Category Archives: sapphire & steel

Sapphire & Steel 3.5 and 3.6

The third Sapphire & Steel story climaxes with an unfortunately poor visual effect, as you sort of get used to from watching this sort of program from the period, but our son is still at the age where these things can be completely terrifying. We lost track of him after he sped behind the sofa. I think he left the room entirely.

The scenes where it’s revealed what the time element is really fascinate me. It’s a great inversion of expectations. You get used to Steel being either brusque or unpleasant, and so even though these travellers from Earth’s future are weird, you end up sympathizing with them a little, because who’d want to be on the receiving end of Steel’s bad temper? But then the story reveals that they’re not just weird, they’re from a completely hideous time, and even our inhuman heroes are shocked into silence by these jerks’ inhumanity.

Without revealing that plot point, this brings me in a roundabout way to one of the things that I found so curious and weird about this show when I first heard of it. The stories don’t have titles. I couldn’t find an episode guide for a while in the eighties; I just knew the show existed, but I didn’t know how much of it there was, or what the stories were called. (Even worse, a friend told me at a con in 1988 that he saw a Sapphire & Steel book in the dealer’s room. I rushed to the table all excited, only to be deflated when it was one of those hardback Christmas annuals. I didn’t buy it. Years later, I fell in love with British annuals and I’ve got a whole shelf of them now – I’m quite proud of my little collection, including the very first Doctor Who one – but there’s a hole where the Sapphire & Steel annual should be, had I just paid the stupid five bucks for it.)

Anyway, a friend later found a fanzine called Time Screen, and there, in issue 4, was an episode guide, of sorts. (And yes, it was Time Screen and not Dreamwatch Bulletin. Don’t believe anything you read on Wikipedia.) The article’s writer proposed names for the six stories, and even though the writer was very clear that these were unofficial titles, they somehow stuck. For ages, they were given an absurd level of status and reprinted in countless other magazine articles, and books, and once the internet got started, every ASCII fan page used them. These DVDs I have are A&E’s 2003 release of the series, and right there on the back of each case, there’s the title that some fan concocted in 1989.

This wouldn’t be that huge of a problem if the fan had come up with good titles, but he didn’t. Four of his titles end up spoiling plot points and cliffhangers. (The one for story six is particularly infuriating.) This serial is three hours long, and if you ever watch it with the fan title in mind, that title will make sense about five minutes before the end. Right after you’ve finished snickering about the poor visual effect.

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Sapphire & Steel 3.3 and 3.4

Episode three of the third Sapphire & Steel story introduces another one of the agents. He’s called Silver and he’s played by David Collings. Everybody likes Silver. He’s kind of twinkling, clever, a little fey, and much, much nicer than Steel. He’s a technician, and boasts that there isn’t a machine – past, present, or future – that he cannot repair.

Our son spotted a pattern. He noticed that the odd-numbered stories introduce new members of Sapphire and Steel’s agency. There’s another reason to be annoyed that the program ended when it did. Who knows who we might have met in stories seven and nine? Stupid television companies.

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Sapphire & Steel 3.1 and 3.2

In 1980, Sapphire & Steel resumed production with 20 episodes comprising four stories. Unfortunately, the network that commissioned the show was in its dying days. The first two stories were shown in January and February 1981 and the third in the summer. ATV closed down in January 1982, its license transferred to the new Central TV, who burned off the final story a year later and didn’t commission any more. It still seems like a bizarre end to a very popular show with high ratings.

The biggest change between the first two stories and the second four is that the show is far less terrifying. It’s still creepy, strange and deliberately slow, and the third story is the first and only time that this works against the plot. That’s because the guest characters in this story are very unsympathetic and it’s kind of aggravating having to spend so much time with them. They are time travellers from about 1500 years in the future, and their capsule is parked, invisibly, atop an apartment building in a large city while they conduct half-baked observational experiments in how the savage people of the 20th Century lived. Sapphire and Steel have been assigned because something is going badly wrong with their experiment. They’ve brought something back from their time that is slowly trying to kill them.

But even though the tone isn’t one of moody horror – this is as close as the show ever gets to traditional sci-fi – it’s still unnerving and strange, and our son wasn’t completely taken with it. He hid his face several times, and really didn’t like it when a power source within the apartment capsule starts talking in a booming voice about the distinctions between ways to measure time. Simultaneously, something accelerates the growth of a baby in the apartment – that baby, incidentally, has the most annoying cry of any child on television – into a weird young man. Freaky, if not as scary as the last time.

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Sapphire & Steel 2.7 and 2.8

Sometimes I spoil some things but not others. Part eight of the second Sapphire & Steel serial features one of television’s all-time great leap-out-of-your-skin moments, when Sapphire opens her eyes to reveal that the Darkness has taken them while speaking through her. Our protagonists have been “shunted” forward in time twelve days, and Steel, despite basically screwing up every single step of this assignment, has an idea to get them back in their correct time zone and convince the Darkness to leave all the dead ghosts alone.

And this idea… that’s what I won’t discuss. I did hint a little that Sapphire and Steel are inhuman, and are tasked to do whatever is necessary to neutralize threats to time, and I did point out the implications of one of their previous jobs, the one on the ship that the characters discussed in the previous story. Marie figured out where this was going earlier in the narrative than I did, but of course our son didn’t. He wasn’t happy.

Knowing how this story ends, there’s a horrible inevitability to episodes seven and eight, as the characters go through the motions working toward a conclusion they can’t escape. And I have to say that David McCallum acts the absolute hell out of the sad climax, trying to be kind, trying to be human, while being alien and terrible underneath. It’s a fantastic ending. Not a happy one at all.

This story completed Sapphire & Steel‘s first order, and first season, of 14 episodes in 1979. The following year, ATV ordered 20 more episodes. These would be shown in three “seasons” between 1981 and 1982. We’ll start looking at these very soon, but first, we’re going to take a detour for a week…

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Sapphire & Steel 2.5 and 2.6

Part five continues the seance and part six manages its aftereffects and it all happens in real time. This story’s run for about three hours and that’s about as much time that’s elapsed in the railway station. I really love it. It’s so deliciously creepy and slow and malevolent, in part because every single decision that Steel makes in these two episodes is the wrong one. He’s making the situation worse and worse, antagonizing their nameless, shapeless enemy and leaving them in horrible traps at the end of part six. Sapphire’s spirit has joined the other ghosts waiting on the platform, and Steel has apparently merged with the memory of a man killed in World War One and left to rot in a nest of barbed wire.

Our son is attempting to sleep with all the lights on. He had such a good day on a day trip to Atlanta, playing at Legoland, and then I showed him this. Maybe he needs something much lighter for the Sunday morning movie.

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Sapphire & Steel 2.3 and 2.4

So the second Sapphire & Steel story is the one with the angry, resentful ghosts who are haunting a disused railway station and the old, crumbling hotel connected to it. It’s an expansive eight episodes long, set over the course of a single evening. Our strange protagonists meet an amateur ghost hunter who believes that he is engaged in important “psychical” research by quietly attempting to communicate with one or more restless spirits.

But there’s more than just the five ghosts here. There is also another force, a darkness, that is involved with them in some fashion, and that’s what brings Sapphire and Steel to Earth. Mr. Tully wants to help the ghosts somehow, but all that Sapphire and Steel want to do is convince them to accept their deaths and go.

Eight episodes may seem like a lot for a story with such a small setting and scale, but it’s actually just about perfect. The length of these serials really let the writer, P.J. Hammond, take the characters down different avenues, make mistakes, and proceed from poor assumptions. These aren’t omnipotent or omniscient characters; they make have strange powers and knowledge, but they’re just as confused as the audience as to the real nature of the threat, and that’s why I love watching this unfold. Add in a great performance by Gerald James as the lonely ghost hunter, brilliant set design, and some of the best lighting ever seen in a videotape program like this (take a bow, Jim Boyers, wherever you are), and it all adds up to a simple and very unsettling little masterpiece.

I’d love to see what happens next again right now, but even though these two parts were nowhere as terrifying and scary as the first two, our son definitely deserves a break. We’ll pick back up with this adventure in a few nights.

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Sapphire & Steel 2.1 and 2.2

So how scary is the Sapphire & Steel story about the haunted railway station? Our son put it like this: “I’d rather watch the scariest Doctor Who episode I’ve ever seen than watch this! It’s scary in a terrible way!” Then he brandished his security blanket and his favorite plush dog, each of which had been squashed about flat in terror. “Bict and Doggie are always good about protecting me from things that are too scary. But not tonight, because Bict and Doggie were too scared!”

The scariest Doctor Who episode that he’s ever seen, by the way, is apparently “The Awakening.”

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Sapphire & Steel 1.5 and 1.6

If we’re totally honest, I’ve always thought that part five of this first story drags a bit. They had to make the ghost-pretending-to-be-Dad bit run for longer than the plot really needed in order to fill twenty-five minutes. But if you’re seven, and the idea of some thing pretending to be your father fills you with horror, it’s hard to watch in another way. It’s endless.

Our son contends that the spectral plague victim was the scariest thing about this serial, but the real shock came when the ghost-pretending-to-be-Mom turns around and her eyes are incredibly freaky. He leapt out of his skin. We assured him that it’s an old makeup trick, painting weird-looking eyes on the actress’s eyelids, and that brought him down to Earth a bit.

This was just phenomenally good overall. It’s creepy from start to finish, with just a few punctuations of wit and humor. I really loved the part where Lead keeps the trapped-in-time Rob occupied by singing “Drunken Sailor,” while Sapphire and Steel quietly discuss their next move. Steel is so focused that he has absolutely no idea there’s a rousing chorus going on right next to him. We never see Val Pringle’s Lead again after this story. But just like my fondness for Ochre and Magenta in Captain Scarlet, I guess that I have a soft spot for the very minor recurring characters!

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