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Sapphire & Steel: Assignment Three

Last Christmas when America stole all the television, I dug out my Sapphire & Steel DVDs to watch instead. It's taken me a year, but I've finally got around to watching a bit more of it. Somehow, given that it's the slowest programme in the history of television, the ridiculously slow pace of my viewing seems apt. Here we have "Assignment Three", then, in which the hilariously slow pace gets even slower, and the spectacularly low budget becomes ever more apparent. Gasp as our heroes spend three episodes standing on a roof! Thrill to the excitement as they spend another three episodes walking slowly through an empty flat! And prepare to be horrified by this adventure's dastardly foes: a small patch of light, a psychotic pillow, and a coat that won't stay on its peg.

I am, as usual, taking the mick. Sapphire & Steel is slow, and each episode unfolds at an insanely protracted pace, but you never mind that whilst you're watching it. It's not just a question of letting the plot breathe; this is slow even by slow's standards. Why it works for this programme, when it couldn't begin to for others, I have no idea. Part of it is the leads, part is the plot, part is the sheer inventiveness of the story-telling. Sapphire & Steel can be grim and dark and light and funny and cold and hard and plenty else, and it does it all by standing in a room with no budget. I respect that. Sometimes I smile at it, and sometimes I mock, but what it does, it does very well indeed.

"Assignment Three" is a favourite of mine. In this one, Sapphire and Steel investigate strange ripples in time emanating from a flat somewhere in London. Two travellers from the future have somehow upset the universe, and gradually Sapphire and Steel find out why. It's a story with great resonance to a modern viewer, with its stance on animal exploitation and conservation. It's interesting that, when the truth comes out, and Sapphire and Steel hear how the Earth of the future has wiped out all non-human animals, keeping their disjointed parts alive for experimentation, it's Steel who turns away first in disgust. So often painted as the hard one, with no kind of compassion, he's the first one to show horror now. I also like how, when it comes time to clear up the mess, and send the time travellers back where they came from, the general attitude is "Screw 'em." Usually Sapphire seeks to find some gentler way, whilst Steel takes the most practical course of action. Here, not only does she make no attempt to argue, but it's her who suggests that they wash their hands of it all, and let the future look after itself.

Have some enthralling pictures, in which very little happens, very slowly.

Investigation, Sapphire & Steel style. Firstly, stand at an appropriate dramatic angle, in appropriate dramatic lighting. Secondly, initiate glowy eye protocol. Loads more fun than Broadchurch.

Er, yes. Now see, this is supposed to be Steel being attacked by a psychotic pillow that keeps turning into a papier-mâché swan, but as demonstrated on numerous previous occasions, I suck at screencapping action sequences, so you'll just have to take my word for it. And I refuse to explain why there's a psychotic pillow or a papier-mâché swan. There just is. It does all make sense, honest.

Exhibit #a. A bit of a papier-mâché swan. In this instance attempting to eat a baby.

Exhibit #b. A baby (uneaten, just in case you were wondering).

Silver arrives, allegedly to help, but more accurately to irritate Steel, and leave him resolutely baffled by such unfathomable things as humour, smiling, and light bulbs.

Silver is an odd fish. When he first turns up, I inevitably want to punch him, because he seems to delight in winding up Steel. And I'm on Steel's side, obviously. He always wins me over soon enough though, especially when he gets a bit flustered. I like to think that we'd have seen more of him, had the series continued.

Possessed of a (presumably) useful ability to meld all silver-coloured objects into things that sparkle, Silver does just that. I'm sure he is helping. Helping the story to progress at a gloriously sluggish pace, at any rate.

Whenever Silver is around, Steel worries constantly that Sapphire will run off and leave him, presumably won over by sparkly Silveriness. Since Sapphire switches at random between ruthlessness and a tendency to flirt with anything that moves, it's hard to tell quite what she thinks of Silver. He squeaks in the face of danger, though. I don't think they'd be a good match.

Deep in the throes of his investigation, Steel spends a spare half an episode intensely studying a wall.

As the plot thickens (not really), Sapphire and Steel approach a tense cliffhanger by carefully investigating a door.

Whilst Silver takes over examining the wall.

Steel comes to help him, just in case the wall proves tricky.

Elsewhere, infected by the dastardly Time, the baby of earlier has grown into the world's most terrifying human being.

As Sapphire and Steel continue their study of the wall, the wall begins to study them in return. When your heroes are locked in a high stakes staring match with an architectural feature, you know that your programme has reached a new peak in breakneck dramatic pacing. Not.

Steel attempts to placate the terrifying baby. Anything that it touches with its hands gets instantly aged to dust.

Which could probably prove fatal, always supposing that you're actually alive to begin with. Steel does get a bit rattled by the encounter, but I'm still not altogether sure what he is. We saw him hurt and afraid in "Assignment Two" of course, but beyond that there are still precious few answers on offer.

When victory is his, he seems more afraid of the baby than he did of the hand-waving time dust monster.

Hilariously, the baby's father turns up at this moment, finds a complete stranger lurking in his house and holding his baby, and then turns around and runs away. Not a contender for Father Of The Year.

Just to be on the safe side, Sapphire and Steel spend the rest of the episode examining the light fittings. Well, you never know.

And then all three of the team closely study a jam jar as well. It's full of blood, allegedly, although I haven't seen blood that unconvincing since Jason Patric supposedly drank Kiefer Sutherland's in The Lost Boys.

Sapphire and Steel discover that the future is a complete bastard, at least as far as Earth is concerned. Why this causes there to be four of them, I don't know. It's probably relevant somehow.

Sapphire and Steel - non-human, frequently completely lacking in compassion, and able to coldly snuff out a life if it helps to preserve the fabric of space-time - are still nonetheless revolted by humanity's attitude to wildlife. I should introduce them to Brian May on Twitter. It's nice, though. I'm reminded of the episode of Quantum Leap, when Sam Leaps into a chimp in America's space programme. It put the life of a chimp on an equal footing with the lives of all the humans that Sam saved every other week, and I have always loved that.

Mind you, anybody watching "Assignment Three" for the animals rights perspective might be a bit put off by all the abattoir footage. It's photographs only, but yuck.

When in doubt, stand in dramatic formation. It helps to save the world every time.

And so there you have "Assignment Three", in which the evil, dastardly Time is once again roundly defeated by our two heroes standing in a room for six weeks and talking a bit urgently. Hurrah!

Now marvel at how many months it takes me to get around to watching "Assignment Four". :)


( 15 fierce growls — Growl fiercely )
Dec. 31st, 2013 04:41 pm (UTC)
What a wonderful recap :) I have always adored the BBC's ability to make extremely effective television with a couple of garbage bags, the vacant lot next door, a shot of the gasworks and ten pound for sets. Seriously, that was really something.

I believe I need to source the Sapphire and Steel DVDs. I need a rewatch...
Dec. 31st, 2013 05:41 pm (UTC)
Sapphire and Steel was ITV.

I have seen this one on DVD. Don't remember it from the initial run.
Jan. 1st, 2014 04:11 am (UTC)
No, me neither. This one aired in 1980, which is a bit early for me to have discovered it alone. Couldn't reach the TV controls in those days! I'm surprsed that my family didn't watch it though.
Jan. 1st, 2014 04:04 am (UTC)
As elenopa says, this wasn't the BBC, but I very much agree with the sentiment. There's a great charm to television that's all story and no budget. The BBC did used to be particularly skilled at the trick.

And yes, if you can find the DVDs, it's definitely worth it!
Dec. 31st, 2013 05:48 pm (UTC)
I think the best bit (apart from Silver, generally, of course) is the LOOK that Steel gives the Evil Pillow when they're finally inside the flat and he picks it up. ("So, Pillow, we meet again...")

I thought you were being serious about A3 being rubbish and nearly didn't dare to read this entry. Silly me. :-)
Jan. 1st, 2014 04:15 am (UTC)
Oh, don't worry. I don't think I've ever bothered reviewing something I didn't like; except "Invasion: Earth", of course, and that was a bit different. S&S is easy to joke about, with the way that they make no attempt to hide the lack of a budget, but like with Classic DW, I only ever mean it fondly.
Dec. 31st, 2013 06:15 pm (UTC)
This is pretty much my least favorite of the six but I had to giggle at your comments about the wall. :P
Jan. 1st, 2014 04:19 am (UTC)
It's probably the slowest of the six. I like it because I like the story, although I do find the two time travellers quite annoying, I must admit. If I have a least favourite it's probably four, which is badly let down by Steel's moustache.
Jan. 1st, 2014 04:24 am (UTC)
Yeah, I think it's a combination of the two characters and the dead animal images that sort of turn me off. Ugh, the moustache! *shudders* Do you have a favorite? Mine is the last one.
Jan. 1st, 2014 04:58 am (UTC)
Great icon!

My favourite would be the second, but all the even-numbered ones are particularly good, I think.

ETA: I'm an idiot - it's #5 that's the one with the moustache. #4 is the photography one, and I like that a lot.

Edited at 2014-01-01 09:44 am (UTC)
Jan. 1st, 2014 06:34 pm (UTC)
Thanks. (:

Ah okay. Cool. Yeah, I think so, too. I wonder why.

NP, I knew what you meant. :D I like #4 a lot, too.
Jan. 2nd, 2014 12:56 pm (UTC)
How I did I miss your post? Yes, those dastardly walls need to be watched at all times! It amuses me how Steel wants to keep Sapphire away from Silver's flirtyness.

4's a fave of mine. I always think if they did a remake all those people putting selfies of themselves online would be stuffed. And the man with the baked bean face equals argh! (no, not Phil Collins (Sorry)

Your slowness in watching S&S is entirely fitting.
Jan. 2nd, 2014 03:41 pm (UTC)
They could do a very good updating of S&S now, thanks to the internet. You could have Time/whatever getting into the net, and able to spread out all over the world; and something like Facebook would be a massacre in waiting.

Except it would probably be dire, and star Benedict Cumbersome as Steel.

Jan. 3rd, 2014 11:48 am (UTC)
Ha, ha Benedict Comeandback would be terrible as Steel! I don't mind BC but I wouldn't seek out his stuff or cry if he gave up acting.
Jan. 3rd, 2014 03:20 pm (UTC)
No, I don't really mind him either. It's just that he's everywhere lately, and all over the internet people are raving about him being gorgeous, and having an amazing voice, and are dream-casting him in absolutely everything. And I'm left blinking in confusion like always!
( 15 fierce growls — Growl fiercely )

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