Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Sapphire & Steel

"Cult classic" is one of those film and television terms applied too frequently and too easily. I use it sparingly and, in regard to British science fiction television, the only shows I've labelled as cult classics are Doctor Who, Blake's 7, and UFO. After recently watching Sapphire & Steel for the first time, I feel compelled to add it to that prestigious group. Original, perplexing, and disturbing--it's difficult to describe this often-fascinating 1979-82 series about time traveling agents played by Joanna Lumley (Sapphire) and David McCallum (Steel).

In the opening credits, a booming voice proclaims that "all irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension." And since "transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life," medium atomic weights must be used--such as sapphire and steel. I found that explanation more than a little perplexing since I didn't even know the definition of  "transuranic" (it describes elements with an atomic weight higher than 92).

Joanna Lumley as Sapphire.
That said, it's easy enough to pick up the premise: An undefined higher intelligence sends agents like Sapphire and Steel to repair irregularities in time. As Steel explains it, time is a "corridor of fabric" and there are creatures moving along that corridor trying to find a hole in the fabric. Series creator P.J. Hammond originally intended to call the series The Time Menders, which sums up the concept nicely.

Steel wearing a tux.
The title characters share some obvious similarities with John Steed and Emma Peel from The Avengers. That's all the more interesting because Joanna Lumley co-starred as Purdey opposite Patrick Macnee in The New Avengers in 1977-78. Like Steed, Steel appears to be the senior partner and often tells Sapphire what to do. He dresses formally (even wearing a tuxedo in Assignment #2) and, of course, his name differs from "Steed" by just one letter. As in The Avengers, the nature of the personal relationship between the two characters is vague. Sapphire and Steel seem concerned about each other's well being and even share a kiss on the cheek, but--like most things in Sapphire & Steel--the audience has to draw its own conclusions.

Sapphire's eyes glow blue when she
uses some of her powers.
Both agents have powers that are revealed during the course of the series. They can communicate with each other telepathically. Sapphire has the ability to turn back time for a short duration. She can also conduct a "spot analysis" on a person through touch (among the data collected is an individual's life span). Unlike Steel, she knows the history of human civilization. Sapphire interacts well with humans. In contrast, Steel is cold--both literally and figuratively. He can lower his body temperature to absolute zero and destroy ghosts. However, he often shows little compassion toward humans, even the ones he is trying to help. And in one assignment, he makes a "deal" with an evil entity, in which he sentences an innocent human to a hellish future.

The always-smiling Lead.
As the series progresses, we learn there are 125 "operators" in addition to Sapphire and Steel, although the twelve transuranic elements cannot be assigned where there is life (but you knew that from the opening, right?). Although we hear about Copper and Jet, the only other operator to appear on Sapphire & Steel is Lead (Val Pringle), a big jovial black man who can create force fields. Silver (David Collings), who can melt metals with his hands, also appears in several episodes. Although Silver is listed with other operators in the opening credits, his status is defined as a "specialist" in Assignment #6, which appears to be a lower level than operator.

Sapphire & Steel originally aired 25-minute episodes twice weekly on Britain's ITV network. During the series' run, the two agents completed six assignments, each ranging from four to eight episodes for a total of 34 half-hours. The episodes are often slowly paced, which works both to the show's advantage and disadvantage. There's an almost deliberate rhythm to some of them, which allows the atmosphere to build effectively. However, other episodes seem to drag, often containing little exposition to advance the plot.

Assignment #2's atmospheric shadows.
Saddled with a small budget, the show was typically filmed on a stage representing a single setting (e.g., an isolated coastal house for Assignment #1, an abandoned train station for Assignment #2). In lieu of expensive special effects, the show's directors skilfully employed atmospheric lighting and imaginative camerawork to maintain a permeating sense of dread. In Assignment #2, the episode's "creeping darkness" is created solely with lighting effects that make it look like a wave of black has swallowed up everything in a room. Although there is minimal background music, songs and rhymes are used extensively in some of the assignments. In Assignment #1, old nursery rhymes are the "trigger" that allow a creature to invade a 250-year-old house.

Since its demise in 1982, Sapphire & Steel has resurfaced in novelizations and in a 2004 radio drama series starring David Warner and Susannah Harker. Both Lumley and McCallum went on to greater successes; she found stardom as the flamboyant Patsy Stone in Absolutely Fabulous, while McCallum became audience favorite Ducky Mallard on the hit U.S. series NCIS. Sapphire & Steel creator P.J. Hammond has written scripts for numerous TV shows, including the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood.

Sapphire & Steel: The Complete Series is available from the Shout! Factory, which provided a review copy to the Cafe.


  1. This series sounds like one I would love. I've never seen it and wonder how easy it would be to find. I had a big teenage crush on David McCallum with The Man From Uncle. It's funny now, because I know Joanna Lumley mainly from Absolutely Fabulous, a series I never missed! Love those politically incorrect ladies! You know, besides what you talked about, this series seems to have a Lovecraftian flavor to it, with creatures trying to come through the corridor. I know I'd like this, Rick, because of your in-depth and really interesting review.

  2. A terrific series. Wish it was shown more in US. I think Bravo showed it once. May have to splurge on the boxed set when it's on sale.

  3. Thanks for letting me know where to pick this up. Now if I could only find Dempsey and Makepeace.

  4. I have only seen a few of these episodes. It is a fascinating show and reminded me a bit of "Dark Shadows" especially in an episode that featured children. The story arc where Steel gives the Darkness a human really creeped me out.

  5. Neato overview of a very strange, atmospheric and often creepy classic Brit sci-fi TV series. McCallum and Lumley play their characters with little of their natural warmth or charm, but it seems entirely appropriate to their otherworldly characters here and adds to the unsettling, unique feel of this show. Well worth watching, if perhaps too odd for some.

  6. l have just picked up an old VHS tape of this series-Adventure Two. This one is set on a haunted railway station platform and adjacent station hotel rooms. I am glad I held on to my old video player. Excellent spooky stuff.

  7. I first saw Sapphire & Steel only just a few years ago, thanks to YouTube. I appreciated how much it departed from Doctor Who, pretty much for the same reasons that Blake's 7 departed from Star Trek and Star Wars.

    Aside from the Big Finish reboot sometime ago, there seems to be no interest in reviving Sapphire & Steel which would even more daunting a task than it was to revive Doctor Who on TV. My only concern is that it must remain British as opposed to how Hollywood made its obvious mistakes with Doctor Who's TV Movie, Red Dwarf and The Tomorrow People.

    So review pages like this one are always appreciable for how they remind us of what SF classics from TV's glory days must have been like. Thank you for that.

  8. Very belatedly:

    This might be as good a time as any to mention that since the start of this year (2022), it's been Dame Joanna Lumley.
    This in recognition of many good works the lady has done over her long and meritorious career.
    Salute registered and acknowledged ...