Sunday, 6 September 2015

Starcat and Scary Cat Can Has Been Assigned (Part Six)

Starcat and Scary Cat review Sapphire & Steel: Assignment Six


The last Sapphire & Steel story is the strangest of all, and not even Starcat can make sense of it.

The almost-deserted location has shades of Assignment Two, with some nice atmospheric scenes of Steel exploring in part 1. A four-part story, this gets a move on compared to the pacing of the longer stories from earlier in the series - compare this to Assignment Three, for example, when Silver took until part 3 to turn up - now he's joined them even before the titles of part 1.

We're back to the three-manny dynamic of Assignment Three which we cats do enjoy, and with Silver present from the start it is even more solidly a three-manny show. David Collings almost seems trying to steal the show from David McCallum at times, playing Silver as the closest thing Sapphire & Steel has to comic relief, but McCallum's having none of it, he's firmly in control, underplaying Steel superbly as always. Steel is both Starcat and Scary Cat's favourite character, and Scary Cat says he likes Steel even more than Avon, if you can believe it!

Joanna Lumley's hair is looking very '80s in this. It makes a change from in earlier Assignments when David McCallum had '70s hair that stood out as being 'of its time' more than hers. Now she definitely has the more dated hairstyle out of the two.

Things get stranger and more interesting after the ad break in part 2. The rain after the second time-skip adds tremendously to the atmosphere - to almost Assignment Two levels in some scenes - and the cliffhanger is pretty good as Johnny Jack's arrival is built up to.

There is a lot of "looking out of windows" acting in this story, which we cats interpret as clever foreshadowing of the moment at the very end.

At the halfway point of the story, we are not as impressed with this Assignment as with the other four-parter (Assignment Four) by the equivalent point. It's slower, and less seems to have happened - Silver's presence may disguise that a little because it adds an extra character for interaction. And there's been nothing scary in this so far to rival the faceless Shape.

But then, in part 3, Johnny Jack arrives and is sketched in a few actions and a few lines of dialogue - the actor breathing life into him. Then there's those bits where the guest characters are changed utterly when they adopt identical suits and postures (and, the second time, Sapphire-like eye effects), becoming somehow sinister. Scary Cat likes this a lot more; things are picking up. Starcat isn't so sure, and thinks things are making even less sense than usual for Sapphire & Steel.

Assignment Six is the ultimate (in both cat senses of the word) example of writer P J Hammond's technique, a foundation of Sapphire & Steel, of making fantastical plots work despite being, in a very literal sense, and to use a technical term: bollocks. To do this the writer is supported by the director and principal actors who create atmosphere and take the thing seriously respectively. The resolution to the story cannot be anticipated by the cat viewer because it relies on the made-up abilities of extra-terrestrial non-feline characters, but it does not feel like a cheat because it has been thematically foreshadowed (like all the best science fiction).

Except in this case it feels, to us, like a step too far.

We noted the "looking out of windows" acting above, which Starcat reads as laying the ground for the final, iconic shot of Sapphire and Steel looking out of the cafe window in space - and isn't the reflection of stars in the window just the subtlest and yet most effective piece of SFX in the series? It works for both Starcat, who likes stars, and Scary Cat, because it is a scary reveal (he also likes stars, and Starcat).

But, to us, "the trap" is too made-up to be the kind of ending it wants to be. It's no Blakes 7 (the last episode Blake  - now there's an ending for you - was made in the same year as this), leaving you wanting more while at the same time being the perfect place to stop. Early Sapphire & Steel made being infuriatingly enigmatic into a virtue, but to put Sapphire and Steel into a trap and then leave them there - supposedly forever - demands an explanation as to how. And, furthermore, why Silver can't just rescue them five minutes into Assignment Seven, Part 1, using equally made-up methods.

The Woman is also a weak link. We don't just mean Johanna Kirby's acting, though that most certainly doesn't help matters. First she's a victim caught in the time bubble - that's revealed to be a ruse, fair enough, mew. Then she has secrets and wants to share them with Steel - that's part of their plan, again mew. Then she's some kind of robot or something - hang on. Mew? Then she's been in on it all along with Man. Mew mew mew! Confused cats! There's at least one twist too many concerning her character in the last part, and it detracts.

The other guest characters are fine, suitably sinister in their grey, er, suits and moving in unison. Properly un-manny-like, in contrast to their down-to-earth alternative forms, and they make for good antagonists as a result. Man being so much stronger than Steel is a bit of a disappointment, as it makes it look as though Steel has no superpowers at all, certainly when compared to all the things Sapphire and Silver have done, in this Assignment and in the others. He can't even be superstrong, one of the few things he has demonstrated he can do.

With the revelation that the whole Assignment was a trap set up from the start, Assignment Six as a whole is retroactively changed to stand or fall by how much you like the resolution. We don't deny that the atmosphere is strong (though not a patch on the first two Assignments, a shame) and the acting from McCallum & Lumley as good as ever, and they sell that ending like few other actors could, but...

Scary Cat likes it because it is scary even though it doesn't make much sense. Starcat doesn't like it as much because it doesn't make sense even though it is quite scary.

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