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…

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.

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 may 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.

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.”

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!

Sapphire & Steel 1.3 and 1.4

So last night, after we watched the show and I’d written my customary yammer, I made the mistake of actually reminding our son of the nightmare we’d just watched, and then he had an awful time falling asleep. He was very, very worried about the corridor of time, and whether there were enough old books and things in his bedroom to serve as triggers for things outside time to reach in and take him. What makes it worse is that we have a two-story place, and he has the upstairs to himself. The intrusion in the first Sapphire & Steel serial takes place at the top of an old house…

Beautifully, episode four pauses for breath and a smile as Sapphire lets the children know that there are 127 beings like them, only twelve of them – “The Transuranics” – can, depending on who is telling the tale, either not be trusted or not be used where there is life. That leaves 115, and we only meet a couple of the others in the TV series. Val Pringle shows up as Lead, a huge man who likes home cooking. (Much later, Big Finish did three “seasons” of CD audio adventures and introduced Gold and Ruby as well.)

I love the way that Lead’s arrival brings things to a nice little bridge, where the characters can relax and so can the audience, charmed by the curiosity of Lead, who brings gossip from home, wherever that is, and mentions Jet, Copper, and Silver. But the chaos soon returns, leading to an unbelievably long cliffhanger. It’s about three solid minutes of doors opening and closing, howling winds, eerie noises, angry lights, and spectral figures as the beings locked in the room at the top of the stairs start flexing their muscles.

Our son was very, very freaked out and needed some extra hugs before bed tonight. He really didn’t like that door slamming open and closed!

Sapphire & Steel 1.1 and 1.2

“Maybe Mommy will read you a nursery rhyme tonight?”


Sapphire & Steel is one of my all-time favorite television series, and our son wasn’t even a day old when I told him that sometime when he’s seven, I was going to scare the bejezus out of him with this thing. People who saw this when they were kids will speak of it in hushed tones. Grownups kind of run hot or cold. The very slow, deliberate, lo-fi pace and presentation will either draw you in and keep you enraptured or it will drive you nuts waiting for something to happen. This isn’t a sci-fi action show. These are ghost stories that unfold very, very slowly.

The show was an insanely popular hit in its day for something so downright weird. The third and fourth stories – there are six – ran in a midweek 8 pm slot in most of Britain’s ITV regions, paired with – of all things – the sitcom George & Mildred. I’ve never seen that program, but I have seen some of its American remake, The Ropers, and can’t imagine a weirder pairing of shows on any network in this country! But people tuned into Sapphire & Steel because – and there might be a bit of fan myth here – most of the show’s budget went into its two very popular stars, David McCallum and Joanna Lumley, and audiences were willing to watch them in anything.

Sapphire and Steel are operatives who are called in when there is a major problem with time. Perhaps they are aliens, or perhaps they are angels. We’re never really told. Their enemies are the beings and forces that exist at the beginning and ending of time and which spend all of “the present” trying to break in and take things… take people from our existence. For some people I’ve met, the lack of a solid “sci-fi” explanation drives them bonkers. I always say it isn’t necessary to know. This is a show to watch and engage with, and a show to enjoy the thrill of either being scared or choosing to be scared out of your wits by it.

My older kids… holy anna, about fifteen years ago, we watched the first 30 episodes one a night right before bed, and they insisted on sleeping with me almost every single evening. The girlchild was in tears more often than not. It was so fun – I mean, so bad – that at any given moment for weeks if everything was quiet, I could whisper-sing “Ring-a-ring-a-roses” and she’d scream bloody murder at me to stop it.

Now that he knows that this rhyme can conjure up some scarred and raggedy plague victim, our son’s not all that happy about it either. He hid, he balled up, he asked whether we had to watch a second episode because that torn-up zombie man might be in it, and he called it “TOO creepy.”

And it is. It’s magical.