A few weeks ago I made a list of ten British sci-fi series you can watch if you wanted to tide yourself over before Doctor Who comes back in August, assuming you’r entirely caught up on Doctor Who of course. We’ve already looked at The Prisoner and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in detail, and now we turn to a series that’s certainly much more in the camp of the former than the latter.
Spanning three calendar years and 34 episodes, Sapphire & Steel is easily one of the most ethereal, ambiguous, and downright creepy sci-fi series ever on TV. Premiering in 1979, each 25 minute episode was part of a longer serialized story (not unlike classic Who), however each season only consisted of 1 or 2 stories and were each several episodes long. It was created by writer Peter J Hammond who wrote five out of the six Assignments (the name given to each of the serials) with Assignment 5 written by former Who scribes Anthony Read and Don Houghton. That’s it, though; just six serials. The sparseness of content only aided to the sparseness of the show’s mood, which was much more about atmosphere and strangeness than it was about plot. To be fair, it’s not the easiest thing to follow at the best of times.
The series followed two mysterious operatives, Sapphire (Lumley) and Steel (McCallum) who arrive as needed when there are disturbances in time. Steel wears a grey suit and is very logical; Sapphire wears a blue dress and is very intuitive. Together, they investigate and attempt to make right broken pieces of time or things bleeding in from the past or the future that manifest themselves in the form of ghost-like apparitions or crazy blurring or faceless people, or any other kind of nightmare-inducing guise like that.
And even weirder than all of THAT – Sapphire and Steel are heavily implied to be living versions of elements and minerals and things. The opening titles maintain this enigma.
We get to learn very little about our leads and even the nature of their powers isn’t entirely divulged. Sapphire has psychic abilities that make her eyes glow blue, in which she can manipulate time for small intervals. She calls this “taking back time” in which she can replay moments to get a different result. Pretty cool power, actually. Steel, on the other hand, isn’t empathetic or particularly friendly, but he’s strong enough to break and tie elevator cables with his bare hands and break down doors. He also has the ability to cool his body down to absolute zero, which is used to dissipate the “ghosts,” which are really just apparitions of time. Also a very cool power.
As the opening mentions, there are other “elements” out there besides merely Sapphire and Steel. Two of their colleagues join the fray at various points in the series. In the very first Assignment, Lead (played by Val Pringle) comes to help. He is a giant of a man with extra-super strength who acts as a kind of buffer for Steel when he freezes himself to extremely low temperatures. An operative who showed up twice, in Assignment 3 and Assignment 6, is Silver (played by David Collings). Silver is a technician who is good with small electronics and gadgetry but who has a whole lot of interesting powers, including transforming one small object into another, replicating small objects out of thin air, and creating lasting images of large objects. It’s very strange, but he’s quite helpful, if a bit tetchy.
Again, these are just little glimpses of the characters; what makes the show interesting, and worth checking out, is the unending creepiness of the adventures. There’s never really an attempt to explain what EXACTLY is going on in any of them; we simply know that there’s some kind of time disruption localized in a place, be it a house, train station, or old building. The series employs an emotional, intuitive logic more than an intellectual one. Weird things just happen and are dealt with, and even though it’s to do with time and scientific issues, they feel very much like good, old-fashioned haunted house stories.
Assignment 1 takes place in an 18th Century home full of clocks and antiques and things. One evening, a reading of a nursery rhyme to a little girl opens a time fissure and sucks the parents into it. The older brother, who is out of his element for sure, tries to figure out what’s going on when Sapphire and Steel arrive and together they work out a method for closing the fissure using the power of the written (and chanted) word.
Assignment 2 (easily my favorite) takes place entirely in a disused old, and apparently quite haunted, train station. A ghost hunter is performing experiments when Sapphire and Steel arrive to investigate things of their own. It seems there’s a malevolent time entity feeding on the hatred that still exists there from a soldier who died during WWI, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour after the armistice had been signed. The entity also uses other poor “unfairly ended” lives to continue its feeding. This one is scary as hell.
Assignment 3 is a bit different; it has a couple of 35th Century travelers using a modern apartment as a kind of time capsule to the 20th Century. When they can no longer make contact with either their controllers or their colleagues in similar capsules, it becomes clear the biomech system that runs the capsule has other plans for these people. One of revenge.
Assignment 4 takes place in an old apartment building in which ghostly, sepia-toned children run amok. The landlord and a tenant have disappeared mysteriously and Sapphire and Steel find a faceless man who is somehow in every photograph ever taken anywhere in the entire world, and he has the ability to turn the operators into flat, 2D versions of themselves. Terrified? Yes, I was.
Assignment 5, the one written by other people than PJ Hammond, finds our heroes crashing a 1930s-themed party in the present. Everyone is in fancy dress and period costume, but Time itself is trying to rewrite history and the two periods in history begin to bleed through to each other. Obviously, you know who’ll have to stop it.
Assignment 6 brings Steel and Sapphire (let’s change it up) to a roadside diner where time has completely stopped. They’re surprised when they find that Silver is there before them, which is entirely against protocol. They actually none of them quite know what they’re meant to investigate, but the humans there claiming it’s 1948 might have something to do with it.
Hopefully all of that sufficiently intrigued you to want to see Sapphire & Steel; it’s really quite engrossing and patently weird. All episodes are available in a box set and I highly recommend you giving it a watch. Maybe with the lights off on a windy night if you’re particularly brave.
Next week, I’m going to take a look at some of the fine sci-fi programming provided by Gerry Anderson. Shows like UFO, Space 1999 and of course his innovation of “Supermarionation”! It’ll be a fun one.