by Mark Greig
And if you have the foggiest idea what the hell that all means answers on a postcard please.
Usually a title sequence gives you the entire gist of a show in less than a minute. With P.J. Hammond’s classic sci-fi series, chances are that after the titles were finished you’d be more confused than ever. What are the irregularities? Who are the forces controlling each dimension? Why can’t you use transuranic heavy elements where there is life? Just what the feck are transuranic heavy elements anyway? And who are these Sapphire and Steel characters and did they ever get up to any hanky panky between assignments?
Sapphire and Steel was ITV’s last real attempt at trying to create their own Doctor Who after Timeslip (1970-71) and The Tomorrow People (1973-79), and certainly its best, as well as its most confusing. I'm willing to bet that the ITV executives were never exactly sure what they had here, but one thing was certain, it put kids behind the sofa.
Although Doctor Who regularly featured time travel, it was (in those pre-Moffat days) primarily used as a means to get the Doctor from one crisis to the next. Sapphire and Steel was very much a show about time. This was science fiction as ghost story as our enigmatic duo battled malevolent forces from outside the corridor of time who had broken into our world through something as simple and innocent as a nursery rhyme. Time itself was presented as a malevolent force. It was not a show you went to if you wanted answers. Half the fun came from the little droplets of info you got about these mysterious fixers of time.
Nowadays the whole thing looks dead cheap. It’s no secret that a huge portion of the show’s budget went into acquiring its high profile stars (New Avengers and Men from UNCLE don’t come cheap). But don’t think that automatically means wobbly sets, rubber monsters and laughable special effects. Wisely the minute budget was used well by the production team to create an eerie and claustrophobic atmosphere. What monsters our heroes did encounter were often genuinely creepy (who can forget the faceless man from ‘Assignment Four’) as opposed to embarrassing.
Not much was ever known about the title characters. Hammond never revealed where exactly they came from or who indeed they worked for. David McCallum’s Steel was something of a ruthless bastard, dedicated and willing to sacrifice innocents to complete his missions. Joanna Lumley's Sapphire was a more sympathetic character, but usually she came across as more distant and alien than Steel.
Sapphire and Steel ran for three series totalling thirty-four episodes spread across six stories. ‘Assignment Two’, in which the duo team up with a friendly ghost hunter to investigate the strange goings on at an abandoned rail station, remains the series’ best story as well as its longest. Assignments ‘Three’ and ‘Five’ are the weakest, although ‘Three’ does score points for introducing David Collings’ delightfully shifty specialist, Silver. The finale story ended on a bleak cliff-hanger that was sadly never resolved as the show was cancelled due to cost. Recently there has been talk of reviving the series, with new actors since McCallum and Lumley are probably more expensive now then they were when the series first aired, but so far that's all there has been, talk and no action.
Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011. More Mark Greig.