January 17, 2004



A whole series about time anomalies? Not time travel , but ruptures, twists in the fabric of time. On ITV?

Those were the days.

1979-1982, to be precise. Not coincidentally, the prime years for k-punk music. David McCallum and Joanna Lumley star in what a fansite describes as '[d]efinitely one of the strangest series ever produced.' No exaggeration, surely.

Sapphire and Steel.

Here was a series, notionally 'science fiction', in which '[n]othing is explained, absolutely nothing. This is where the series gets most of its dramatic impact - the near-total ignorance of the viewer as to what is going on. No nice pauses in the action whilst the master fiend explains his/her plans for conquest of the Universe. In many of the stories, the master fiend is even invisible, so you never even see what it is that's being dealt with. Either that, or the creature is every possible shape simultaneously...'

What stopped the series being frustratingly obscurantist were the unmistakeable contours of a logic, albeit one that was only fleetingly apparent to the viewer. Sapphire and Steel had the consistency of dream; but whereas the tendency in most 'dream-like' narratives is to ultimately defuse the power of the oneiric, Sapphire and Steel never dissipated dream mystery with (over)explanation. Its decontextualised images and sinister sonic refrains were allowed to retain their unsettling force.

Watching now, Sapphire and Steel looks like Tarkovsky's Stalker mixed with Dr Who and Magritte. Science fiction with none of the traditional trappings of the genre, no space-ships, no rayguns: no anthropomorphic foes, only the unravelling fabric of the corridor of Time, along which strange, malevolent entities would crawl, exploiting and expanding gaps and fissures in temporal continuity.

All we knew about Sapphire and Steel was that they were 'detectives' of a peculiar kind, sent from equally mysterious 'agency' to repair these breaks in time. Like Tarkovsky's Stalker, Sapphire and Steel are Sensitives, attuned to chronic disturbances beyond the perceptual range of human beings (including the audience).

Sapphire and Steel carried themselves with an inhuman poise, a lofty sense of their superiority to humans. Like the series itself, the two lead figures were (gratifyingly) lacking in humour. (The self-reference that had begun to infect Dr Who was refreshingly absent from Sapphire and Steel). McCallum's Steel was icily indifferent to the humans into whose affairs he became reluctantly enmeshed; and if Lumley's Sapphire appeared more sympatheitc , there was always the suspicion that her apparent affection for human beings was much like an owner's feeling for a pet.

Like Nigel Kneale (Sapphire and Steel's Adventure One is a virtual remake of 'The Stone Tape'), like the best of Dr Who, like Lovecraft, Sapphire and Steel's appeal lay in its exploration of the Gothic side of SF. Its frissions came from the uncanny, from the shudders it managed to evoke from familiar objects and phenomena which refuse to ever relinquish their weird associations. The conduits for temporal breakdown are often Freud's strangely familiar: in Adventure One, children's nursery rhymes; in Adventure Four, old photographs.

Sapphire and Steel is about as far away from Now SF as you could imagine. Low-budget, small cast (most often only Lumley and McCallum and a couple of others), high-concept: a world away from the massified likes of the Matrix trilogy.

Posted by mark at January 17, 2004 10:44 PM | TrackBack

Would it be too jejune to point out that Adventure II stars a young David Cann?

Posted by: michael at January 18, 2004 12:44 AM

Better known for his collaborations with Chris Morris?

Posted by: mark k-punk at January 18, 2004 01:31 AM

The self-same.

Posted by: michael at January 18, 2004 01:37 AM

Michael, how on earth did you stumble upon this fact?

Posted by: mark k-punk at January 18, 2004 04:19 PM

A sort of general omniscience, really.

Posted by: michael at January 18, 2004 11:08 PM

Spot on about S&S! I saw it when I was young and was more scared/disturbed than any Dr Who I saw. It was the nightmarish drift and inexplicable/unexplainable plots and eeriness that did it for me. And Lumley and the bloke looked *alien* as if they were just vessels for some transdimensional intelligence too outlandish for earth.
The one episode I remember most is where peoples faces were being reduced to mince: i cant remember much else about it. But i dont eat mince very often.
Wasnt there other characetrs? A big guy called Iron or something?

Posted by: Baal at January 18, 2004 11:51 PM

He was called Lead, I think; and helped out with forcefields.

Posted by: at January 19, 2004 10:53 AM

Okay, you've done Dr Who, S&S and Quatermass but when are you going to tackle Ace of Wands? Check out the theme song on the RPM Magpie compilation and try to imagine what you missed you young uns....

Posted by: Lord Marmite at January 20, 2004 05:49 AM

Yes, I'm afraid I was too young for Ace of Wands --- which I had never even heard of until you mentiioned it. What was it about?

Posted by: mark k-punk at January 23, 2004 09:11 PM

It was the missing link between The Sweeney and Rainbow. Or maybe Dr Who and Man About the House, with aliens, magic and sentient washing machines that devoured people in suds. Or... well.... seeing how it was last shown 30 years ago I have to rely on fanatics like this:


Probably not as spooky and psychedelically weird as I remember but worth investigating....

Posted by: Lord Marmite at January 24, 2004 02:33 AM