Saturday, July 09, 2005

Sapphire and Steel

This strange (and kinda obscure...) TV series (DVD box set from A&E shown left) is my current obsession. Sapphire and Steel is a British-made series that ran on UK TV from 1979-1982, and starred Joanna Lumley and David McCallum as a pair of very unusual paranormal investigators. They are - as their names suggest - elements rather than people, assigned to troublesome cases by some unknown superior force (God, perhaps?) Their missions are strange too, almost always concerning sudden rips in time and space, and other weird phenomena. Although the cases seen during the six serials (34 half-hour shows) occur in London, their purview is wide - from time travel to pocket universes, to strange poltergeists and other manifestations.

Sapphire and Steel - like Mulder and Scully on The X-Files - bring their own skill sets to each unique assignment. Sapphire (Lumley) can simply touch an object and know everything about its composition and history, and even who has handled it before her. She is a formidable telepath who also has the capacity to turn back time twelve hours. You'd be surprised how handy a tool that can be while battling spirits from outside time who are trying to burst into our reality!

Steel is less powerful, it seems, but is possessed of more will and discipline. He is incredibly strong physically, and can reduce his core body temperature to absolute zero. But mostly he is valuable for his razor-sharp mind. Steel is a calculating, emotionless and difficult being, and he will do anything to accomplish his mission -- including sacrifice human beings. This cold-bloodedness often puts him at odds with Sapphire, who is a nurturer and seems to care about the humans who are involved in their cases.

Sapphire and Steel occasionally receive help from other agents/elements, including the tech-head Silver ( David Collings), and even Lead - a hulk of a fella - but for the most part seem to be entirely on their own. They appear at the site of a disturbance already fully briefed (though we as viewers are never privy to these briefings...) and then, acting in tandem, go about solving mysteries and repairing time.

The six episodes in Sapphire and Steel are:

"Escape Through a Crack in Time:" - The reading aloud of an ancient lullaby in an ancient country house causes a rip in the fabric of time, and eerie historical manifestations steal a mother and father away from their children. Sapphire and Steel investigate their disappearance, and realize that to rescue the parents, they must first solve the mystery of the house's construction hundreds of years earlier. This story is like Poltergeist before Poltergeist. Only even creepier...

"The Railway Station" - An army of angry ghosts from all of England's pre-1980 wars gather on an abandoned train platform, ready to serve the will of an encroaching evil, an amorphous black mass that is devouring everything in its path. Sapphire and Steel are assigned to the case, and team up with a ghost hunter named Tully, who may know more than he's letting on. Sapphire is possessed by the darkness and Steel must find a way to negotiate with pure evil to get her back.

"The Creature's Revenge" - A scientific team from the distant future has returned to the year 1980 in a cloaked time-capsule to observe life in a primitive city, London. Unfortunately, their time device is powered by an increasingly self-aware creature who is the end result of generations of humanity's cruelty to animals. Sapphire and Steel investigate, and receive technical assistance from Silver. This serial about animal-rights, and mankind's long crimes against the wild kingdom, also involves a baby suddenly full-grown and som other disturbing images.

"The Man Without a Face" - Sapphire and Steel find themselves in an old antique shop, where a strange being without any facial features is pulling people out of old photographs and bringing them to creepy, sepia-tone life. The entity is thoroughly malevolent, and traps a lodger in the building inside an old photograph and then burns it - killing the unlucky human being. Sapphire and Steel battle their most defined adversary yet in this assignment, and must work hard to avoid being trapped in old photographs themselves.

"Dr. McDee Must Die." - A London-based business celebrates its 50th anniversary with a costume party harking back to the 1930s. Unfortunately, murder is on the mind of one of the guests. Soon time itself reverts to the 1930s, and Sapphire and Steel - disguised as party goers - must either prevent or accommodate a terrible crime. Depending on which they do, the human race may or may not survive the night.

"The Trap" - Sapphire and Steel join Silver in a strange pocket universe , a roadside gas station and diner. Nothing is as it seems there, and neither are any of the customers. In fact, some may be assassins with a plan to kill Sapphire and Steel. This is the last serial and it has one humdinger of a climax...

Why am I obsessed with Sapphire and Steel? For one thing, the stories are brilliantly written and filmed, and they work totally without benefit of anything resembling modern special effects. On the contrary, the intensely frightening and suspenseful mood is all generated by characterization, sudden sound-effects, low-key music, and most of all, exquisite camerawork. It's been a long time since I've seen any production that uses its camera angles and movements to so boldly and efficiently. Some people have complained the show is boring because each serial is set in one locale, but I find the opposite to be true. The series is riveting. You hang on every word of dialogue as you try to sort out the mystery.

Plus, the characterizations are classic. Lumley and McCallum are charismatic, enigmatic and charming in these unique and unusual roles, and one of the joys in the series is seeing how Sapphire and Steel relate to one another as partners. Are they lovers? They certainly flirt from time to time. And then there's the matter of the kiss in one story. These are great investigators to follow, and Sapphire and Steel, according to AE (quite truthfully) feels like the genuine "spiritual precursor" to The X-Files.

One of the most appealing aspects of Sapphire and Steel is that the creator (P.J. Hammond) endowed the show with an almost fairy-tale like, gothic horror feel. The first program, "Escape Through a Crack in Time," feels like a dark version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe or some such fantasy. It is so good it does bear comparison with literature, and it will capture your attention quickly. The last story is a nail-biting adventure with oodles of suspense. It features the heart-wrenching final assignment of these paranormal detectives, but leaves viewers wanting more.

You can purchase the Sapphire & Steel DVD box set at Amazon or A&E Store for not much more than fifty dollars. For those of us who miss The X-Files, discovering this program is like pure bliss. Again - be prepared for the fact that there are no special effects to speak of, but then simply immerse yourself in these bizarre stories and wonderful characters. You'll be glad you did.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Is 13 a Lucky Number? Two Assaults in Two Eras

I just got around to viewing the 2005 re-make of John Carpenter's 1976 classic, Assault on Precinct 13. My wife and I did a "Precinct 13" night and watched the re-make first, then the original, just to see how they would stack up when put side to side.

Sad to say that the new film, starring Laurence Fishburne and Ethan Hawke, can't hold a candle to the 1970s exploitation hit. The new film looks like a 1990s-style action-flick, sorta Die Hard in an Abandoned Police Station, and it plays out as an utterly routine example of the genre. Nothing really wrong there, per se. Some moments are rather exciting, and the action is convincing. But this movie has no real heart or life of its own, it just sits there on the screen. Ho hum.

It's illuminating to point out the differences between the two films. In the stunning, explosive original, all the events that played out were random. All of that verisimilitude has been wiped away in the remake, and replaced with Hollywood screenwriting machinery so old it creaks.

To recap the original: a gang of interracial thugs(?) in Los Angeles steal a cache of automatic weapons from the cops and go hunting on the streets. They happen upon an ice cream vendor, who they attack. At the same time, they brutally murder a little girl who just wanted a vanilla twist. Enraged, her father steals the vendor's pistol, kills a gang member, and flees to an abandoned police station on the night it is closing. It just so happens that this very night is Lt. Bishop's (Austin Stoker's) first night on the job, and worse - a group of cutthroat criminals are incarcerated in his jails because one of them has fallen ill. Realizing that the vanilla twist girl's dad is inside, the interracial gang (Street Thunder) lays siege to the precinct...all night. The cops and the criminals join forces to hold off the bad guys, but never even know who they are fighting, much less why.

There's something wonderfully realistic about this approach. Action leads into action, and people don't always know motivations or reasons for brutal acts. That's fate, baby, and the original film reflects this fact, especially in the horrible, straight-faced murder of that vanilla twist tyke. Pretty cold-blooded, hardcore stuff. But that's why we love it, right?

Now here comes the razzle-dazle, big-budget remake in the age of packaged movies. In the new version of Assault on Precinct 13, a criminal boss, played by Laurence Fishburne holds up at an abandoned station run by Ethan Hawke in Detroit, on the night of a terrible snow storm. He knows too much about corrupt cops, so the cops lay siege to the precinct, even though some of their own are inside. In this version of the story, we know exactly why the villains are attacking (must...prevent...Fishburne's...testimony...), we get an unncessary back-story about Fishburne's character, and there's plenty of psychological trauma to substitute for characterization. Hawke's character, you see, was once in a situation where he was responsible for a team of cops -- and they all died when an undercover op went bad. He took the job at this abandoned station so he will never have to confront responsiblity again. Care to hazard a guess as to whether he's up to the task of leading men into battle?

I won't even get started on the obsessive-compulsive psychologist. I bet that idea looked great for a one-line character description in a story outline

But basically, the new Assault on Precinct 13 - while being an efficient actioner - takes all the surprises and twist-and-turns out of Carpenter's original story (which was an homage to the John Wayne/Howard Hawks classic, Rio Bravo). In the new show, every character goes through a carefully prescribed and predictable arc; every character has his big moment; every motivation is known, understood and boring.

As a result, the original is still the version with all the piss and vinegar. It's bold, reckless, daring, occasionally cheesy, and downright original. Carpenter has already re-made the picture in a Los Angeles Church (Prince of Darkness) and on Mars (in the underrated Ghost of Mars), so it's really hard to see why another remake - without Carpenter at the helm - was even necessary.

So here I am again, saying the old is better than the new. I pray that Hollywood will soon broach a re-make that I can fawn all over and rave about. Just to prove I'm not an embittered old guy...