Sapphire and Steel by P.J. Hammond

Sapphire and Steel is one of the strangest and most fascinating television dramas that I remember from childhood. Sapphire (played by Joanna Lumley) and Steel (David McCallum) are agents of a mysterious sort of inter-dimensional police force. Where they come from is never quite made clear – only that they are not human, and they appear to know a great deal more about the world than we do. They arrive on our dimension at certain times and places, to contend with a mysterious malignant force that is regularly attempting to break into time. Each agent has his/her own unique paranormal abilities with which to do battle.

There were six seasons of Sapphire and Steel, and this short book is a novelisation of the first season. It concerns a family who live in a big house filled with clocks. The reading of a nursery rhyme becomes a “trigger” that causes all the clocks to stop and the parents to vanish into thin air, leaving two bewildered children behind. Then two strangers appear at the front door, a steely-eyed man and a woman in a blue dress. The children have no clue whether they are friend or foe, but Rob, the boy, quickly learns that if he is ever going to see his parents again, he must put his trust in them.

These words of mine can’t quite convey the spooky feel of the show. The writer, P.J. Hammond, had a real knack for unnerving the viewer that was almost Lovecraftian – giving us nothing more than quick glimpses of a dark and terrifying reality just beyond the range of human sight. I think this was billed as a children’s show back in the late 1970s, but it’s anything but. I remember having childhood nightmares about being trapped in time, and when I finally revisited the series when it first came out on videotape in the early 1990s, I was able to connect the dots.

I don’t normally read novelisations, because they tend to be mere cash-ins on a successful series or movie, but I made an exception this time because it’s written by the series’ creator P.J. Hammond. I thought it might offer fresh insights into the bizarre mythology, but sadly the book reads almost like a word-for-word reconstructions of the script, fleshed out with descriptive detail. Most of the book is told from the point of view of Rob, and so, nothing more is learned about the characters of Sapphire and Steel than what was already on display on the television screen. I feel this was a missed opportunity to go deeper than what the visual medium allowed.

I can understand how a book like this would have been a worthwhile purchase back in the late 1970s, before the era of videotapes and DVDs, when we there was no opportunity to revisit your favourite programmes other than waiting for re-runs which might never come. But nowadays, you would be better served by picking up the series on DVD. If you have a taste for sci-fi that’s a bit “out there,” I recommend you check it out. As for the novelisation, its only value is as a collectible.

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Serenity: Those Left Behind by Brett Matthews

Firefly was an excellent television series. It was created by Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame and was essentially a western in space – literally, not metaphorically. The captain of the ship Serenity, Mal Reynolds, actually wears braces, and in one episode the cargo bay is full of cows, no less. Firefly didn’t make an impact on television and was cancelled after one season, without the season being shown in its entirety. However, it made a big impact on DVD, so big that it spawned a big-budget movie: Serenity. Firefly‘s great strength was the diverse characters of the ship’s crew – from a thief to a preacher. Essentially it’s a ship full of outlaws, runaways, or people trying to make a difference – well, one anyway. Their aim is to try and stay alive, making a dishonest living and steering clear of a corrupt galactic Federation. In theme, I was reminded very much of an old British series from the 1970s called Blake’s 7.

Watching Firefly was a romance that was sweet but all too short, and I was quickly left wanting more. Serenity filled that gap for a while. And now, some comics have arrived to keep the fans happy. Those Left Behind was a mixed experience. In terms of characters, the writer nailed it. So often the crew of Serenity said something that made me smile and think, “Yep. That’s exactly the sort of thing that X would say.” The artwork is also beautifully drawn. The let-down is the story itself. There’s just not enough going on. I don’t think there was a single uninteresting episode of the Firefly series, but this graphic novel reads just like filler material. In fact, it’s clear from the story that it’s set in the time between the series and the movie, and shows how the characters ended up where they were at the start of the movie. As for the content, it’s essentially a case of an old enemy of Mal’s coming after him; fisticuffs; the end. Aside from a sub-plot that descends into the same territory, that’s it.

A vaguely interesting average read and no more.

The Terminator: One Shot by James Robinson & Matt Wagner

Little did we know that while Arnold Schwarzenegger was wreaking havoc in the first Terminator movie, there was another Terminator on the loose in another part of town. This Terminator is a huge hulking woman, and her mission is just like Arnie’s: seek and destroy everyone called Sarah Conner. And although she’s unwittingly tracking the wrong Sarah, the story is still pretty interesting.

The Sarah Conner in this comic is cheating on her husband, Michael. She plans to have her new lover murder Michael so that she can inherit her husband’s wealth. But when the Terminator shows up with guns blasting, she assumes Michael has found out about her plans and hired an assassin to kill her. Meanwhile, an old man from the future has been living in his time for decades, waiting for the Terminator to show up. He has developed a special weapon with which to fight. One shot is all it takes to bring a Terminator down, but one shot is all the weapon is capable of.

The artwork is done like an oil painting. It’s very atmospheric, but somewhat sloppy. Occasionally, I had trouble making out what was going on in the panes.

This is a little too long to be considered a comic, and a little too short to be a traditional graphic novel, but I thought I’d review it anyway. It’s an amusing side story in the Terminator saga.

The Terminator: Tempest by John Arcudi

This graphic novel (originally a four-issue comic) hails from the early 1990s. I’ve a feeling it was released prior to the Terminator 2: Judgment Day movie. It reads like an alternate sequel to the first movie, with notable differences. The comic, not having any advantage to featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator (since it would only be his likeness, and not him) takes the story in possibly a more logical direction. Instead of superior Terminator technology (i.e. the liquid-like remouldable Terminator) heading back through time, we have a whole team of basic Terminators, all of them different. The aim this time is not to track down Sarah Conner (or her son John, as in the movie), but to make sure that artificial intelligence technology gets into the hands of the scientists who would unwittingly bring about the end of the world. The Terminators do this by the most direct means possible: tracking down the main scientist and giving him the goods. The Terminators are opposed, not by one lone crusader, but by a team of humans who come back in time to stop them.

Sequels generally up the ante. You either get more of the enemy, or you get an enhanced, harder to beat enemy. The comic fits the former, while the movie fits the latter. Somewhat predictable, but the comic still makes an interesting addition to the Terminator saga. It’s a pacy, high octane story that holds the attention on every page, featuring very nice artwork.

You’re Him, Aren’t You? by Paul Darrow

Every British person over thirty-five has heard of Blake’s 7. Made in the late 1970s, and running until the early 1980s, comprised of four thirteen-episode seasons, Blake’s 7 was the BBC’s ambitious space opera. This was no Star Trek copycat. Blake’s 7 was about a bunch of escaped convicts who hijack an abandoned super-spaceship and take on the might of a corrupt galactic government. It was aptly described by the series creators as The Dirty Dozen in space. Having the audience root for a pack of thieves, pirates and embezzlers was daring territory for a producer. And it worked. Despite the wobbly sets and poor special effects (the BBC didn’t have the same budget as George Lucas), the nation fell in love with the show. And I would take a guess that this was down to the memorable characters.

After season two was made, something odd happened to the show. Its lead character, Blake (played by Gareth Thomas), left. Rather than cancel the show, the next strongest character, Avon (Paul Darrow), stepped into the leadership role, and Blakeless 7 (no, they didn’t call it that) went on to flourish for a further two seasons. Few will disagree that Avon was the most memorable character in the show. Where Blake was a rather typical selfless zealot, Avon was more interested in self-preservation. He was a cold-hearted realist with a dry wit, living by his own code: he had no problem with thieving, but one thing he never did was break his word. It’s hard to make Avon seem interesting on paper. You’ve got to see the show to know what I mean. When I first revisted Blake’s 7 through the video release that came out in the early 1990s, I had forgotten every character except Blake and Avon.

So this is Paul Darrow’s biography, named after the question he generally gets asked by members of the public when he’s out shopping, meaning, of course, “You’re Avon, aren’t you?” I thought it was odd seeing this biography in print, because I had to ask myself, “What else has Darrow done besides Blake’s 7?” It shows you how little I know. Blake’s 7 may have been his only long-running television role (there are countless shorter ones), but he has a long and varied career in theatre, too.

Darrow’s early years are interesting, particularly a brief stint in military training during his boyhood. Darrow tells the story of how he was placed in the woods overnight with a troop of other boys and a mission to fulfill. He ended up winning by outwitting his superiors … and got disciplined for it!

The least satisfying part of the biography is the sizeable portion taken up with brief accounts of each of Darrow’s roles and all the famous people he has rubbed shoulders with. The author should have asked himself how much of this he expects the reader to remember, because it got a bit like a shopping list after a while.

The Blake’s 7 chapters of the book are, of course, the most enjoyable. He talks about the cast and crew, and gives his own witty guide to each episode in the series (yes, all fifty-two of them).

I really enjoyed reading You’re Him, Aren’t You?, any my only complaint is that I personally wanted to read more about Blake’s 7 and less about theatre. Still, it was an enjoyable insight into an interesting man who has been in my head since I was six years old and shows no sign of leaving. To illustrate: when I was writing my second novel, Chion, there was a scene that simply would not work, because the believability of the character’s extreme actions was stretched to the breaking point. But I couldn’t bear to lose the scene. I tried making my character drunk, but that didn’t work, either. Then I had a brainwave. What if I made him a cold-hearted realist? What if I made him, in essence, Avon? When I rewrote the scene, I knew I had conquered the problem. So, as a little nod to Avon’s help, I named the character Mr. Darrow.

I might one day forget Vila, Cally, Jenna, Gan, and even Blake. But I don’t think I’ll ever forget Avon.

The Prisoner: The Village Files by Tim Palgut

The Prisoner is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest ever cult television series. I first enjoyed it in the early 1980s, when I was only ten years old; now I’m thirty, and the programme is as fresh and exciting now as then.

Patrick McGoohan is at the centre of the series, both as its producer and star. He plays the part of a nameless Secret Service agent who resigns from his job for reasons known only to himself. Shortly thereafter he is kidnapped and brought to The Village. It’s a quaint little place with a lot of charm, with its own Town Hall, General Store, Hospital, Old People’s Home; it even runs it’s own daily newspaper, the Tally Ho. Everyone appears to be happy and content. But The Village is a lot more sinister than it appears. The citizens are all people who have resigned or retired from a certain kind of job, where the information in their heads is too valuable on the open market – information which must be protected or extracted. Their new home exudes an atmosphere of freedom, but stray too far by land or sea and you would come face to face with “Rover”, a menacing balloon-like machine which would drag you back unconscious or dead. A hidden underground Control Room contains a sophisticated radar system, and surveillance cameras are everywhere. There is no escape from The Village. In an effort to stamp out individuality, citizens are not allowed to retain their names, and are given numbers instead. McGoohan is Number 6. Episode by episode we watch The Village administration attempt to discover the reason behind his resignation, by all manner of macabre means, while Number 6 makes escape attempt after escape attempt.

And here we have The Village Files. The book takes the guise of a handbook for a Village warder, containing almost one hundred pages of detailed plans and schematics of Village architecture, equipment and personnel. The volume is divided into ten sections:

1. Power Control, showing plan views of the Green Dome and Control Room. There’s a tremendous amount of information here, right down to explanations of every button on Number 2’s console. Even the internals of the cameras are explained.

2. Habitation gives us a complete Village map, just like the one Number 6 examines in the series. There are detailed plans of the information kiosk, signpost and speakerpole arrangements, telephone kiosk, internal maps of the Town Hall, Labour Exchange, General Stores, Old People’s Home, Stone Boat.

3. Going Under shows us another Village map, this time revealing all of the underground rooms and tunnels. Interestingly, the strange cave with the rocket, unveiled only in the final episode of the series, is given the royal treatment here.

4. Sciences reveals an internal map of the hospital, with detailed information on the various therapies and treatments available. A cross-section of the Pulsator (a.k.a. Number 6’s multi-functional bedroom lamp) is also shown and explained.

5. Illuminati is a brief chapter about the High Eye, seen only in the Control Room and the Number 1 rocket.

6. The Number 6 File. Pretty much every scrap of information gleaned about Number 6 over the course of the series is collated here. His statistics, history, psychological make-up, right down to his fingerprint. His Village house is sketched in every detail, right down to the location of all the hidden cameras.

7. Personnel covers the clothing of various Village personnel, both prisoners and warders, and gives details of numbers and ranks.

8. Transportation provides accurate drawings of the helicopters, taxis, tractors, and speedboats.

9. Operations. A list of special projects and operations, e.g. Operation Schizoid (that one should ring a bell).

10. Miscellaneous gives us some info on the prices of various Village products, and the various Village sayings: “A still tongue makes a happy life,” etc.

My big question, when I approached this book, was “Where did all this information come from?” A recent viewing of the entire series revealed that much of it was taken directly from watching. The rest I suspect is a result of the author’s enquiries with the series creators and his own speculations. Tim Palgut has been extremely thorough.

The majority of the information sits comfortably with my own knowledge of the series, but there were are few times that Palgut’s “guesses” made me wince. In the information given about Number 6, one of his previous codenames is revealed as John Drake. Hardcore fans will know that John Drake was the secret agent that McGoohan played in the series’ predecessor Danger Man. “Is Number 6 John Drake?” is one of the great debates about The Prisoner. I felt it was presumptuous for Palgut to make such a definite statement when the truth of the matter is anything but definite. Another cringe-moment was reading about Rover as an acronym for “Reactive Orange-alert Vigilant Enforcer”. Maybe that’s the official line on Rover, but I doubt it. Sounds daft. Number 6’s circular bedroom archway is referred to as a Rover-friendly door. Nice thought, but the question on my lips was “Never mind the bedroom; how the heck did Rover squeeze through the front door?”

Niggling criticisms aside, what you have here is a well researched and beautifully presented anatomy The Village. Definitely intended for the hardcore fan only – at £19.99 you’d better believe it (though amazon are doing £6 off)! For me, the book has value as a research tool, if I ever decide to try my hand at writing some Prisoner fan fiction. Maybe there’s somebody out there who’d even want to design an accurate Village Quake level. Others will simply enjoy enhancing their understanding of one of their favourite TV shows.