Nigel Fairs has a lot to answer for. The producer of the Big Finish range of Sapphire and Steel audio plays, it was his decision to make the stories more ’emotional’. The result, so far, has been something other than the Sapphire and Steel we came to know and love when we were growing up/bought the videos in the early 90s/bought the DVDs a couple of years ago. Instead of weird, alien logic, and morals that make no sense or are completely counter to conventional morality, we’ve had standard dramatic clichés (eg homophobia is bad) and plots that have drifted between comedic and uninteresting.
Now we have one of Fairs’ own stories, Water Like A Stone. It has good points, but for the most part, it has all the things wrong with it we’ve come to expect from the range.
Plot (spookily reminiscent of the one on the Big Finish web site)
Christmas Eve. The Present. The Capital Palace, once a popular theatre, now stands unused next to a long-abandoned graveyard.
Plans to celebrate the work of a dead playwright in the theatre draw Sapphire and Steel into a deadly maze from which there is little hope of escape.
In a house where all the clocks stopped at midnight, Sapphire is at the mercy of an old woman with a familiar face. And Steel is reunited with an old ally… but for how long?
Is it any good?
At first, everything seems to be going fine. The opening episode is quite spooky, there are hints at Sapphire and Steel continuity guaranteed to appeal to the fans, and we have the introduction of a new ‘element’, Ruby, played by Bernice Summerfield herself, Lisa Bowerman.
But it all falls apart somewhere in episode two. First, we’re treated to quite the worst ’emotion dump’ by a character that I’ve ever encountered. It felt like the character was delivering a five-minute soliloquy to a complete stranger on why his life has never amounted to anything. As you do.
Show, don’t tell, Nigel.
And then, we realise this whole thing is an exercise in luvvydom. It’s the theatre, don’t you know, darling, so why don’t we all put on funny voices and try to be funny? Just like we did in The School. And Dead Man Walking. And…
Yes, it’s all a jolly laugh down Big Finish way, and the actors are having so much fun messing about, but have you noticed how Sapphire and Steel isn’t scary as result?
It doesn’t help that Fairs falls at the hurdle PJ Hammond so wisely avoided with the television stories, and casts too much light on story points. Arthur/Ruby’s explanation of the time detectives as the universe’s version of musical notes (sort of), the talk about fissures between reality and fiction: it’s just not scary and cheapens the idea, when it could so easily have added to it, if done well. The eventual villain, once revealed, turns out not only to have been entirely obvious but yet another ’emotional’ dramatic cliché – where are the murderous soldiers killed after ceasefires, ganging up to destroy the world when you need them?
As per usual with Big Finish stories, you begin to wonder exactly why Sapphire and Steel get assigned to anything more involved that filing tax returns, since their uselessness quotient is especially high this time around. Possessions, the standard separation(s) across time periods: the Big Big Finish Box of Sapphire and Steel Perils has turfed out its generic plot devices once again. Sapphire and Steel seem to be getting old because at least they tried to fight back in the TV show, even when faced with a superior enemy. Here, they just tend to talk the baddies to death or into letting them go, after wandering around, forgetting who they are – again, as per usual.
I can’t slate it totally, since the resolution to the story is pretty good and in keeping with the original show’s tone, even if some intriguing plot ideas dangled in the first part never get played out. Bowerman does a good job with the musically-inclined Ruby and her character is probably the highlight of the story, just as Mark Gatiss’ Gold was the best thing about The Passenger. I’m not suggesting every episode should feature a new work colleague for our heroes – it’s just they often represent the only original and refreshing element of each play.
So again, reluctantly, I’m forced to advise y’all not to get this one. It’s not awful and there are good touches, but fundamentally the story’s middle half sags badly and is flawed in a way that means you’ll be feeling your temporal glass is half empty, rather than half full, by the end of it.
Listen to the trailer (Windows Media)
Steel (David Warner)
Sapphire (Susannah Harker)
Ruby (Lisa Bowerman)
Arthur (Nicholas Briggs)
The Girl (Lucy Gaskell)
Dolly (Suzanne Procter)
Writer: Nigel Fairs
Director: John Ainsworth