The next classic bit of sci-fi I’m tackling (because putting distance between me and Galactica 1980 is always a good thing…) takes us back to my home shores with Sapphire and Steel. I’ve heard good things about the show, though mostly about other stories than this first one… which is good because this first story is a mixed bag, and may not have motivated me to continue with the show otherwise (if I weren’t set on covering the whole show for the blog, obviously…) Let’s take a look at “Assignment 1” shall we?
A happy family lives in an 18th-century house filled with clocks and antiques. One night, a nursery rhyme (“Ring a Ring o’ Roses”) read aloud to Helen, the little girl, triggers a time fracture that takes away her parents. As Rob, Helen’s older brother, tries to understand what has happened, two mysterious strangers appear, promising to fix things. Sapphire and Steel eventually gain Rob’s trust and work out a solution to the problem. Lead also arrives to provide assistance.
*spoilers appear from here on out!*
Cast of Characters:
Steel and Sapphire… hmmmm… should have taken a screengrab with them the other way round, that sounds wrong now…
Sapphire (Joanna Lumley) – One of the mysterious “elements” that arrive to help the mysterious time fracture that has begun to plague this household. Sapphire has several abilities, including telepathy and the ability to rewind time…
Steel (David McCallum) – Steel is Sapphire’s partner and also an “element” that has been sent to deal with the issues in the house. His powers are less defined, but he can deduce his temperature to extremely low levels…
Rob Jardine (Steven O’Shea) – The big brother (who is still just a kid) of Helen who tries his best to look after her when his parents vanish…
Helen Jardine (Tamasin Bridge) – Little girl who always looks either happy or bored no matter what danger she’s supposed to be in… guess it’s a trauma or something…
Lead (Val Pringle) – Another “element” that arrives to assist Sapphire and Steel. He’s large and extremely strong, but otherwise a very happy fellow.
Plus one or two more!
It’s Emperor Palpatine’s brother! … from heaven, or something…?
The one thing I have to praise the story with first and foremost is how little it gives away. The intro states only a few vague sentences (like “heavy atomic elements cannot be sent on missions where there is life” and such) and Sapphire and Steel just show up and start dealing with the time fracture, revealing little about who or what they are. It’s a refreshing change from most shows nowadays, that feels like it has to explore every detail right away.
While it takes a good while to get going, I do appreciate the well-crafted “spooky” atmosphere the story presents throughout. I also have to praise the main duo for their performances, Steel is … steely and nearly cold and uncaring at times, even around the children, where as Sapphire is more motherly and soft. Through the dialogue you instantly get the feeling that they’ve known each other for a long time and are a well oiled machine. Lead is also a fun character, though nearly reaches “over-the-top” in his laugh-filled performance…
The plot in general is interesting, the reason for the kids parents’ vanishing is not really explained for a long time, and so the story does a good job of keeping the mystery up. By reading a nursery rhyme the children’s parents accidentally open a portal through time due to the words having strong meaning in the old house, or something along those lines. There are scenes with people who have been in the house in the past, evil light beings that are never really explained, people trapped in pictures, a spooky cellar and even a creepy grave-like outside scene (that’s actually the house being built in the past, but looks aesthetically like a graveyard). The blend of sci-fi elements (no pun intended, I guess?) and horror clichés was really enjoyable.
The boy is trying to be serious in distrusting Sapphire and Steel, and the little girl has her eyes closed smiling a bit… Argh!
What wasn’t enjoyable was the kids, specifically the little girl. This is going to sound like I have a thing against children or something given my intentionally-over-exaggerated rants at Boxey from Battlestar Galactica, but it’s hard to find a good child actor, and this story once again proves that. The boy isn’t too bad, he is at least aware of when he should be scared or angry, even if he’s not very good at it, but the little girl… I mean, I don’t want to be too harsh given her age, but … yikes. There is a cliffhanger of supernatural wind rushing through and wrecking the kitchen around Sapphire and the girl, Sapphire looks worried and maybe even frightened, and the girl? She’s giggling and putting her hand to grab some of the flying paper. Completely ruined the scene.
Much like Doctor Who from this time period, Sapphire and Steel “Assignments” are split into 25-ish minute chunks, and this is a six-part story. Although I appreciate how well it builds and mystery up, I still think it could and indeed should have been cut down a bit. It’s slow going at times, and with such a small cast (two of which can’t act) it can be quite… annoying.
Sapphire, Lead and Steel… well, the back of Steel’s head. Remind me to get an actual clear shot of Steel next time, I’ve kind of screwed him over here…
Sapphire and Steel gets off to a shaky start. The core premise (and how little we know about it) is great, the lead duo are really good and play off each other well, both of which are promising as it pertains to the other stories. Sadly this opening story is plagued with some rather slow repeated scenes and yes, bad child acting. No I couldn’t have done better at that age, but then I wasn’t selected by someone who’s job it was to find someone who could… Anyway! I hear the second story is most people’s favourite, so let’s look forward to that!