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Sapphire & Steel: Assignment One

In the early eighties, ITV decided to have another go at a science fiction series. Perhaps inspired by the BBC's famously low budget successes, they - or rather writer PJ Hammond - came up with Sapphire & Steel. Impressively taking budgets to a whole new low, this was a series that focused on atmosphere first and foremost. Action scenes weren't so much limited as non-existent, and the special effects made the cardboard wonders of Blake's 7 look hi-tech. All of which sounds like criticism, but isn't. Sapphire & Steel is pretty unique. Whereas most shows made on a limited budget try to hide that fact, Sapphire & Steel didn't bother. They had their own rules, right from the opening scenes of episode one. Who are Sapphire and Steel? We don't know. Where are they from? We don't know. What is it that they do, and to what purpose, under what authority? All we have are theories, on all counts. The only thing we know for certain is that, when weird things happen, there they are, popping up from who knows where, who knows how, to combat who knows what. Their arsenal consists of long, meaningful stares, and they tackle their enemy by talking a great deal, being very thoughtful, and doing their best to avoid breaking into a run. Nothing in Sapphire & Steel happens quickly. It's as far removed from modern television as a high speed bullet train is from a tortoise. A particularly slow, meandering tortoise, that doesn't have any pressing engagements.

Arguably, this one is an acquired taste. The lack of action puts some people off, and I suppose I can understand that. Forever arriving at the scene of some kind of disturbance, Sapphire and Steel proceed very carefully (and wherever possible do their investigating in the dark). Scenes are framed to show us long staircases, and we see people walking up or down them in full. Even when the dialogue infers great urgency, they still rarely hurry, and usually find the time to talk about said urgency in great depth. Whether because of the need to keep production costs low, or just because of a desire to give the series an otherworldly feel, PJ Hammond kept almost everything slow and deliberate. Given some of his other work, I suspect it was a combination of the two factors, as "otherworldly" is certainly a good way of describing his Torchwood episodes.

Sorry, this intro is rapidly becoming an essay. When Sapphire & Steel was first being planned, it was envisaged as a children's serial. This was quickly changed in favour of an early evening audience, but the plans for the first adventure remained - so "Assignment One" has children as the main protagonists. Rob and Helen are at home with their parents one night, when something weird happens, and their parents disappear. Up pop Sapphire and Steel - investigators or enforcers of some kind - with a tale of Time doing things that it shouldn't. By talking earnestly in kitchens, and doing a lot of standing around on stairs, Sapphire and Steel plan to rescue Rob and Helen's parents, and bring the misbehaving Time to heel. Actually they don't really give a damn for the parents. Mostly what they want to do is battle Time, presented here as an entity of some kind, that lurks in the spaces between spaces, and pounces whenever it gets the chance. Is Time alive? Or is it some separate facet or servant of Time that causes the mischief? Yet another thing that we're never told directly. There's just this dark, powerful shadow lurking somewhere in the ether, and any time it fancies it can jump out of nowhere and eat you. And there's absolutely nothing you can do to stop it.

So, in all fairness, I guess they do tell you the really important bit, although possibly you were better off before you knew.

"Assignment One" then, in screencap form.

One evening Rob and Helen's parents disappear, whilst reading Helen nursery rhymes at bedtime. Shortly afterwards, two complete strangers turn up, take over, and unleash a cavalcade of weird.

Sapphire and Steel demonstrate their first line of defence - namely having a chat, preferably in slightly eerie lighting. There's an extraordinary amount of dialogue in this show. None of it feels extraneous, but it is very talky. There's usually a rule in story-writing - show, don't tell. It's almost as though PJ Hammond is setting out to break that rule, as thoroughly as possible.

Sapphire and Steel have another conversation, in a different part of the house. They have a thing about standing only inches apart. They can easily communicate telepathically from long distances, so I don't know what the closeness is about. Other than the fact that it looks good on a television screen, obviously, which shouldn't really be a factor in their reckoning.

The key to the mystery of the missing parents is nursery rhymes. Chanting them triggers Time, and causes it to break into the house and sneak away with things. It also triggers our first special effect; although admittedly it's not terribly special. Here, a plague victim marches out of history, in response to a chanting of Ring A Ring O' Roses. Sadly it appears that both Sapphire and Steel, and indeed Time itself, have fallen for the urban myth that claims it's a rhyme about the plague. It isn't. Still, I'm not going to hold that against them, as the evil nursery rhymes sequences are awesome.

I don't know if Steel attracts shadows, or Sapphire attracts light, or whether dual effect lighting somehow provides added defence against weird things. Either way, it happens all the time.

See. Sorry, this is a hopeless recap, isn't it.

Meanwhile, back in the plot, Sapphire and Steel are still attempting to battle unseen, lurking evils by talking about them very earnestly whilst standing close together. Actually they're sitting here, but it's still a good battle plan.

How low is the budget for this show? How little do the production team care? Very, very low, and very, very little. Our inaugural bad guy, revealed at last, is a pool of light. And it's brought friends.

Here's one of them - a particularly dastardly painting. Quick as a flash, whilst Sapphire and Steel are having one of their councils of war, the painting kidnaps Sapphire.

And she finds herself in a room where a woman was once murdered. The evil torchbeam is trying both to seal her forever into the painting, and make her suffer the same fate as the woman who tried to hide in that room. It really is a very unfriendly pool of light.

Steel rescues her by reducing his body temperature almost to absolute zero. Understandably he doesn't find this terribly pleasant. Which is a shame.

As it triggers the arrival of Lead, one of their colleagues. Lead's job is to shield Steel from stuff. He's the only bad point of the adventure - arguably of the entire series. He's often accused of being a horrible stereotype, as he's a very big and cheerful black man. I'm not entirely qualified to judge on that. The fact that he dissolves into a quivering mess at the first sign of trouble, whilst Steel barely looks ruffled, is somewhat more of a problem. So's the fact that he's just really, really irritating. But anyway. He arrives. He laughs a lot. He's really pretty pointless. It's a nice nod to the fact that Sapphire and Steel have colleagues, though.

Rob's mother pays him a visit. Actually it's not his mother, it's a patch of light masquerading. So far we've had evil nursery rhymes, bedroom walls that eat parents, paintings that kidnap people, armies of rampaging ghosts that I've completely forgotten to mention until now - and now evil, possessed, parent-clone-zombie-things. And all for just £1.50.

Sapphire and Steel have one last careful discussion, this time in a cellar, for maximum atmospheric lighting. And cobwebbage. Then Sapphire turns back time to before the bedroom ate the parents, where Steel freezes the patches of light, and Lead crushes them. Which they could probably have done back in episode one, although I'm glad that they didn't. It's sort of like a reset button ending then, but also not, as Rob clearly remembers everything that's happened. Not sure about Helen, but she's going to be spectacularly traumatised by nursery rhymes forever, if so. Not only is that a very good idea, and one that should be encouraged in more children, but it should also take some fabulous explaining to the clueless parents.

Anyway, that was "Assignment One"; and I know, it was a hopeless recap. But there's six episodes, and if I'd screencapped them all properly it would have been the longest post ever. There's no point doing each episode separately, as each entry would consist of "Sapphire and Steel talk in shadowy places, whilst occasionally climbing stairs".

How can so little happen, for six entire episodes, without seeming too long, too slow, too dull, or too catastrophically underfunded? I don't know, but Sapphire & Steel manages it. Repeatedly. I really do like this programme quite a lot.


( 18 fierce growls — Growl fiercely )
Dec. 22nd, 2012 08:41 pm (UTC)
I never realised there was quite so much I didn't want to know about Sapphire & Steel, but this was very amusing at any rate!! But more to the point, isn't that Joanna "sweetie darling" Lumley??
Dec. 22nd, 2012 11:50 pm (UTC)
Trust me, I specialise in information nobody else could possibly be interested in. Stick around long enough, you'll see. :p

And yes, it is, although a considerable time before anybody would have thought of calling her that.
Dec. 23rd, 2012 02:17 pm (UTC)
I'm the same but I EXPECT people to be interested!!
Dec. 22nd, 2012 08:55 pm (UTC)
I remember watching 'Sapphire and Steel' the first time round, but as I was quite young, not understanding much of it but being scared a bit.

Have seen it since on DVD. They are quite compelling.

The next assingment is the famous one for the ITV strike.
Dec. 22nd, 2012 11:55 pm (UTC)
I wish I'd seen it at the time. The first assignment makes a big deal of the dangers of living in old houses full of old things, and that's exactly where I grew up! It would have been fun watching that as a kid. Or deeply traumatic. One or the other.

The second assignment is terrific. It must have been so frustrating having the strike right in the middle of it.
Dec. 23rd, 2012 02:48 am (UTC)
I love this show :) And this is an awesome recap
Dec. 23rd, 2012 12:07 pm (UTC)
Blimey, is everyone digging out S&S this xmas? Nice recap there. I had to check the last assignment episode last week, to check Silver's evilness (I say "No"). I don't watch the last one much because of the end & was surprised to be more gripped, knowing the end, than stuff I've watched for the first time recently!

I think assignment 2 is the best, but the faceless man one has stuck with me the most.

It's ridiculous how something so slow can be so good.
Dec. 23rd, 2012 01:33 pm (UTC)
Everybody should be watching it. It's good viewing for dark evenings.

And no, I don't think Silver's evil, either. He's a little morally ambiguous, but then so are Sapphire and Steel, Steel especially. I certainly don't think he can be blamed for how things go in that final adventure, especially since they were never supposed to be trapped indefinitely. The series was supposed to continue. For all we know he'd have rescued them.

Hopefully with Jet and Copper, as I'd like to have seen them.
Dec. 24th, 2012 11:35 am (UTC)
People don't want plot, they want pictures;) Good explanatory opening paragraphs though.

Yes, if Silver is evil what does that make Steel? I think he didn't appear with S&S at the end because he didn't have the bond that the two together share. And possibly he wasn't seen as an important a catch? Considering what happens to characters played by David Collings I dred to think what happened to him. S&S may be a mysterious series but I think Hammond would have made it obvious if Silver had betrayed them or not.

I'd have loved to have seen another series with other elements.

Merry Christmas!

Edited at 2012-12-24 03:37 pm (UTC)
Dec. 24th, 2012 01:17 pm (UTC)
Happy Christmas to you too. :)
Dec. 23rd, 2012 01:29 pm (UTC)
It's a hopeless recap! I completely forgot to include the plot. It is an awesome show though. :)
Feb. 9th, 2013 11:42 am (UTC)
Will you be doing the other assignments? I just started laughing insanely through your epic Blake's 7 recap series.
Feb. 9th, 2013 02:48 pm (UTC)
Hello, MacGyver. :)

Yes, I have every intention of doing the others at some point. I got distracted with other stuff, but I've nearly finished watching Assignment Two.
Feb. 9th, 2013 04:40 pm (UTC)
No, no, I'm not MacGyver. I just play with him on the internet. *g*
Feb. 9th, 2013 08:21 pm (UTC)
No, you're definitely MacGyver. I recognise you. ;)
Mar. 2nd, 2013 11:19 am (UTC)
Wow, six episodes in 1 post! That's like a record! I laughed my way through it. Zombie mom cap is actually creepy. The one time where less is more. I've nearly given up on American TV. I've been sucked into the vortex of Korean Dramas and movies. Their TV Dramas love to meander too. But to be fair, I should be watching them once or twice a week, not 3 or 4 in a row. Seeing as they are literally an hour long. Just can't help myself.

Hmm, Sapphire & Steel is like Dynasty and Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Macmillan and wife and all those other eighties partner shows meet the X-Files.

Edited at 2013-03-02 03:19 pm (UTC)
Mar. 2nd, 2013 04:03 pm (UTC)
Hello! How you been?

Yep, very much in the vein of the Duo Show. It's a pretty common trope, I guess, especially the male & female combo. Was "Dynasty" that sort of show, though? I didn't used to watch it, but I understood it was more of an ensemble piece, like "Dallas"?

I haven't seen any Korean TV. Used to watch a Mexican soap opera on and off on YouTube, which was hysterical, but I don't think I've seen anything from anywhere more far-flung than that.
Mar. 2nd, 2013 04:50 pm (UTC)
I've been good, thanks. Just quiet online these days. :) I'm also trying to learn Korean, I just really like the language. I think I just threw Dynasty in there because of Sapphire's overall look. Yeah, it was ensemble.
( 18 fierce growls — Growl fiercely )

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