Cult TV Essentials

Cult TV Essentials: Sapphire and Steel

All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available: Gold, Lead, Copper, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver and Steel. Sapphire and Steel have been assigned.

Created by Peter J. Hammond, Sapphire & Steel was a British science-fiction series which starred David McCallum as Steel and Joanna Lumley as Sapphire. It ran from 1979 to 1982 lasting 34 episodes (6 serials). Hammond conceived the programme under the working title The Time Menders, after a stay in an allegedly haunted castle. Hammond also wrote all the stories except for the fifth, which was co-written by Don Houghton and Anthony Read.

The programme centres on a pair of inter-dimensional operatives known as Sapphire and Steel. Very little is revealed about their purposes or backgrounds in the course of the series but they appear to be engaged in guarding the integrity, of Time. Sapphire and Steel are two of several elements that assume human form and are sent to investigate strange events; others include Lead (Val Pringle), who takes the aspect of a jovial, friendly giant, or Silver (David Collings), a specialist technician who can melt metals in his hands. There are 127 operatives in total, including 12 transuranic elements, which cannot be assigned where life exists.

In the series, it is explained that Time is like a corridor that surrounds everything, but there are weak spots where Time – implied to be a potentially malignant force – can break into the present and take things. There are also creatures from the beginnings and ends of time that roam the corridor looking for the same weak spots to break through. These breaks are most often triggered by the presence of an anachronism, for example a nursery rhyme, a doctored photograph that mixes period and contemporary elements, or a house decorated to replicate a 1930s setting. Investigators will assess the situation and then, if intervention is warranted, Operators are assigned to deal with the problem by a mysterious unseen authority, to be assisted by Specialists if necessary.

Each adventure usually starts with Sapphire and Steel simply showing up, seemingly out of nowhere, although sometimes they are already present when the story begins. They will then investigate and mingle with various humans, although it is nearly always the location the humans are in which is of the most interest: an old house which dates back to the 18th century, an abandoned railway station, a modern-day motorway petrol station, and so on. The stories are generally quite cryptic, raising more questions than answers, and have an eerie air to them, being as much ghost stories as they are science fiction. The ambiguous nature of the programme extends to its main characters. While Sapphire is portrayed as more affable and “human” than the no-nonsense, grim Steel, it is clear that their prime concern is to deal with the break in Time, sometimes over the safety of the humans caught in the incidents they investigate.

It is heavily implied that Sapphire and Steel are not human, given their abilities and manner. Steel, for example, often has gaps in his knowledge of human culture and even Sapphire’s grace is tempered with a cool detachment from the humans they interact with. In Adventure 5, Steel confirms that they were alien, “in the extra-terrestrial sense.” The two also refer to being involved in the mystery of the Mary Celeste, and in one case state they will be waiting for a ship to surface in seventy-five years. This could mean they are either exceptionally long-lived or some kind of time travel is involved. P. J. Hammond confirmed the former hypothesis in a 1993 interview.

Although they are described as elements, many of the code names are non-elements, such as Sapphire, Steel and Jet, although these could be pseudonyms for aesthetics or discretion. Sapphire also has a flirtatious relationship with Silver, contributing to an air of underlying sexual tension on the occasions that Silver is called upon to assist the duo. The relationship between Steel and Sapphire similarly exhibited occasional tension, as evidenced in Adventure 2 when Steel admits feeling love for Sapphire and, at one point, even kissing her on the cheek. In Adventure 1, Lead mentioned that Jet sent Steel her love and that Silver was having relationship troubles with Copper “again”.

Among Sapphire’s abilities is the power to manipulate time in small ways as well as determine the age or historical details of an object by touching it. This latter ability is referred in Adventure 2 as “spot analysis”. Her most prominent ability is to “take back time,” literally rewinding it in a localised area to see or replay the past. She states in Adventure 1 that she cannot take time back twenty-four hours; in the last episode of the same adventure, at Steel’s request she takes time back “half a day”.

In Adventure 2, she is able to “hold time for a day”, when another (in this case, the creature seen as the darkness) takes time back over multiple days. Whether this is an improvement in abilities or a different skill entirely is not made clear. She also exhibits an ability to obtain information about people – their ages and backgrounds as well as psychological insights into their personality – just by being close to them. Sometimes it appears that she does not discover this information herself but is receiving the information telepathically from some external source.

Furthermore, in Adventure 2, it is stated that the age at which a living person will die is not estimated but recorded, that it is a historical fact. Nothing else is revealed in the television series as to the extent or nature of any such records, or to what extent Sapphire uses them in relation to information obtained directly. She can also manipulate people’s emotions, and project illusions. When she uses her powers, her irises will usually glow blue or, under some circumstances, turquoise.

Steel, on the other hand, can freeze himself to absolute zero which gives him the ability to destroy ‘ghosts’, which are in actuality remnants of Time. He apparently possesses immense strength (in Adventure 3 he ties knots in elevator cables to prevent the elevator from being used) and a degree of invulnerability. He also exhibits telekinetic abilities, being able to paralyse people with a look, weld metal with his bare hands or undo deadbolts with a gesture.

The operatives can also communicate telepathically with each other, and in Adventure 5, Sapphire grants this ability to a human being, whom she dubs “Brass” for the duration. Sapphire removes this ability at the end of the story. It is also suggested in Adventure 5 that other powers can be granted. It is hinted, in the debate that ensues between Sapphire and Steel after Sapphire gives Brass his abilities, that different powers are classed at different levels, with telepathy being considered one of the most basic.

It is not made clear in the series as to what boundaries exist on the skills of operatives. In Adventure 2, Steel cannot perform “spot analysis”, as it is not his field, but in Adventure 4, Sapphire and Steel together are specifically able to replicate Silver’s ability to transmutate by remembering what he did.

In 2004, Sapphire and Steel returned in 3 seasons of audio dramas starring David Warner and Susannah Harker.

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