There aren't many television shows that provide me with the weirdness that I crave. Of course there are the famous cases of "The Twilight Zone" and "The Outer Limits", both of which often dish up something strikingly imaginative in story or imagery. Then there are classic series such as "Star Trek" or "Dr. Who", especially the latter, which have been known to produce results beyond the norm. I can think, if I try hard, of a handful of lesser productions which contrive to offer fleeting nuggets of the strange.
I never heard of "Sapphire and Steel" in its heyday. Some years ago I became aware of this British program-- some kind of thriller, I hazily gathered-- starring David McCallum and Joanna Lumley, which despite a short production run (from 1979 to 1981) still retained dedicated fans after a couple of decades. That much I knew, no more, nor did the matter loom large in my mind. Never having seen it, I wasn't driven by nostalgia, as I might suspect were some viewers. Out of my never-ending quest for unusual gold, however, I did gradually develop a mounting curiosity.
Recently I acquired the complete set on DVD. An inspired whim, this, for I discovered not only gold, but a loaded mine. I find much to treasure in this series, which gives me instances of the very best that TV has presented by way of the weird. "Sapphire and Steel" is by no means perfect; it's a grab-bag, wildly varying in quality, and its lowest point, unfortunately reached at the very end, is absolutely dreadful. I've learned that my opinions, after repeated savoring and analysis of the stories, can differ significantly from those of the program's long time proponents. Regardless, I now count myself a die-hard fan. The best of this show makes up the best of its kind, approaching a level of stellar uniqueness.Basics
The main set up for the series is simple enough... I guess. The "corridor of time" requires guarding throughout eternity, from a host of threats, chiefly from nebulous entities constantly seeking to "break through", their purposes largely unknown but, by any standards we recognize, evil. These creatures, if you will, possess amazing powers: they can snatch people into other times or dimensions, possess the living and raise the dead, turn back the clock to past years, invariably in unpleasant fashion. Opposed to them are an equally mysterious cadre of agents, who in a sense are embodiments of the atomic elements, very loosely defined (as one may derive from the title of the series). These latter are, of course, our heroes.
"Sapphire and Steel have been assigned." So we are informed at the beginning of each episode. Sapphire appears as a beautiful woman (Joanna Lumley), pleasing and vivacious, Steel (David McCallum) as a commanding fellow with a hard, abrupt nature. Human they appear, human they usually behave, but it is quickly made clear they are nothing of the kind. They patrol time, employing their own special powers to combat the intrusive menaces that irrupt into our normal time and space.
Precious little more do we ever learn about friends or foes. Mystery saturates this series like none other I have seen. When, for instance, I described the title characters in the preceding paragraph, I didn't leave out much critical information. Sapphire and Steel appear within a given story line, they speak and act; they impress, startle, even amuse; seldom, though, do they explain. What exactly are they? Who assigned them? Where do they come from? This show operates on its own terms, within its own sphere of logic. As a rule, this curious story-telling tactic works extremely well.
"Sapphire and Steel" presents six adventures or assignments, each composed of four to eight episodes, none of them possessing formal titles. In this section I summarize and critique the adventures.
1. A big old house, equipped with young boy and little girl, two parents included; boy doing his homework while parents read nursery rhymes to the girl; a harmless scene, until all the clocks stop. The boy, Rob, investigates, find his sister Helen alone. Where are the parents? The girl tells him they just "went away". They vanished all of a sudden. The dutiful son calls the police.
Instead, with remarkable alacrity, Sapphire and Steel arrive. The police won't be coming, they say, for this is a peril reaching out of time, which only they are qualified to confront. A terrible being, utilizing history-based nursery rhymes as a conduit, has intruded into the girl's room and whisked away the adults.
Sapphire and Steel undertake to plug the time break and restore the parents. The evil one seeks to expand its bridgehead in our dimension, perhaps to overwhelm the world. The strange battle commences. Dangers from the past, suggested by children's rhymes, assail the four remaining occupants of the house. Helen is nearly seized when the threat encompasses her entire room. Sapphire is almost destroyed when a fragment of the Thing sucks her into a painting in the hall. With the danger getting out of hand-- the entire house now a combat zone-- reinforcement arrives in the persona of Lead, a jolly giant who surely comes in handy when, with Rob having been taken by the force, Steel lays his trap to defeat the danger and restore all as it was.
This first story, at six episodes, is the best of the bunch, exhibiting great care in plotting and style. Its internal logic is perfect. The acting in all parts is superb. I note that considerable attention has been paid to simple but extraordinarily effective camera work, which enhances vital scenes. The climax and conclusion are expertly handled. Two moments toward the end especially stand out: the tense passage when Steel, by adroit, hammering questions, makes contact with the real kidnapped Rob; and the laying of Steel's trap, when vulnerable Helen must recite "The House That Jack Built" as she slowly lures the entity into the creepy basement where the show-down awaits. I relish the charmingly eerie references to the Mary Celeste, the unfilmed but apparently exciting previous case of Sapphire and Steel.
Sapphire is shown to possess the power of briefly "turning back" time, a useful trait when one wishes to undo an awful event. She keeps this ability throughout the series. Steel can reduce his body temperature to near absolute zero, helpful when it's necessary to freeze pan-dimensional creatures. We don't see this characteristic of his again.
I give the first adventure a 5 out of 5. This is great stuff, which could just as easily have formed the basis of a feature film.
2. In an abandoned railway station, "ghost catcher" Mr. Tully prepares once again to seek contact with the spirit he believes haunts the place. Who should appear to his summons, approaching quietly and steadily from the shadows, but Steel, who with Sapphire has arrived to conduct his own investigation. Steel comes down hard on Tully, seldom letting up, for he and his lovely companion know that more than ghosts plague this dusty, decrepit place. A "shadow out of time", if I may use that phrase, has broken through into the present, resurrecting spirits of the military past for unknown, but surely evil, purposes. Tully, desirous to cooperate, in his misunderstanding of the threat, often acts against Sapphire and Steel.
This begins the longest adventure, at eight episodes, and the down right creepiest as well. This is a tale of shadows, with most scenes smothered in gloom or framed by such. The foul entity which has taken control of the station presents itself as shadow, as a blot of darkness that extinguishes light, capable of annihilating body and soul. Various ghostly characters appear to mystify or frighten, most notably the bitter Great War soldier Sam Pierce.
In fact, the bitterness of the dead holds the key to this grim drama. The loathsome entity feeds on the resentment of the no longer living, and has brought them back, in a real sense, as food. Hero and heroine, with Tully's occasionally helpful support, must drive away the creature, seal the breach in time, and restore the ghosts to their rest.
How Steel contrives to do that makes this story stand out, for though he succeeds absolutely, he does so in a shocking fashion. Faced with a powerful being that, apparently, can not be defeated, he must strike with it a horrific bargain. The conclusion does not bring happiness.
Just about as good as the first adventure, this one reigns supreme for its wonderfully realized setting, easily the best of the series. I will never think of old railway stations the same as I did before watching this. This one provides many excellent moments; I find especially morbid delight in the transformation of Sapphire's eyes when possessed by the shadow, one to raise goose bumps.
I grant this too a 5 out of 5. It offers worthy lessons in the filming of a spooky tale.
3. Way up in the high rise apartment complex live Rothwyn, her husband Eldred, and their infant son. Odd names maybe, yet perhaps a normal family? Don't bet on it; before even this much has been learned, we also learn they're from the distant future, taking part in an experiment in Twentieth Century life. In addition, some weird force begins to torment and endanger them. Comes Sapphire and Steel, seeking a detected time break. It's not the time travelers, but something else causing the disturbance, but the particulars are difficult to establish, because for the longest period the exact locale can't even be found. It turns out these visitors live in an invisible "capsule" atop the building, which mimics the genuine apartments below.
Developments ensue: Steel is strangely attacked by a pillow that transmutes into a bird; Sapphire vanishes; the baby transforms into a peculiar and hostile adult; its parents disappear; another agent, Silver, arrives to help Steel gain entry to the capsule. Sapphire eventually reappears, two other capsules are discovered with their occupants dead, and matters run amok in this one, with repeated attacks from an unknown source. In time this family is restored, and the entity is found to be their semi-living time machine, which for a most astounding and grotesque reason wants revenge against the human race. Steel deduces how to repair the situation in the present, with the outcome in the future remaining tantalizingly murky.
Despite its interesting potentialities, this adventure marks a serious drop in story-telling quality. Its purely science-fictional aspects don't satisfy to the same degree as the previous ghostly doings. Six episodes long, it might have been easily reduced to four; Sapphire and Steel don't significantly impact the story until episode three. The subsidiary characters don't shine in this one either. Rothwyn and Eldred are a tad boring, their suddenly grown up child more freakish than astounding and, most importantly, Silver is unpalatable, too much the walking, talking joke. His character is too silly for this show, and the necessity for his arrival too contrived; I never believed Sapphire and Steel really needed him. More than that, his talk about being "just a technician" somewhat saps the mystery underlying the series, hinting at a formality of organization not disclosed earlier. That point, trivial here, will loom unpleasantly large later.
Make it 3 out of 5 this time. I find lots of good stuff, but too much rubbing against the grain for my tastes.
4. Old photographs, pictures of children, and children-- resembling those of an earlier age-- playing in a dusty, cluttered shop... but wait, this is clearly the present, and something is clearly out of whack. Enter Sapphire and Steel, on the trail of another irruption in time. The children aren't ghosts, but they aren't exactly alive either. What goes on here? Where is the threat?
Ah, but this gloomy place isn't entirely barren of real life. On the upper floor lives the pretty, if troubled, girl who styles herself Liz Dupree. She's much more antagonized, it seems, by the prying of this nosy duo than by the odd children flitting about, or even the disappearance, some months before, of her photographer landlord and her female friend and room mate, both of whom went without a trace. She might have been more disturbed if the mysterious new landlord hadn't been so accommodating.
Well, he's what it's all about, because he's a creature from another dimension that, at the very invention of photography, broke into our sphere and has since infiltrated every photograph ever taken. It has plucked the spirits of the children from pictures, banished the missing pair into them. It can do this at will. It can mercilessly kill.
This is a creepy one all right. Again Sapphire and Steel confront a menace that can't be destroyed nor, in this case, banished back to whence it came. Its goals in this one remain entirely opaque; we only know that it is cold and cruel. In the thrilling climax Steel, facing with Sapphire ultimate defeat, corrals Liz for support and manages to trap the awful thing, hopefully putting it out of action for many decades.
The story chills in a fashion akin to the second adventure. The setting, while extremely cramped this time around, marvelously suits the tale. The notion of photographs-- any photographs-- being possible instruments of doom is harrowing to a camera hound like myself. The grisly fate of Liz's room mate, trapped in a burning picture, is a stunning moment, and there are several other juicy scenes.
The sound plot, however, doesn't quite measure up to the first two in the series. At four episodes this one feels somewhat short, lacking a trifle in development. It might have been justifiably expanded to six. The entity resurrects only children, but we never learn why; contrast this to the raising of the ghosts in #2, which makes internal sense. One could ask for more information as to the horrid being's purpose, at least to the extent of knowing how it benefits from its deeds. Also, while Liz satisfies as a character, she doesn't have much place in the story. She isn't being threatened, which puzzles, and she doesn't factor into the tale in a major way until the very end.
Nevertheless, the whole pleases. I call this one a strong 4 out of 5.
5. An unusual twist: a brightly lighted adventure of Sapphire and Steel. Never fear, there's plenty of gloom to be had in the story. Wealthy Lord Mullrine is holding in his grand manor a 1930s style party, everything authentic, on the fiftieth anniversary of the tragic death of his partner Dr. McDee. The various guests arrive including, somewhat to everyone's perplexity, Sapphire and Steel, who blend perfectly into the festivities. Why are they here? Curious developments intrude. Authenticity goes haywire, with the manufactured theme setting of the party becoming too weirdly real. The house is cut off from the outside world; no one can leave or even telephone; oh yes, and Dr. McDee crashes the party held in his honor, rather angrily flustered by everybody's puzzled or stunned behavior toward him.
This adventure unfolds gradually through a remarkably complex story. A force, identified solely by its actions, seeks to alter the time stream in such a manner that the annihilation of the human race shall result. With stakes that high, it attempts to mislead Sapphire and Steel by perpetrating a kind of murder game, bumping off anyone born after 1930, leading up to a recreation of the climactic moment from the past when McDee, on the verge of inventing a medical cure that would have accidentally fomented a deadly virus, was actually murdered by someone at this gathering. The entity wishes to save him from that fate, so that all will perish. Hero and heroine, cutting through the apparent red herrings, must uncover what really occurred those long years before, and make certain it happens again the exact same way.
What we have here is a thoughtful and well conceived take-off on a type of tale of which I'm fond, the drawing room murder mysteries a la Agatha Christie. It works. Clues abound, bodies fall out of closets or slump over well laid dining tables, yet we always know there's more here than meets the eye. The story delivers a great moment when the lurking power seizes control of Sapphire and attempts to force her to suicide. Here we discover that they don't call her companion Steel for nothing, as he employs another one-off capability.
At six episodes the tale has plenty of time to explore its various ramifications. The comparatively large cast serve their purpose, although a couple of characterizations push too far into the realm of parody. Mullrine comes off as practically cartoonish-- he seems to smoke that blasted cigar 24 hours a day-- while McDee's generally harsh demeanor marks him as a man bound and determined to be murdered. These, I grant, are niggles, as is the too withdrawn villain creature, which never really makes an appearance. The story does end beautifully, in fact would make a great finale to the series. Mark that point.
Another solid 4 out of 5, I say, almost hitting the top rank.
6. Sapphire and Steel arrive at a dismal roadside cafe, occupied only by a perplexed couple who, they announce, drove in there from 1948. Time has gone wrong again, obviously, an issue further supported by incoming characters from other years. The situation gets more complicated when Silver (he of the third adventure) shows up, along with his compatriots not sure why he's there. As the story progresses it seems increasingly that they have been lured there, that they are the focus of whatever force has intruded.
To cut to the chase, enemy agents are operating to do away with Sapphire and Steel by luring them into an inescapable trap. This aspect of the story only comes clear toward the end, with everything gone before serving as misdirection.
I don't explore this adventure much here because I don't care for it at all. At only four episodes, it feels two too long. Notable for its gratuitously downbeat ending, I find nothing of interest in this one, could imagine that it was filmed in protest against upcoming cancellation of the series. I don't state that for the record, merely proclaim this one a total dud.
Silver's arrival, which pretends for a time to make sense in relation to this oh so slow tale, suddenly becomes meaningless, though until then maybe (I'm being generous) he does contribute a little more than he did in the third adventure. The other subsidiary characters are woefully boring, unappealing, or plain ridiculous. I didn't care, not once, for a single one of them.
The plot creaks and strains against the framework of the series. With this business of opposing agents we're presented with a revamping of the theme which changes the show into a kind of "The Avengers" in time. Who are these enemies? It's dubiously explained that they work for a "higher authority". Indeed; higher than Sapphire and Steel, mysterious defenders of time? The notion leaves me cold. Until this last point in the series, one might imagine a more supernatural underpinning to the show, not this dull conception of competing organizations.
Then there is that finale, the end of the series, of everything substantive to this program. I call it gratuitous. Let me be blunt: this last adventure of "Sapphire and Steel" earns "'The Mole People' Award" for the most clumsy and stupid ending.
Being kind-hearted, I toss this a 1 out of 5, and that only because Sapphire and Steel are in it.
Here I want to make some random general points, and to discuss in more detail what works and what doesn't with this series.
1) The Main players go a long way towards making this series what it is. David McCallum and Joanna Lumley are perfectly cast, creating characters who impress, who live, with whom one can sympathize and root for. They never let down the show, a rare feat in a TV program. Of course "Sapphire and Steel" didn't last all that long, but their characterizations never waver, remaining of consistent quality. Were high standards maintained all around, I would gladly see more of them.
Worth mentioning are the fleeting scenes which reveal a more than "professional" relationship between Sapphire and Steel. Hints, occasionally more, of romance occur at whiles, most definitely in the second and fifth adventures. They must be complex beings, whatever they are, certainly more than just cosmic action figures.
2) Guest stars can make or break a show, and the subsidiary players in "Sapphire and Steel" often shine. The children of the first adventure are first rate, projecting juvenile realism without the asinine behavior apparently requisite for child actors these days, while I absolutely love Lead, a character as enthralling as the main pair. 'Tis a pity that he doesn't return in later stories. Tully makes a wonderful supporting hero in the second adventure, and the ghosts are magnificent, especially Sam Pierce as their miserable spokesman. Liz of the fourth adventure, though not a particularly necessary character (she could have been presented as such, with minor script changes), does enhance the story, and the many extra faces in the fifth adventure, while a motley lot, manage to make themselves useful in the story-telling sense. On the other hand, Silver, Rothwyn, and Eldred of the third adventure tire me when they're on screen too long, and I assert that the adult infant of that tale should have been minimized or dispensed with altogether. I could have survived Silver's absence from the last adventure, and the extra characters in that one leave me ice cold.
3) The adventures themselves, the story lines, do exhibit an unhealthy modicum of quality wobble. The first two beat just about anything TV elsewhere has to offer in the weird line, ought to be held up as object lessons. The third and sixth let me down, the former somewhat, the latter to a tragic degree. The fourth and fifth adventures are quite strong enough to keep me content and welcoming more.
4) Hero and heroine confront unique and chilling menaces that reach out from the chambers of time to imperil our world. In their best presentations I find something alluringly Lovecraftian about the foes of Sapphire and Steel. The Master of the Weird would never have stooped to inventing the good guys of this show, but he might have taken a hand at creating the beasties of the first and second adventures, to a much lesser degree of the fourth and fifth. Failing that, I still detect Lovecraft's influence, perhaps indirect. These days that may constitute a trivial point, yet those particular stories keep bringing it back to my mind.
5) "Sapphire and Steel" is weird, WEIRD! I can't get enough of that. Horrors that slink through nursery rhymes, that subsist on ugly emotion, that seek revenge for callously induced extinction, that haunt our world through the ubiquitous photograph, that maliciously alter the stream of time... give me more of the same. Connoisseurs of the unbounded strange owe to themselves a perusal of this series, which strives so hard to push the viewer to the brink of the unimaginable.
6) I grapple with the logic of the show's premise, because I'm not convinced that it's intelligently maintained throughout this short series. Here I find the majestic strengths that uphold the show, and the weaknesses that eventually cause it to founder. Let me take this point, the biggest to me, in steps.
a) Go back to the beginning, starting with the very opening credits, the first thing we ever see. Eidolons of elements (or often compounds, to be sure) are "assigned" to defend the sanctity of time. Sapphire and Steel, Lead, Silver, all the others we never meet, are certainly not "people"; at one point they are referred to as "extra-terrestrial", but that vague term can mean little or much. Are they other-worldly, from another dimension or plane of existence, or perhaps "other" in a more supernatural conception? One may let imagination fly, as I am constitutionally prone to do. As originally presented, I refuse to accept Sapphire and Steel as mere aliens, rather as beings wholly "beyond".
This point of view can be readily maintained throughout the first and second adventures, is entirely compatible with the fourth and fifth. I find the supernatural explanation (such as it is) for them compelling; indeed, tend to perceive them as delightfully modernized versions of the beings traditionally deemed "angels". Having developed the conception thus far, the question of the identity of the Great Assigner strikes me as properly paramount. It is not difficult to deduce, if one so chooses, a fitting term to describe an overlord of the cosmos in charge of time and the elements, a universal, over-arching power controlling all things, waging war against evils that threaten the fabric of time.
b) So far I feel like I'm on to something, but I confess the argument falters when, to a slight extent the third adventure, and to a devastating extent the sixth, are taken into account. Silver, as he defines himself in his first appearance, gives me unhappy pause. While his character annoys me anyway, I especially recoil from his self-description of "technician". I don't connect that to anything that has gone before, mercifully to nothing else of importance until the last story.
Yet I must confront that final one. Were it a harbinger of possible further adventures, then I say good riddance to "Sapphire and Steel". Everything changes in the end, to the degradation of the show. Suddenly we've descended to cosmic cops and robbers, or even-- heaven help me!-- "Spy vs. Spy". The naughty operatives of the sixth adventure, we're solemnly informed, serve a "higher authority". For goodness sake, higher than do Sapphire and Steel? If so, I must cast away all I've previously written above, perhaps also junk any logic linking the stories of the series. We're even given something about these opponents having attempted to recruit Sapphire and Steel in the past, which really makes my head spin. Despite all the big talk along the way, do good and evil mean anything at all in this show?
c) I tentatively conclude that the logical framework of the program wasn't seriously thought out to the degree I've taken it. I discern that notions evolved somewhat along the way, insufficient to do violence to the earlier ideas, and that only at the very end was a major-- a staggering-- change being formulated. To me, this just means that the known adventures of Sapphire and Steel terminate at the finale of the fifth story; a fine place for it, closing as it does with the salvation of the human race!
Some back and forth in the proceeding, I admit, objectionable I suppose to certain fans of the show, but never fear: for whom it may concern, I love "Sapphire and Steel". I'm convinced it has become one of my permanent favorites, a list to which I seldom add any more. I judge it by its best, as I do other treasured series, and its best is superlative. Would that television more often sated me with such glorious combinations of weirdness, cleverness, and thrilling drama.
Return to Essays Page