Patreon Request Post: Sapphire & Steel

May is Patreon Request Month, where I’m trying to write posts based on topics chosen by my Patreon backers. Coming up next week we have posts on The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin, and Charles Dickens’ Martian Notes by Simon Bucher-Jones. Today, though, I’m going to talk about Sapphire & Steel.

A green wavy graph-like line, over several squares, over a star field. Early 80s "space" graphics

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 is a truly odd show, quite unlike anything that had been on TV before or, even though it has been massively influential (most of the Matt Smith era of Doctor Who owes at least as much to Sapphire & Steel as it does to pre-1989 Doctor Who), since.

A low-budget programme originally intended as a children’s show, though it was broadcast in an early-evening “family” slot, Sapphire & Steel was probably the high-point of a particular type of children’s telefantasy that ITV dominated in the 1970s and 80s. While the BBC produced relatively little in the way of fantasy during that time, the various ITV companies came out with Children of the Stones, King of the Castle, Catweazle, Chocky, Robin of Sherwood, and many more, most of which are little known today, but which hit a high standard which little on TV since has met.

(I must write at some point about the way the Broadcasting Act 1990 destroyed British TV. These were children’s programmes made by the lightweight commercial ITV, yet are much more intelligent than much of what passes for adult drama made even by the BBC in recent decades…)

Sapphire & Steel was deliberately low budget. Other than having two relatively big stars in David McCallum and Joanna Lumley it had little money spent on it — only one of the series’ six serials has any location filming at all, and there are a tiny number of visual effects. The show rests entirely on the scripts, and this is where it shines.

P.J. Hammond, who created the series and wrote five of the six stories, wanted to combine fantasy and police procedural, so he created two investigators who could play, roughly, the role of “good cop” (Sapphire, played by Lumley) and “bad cop” (Steel, played by McCallum). Both have supernatural powers of some type — the series suggests that they are not human — and they are given missions by an unknown source. Their missions all take place on Earth, in the early 1980s, but involve breaches in time.

Time itself, in this series, is seen as a malignant force, and objects or situations from the past can, in the right conditions, allow Time to enter the present. The job of Sapphire and Steel, and of other “elements” such as recurring character Silver, is to investigate the cause of those incursions and stop them.

This sounds like utter gibberish, and it is — nothing about the series’ conception of Time (which definitely here merits a capital letter) has any kind of coherence to it whatsoever. But that also doesn’t matter. Unlike most of the stuff that goes under the name of fantasy or SF these days, Sapphire & Steel has no origin stories, no discussions of its own premise, no explanations — the characters have no backstory whatsoever, and the show’s fans have, rather amazingly, resisted the urge to give them one. A strange thing is happening, these strange, inhuman, people turn up to investigate, and over four to eight episodes they find out the cause and put a stop to it.

The logic of the stories is a dream-logic, but it’s one that is entirely rooted in Hammond’s own aesthetic and preoccupations. It’s absolutely minimalist — there are none of the pseudo-science explanations one gets when post-2005 Doctor Who does the same kind of story — and that minimalism applies to everything. The series is staged like a play, the stories don’t even have names (they’re called Assignment One through Assignment Six by most fans, but even those minimal titles don’t appear on screen at all), and the whole series seems to resist explanations or labels.

A man with no face

It’s a series that resists the kind of writing I normally do here — its impact is all about atmosphere and setting, and the show itself seems determined to evade any kind of rational analysis. It’s all in the feel of the thing, rather than in anything that can be analysed, and any attempts to describe the ways in which it works run into the problem that, much like describing a nightmare, it just comes out sounding risible.

But what the series does is to trap us in an enclosed space, with a tiny cast under siege from elemental forces they can’t possibly understand, while our two leads unravel a mystery. One can point to works it has influenced (Stephen Moffat’s version of Doctor Who seems to do a Sapphire & Steel story at least once a season, and some Sylvester McCoy stories owe a lot to it, most obviously “Ghost Light”. Anything where there are creepy nursery rhymes being sung and strange links between present and past, basically. I’d also bet good money that Grant Morrison was a fan) but it’s really all about the motifs and aesthetic of the show — people trapped in photographs and paintings, the past coming back to haunt the present, and two cold, emotionless, telepaths trying to solve mysteries that logic can’t explain.

It’s a show that gestures at things rather than spelling them out, and so the best I can do when talking about it is to gesture at it myself. But what I will say is that anyone who likes — to point to a few things that share some of its aesthetic — McCoy-era Doctor Who, The Prisoner, Doom Patrol, Ghost Stories for Christmas, From Hell, The Avengers, And Then There Were None, or An Inspector Calls, should consider buying the DVD of all thirty-four episodes from Network.

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5 Responses to Patreon Request Post: Sapphire & Steel

  1. LondonKdS says:

    Surely the obvious “thing like Sapphire and Steel” is P J Hammond’s two episodes of Torchwood, which are blatantly more like his old series than anything in the rest of Torchwood (in particular, “From Out of the Rain” is openly a bigger-budget remake of “Assignment Four”). My comment when “From Out of the Rain” was broadcast was that Hammond’s role in Torchwood was the equivalent of that fashion in the eighties and nineties for stadium rock bands to show their respect for rock’s African-American heritage by having BB King or John Lee Hooker or Buddy Guy or some other aged bluesman come on to do a number or two with them as his backing group…

  2. gavinburrows says:

    Alas, not seen ‘Sapphire and Steel’ since it was first broadcast. But from what I recall…
    It’s probably a classic case of taking advantage of your limitations. If you have a few stage sets and virtually zero budget, it’s actually a pretty smart idea to just hint at cosmic/supernatural goings-on and suggest they might be too much for the viewer, stuff we can only snatch glances of.

    Hence the assumption that consensus reality, rather than a given, is vulnerable and in constant need of being defended. Which works in complete inversion of our workaday lives, but makes a kind of intuitive sense to a child. I think you’d need to analyse the show in terms of it’s images, like a surrealist painting, more than as a narrative. Which is again probably similar to the way a child perceives things.
    It’s an interesting idea that it’s a strong influence on New Who. It’s probably not a reasonable comparison when so far fewer episodes were made, but I remember it as being more consistently weird than ‘Who’, less likely to degenerate into straight SF and adventure story tropes. Perhaps it better fits the folk memory of ‘Who’ more than ‘Who’ itself. On the other hand the Doctor is both slightly psychic empath and strange alien creature, so in a sense he’s both soft cop and hard cop in one.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I agree with all this. It’s definitely a weirder show than Who, old or new, but I can see a real link to all those Gatiss and Moffat stories with creepy kids and nursery rhymes and exploring strange spaces. The main difference (other than quality) is that Sapphire & Steel never says at the end “Oh, it’s all nanites and I can wave my sonic screwdriver and fix it”.

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