords: Sapphire and Steel, ghost, SF, favourite
Country: UK
Actor: Joanna Lumley, David McCallum, Gerald James, Tom Kelly, David Woodcock
Format: Eight 25-minute episodes
Website category: SF
Review date: 25 February 2010
This is the one in which Sapphire and Steel team up with an elderly ghost hunter called George Tully in an abandoned railway station. I'm not going to say that it's better than Assignment 1, because I think I love that story a little more for its dream logic and nursery rhyme horror. However this story is better acted, feels as if it makes more sense and supports its eight episodes better than Assignment 1 did its six.
The first thing that needs saying is that it's automatically great, because it's Sapphire and Steel and it's doing everything right. You've got cool protagonists in an imaginative but nasty SF variant of the ghost story. On a script level, it's brilliant. However on top of that it's also an example of 1970s British genre TV at its best, turning the low budget, studio-bound production and almost complete lack of special effects to its advantage. This is superbly atmospheric television, produced on the bare minimum of sets with only a very few actors. Admittedly the producers splashed out by casting two recognisable stars as the leads and this would come back to bite them later in terms of availability, but speaking as an audience member I'm happier with a few episodes of brilliance than with lots and lots of filler.
To an extent, all that can be taken as read, though. It's Sapphire and Steel. I thought it needed saying, but I also don't want to have to cut-and-paste it into my reviews of all six stories. More specifically interesting here is to ask how Assignment 2 compares with the rest of the series.
The most memorable thing about it is the ending. I'd actually seen this serial before, so I knew what was coming this time and was surprised by the weight of foreshadowing in episode 7. There'd been nothing to hint at it until then, but suddenly this penultimate episode is making an awful lot of it. I'm not just talking about the obvious fact that we can see Steel's up to something and that there are heavy indications as to what it's likely to involve, but about the subtler foreshadowings. We're seeing the future. I was wondering for a while if any of them had become ghosts, which would have been a terrifying twist, while there are also parallels being drawn between Steel's actions and Tully's. Have the events of episode 8 already happened in episode 7, or does determinism not work like that in this fictional universe? We're still talking about a great episode whether or not you've seen the story before, but if you're coming back to it, like me, then you'll probably notice a lot of things you won't have seen before.
Moving on to episode eight, I was surprised by the last conversation between Tully and Steel. How much does he know? Had he been listening? You could interpret the scene either way, with both options being valid and dramatically interesting. I wasn't entirely sure why Steel was messing around with the eleventh-day stop-off, though. Obviously P.J. Hammond did it because he wants a final conversation with Private Pearce, but I don't see what was in it for Steel or even what it achieved. Surely by that point it's the Darkness that's calling the shots, not one soldier?
I admire the plot progression. The story never feels as if it's gone into a holding pattern, with something new to find out or be scared by in all eight episodes. Furthermore it makes intuitive sense, with mysteries we can engage with and characters whose motivations we can understand. I adore Assignment 1, but it often had temporal-babble instead of a story and could have lost a couple of episodes without blinking. This is also built on more straightforward ideas, with the device of the soldiers' resentment is something distinctive and horrible that we can grab on to. Even the Darkness is realised clearly and comprehensibly, given that we don't know what it is, where it comes from, what the limits of its powers are or even what it's called. Obviously it's dangerous to build your story around such a nebulously defined monster, but Hammond gets away with it.
The acting is a clear improvement on last time. Lumley is fine. She's actually not bad in her possession scenes, with some good body language as the Darkness in episode eight. It's understated, but distinct. As Elinor in the seance, she's okay. David McCallum is very strong though, with surprising choices here and there (e.g. his odd smile in episode one) and a knack for keeping our interest in this complete and utter bastard. He's even brutal to Sapphire in this one, although I was surprised to say the least by the line in which he mentions that he loves her. However my favourite performance in the story by a long way was the adorable Gerald James as Tully. I love his simplicity, with which he'll respond to a question as if there's no other answer in the world. He made me laugh with lines that weren't jokes. "I have a cat, Nelson." This is a delightful piece of work, enough to justify watching the serial just to see the dignity, honour and transparency of the man he's created.
The special effects are amazing. No, really. They probably cost sixpence and are basically stage techniques, but I'm talking here about how well they work in the story rather than mere technology. The most important special effect is darkness. That was a bit freaky, actually, since there's nothing particularly counter-intuitive about a moving patch of light (as per Assignment 1), but it's more unnatural to see a small moving area of darkness. The second special effect is whispering voices on the soundtrack. The third special effect is to turn a railway station corridor into a submarine with some blue lights and careful use of sound and camera movement, which is so well executed that I'm still a little bit gobsmacked. I'm being completely sincere when I say that these are more memorable and effective effects than almost anything you'll see in television's modern CGI age.
"You'd like me in some sort of auto-hypnoidal state, would you, Mr Tully?" Ooer, missus, I bet he would.
I don't think I've mentioned the strike yet, by the way. There was an ITV strike which interrupted the story on original transmission halfway through, which is why it took five months to finish showing the story. Well, it was the seventies. Incidentally I've just remembered something I meant to say earlier. Sapphire's ability to roll back time. Why's that not a universal plot cure-all, like Superman flying backwards around the Earth? Couldn't that be used to fix absolutely anything? Mind you, she does seem concerned about Tully being present when she does it in this story, so maybe the presence of living witnesses is dangerous and/or interferes with the process.
Even given that it's Sapphire and Steel, this is a terrific story. It's all good, especially the end, but the bit I'd remembered best from last time was the submarine corridor. "Help us." That was powerful. Oh, and Steel's downright dangerous in this one, even to Sapphire. If he really does love her, maybe he shouldn't be putting her life quite so blithely at risk, then?