Joanna LumleyDavid McCallum
Sapphire and Steel: Assignment 4
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, Philip Bird, Natalie Hedges, Bob Hornery, Alyson Spiro, Shelagh Stephenson
Format: Four 25-minute episodes
Website category: SF
Review date: 20 March 2010
Oh dear. Suddenly I'm quite pleased that P.J. Hammond's taking a break with the next story and letting Don Houghton and Anthony Read fill in. It's probably better than Assignment 3, but I wouldn't argue with anyone who put them the other way around. It's certainly making the same fundamental mistake as that one was, although it's shuffling things around with the secondary ones.
The fundamental mistake is that Sapphire and Steel are not particularly interesting protagonists. As mysterious supporting characters who show up out of nowhere, they're fantastic. However this show is far stronger when it's building its stories around a normal human or two, to supply the heart that those two can't provide. Admittedly there is a human here, played by Alyson Spiro, but she never makes a single dramatic decision. She just shows up every so often to have slightly stroppy conversations and provide a bit of context.
Even the acting is poor. The story's mysteriously decided to have Sapphire and Steel switch roles, so this time Sapphire's the one in charge and calling the shots, while Steel's the one who gets oddly righteous in part four about the bad guy killing people. That's a bit rich from you, mate. Hammond's being bone-headed here, giving McCallum a story role that undermines his character. Steel doesn't really care about anyone, so he's not a natural investigator and he's certainly got no reason to show empathy or anything like that. This doesn't help the actors, but even without it I think they're struggling. McCallum particularly surprised me. He's off his game for a great chunk of the start of episode one, although he improves remarkably when Alyson Spiro shows up and at last he's got someone else to react to. Mind you, at least he's got an excuse. I can't think of any for Lumley not selling the danger more strongly when telling Steel to take that photo out of the kaleidoscope. Oh, and I don't like her hair.
Then there's Alyson Spiro, who stinks of drama school. I like her face and her energy, but she's bad enough for her failures to be instructive. You could use this performance in a lecture in teaching people how (not) to act. Any single line delivery in isolation is quite fun, with attitude and that lop-sided smile, but she's not inhabiting the character. Look at her conversation with Steel on the stairs in episode three. One moment she's attacking Steel and demanding to know how he knew her name, then the next she's looking at the photo as Steel's been telling her to. The actress puts no transition between them! It's as if no one's changed the subject and one's the logical continuation of the other. I'm perfectly prepared to believe that Alyson Spiro grew as an actress and these days wouldn't dream of repeating her mistakes here, but what we have here is empty mannerisms without any thought processes.
However on the upside, she does indeed have energy and it's at least an interesting and slightly unusual kind of bad performance. Furthermore in episode one she's wearing a this slip and you can see her tits.
All that I didn't like. As usual with Sapphire and Steel, we have a mind-boggling scenario with cool freaky stuff going on, but for me the cast leaves it feeling a bit empty. That's my personal reaction, though, and even on that level I'll admit that at least this has more atmosphere than Assignment 3. The threat this time is completely mad. Old black-and-white photos coming alive? A Shape who's hiding in every photo ever taken? Cool! All this is admirable, as is the fact that for once we have a villain. Those dead soldiers and the time-warped Changeling were great in their own ways, but this is an actual baddie. Admittedly this is Sapphire and Steel and so the plot progression's going to be too abstract to let him be as evil as we'd like, but he's still fun.
The plot resolution makes absolutely no sense, though. Admittedly that's traditional in this series, with only Assignment 2 even pretending to hold together, but here they're making such a big deal out of their kaleidoscope and their mirrors that they're actively drawing your attention to the nonsense. However they rescue themselves again with the villain and the shipwreck conversation, so it winds up being one of their better endings.
I also like the production. They're doing rather well at realising some ludicrous notions, thrown at them like hand grenades by Hammond. The sepia of the phantom children was particularly nicely done, I thought. Then add in the facts that we're in an eerie, haunted setting again as per Assignments 1-2 (but not 3) and that we've got some of the show's old atmosphere back.
Overall, this one of those stories with ideas so iconic and mind-bending that it's going to sing like a mad bastard to a great chunk of the audience, especially those who were lucky enough to see it when they were children. Come to think of it, I could have said something similar about Assignment 3. This is exactly the kind of thing that makes genre shows like this special. Even when the scriptwriter doesn't know what he's doing and the actors need a smack in the head, the resulting show is still unique and striking enough for people like us to be still thinking and talking about it decades later. I'm still ambivalent about it, though. When it's good, it's great. The last few minutes of episode three, for instance, are among the best in the series. As a complete story, though, I'm less convinced.