Joanna LumleyDavid McCallumDavid Collings
Sapphire and Steel: Assignment 3
Medium: TV, series
Year: 1981
Director: David Foster, Shaun O'Riordan
Writer: Peter J. Hammond
Keywords: Sapphire and Steel, SF
Country: UK
Actor: Joanna Lumley, David McCallum, David Collings, David Gant, Catherine Hall, Russell Wootton
Format: Six 25-minute episodes
Website category: SF
Review date: 10 March 2010
I can appreciate the fact that they're trying to do something different, but it doesn't really work. It's too long and slow, for a start. By the way, I'm talking about the one in which time-travellers from the future are living in 1981 as a sociological experiment. The problem, I think, is the characters. None of them are likeable and for great swathes of the story they're quarantined away in their own little isolation bubbles, protected from dangerous things like the risk of having a new kind of conversation.
Firstly you've got Rothwyn, Eldred and their baby, who conduct their conversations in a predictable "I Am From The Future" style and seem to disapprove mildly of having imagination or a personality. We're talking about the kind of cliched TV SF people who call their baby "the child". I didn't really care what happened to them. However that said, they did become more interesting towards the end, at the point in the story when the cast have finally met up with each other and can interact properly. Rothwyn is being prissy about something trivial in a way that's saying something about his native time, which is all part of a set of cultural values and assumptions that's sufficiently different from ours to give some point to the story.
The actors playing them are David Gant and Catherine Hall, of whom Gant seems to have found his way into quite a few movies. He's been in Gandhi, Brazil and Lagaan, but I bet he's prouder of Wes Craven Presents Dracula II: Ascension.
Secondly you've got Sapphire and Steel, who can't get into the time-travellers' sealed capsule and thus don't have anyone to bounce off but each other, which reduces them to the same kind of desert-dry discussion of the situation as Rothwyn and Eldred. They're a lot less interesting with no humans to talk to. At times here I'd almost call them dull, despite the fact that I'd previously thought them one of the show's big selling points. I'm not objecting to the performances. McCallum is always watchable, although I was puzzled by his choices in the scene where Sapphire's crying in part two, and Lumley's also holding her end up. No, it's the fault of P.J. Hammond that towards the end I started feeling that Steel was becoming a parody of himself, in part five for instance striking me as a bit stupid in the way he'd brusquely talk over other people's important contributions to the matter under discussion.
At least he's not bland, though. On the contrary, at times he's becoming slightly dangerous to have around. Bearing in mind the things we've seen him do in previous stories, I liked that.
Thirdly is a back-up operative, Silver, who shows up in part three and is actually quite fun for a while. He's played by David Collings, who's at least someone I'd seen before in Doctor Who. I've looked them up. Revenge of the Cybermen, The Robots of Death and Mawdryn Undead. He also appeared in the finales of both Blake's Seven and Sapphire and Steel. He's a godsend to the story, which had previously been drifting in the land of dispassionate SF couples who don't belong in this world and whose concerns tend to be abstract. Steel on the other hand is gay. Admittedly we're talking about a super-agent who can melt metal with his bare hands and is here to do a technical job, but he's still camp enough to make it improbable that Collings wasn't doing it deliberately. Look out for him checking out David McCallum's arse in part three, for instance. He's a fun character and I'm not surprised to see that they brought him back later, but even he ends up wearing thin after yet more episodes with no one new to talk to.
There's one more figure in the story, but he's hardly a conversationalist. Nevertheless he is being played by an actor, Russell Wooton, who not only has a slightly creepy face but even appropriately looks a bit like Catherine Hall.
The story has a different feel to the others. It's not a ghost story, instead being understated SF in a modern urban environment. There's even location filming! They take McCallum and Lumley on to the roof of an apartment block. That probably doesn't sound like much, but for this show you could almost call that a paradigm shift. Anyway, the story begins with Hall reporting her observations to an experiment-monitoring system that hasn't been set up very thoroughly if it both requires and trusts her to specify the day and time herself. Weird things soon start occurring, but they're not spooky. They're a bit banal. For example, a coat moves. Mind you, I liked the way in which they chose a glass-topped table for the spinning of that box. It adds a further "how did they do that?" factor.
I found myself nitpicking. Part five has the following classic exchange. "NO! I WON'T!!" "He tried to reject something - did you notice?" There's an unintentionally comedic special effect in part six and a visibly breathing corpse in part four, while even in terms of visual aesthetics the story isn't pleasing. The setting is ugly and the costumes are unflattering. That red dress is doing nothing for Catherine Hall's figure, while Lumley's been dressed in her pyjamas. I'm afraid that's less interesting than it sounds.
The best thing is the themes in part six. Those were strong and to quite an extent redeemed the story by making it actually about something. It's not just the vivisection and cruelty, but the way in which Gant and Hall's characters (but mostly Gant) have simply incorporated it into their morality, along with their prissy manners and over-intellectualised reaction to impossibilities. By his own lights, he's the most morally upright person in the room. He's us.
Despite everything I've said, this story's worth watching because it's Sapphire and Steel, but I'll be revising that statement in a hurry if the series keeps up this kind of story for long. I notice that P.J. Hammond's remaining stories for the series would all be four-parters, which doesn't surprise me. Sapphire and Steel have been turned slightly more explicitly into aliens, which I wasn't wild about, although I liked Silver's line in part six which suggested that he'd been designed and built rather than born. That's the kind of enigmatic approach that I prefer in this series. Oh, and I'm not surprised at all that they've started K9-ing Sapphire's ability to take back time. It was always going to be hard to build a plot around a character with that kind of superpower.
I like the idea of this story, but I think it falls apart in the execution. It would have worked better as a three-parter, while the resolution is so throwaway that it's a joke. What happened? Did I miss an explanation or something? On second thoughts, I don't care. Basically the story's okay and often quite good, but I hope they're back on form again next week.