Following on straight from "Assignment One," Sapphire & Steel's second serial is widely considered one of its very best. An outright ghost story, "Assignment Two" ups the atmosphere and the scares. While the first serial reveals its origins as a children's programme, "Assignment Two" is supernatural horror that addresses the folly of war and the injustice of untimely death.
Like the first story, which was enclosed in a single house, this serial is confined to a single location. In this case, it's an abandoned rural train station – an impressively convincing piece of setwork – naturally during the night. It's a spooky enough setting in itself, and co-directors Shaun O'Riordan and David Foster imbue the serial with an oppressive claustrophobia. The two directors would, between the two of them, direct all six serials of the series.
At the station sits George Tully, a very mild-mannered middle-aged man who is an amateur ghost hunter. Played by Gerald James (The Sound of Laughter, A Traveller in Time, The Crezz), Tully is a sweet, sympathetic character, and you can't help but feel terribly sorry for him as various unnerving entities converge upon him. After spending months investigating the station, Tully's ghost hunting is suddenly about to become very successful indeed.
Before tonight, the spectral activity at the station had been fairly minor. Flowers appear out of nowhere and vanish again. There's the sound of a man carrying equipment while he whistles. The occasional echo of a voice recorded on his equipment. When Sapphire and Steel arrive, he takes them for fellow ghost hunters – which, in a way, they are. They've arrived because a disturbance in time is becoming more profound. Before the ghosts proper turn up, the two elements are unnerving enough. Sapphire displays remarkable powers during the story – rolling back time, holding it still, communing with forces from beyond and sensing disturbances in time. It's winter at the station, yet she can feel the summer heat and smell the flowers. Steel displays less in the way of power in this story, but is pragmatic to an extreme when it comes to dealing with dangers from the past.
The story unfolds slowly, with the presence Tully has been investigating gradually manifesting and becoming more threatening as it does so. To begin with, it manifests as Sam Pearce – a young WWI soldier, sympathetically played by Tom Kelly. While Sam is the main ghost, he's accompanied over time by others – a trio of submariners, and a WWII pilot (portrayed with character and likeability by David Cann). It's classic ghost story material – the figures are able to communicate with Sapphire, Steel and Tully, but find themselves repeating the last days and moments of their lives. At first, they don't seem to fit together – they're all military personnel, but none died anywhere near the station, and they all come from different times.
Sapphire is sympathetic to the ghosts, but she can feel the presence of something else – a force of darkness that is using the ghosts for its own reasons. Before long, it starts lashing out. The second episode ends with a fantastic cliffhanger, as Steel finds himself reliving the pilot's death – and is only narrowly rescued by Sapphire when she rolls time back to before he was pulled in. Steel's reaction to the ghosts' actions is anger, and he, foolhardily, decides the best way forward is to wind them up. Inspired by Sam's whistling refrain, he and Tully engage in a rousing chorus of "Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag," over and over again, in the hope of forcing the ghosts to manifest. Quite how Steel expects to deal with them isn't clear, but he's not quite feeling himself. He's obviously terrified by his experiences and is far more animated than we usually see him. It's a brilliant performance by David McCallum, and it's truly unsettling to see this previously unflappable figure so visibly shaken.
Tully is far more respectful, and is upset at having to follow along with Steel's actions. For his trouble, he is forced to experience the suffocation of the submariners. He remains convinced, as Steel does, that they need to find a way to communicate on their own terms, and suggests a séance. Sapphire, of course, acts as medium. It works, to a point, as Sapphire is possessed by the spirit of a young woman. She insists the darkness isn't using her, as she has no grievance, but she is linked to the station and is able to communicate on behalf of the ghosts. It is revealed that she was Sam's lover, but her involvement angers the soldier. He sets the darkness on them, leaving Sapphire catatonic, with her spirit seemingly separated from her body and now roaming with the ghosts.
It's now clear that the darkness and the ghosts are far more powerful than Sapphire and Steel, upping the tension even higher. There really doesn't seem to be any way to escape the ghosts. The darkness plays with them, seeming to give them opportunities to leave, but then leaving them running into barbed wire on the edge of No Man's Land. Sapphire's spirit speaks with Steel, and it becomes clear that it's just another aspect of the darkness, using her image. It insists that neither the ghosts nor the darkness are a threat – as long as they're left alone. Steel disagrees – the darkness is recruiting the ghosts of those who died not merely unjustly, but pointlessly. Sam died after the armistice was called (eleven minutes after, just to pour salt on the wound); the submariners suffocated due to a design flaw in their craft; and the pilot died on his last flight before being demobbed. The darkness feeds on the collective resentment and fury of those who died when they should have lived.
With the serial reaching its final couple of episodes, it seems the threat has passed. Dawn breaks, and the three living characters are safe. The threat seems to have passed, but the darkness has moved them twelve days into the future. They could leave now and let the darkness carry on with whatever it has planned, but Steel believes it presents a real threat to reality itself. Steel persuades Sapphire to reach out again so that he can negotiate with the darkness – which results in the force possessing her, in perhaps the most terrifying scene in the story. The darkness agrees to take them back to the time it found them, whereupon he strikes a final deal. To free the ghosts and stop the darkness from forever recruiting more, he hands over Tully – due to die in five years time. This way, he says, the darkness will have thwarted time itself, earning its resentment. Sapphire, reluctantly, agrees to go on with it. Tully's final moment, off camera, is unseen... but it ends with a harrowing scream.
"Assignment Two" is a tour de force of understated horror. While it's in many ways a straightforward ghost story, it's full of inventive concepts, not least that of some kind of intelligence that exists beyond time and, seemingly, in opposition to it. For all that, Steel is the most frightening thing in the story, willing to sacrifice the life of an innocent man – with the knowledge of his fated time of death as absolute fact – in order to placate that intelligence. There's even the hint that this was all merely some way of sticking it to the forces of time, and that Steel, for all the fear he displayed during the story, was manipulating the situation to come to a head. Notably, while we see a softer side to Steel, even professing to love Sapphire (although he only admits this to a mirage of her), he is comfortably able to put her in danger and force her into submitting herself to the darkness.
It's a particularly stagey affair, as is the series as a whole, but this is never detrimental. The most effective scenes, such as Steel's near-death flight or the trip to the edge of No Man's Land, are realised with minor prop work and some creative lighting and sound effects. It's a testament to a simpler, cannier kind of filmmaking, when the less was more. Nothing here is graphic or outlandish, and it's all the more effective for it.
At eight episodes, though, this is by far the longest serial in the series, and it does sag a little in the middle. While some of the episodes end on nail-biting cliffhangers, others just sort of stop – twenty-five minutes is up, time for something else. On its broadcast in 1979, this serial fell foul of the electricians' strike which outed ITV for three weeks (the very same that led to the Doctor Who serial City of Death experience such enormous ratings on the other side). As such, there was a huge gap halfway through, after which the serial was restarted from the beginning. It must have seemed to go on forever... Watched now, able to view it all together, it holds together remarkably well even with its extended length. The story of a good man caught among implacable, alien forces – and that's just the alleged heroes – this is genre television at its very best.
Review: Daniel Tessier
Dan describes himself as a geek. Skinny white guy. Older than he looks. Younger than he feels. Reads, watches, plays and writes. Has been compared to the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth Doctors, and the Dream Lord. Plus Dr. Smith from 'Lost in Space.' He has also had a short story published in Master Pieces: Misadventures in Space and Time a charity anthology about the renegade Time Lord.
Dan's web page can be here: Immaterial
Published on December 10th, 2020. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.