Sapphire and Steel - Assignments Four to Six Review
Carlton wrap up their DVD release of this classic piece of television science fiction with a second three disc boxset comprising the final three assignments/fourteen episodes of the series. Readers who have yet to encounter the bizarre world of these two enigmatic time detectives, played by Joanna Lumley and David McCallum, may like to first browse to my earlier review of Assignments One to Three.
Disc One/Assignment Three (4 episodes 96 mins approx)
In a dingy flat above a junk shop, Liz (Alyson Spiro) applies her make up before going out to work for the night. Her flatmate and friend went missing some ago, as did her previous landlord, who used to like to dabble in photography. In the backyard, half-seen children play curiously old-fashioned games - it's a setting ripe for Sapphire and Steel to investigate.
This four part serial offers some notably surreal visuals, with an emphasis on imagery drawn from twentieth century art: there's an interest in the possibilities of photography, and the series villain appears to have stepped from one of the works of Magritte. It's all very moodily evocative, with Sapphire and Steel gliding from the gloomy kitchen sink existence of Liz's bedsit, to surreal encounters with animated umbrellas and phantom children. Nonetheless, the central ideas of elements of pictures coming to life, and people becoming trapped inside images was previously explored by the series in Adventure One, and this Assignment - however enjoyable - perhaps works mainly as an exercise in style and atmosphere over substance.
Disc Two/ Assignment Five (6 episodes 144 mins approx)
Lord Mullrine (Davy Kaye) is preparing to celebrate fifty years in business with a themed anniversary party at his country house. As his guests arrive, clad in dapper nineteen thirties attire, amongst them are a certain Sapphire and Steel who will soon be called upon to put their detective skills to full use: the door back to the nineteen eighties is fading, and the guests' memories of who they are and how they arrived are becoming uncertain. As if such problems weren't enough, there also appears to be a murderer on the loose...
Assignment Five is the only entry in the series not written by Sapphire and Steel creator P J Hammond. Instead, stepping up to the typewriter, we have Don Houghton and Anthony Read. Their take on the format offers perhaps a more rational approach to storytelling: on this occasion, the malevolent power manipulating time has a distinct objective and a clear means by which to achieve its goals. Whilst such an approach arguably moves Sapphire and Steel away from its usual ghost story milieu into the less abstract realm of science fiction - significantly both writers had previously contributed to Doctor Who - Houghton and Read's differing style is by no means jarring, and indeed offers an interesting alternative perspective on the possibilities of the series. Sapphire and Steel are allowed for once to literally play detective, and there are some amusing subversions of the detective story genre on offer. Sapphire's telepathic abilities undercut the traditional means by which viewers (and detective) must work out the suspects' allegiances and motives through their actions, by instead directly revealing some insights in voice over. Furthermore, the usual detective task of uncovering whodunnit may not even prove to be applicable... Coupled with a larger than usual cast dispensing acid remarks as the party's veneer of respectability slowly dissolves - Patience Collier in particular excels as the wonderfully bitchy Emily Mullrine - Assignment Five is easily the most entertaining and accessible of the three serials under review here.
Disc Three/Assignment Six (4 episodes/ 96 mins approx)
At a roadside petrol station and café, time has frozen at 8.54 PM. The same cars pass by trapped in a loop, the radio plays the same snatches of music over and over. Silver (a return appearance by the very watchable David Collings) has been on the scene for some hours, observing a curiously cold and disinterested couple (Edward De Souza & Johanna Kirby) from the nineteen forties who claim to have arrived at the station by accident. The final Sapphire and Steel adventure piles on the intrigue thick and fast, with plot revelations building to a notably downbeat cliffhanger ending.
Production notes included in the DVD extras indicate that P J Hammond's original intention was to rest the series temporarily, and return to Sapphire and Steel after a couple of years break. Whilst in many ways it is sad that fate conspired to deny McCallum and Lumley further outings in two roles they were so clearly suited for, it could also be argued that the ending we are offered is somewhat of a blessing in disguise. As can be seen from the serials under review here, for further adventures to avoid repetition and remain fresh, there would surely have been a need for new types of setting, more plot driven scripts, perhaps even investigation into Sapphire and Steel's origins and motivations. Whilst episodes investigating these possibilities may sound desirable, if they had come to pass then surely they would have also served to dilute much of Sapphire and Steel's memorable strangeness and lack of definition (also a pleasure of cult texts like The Prisoner, and much of early Doctor Who). What we do have - thirty four enigmatic and evocative episodes culminating in a very memorable cliffhanger - are arguably much more unique and valuable.
Menus and Extras
Maintaining continuity with the previous boxset, the menu system for this release is based around a loop of the series title sequence. Individual episodes are subdivided into four chapters; again, I'd have liked a chapter stop to have been positioned to allow cliffhanger reprises to be quickly skipped when watching episodes back to back.
Extras are distributed across all three discs, and are as follows: Production Notes; ITC Press Release for Season Two (Assignments Three and Four); Screenography and TV Times article on guest star Alyson Spiro; ITC Press Release for Season Three (Assignment Five); Merchandise Gallery; Guest Star Screenographies for Assignment Four (Patience Collier and Jeremy Child); ITC Press Release for Season Four (Assignment Six); Photo Gallery; Guest Star Screenographies for Assignment Four (David Collings, Christopher Fairbank, Edward De Souza)
These text and image based extras are nice to have, the production notes and contemporary press releases in particular providing some interesting contextual information on the making of the series, and how it was promoted. Whilst the chances of any untransmitted material lurking in the archives seems fairly slim, nonetheless some interview material with the producers, writer and stars, whether archive sourced or specially shot, would have been greatly appreciated (see also my comments on extras for Assignments One to Three). The Merchandise Gallery that is presented here also hints at a further unexplored avenue for extras material: the cover shots of the Sapphire and Steel Annual, and the Sapphire and Steel comic strip featured in Look-In makes me hungry for more - perhaps rights could have been sought to reproduce a sample strip or story?
Picture and Sound
All episodes are presented in their original 4:3 aspect ratio, and retain 'ATV colour production' captions at the end of the credits sequence. Advert breaks have been tackled by introducing a fade-to-black edit where 'End of Part One' etc captions featured during transmission. Whilst it could be argued that ad bumpers are inappropriate and distracting during a DVD presentation, they would surely be preferable to the occasionally clumsy edits that are substituted here: on screen action has sometimes been artificially slowed, presumably in order to avoid an abrupt cut to the soundtrack which would have originally segued into the break. Given that this series was clearly structured with the two act necessities of half-hour commercial television drama in mind, why not simply leave the scissors to one side and present the material as produced?
On a more positive note, in contrast to Carlton's release of Assignments One to Three, picture quality is fairly respectable across all three serials, with the brighter studio material of Assignments Five and Six looking particularly clear. This improvement is perhaps unsurprising, considering that two of the discs presented in this set contain only four episodes each, allowing a far healthier bit rate than was possible for the release of Assignment Two (which squeezed eight episodes onto one disc). There is some evidence of picture smearing on movement, but it's not excessive or too distracting. Furthermore, this may well be attributable to the analogue video equipment used to capture and edit the original material, as opposed an excess use of DVNR. Sound is clear two-channel mono throughout - it's not going to give your system a workout, but it's a faithful reproduction of what was technically possible at the time.
Sapphire and Steel conclude their UK DVD outing with a decent second boxset from Carlton. It's not all it could have been, but fans of this memorably haunting piece of cult telly will find much to enjoy.