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Sapphire & Steel 6.3 and 6.4

Agatha Christie famously wrote the final Hercule Poirot novel, Curtain, in the mid-forties, but didn’t have it published until shortly before her death. She kept writing Poirot adventures, of course, but she had the manuscript where her popular character dies locked away in a bank vault for three decades.

I mention this because back in 1972, P.J. Hammond wrote the final Ace of Wands story and it ends with a very clumsy and ultimately disappointing climax which, they say, was meant to be resolved in the following season. Since Thames never ordered any more episodes, the last story has to stand as a series finale while not actually finishing. It’s not like many modern TV examples where programs end on never-resolved cliffhangers. “The Beautiful People” does actually end, but there was so much more we didn’t learn about that last weird situation that the audience can’t help but feel cheated because something was missing.

So with Sapphire & Steel, Hammond had to write a finale that would stand as a finale in case the new network, Central, didn’t pick it up. If they did, then he had a story in mind to continue the situation. But if Central didn’t, he needed the series to have an unforgettable, amazing end.

In a perfect world, though… in a perfect world, Sapphire & Steel should have been renewed for two or three more series of fourteen episodes each, but this story should have stayed on the shelf just like Curtain did, until the very end. By all means, let’s go back in time and alter reality and create some parallel universes. Let’s make sure the BBC never wipes any of their old tapes, and let’s make sure they actually finish “Shada” in 1979. Let’s have a third series of The New Avengers with Linda Thorson as Mother, and a second season of Bret Maverick with Jack Kelly as Bart. Let’s make sure that a series of fatal combine harvester accidents in 1980 befall every politician and media magnate who are making our lives miserable today. And by God, let’s have another 28 or 42 episodes of Sapphire & Steel, but show them first, and leave this finale alone and untouched.

Our poor kid. Tonight, for the very first time, he expressed actual happiness and excitement about watching the show. He was really looking forward to it. Then it storms its way through the cliffhanger ending to part three, which is one of television’s all-time greatest cliffhangers, into part four. He punched the air as one obstacle was overcome, and then a second… and then it doesn’t end like anybody expected.

He wouldn’t admit to being unhappy, even though his eyes were quite red, and he was numbed with surprise. I asked him to try and explain how he felt, and he said “Like this…” and he socked me gently on the shoulder and then gave me a hug. I asked “So it hurt, but it felt good, too?” And he said yes, and I said that was kind of how it made me feel, too.

The very best television, after all, breaks your heart at least a little.

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Sapphire & Steel 6.1 and 6.2

Two people from 1948, fleeing their unhappy marriages together, take a wrong turn and arrive in 1981. But something’s even stranger than this Twilight Zone-styled setup. The service station where they stop is in a frozen pocket of time. Nobody else is there, except for Sapphire, Steel, and Silver, who find these two and their lack of curiosity very puzzling. And except for an old man from 1925, only he seems to be correctly in his own time, and sees the other characters as faded ghosts. And except for somebody who none of them can see, only hear. He keeps slapping a tambourine…

The final assignment in this series is absolutely astonishing. I love all six stories, but I might love this one most of all. I’ve certainly watched it the most. The attention to detail is amazing, and I am really impressed with Edward de Souza and Johanna Kirby’s performances as the stubborn, incurious couple who are prepared to wait indefinitely to go home. De Souza was often cast as characters who were a little louche, and he’s perfect here. He radiates insincerity, but that seems to be because he and his pretty young girlfriend are up to no good and he doesn’t feel that anybody has the right to question them.

The tension in Sapphire & Steel is always really tangible, but it’s through the roof in this one. Everybody knows that something is wrong, but nobody can identify what, and as more time zones enter the narrative, the weirder and the worse it gets. Our son went from being pleased to see Silver back to wrapping himself up in a tight ball. “I was so scared I couldn’t move,” he told us.

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Sapphire & Steel 3.5 and 3.6

The third Sapphire & Steel story climaxes with an unfortunately poor visual effect, as you sort of get used to from watching this sort of program from the period, but our son is still at the age where these things can be completely terrifying. We lost track of him after he sped behind the sofa. I think he left the room entirely.

The scenes where it’s revealed what the time element is really fascinate me. It’s a great inversion of expectations. You get used to Steel being either brusque or unpleasant, and so even though these travellers from Earth’s future are weird, you end up sympathizing with them a little, because who’d want to be on the receiving end of Steel’s bad temper? But then the story reveals that they’re not just weird, they’re from a completely hideous time, and even our inhuman heroes are shocked into silence by these jerks’ inhumanity.

Without revealing that plot point, this brings me in a roundabout way to one of the things that I found so curious and weird about this show when I first heard of it. The stories don’t have titles. I couldn’t find an episode guide for a while in the eighties; I just knew the show existed, but I didn’t know how much of it there was, or what the stories were called. (Even worse, a friend told me at a con in 1988 that he saw a Sapphire & Steel book in the dealer’s room. I rushed to the table all excited, only to be deflated when it was one of those hardback Christmas annuals. I didn’t buy it. Years later, I fell in love with British annuals and I’ve got a whole shelf of them now – I’m quite proud of my little collection, including the very first Doctor Who one – but there’s a hole where the Sapphire & Steel annual should be, had I just paid the stupid five bucks for it.)

Anyway, a friend later found a fanzine called Time Screen, and there, in issue 4, was an episode guide, of sorts. (And yes, it was Time Screen and not Dreamwatch Bulletin. Don’t believe anything you read on Wikipedia.) The article’s writer proposed names for the six stories, and even though the writer was very clear that these were unofficial titles, they somehow stuck. For ages, they were given an absurd level of status and reprinted in countless other magazine articles, and books, and once the internet got started, every ASCII fan page used them. These DVDs I have are A&E’s 2003 release of the series, and right there on the back of each case, there’s the title that some fan concocted in 1989.

This wouldn’t be that huge of a problem if the fan had come up with good titles, but he didn’t. Four of his titles end up spoiling plot points and cliffhangers. (The one for story six is particularly infuriating.) This serial is three hours long, and if you ever watch it with the fan title in mind, that title will make sense about five minutes before the end. Right after you’ve finished snickering about the poor visual effect.

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Sapphire & Steel 3.3 and 3.4

Episode three of the third Sapphire & Steel story introduces another one of the agents. He’s called Silver and he’s played by David Collings. Everybody likes Silver. He’s kind of twinkling, clever, a little fey, and much, much nicer than Steel. He’s a technician, and boasts that there isn’t a machine – past, present, or future – that he cannot repair.

Our son spotted a pattern. He noticed that the odd-numbered stories introduce new members of Sapphire and Steel’s agency. There’s another reason to be annoyed that the program ended when it did. Who knows who we might have met in stories seven and nine? Stupid television companies.

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Doctor Who: Mawdryn Undead (part four)

The dude on the right is Mawdryn, played by David Collings, a character actor that everybody loves and who we saw a few months ago in “The Robots of Death”. He and his seven fellow mutants are not wearing the most fashionable in outer space wear. Marie called their clothes “terrible bridesmaid dresses.” Even when you’re missing a chunk of your scalp, it’s hard to look menacing dressed like that.

But Mawdryn isn’t a traditional villain. He and his gang stole some Time Lord tech several centuries ago and have been trapped in perpetual, mutating rejuvenation ever since. All they want now is to die, and by chance, the Doctor has shown up. Apparently he can exchange the potential energy from each of his remaining eight regenerations to kill all eight of the gang, but he’ll never be able to regenerate again himself. As motivations go, I think that’s incredibly original. It’s also a little convenient, what with the numbers working together like they do, but that’s fiction for you.

I’m glad to say our son came around in the end. As I remembered, there’s a good bit of padding in part four, reminding everybody of the plot, emphasizing all the relevant points again and again, but there are enough moral dilemmas and runarounds to keep things moving, and our son was very happy with the adventure. It even ends with an explosion! It may not be a great story, but it made a splendid recovery from that lousy opening installment.

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Doctor Who: The Robots of Death (parts three and four)

The one thing that I don’t like about “The Robots of Death” is that the plot required David Collings’ character, Poul, to completely flip out and become practically catatonic when he learns that these robots have indeed been programmed against their first law and can kill. The character suffers from robophobia, which many people in this future society battle against, because robots don’t have body language and people get uneasy around them. This is a really interesting detail that makes this society feel more alive than a typical Doctor Who society, but sidelining Poul masks the fun that we could have had with him and his robot partner. They are detectives, a tip of the hat to Isaac Asimov’s characters Elijah Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw.

Even more fun, David Collings had played Olivaw when one of the novels that featured the duo, The Naked Sun, was adapted for a 1969 episode of the BBC’s Out of the Unknown. Sadly, the episode was destroyed, but there’s a partial reconstruction with stills on the BFI’s Unknown DVD set. I think it’s delightful that Collings played the robot character in 1969 and, eight years later, got to play the human half of a very similar team on Doctor Who. Except Lije Bailey never suffered from any foolishness like robophobia!

The robot detective in this story is D84, and he’s wonderful, taking everything literally and deducting with solid logic in his quiet singsong voice. The writer, Chris Boucher, gave him all of the best dialogue. I was reading about the spinoff audio plays that were made in the continuity of this story and Boucher’s novel sequel Corpse Marker. They’re called Kaldor City and also tie in to the TV series Blake’s 7. Collings got to play his character Poul in some of these. I’d like to think that Poul got over his robophobia and he and a rebuilt D84 had a successful career in Kaldor busting heads and solving crimes.

Our son took a little while to come around to this one. He was more bothered by the robots than many other Who enemies, not so much frightened as aggravated on our heroes’ behalf that they were not behaving according to their programming! He was unclear that the villain was actually a human disguised as a robot. He liked the climax, in which the silver robot SV7 turns on him, but the conclusion was so fast-paced that I’m not surprised that some of the details eluded him. Still, it’s a great story, and like I said last time, one of my favorites from the era.

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Doctor Who: The Robots of Death (parts one and two)

“The Robots of Death” is a badly named but otherwise fantastic story from 1977. It’s one of my favorites from the Tom Baker years. It’s written by Chris Boucher and was the final Who serial to be directed by Michael E. Briant. The great guest cast includes David Collings, Russell Hunter, and Pamela Salem. I absolutely love it. It perfectly places an Agatha Christie plot in an Isaac Asimov world, with tips of the hat to Frank Herbert and Poul Anderson along the way, and then designs the costumes and rooms of this huge, moving mine with a lush jazz age sheen. Our suspects and victims are all idle rich, with fancy clothes and gaudy makeup, and the robots who do the work are built to be more beautiful than functional.

Our son is being incredibly observant but his deduction skills need a little tuning. He didn’t see what we were meant to infer from the over-the-top headdresses and lush common rooms of the mine, but he did catch that there are three color schemes for the robots: black, silver, and emerald. The second episode explains that the black robots are mute D-class and the lone silver robot is the controlling SV-class, but it also gives us a black robot who talks a great deal to Leela when none of the crew is present to hear his voice. Wonder what’s up with that?

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Doctor Who: Revenge of the Cybermen (part four)

In a very nice turn of events, our son completely loved the final episode of this story. He was especially impressed with the destruction of the Cybermen’s ship. Afterward, he told us “that’s the biggest bang I ever saw in the whole history of Doctor Who!” He loved that so much that – for now – he’s actually claiming this is his very favorite story that he’s seen. Come on, nobody thinks that!

Although, honestly, it’s better than I remembered. It has a good script, and I love how David Collings plays Vorus at maximum volume, absolutely furious in every scene he’s in. It’s still flawed in the execution in a few places, of course. There’s a particularly weird – and phony, but mainly weird – special effect when they nearly crash into the planet, and if I’ve been picking on MacGyver for all it’s repurposed film footage, then the use of an Apollo rocket launch to substitute for the Vogans’ missile can’t go without comment. The same blasted clip gets reused the following season. They might have picked film of a rocket that didn’t say “United States” on the side.

I’m particularly disappointed in the Cybermen’s leader. It’s not just that they all sound much more like humans talking through a funny voice-changer when they speak instead of the computerized buzz of the sixties Cybermen, it’s that their leader acts like a human. Maybe Robert Holmes meant to explain that the leader actually still has some emotions in him and ran out of space and time, but the other Cybermen speak simply and logically, and the leader speaks like a cartoon supervillain, and uses words like “excellent” when he hears good news, keeps his hands on his hips, and finds a thesaurus of extra verbs to describe how Voga will be destroyed, vaporized, etc. The dude needed about a quarter as many lines as he has.

Producer Philip Hinchcliffe would only do one more story with a returning villain, and the next producer, Graham Williams, would only bring back two across three years. With the show looking forward more than it had in a long time, there wasn’t room in the series for the Cybermen, and they wouldn’t be seen again for seven years. Unfortunately, this story seems to have served as the template for their appearances in the 1980s, with Cyberleaders emoting too much and saying “excellent,” and everybody worried about gold.

One final note: “Revenge of the Cybermen” was the first story that the BBC issued on home video, in an insanely overpriced 50-minute compilation. Well, everything on VHS was insanely overpriced, but £39.95 for a tape with half the story edited out really was ridiculous. With that in mind, the DVD is the perfect place for a completely wonderful documentary feature called “Cheques, Lies and Videotape,” which looks at the world of bootleg and pirate Doctor Who tape trading in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the wild lengths that fans in the UK had to go to collect episodes of the series.

Of course, at the time of writing, the Region 1 DVD of “Revenge” is out of print and Amazon wants $123 for a copy, so some things never change. It’s still better than the £300 one of the fans in the documentary paid for a washed-out nth generation copy of “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” though!

We’ll take a short break from Doctor Who to watch something else, but stay tuned! Season thirteen begins next month!

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