Sunday, 15 May 2011

Sapphire and Steel: The Passenger written by Steve Lyons and directed by Jason Haigh-Ellery

What’s it about: All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic, heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available: Gold, Lead, Copper, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver and Steel. Sapphire and Steel have been assigned. A dark Winter's evening in the year 2004. Sixty-six year-old steam enthusiast and antiquarian book dealer Philip Burgess steps onto his long overdue train, unaware that Time has decreed that this will be his final journey. An old book has given Time the trigger it needs to break its chains. As reality and fiction become intertwined, a familiar story begins to play itself out. A story that can only end in murder. A 1930s steam train. Twelve passengers with ulterior motives. A mysterious conductor. One victim. And two detectives… Sapphire and Steel must uncover the secrets in Burgess's past, before the story can reach its terminus. But how can they succeed, when Time has made them a part of its plans already

Icy Investigator: Steel seems to be wary of traps. Steel’s function is to investigate and resolve and it is almost Sapphire’s job to translate the various aspects of our world for him because he has never found the time to learn himself. He’s the administrator whereas Sapphire has the paranormal powers to make things happen.

Almost Human: Sapphire says it has been a long time suggesting perhaps that this takes place either after the surreal trap they found themselves in in Assignment Six on the telly or before their TV appearances altogether. Harker seems perfectly cast as Sapphire, somebody who can get close to and emphasise with the people who are caught up in times machinations.

Scary Bling: Mark Gatiss shows up in episode two and it is clear that the audio version of this series is going to explore the characters we only glimpsed at on screen. Gold is arrogant and impatient but he gets the job done and Steel specifically requested him by name to everybody’s surprise. Time studies and creeps out Gold because he is not meant to be in the story yet. Gold doesn’t respect the workings of time or the feelings of those caught up in them.

Absent Father: Philip is such an innocuous character at first, a harmless old man who is trying to get his train home but the story slowly peels away the layers of his character. Books are for reading and to stepping into another life for a few hours at least – he finds predictability of the detective genre comforting. He doesn’t like to drive anymore and he has been having a dream about killing a little girl over and over for a decade and a half. Burgess was a train driver and he took his eyes off the tracks and didn’t see the signal and when he realised what had happened he panicked and slammed on the brakes. The back three carriages jumped the track and Louise slipped and banged her head and died. Gold trying to convince Burgess to take the controls of the train with his trembling that the machine is a monster is a genuinely horrific moment – there is something very frightening about asking a man to confront his fears when they have previously led to such tragic consequences. All he wanted was to be able to escape the limelight after the accident but everybody knew who he was and what he had done. Gold helps Burgess to realise that he could never have stopped the train and that he has been agonising over something he could never have stopped in the first place. It was easy for the court to blame Burgess for the accident because he had already blamed himself.

Standout Performance: This is one show that has been extremely well cast with Big Finish stalwart David Warner providing a quietly menacing Steel and the gorgeous Susannah Harker taking over from Joanna Lumley in the lead role and giving just as much warmth and humanity. I love the fact that there is no kind of excuse for recasting the leads – they simply get on with it as if Warner and Harker played the parts all along and do an extraordinary job. Hugo Myatt’s performance is marble and fascinating and it channels the ordinariness of George Tully from assignment three of the original series.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘They’re all ghosts…’
‘I think time wants Philip Burgess dead…’
‘Everybody matters Gold, even if its only in a small way. In his remaining years Philip Burgess’ life will intersect with thousands of others affecting them in ways that even he wont know.’
‘It expected us this time Sapphire, it’s playing with us…’
‘You’ll never be free. We put you in chains and that’s how you’ll stay…’ – there seems to be an impression that the elements and their Masters have beaten whatever force time is into shape, into how we understand it and it wants to be break free of the rules they have enforced upon it. Fiercely intelligent stuff.
‘Time’s greatest cruelty. The hardest thing to live with is that you can never know for sure.’

Great Ideas: What a delicious idea, a train split into different time periods with a different year in each carriage. A choking mist surrounds the train. Sapphire pursues a girl but once he catches up with her she crumples like paper. All fiction is based on fact, like minute particles of time captured and manipulated and shaped into new patterns – frozen on the page. There is something unbelievably creepy about Burgess chatting to a silent conductor since one thing the original series did very well (almost too well sending me off to bed with nightmares!) is the creating horrors out of everyday items such as photos, clocks and a train station. There was always a sense that time itself was a terrifyingly vast and quietly destructive force and just having Philip chat away like this to time makes my skin crawl. There is a death in Burgess’ book and that is the trigger point that time is using to break through. The girl hasn’t been taken out of time before her death, she is dead and all the passengers on the train are ghosts. There were three investigators in the book – two detectives and a coroner who turns up later and as if the book is coming to life Sapphire and Steel arrive on the train and then Gold turns up later… All the characters on the train have a backstory, just like in a good detective novel – the ill-treated housekeeper, the deserter and the father who murdered a little girl… A girl who died in 1982 in a car accident, the road was wet and Burgess was driving too fast. All the passengers on the train have had an unlucky event happen that has changed their lives. In the book all of the suspects killed the victim (is he reading Murder on the Orient Express?). Somehow Philip Burgess’ life (and death) will make a difference and time wants to exploit that. Time is feeding off the resentment of the passengers who have died, they need somebody to blame for their deaths and time wants it be Philip Burgess. An accident is the tragic result of a hundred factors. It is his guilt that is drawing the other passengers to him.

Audio Landscape: You might think that creating an air of unease and timeywimeyness on audio might be easy but its only when you listen to a story like The Passenger which marries up strong ideas and a rock solid narrative with some effective audio spookery that you realise how skilled you have to be to pull it off this well. Strong wind, walking on a train platform, electricity crackling, dialling on a mobile, train bell, a whistling train, chugging, clacking on the tracks, a little girl dancing, singing rhymes, people getting on the train, gunshot, the car screeching and the little girl screaming, there is a montage of the passengers complaints that leads up to Burgess’ guilt, the train speeding up is almost an auditory metaphor for the accelerating plot, characters becoming paper and scrunching up.

Musical Cues: The rumbling, ominous music as various characters talk to the conductor is genuinely chilling. The plot, the sound effects and the music all speed up as we race towards the conclusion providing a rush of speed and excitement.

Standout Scene: For me the highlight of the story was as the plot cohered towards the end of episode three and all of the stories melting into one wave of hate and blame and was directed at Philip Burgess. But really every scene in this story is a gem.

Notes: Its always worth remembering how awesome the title sequence of this series is with its hints of a much larger operation and a far more dangerous dimension to the world we live in with these God like creatures descending to deal with paranormal activity on our world. It was an ingenious premise for a series and is as enticing today as it ever was.

Result: Impressively written and directed, The Passenger metamorphoses into a gripping murder mystery tale, a strong character piece, an authentically creepy and clever Sapphire and Steel tale and a chilling piece of audio theatre. A skilled writer wont rely on atmospherics and to tell his story and Steve Lyons confines his tale to one claustrophobic location and uses the opportunity to concentrate on creating a strong cast of characters, a fascinating plot and exploring some wonderfully imaginative concepts that revolve around the nature of time and its manipulations. Time proves to be an insidious and terrifying menace and it doesn’t even say a word. Our leads are beautifully cast with David Warner and Susannah Harker giving instantly impressive and charismatic performances. There are so many delicious touches of ingenuity, so many strong lines and so many great scenes the series is off to an phenomenal start I cannot imagine how they will top this: 10/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:

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