One of the things I noticed when I started writing these posts was that, although Sapphire and Steel were popular shows with my friends and that I watched every episode avidly, some of the season were less memorable than others. Possibly this is because Assignments One, Two and Six were so powerful that they overshadowed the middle of the run. Sapphire and Steel is now around 30 years old, so the fact that any of it is memorable is a real testament to the power of the writing.
It’s a real shame that I only recalled this particular Assignment once I was watching it as it is probably the most creepy of the series. If this were a stand alone horror genre TV play it would have spawned a number of copies, as it is, it is one of the excellent episodes that non-S&S fans just don’t get to see. The episode opens with a number of children playing in an enclosed, walled off back yard. Their dress is old and there just seems to be something not right about them. The back yard is attached to a junk shop and it seems that the owner has disappeared. Steel notes that the whole shop is full of triggers and that it would be impossible to isolate the one causing the problems (if you’ll recall, a trigger is something that “triggers” the outbreak – it is usually something which conflicts with the present time, such as an antique). We next see that the shop has a couple of flats above it and that one of the tenants has disappeared from there. A mysterious man is seen within the building, but despite talking to him, no one actually sees his face.
As expected, thing begin to escalate. S&S are attacked within the shop and realise that the children are made of photgraphic paper. They come upon a mysterious device attached to a camera and work out that this is what has created the children. This is confirmed by seeing a number of photographs with the focal point being a blank area. From this they conclude that there should be a child in the picture, but the child is now in the shop. At this point in the story, we see the face of the mysterious man – he has no face! He can also move between photographs. How can you capture a being that can be in any photograph anywhere in the world? S&S notice that in a window in one of the older photographs there is a person who shouldn’t be there – it’s the missing tenant. Horrifyingly the man with no face sets it alight, killing the woman. S&S realise how much of a disadvantage they are at – if they enter a photo to chase him, or if they get captured, they could be killed in the same way.
As ever, they figure out a way to capture him and return everyone to their correct photos, they then transport the “prison photo” to a ship that is destined to sink. This should give their organisation enough time to formulate a way to stop him properly. Unfortunately, the missing people are lost for ever.
It is difficult in a short précis to properly put over the general horror theme of this Assignment. The shop and connected flats are small and cramped and dark. The villain of the piece has no face and elicits no sympathy at all – even though he seems to have real feeling for the children he releases from the photographs. Even the children themselves, once they are revealed as less than human become, not sympathetic, but things to be put back in their proper places. Again, the episode is set in a time that is no time – the clothes are not quite contemporary and with the changing fashions and return to fashion of some clothes could be almost any time. We never see anything outside of the main sets, so it could be set today, yesterday or any time in the last or next hundred years. This is a fantastic mechanism to draw us in – this could be happening now!
The only drawbacks of the show are, as usual, purely technical. The man with no face is created through make up rather than CGI – this means that instead of simply wiping his features or overdubbing them, they had to create a flesh coloured mask which would cover his face but allow the actor to speak. The results are … unfortunate to say the least. Otherwise, this is a pretty flawless episode and we should be forgiving of the limitations of both the technology available and the budget.
The episode does give the opportunity for later runs to include this villain as a recurring character. Again, I must lament the fact that this series was never revived or remade. Sapphire and Steel also make mention of Mercury, adding to the list of possible characters we could see – Jet (seen in Assignment One), Silver (seen in Assignment Three), dour Copper, Mercury and Jet. The list can also be drawn from the list of elements. If we were to take these first six assignments as the trial run, further Assignments could expand on these possibilities.
With this Assignment we have crossed the halfway mark and we’re now on the way to the end of the run.