My rating: *****
See my other post reflecting at more length on Sapphire and Steel
Sapphire and Steel is my favourite science fiction series and I have watched quite a few. Starring the blond duo Joanna Lumley and David McCallum, it was broadcast in Britain from 1979 to 1982 and then, like the characters at the end of the series, assigned to oblivion. Precious, but poor quality tapes circulated amongst the fan community for some years after that: the snowy lack of picture definition and the muffled sound only adding to the mystery. I purchased the VHS tapes which were released in 1992 in the late 1990s, and then the later two DVD releases in the first decade of the new millenium.
The premise is that Sapphire and Steel are two non human agents who arrive from somewhere that is never specified. Their job it is to maintain the integrity of the flow of time which is all too often under assault by malevolent forces. The destruction of the integrity of time can have disastrous and final consequences for life on earth.
My interest in the series is not fueled by nostalgia which is often the case amongst the viewership of older cult TV series. I didn’t see the series when it first came out. I first came across it in the late 1990s and watched it then in an endless loop. Ten years later, I find myself once again absolutely rivetted by its minimalism, by the chemistry between the two attractive leads and the sheer unexplained mystery of some of the events and actions of the characters.
If the series moves at a slow pace by current standards, this merely builds the very considerable atmosphere of menace and danger and allows one to study the character interactions at leisure. The effects were achieved with creative effort and ingenuity rather than with the blithe facility of some current CGI effects. As the director Shaun O’Riordan points out – this gives the series a weight that comes from that investment of creative invention.
I have been watching the 2008 re-release of the series which is quite an improvement in quality over the earlier DVD release. It also includes a documentary which puts together a series of interviews with the director producer Shaun O’Riordan, the writer PJ Hammond – who writes with a truth that comes from the heart and utter conviction – and McCallum and Lumley. All involved in the series – crew, actors, director, writer – were passionate about it and did their very best work and all came up with creative ideas which enhanced the series. The lighting, camera work, special effects, sound and music are all noteworthy in creating the very unique atmosphere of this series.
It is evident from the documentary that those involved remain intensely and genuinely proud of their work and would willingly do more if the opportunity ever arose – which, alas, looks unlikely. All the stories are strong with the possible exception of Assignment 5, which was not written by Hammond but by two writers who penned many Dr. Who scripts. Assignment 5 introduces ill-advised humour (read downright silliness) and lacks the menacing intensity, truth and sheer alien strangeness that P.J. Hammond invested in the rest of the series with the aid of all involved. But even this assignment has its attractions, notably the interplay between the two main characters and a brief but fascinating scene with Steel teleporting – a small masterpiece of lighting and camera work.
My main regret in viewing this series is that there are not more episodes. There is an ongoing audio series with cult stalwart David Warner playing Steel and Susanna Harker as Saphhire, but I am hesitant to risk tampering with the sheer perfection of the original series by listening to it. In addition, much of the attraction of the series for me is the odd disjunction between what you are seeing and the words that are being spoken. This is something that only works in a visual medium and would be impossible to render on audio.
The most notable way in which this disjunction works is in the relationship between Sapphire and Steel. The content of what they are saying and the visual indications of their emotional connection are often not related in obvious ways. John Kenneth Muir puts it very nicely in his blog:
Although the actors’ deliver their lines deadpan and non-emotionally, a whole universe of subtle emotion flourishes between the lines; in their eye-contact; in their physicality; in their tone, in Sapphire’s occasional smile, even in their proximity to one another. These are amazing performances which strongly “hint” alien, but are also filled with a kind of nuanced complexity and humanity.