Wednesday 15 February 2017

Sapphire and Steel Assignment 5 (1981)

I reviewed Assignments 1 to 4 of the excellent British science fiction series Sapphire and Steel here a while back.  

Assignment 5 went to air in 1981. It was written by Don Houghton and Anthony Read - this was the only one of the six Sapphire and Steel serials not written by series creator P.J. Hammond.

Sapphire and Steel, an ATV production which aired between 1979 and 1982, can be seen as a more sophisticated and more grown-up version of Doctor Who. Sapphire (Joanna Lumley) and Steel (David McCallum) are agents whose job it is to prevent any person, or any entity, from interfering with the smooth and regular progress of time. Sapphire and Steel are clearly not human. What exactly they are is one of the many things the series never really explains. That’s actually one of the strengths of the series - it doesn’t try to over-explain things. It’s content to leave some ambiguities. Sapphire and Steel seem to be a bit more than just very advanced aliens. They may even qualify as gods of a lesser type, albeit gods of a science fiction type.

The casting of David McCallum and Joanna Lumley was inspired. They don’t overdo things but they do manage to convey the slightly disquieting impression of non-humanness. They have absolutely nothing against humans and often try to help them but we’re always aware that they don’t actually care about humans. They have more important priorities. Interference with time could have catastrophic consequences for the entire universe, compared to which human concerns are not terribly important. Sapphire and Steel are not callous but they have an almost complete emotional detachment. They do have some concern for the fate of human civilisation, but they’re prepared to sacrifice individual humans. This makes them unusual but interesting heroes.

Assignment 5 concerns a party thrown by Lord Mullrine (Davy Kaye). The party is to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his company, Mullrine International. Since the company was founded in 1930 Mullrine decides it would be fun to give the party a 1930 feel. In fact he takes this to obsessive lengths. Everything in his palatial home is authentically of the period. He insists that his guests wear the fashions of 1930. He has a 50-year-old radio set and when one of the guests switches it on to find out how the Test Match is going he hears a broadcast of the First Test at Trent Bridge in 1930.

This is all a harmless whim, or is it? It soon becomes apparent that somehow the party really is taking place in 1930. Not an re-enactment of 1930 but the actual year 1930.

Sapphire and Steel were already aware that something odd was going to happen in Lord Mullrine’s house and they managed to get themselves invitations.

This episode has the perfect setup, and the perfect setting, for a traditional English country house murder mystery. And indeed murder soon follows. Murder however is the least of the problems that Sapphire and Steel have to face. The year 1930 was not chosen randomly. Something significant happened in June 1930. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that something significant is going to happen in June 1930.

While it makes use of the classic murder mystery tropes the murders are not really what the story is all about. Or then again, looked at another way, maybe murder really is the key to the mystery.

The mixing of past and present, with the same actors playing the same characters fifty years ago and in the present, and in some cases playing a character and the character’s own father, is nicely disorienting.

Compared to Doctor Who this series takes interference with time much more seriously. Any disruption of time is a potential disaster; in fact any disruption of time is almost certainly going to be an actual disaster. Playing around with time is not a game. While the scientific explanations are obviously totally invented they at least sound fairly convincing.

While Sapphire and Steel was far from being a big-budget production the period setting is done very well. It should also be added that David McCallum looks rather dashing in a 1930s suit while Joanna Lumley looks even more glamorous than usual with her 1930 hairstyle and a very fetching evening gown.

As usual in this series the special effects are of the most basic kind, which does not matter at all since the stories rely on ideas not special effects. 

Sapphire and Steel has its own very distinctive feel. It’s a science fiction series in which mood is more important than gadgetry, and ideas are much more important than action. It also has an odd tone of emotional distance since we’re seeing everything from the point of view of the very non-human title characters. We’re not encouraged to engage to any great degree to the human characters but this is a strength rather than a weakness of the series. It helps us to understand the motivations of Sapphire and Steel. They might superficially appear callous but they aren’t, they are totally lacking in malice or cruelty and what they do is vital and necessary even if it can occasionally seem harsh. They have a kind of god-like perspective.

Sapphire and Steel are among the most convincingly alien-like of alien characters in television science fiction, and Lumley and McCallum achieve this effect with commendable subtlety.

This series appears to be readily available on DVD just about everywhere.

This is slightly cerebral but still very entertaining television. Very highly recommended.

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