Revisiting Sapphire & Steel

Philip revisits short-lived but well-loved time-travel TV series featuring Joanna Lumley and David McCallum, Sapphire & Steel...

Despite being a show about a Time Lord, Doctor Who didn’t really start to focus on the themes and workings of time travel, paradoxes and other temporal phenomena until its 2005 rebirth. However, at the turn of the 1970s, a short-lived ITV rival described as “completely different to Doctor Who” set a chilling example of the dangers of messing around with time…

“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”.

Sapphire & Steel follows the two titular detectives, played by Joanna Lumley and David McCallum respectively; assigned by an unknown authority to correct anomalies that have allowed the mysterious and malevolent forces of time itself to break into the present, material world. Little background is given to the two agents, though they are certainly extra-terrestrial in origin. It was the writers’ intention, never stated in the show, that such agents would be formed from the fabric of the universe itself to deal with time (through which the universe itself was passing) drawing abilities from particular atomic elements – though notably neither Sapphire nor Steel are elements. Both characters are telepathic, whilst Steel has inhuman strength, telekinesis and the ability to drain thermal energy, Sapphire can rewind time temporarily, divine the history of objects and possesses some control over human minds. Presumably as a result, despite the agents’ other-worldly aloofness, Sapphire is warmer and more empathising than the blunt, utilitarian Steel.

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The two “operators” (as they are termed within the show) are also aided by other specialists. Most notable of these are super-humanly strong Lead and technician Silver (both of which are elements). In one episode, they also give low-level powers to a human and dub him Bronze (a compound). There is a fun game to be had in attempting to think of who you would cast in the roles of other elements. For example: Carbon might need to have an actor who can be hard as diamond but slippery like graphite – Jason Statham!

The show was the creation of future Torchwood writer PJ Hammond, and the series began life as an idea for a children’s show for Thames Television called The Time Menders. Thames lost interest and it was instead picked up by ATV in the Midlands. ATV was so impressed by the strength of the writing and potential low cost that the show was snapped up, given a later timeslot and the creepiness emphasised.

However, despite these factors the show only managed eight ‘assignments’, totalling thirty-four episodes between 1979 and 1982 (even worse than the Doctor Who ‘droughts’ of recent years). Industrial strikes hampered the show and the replacement of ATV by Central eventually killed it off and nearly saw it wiped. Although future stories had been considered by Hammond, when it was discovered there was no escape for the show, the ending of the last story was altered to make it more binding, absolute and captivating. The show was revived and given a well-received new run of a few of seasons from 2005-2008 by Big Finish Audio Productions.

Despite the comparative lack of material, the series is destined to be well-respected in the genre. This is largely due to the writing, production and acting that combine to make an incredibly restrained yet knife-edged atmosphere.

Hammond (and guest writers Don Houghton and Antony Read) channelled ghost stories, emphasising atmosphere and as such favouring patient, delectable build-up that drew out the tension masterfully. This is coupled with the use of small, intimate groups of characters often confined to tight, boxed-in locations like railway stations and lost & found stores to ramp up the feeling of claustrophobia. This is highly reminiscent of the ‘cottage under siege’ stories British genre fiction is so adept at, contrasting horror with familiar, almost twee, surroundings. This style of storytelling does hold back on the use of action and can be seen as rather slow in places, however this allows time to develop – if only in an obscure, implied manner – the conceptual and abstract horrors that have bred in the corners of the Sapphire & Steel universe.

Here, Time doesn’t take the form of a plot mechanic as it often can in science-fiction. Rather, Time itself seems to be a malignant entity that operates in a more semantic fashion, with “triggers” coming from the most innocuous of sources (such as lost property) or cruel twists of irony (such as the tragically late death of a WWI soldier). The terrifying consequences of Time’s interference can range from the global (the extinction of humanity) to the intimate (the disappearance of children’s parents). The concepts embodied in the series are so chilling that apparently ATV’s head of drama couldn’t sleep after reading the proposal.

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The fact that so little is made explicit in the show helps drive the feeling of being beset by abstract, incomprehensible, Lovecraftian forces. The Doctor Who “I’ll explain later” cliché is avoided in Sapphire & Steel by simply offering very little in the way of explanation at all. The use of and preference for simple special effects actually helps cultivate this abstract tone for the proponents and their adversaries. The inexplicable, magical appearance of the powers on display reflects Arthur C. Clarke’s 3rd law of “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” to imply the vast, ineffable powers and stakes involved. This is perfectly exemplified in Assignment Four, when a woman is burnt alive whilst the agents look on powerless as the woman horrifically, motionlessly, screams out from a photograph.

All of this cerebral writing and restrained production is sold by the calibre of the actors, with Joanna Lumley and David McCallum having both been brought in at the behest of ATV head, Lew Grade, in an effort to make the series attractive for export markets. The cool detachment and aloof natures of the agents reinforce the sense that events are beyond the humans both in the series and viewing it. Yet, when on the rare occasions that these calm, measured performances are broken this only serves to heighten the importance and tension of the proceedings. The fact that the agent characters in the series have the god-like powers and alien detachment of Time Lords is possibly why Joanna Lumley and David Collings (as the eccentric techy Silver) have often been suggested as potential Doctor Who leads.

Indeed it is interesting to think that Sapphire and Steel would be quite at home in the Gallifrey of The War Games with its near-omnipotent Time Lords. In fact, it can be quite enjoyable to pretend that maybe Sapphire and Steel are empowered Celestial Intervention Agency operatives, (codenames for operatives being compounds, specialists being elements) sent out to correct anomalies in time itself.

PJ Hammond may have written for Torchwood, but it can be contended that his earlier series more perfectly embodies the concept of an adult Whoniverse. Based on this, Steven Moffat could look in to calling Hammond up to create a timey-wimey teatime terror for the last Time Lord.

But, alas, we have fallen into the trap of not only discussing something from the past, but also blending it with the future. Now unknowable, malevolent forces beyond our conception are bearing down upon the Den of Geek website… but fear not if we’re lucky, Jason Statham will be assigned!

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