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This is another piece from my defunct film website. Written way back in 1998, before science fiction fandom became ‘mainstream’

I first came across Sapphire and Steel, an obscure British science fiction series made in the early 1980s, while I was browsing through a mail order catalogue in the late 90s. I read the description: ‘a strange and fascinating show – definitely something different’. Always on the lookout for the unusual, I ordered volume one expecting no more than the usual B grade offering that is unfortunately usually the rule when it comes to television science fiction. I was more than pleasantly surprised when I discovered something that actually did match the catalogue description. By the end of Adventure 1, I was hooked and submitting my credit card to a severe workout, I ordered the remaining 5 Adventures on tape. At the same time as I was watching the series I was also reading the works of Antonin Artaud. The combination was quite extraordinary – the television series echoing a number of Artaud’s insights into the radical disjunction between words and things.

The piece below probably won’t make a lot of sense if you have seen the series. An overview and information can be found on the Wikipedia page for the series. You might also like to have a look at an earlier post on Sapphire and Steel on this blog.

Introduction

One of the most striking features of Sapphire and Steel is the fact that it offers so few explanations and so few obvious answers. Not only do the backgrounds of the characters and events remain mysterious, but the most ordinary objects take on completely unexpected meanings. A feather pillow becomes a dangerous vengeful creature, a nursery rhyme the physical manifestation of an evil force, a travel chess set a terrifying weapon and gateway to time and other dimensions. Nothing can be taken for granted in this series.

This indeterminacy of meaning and explanation encourages viewers to actively imagine and speculate, to create their own very personal interpretations, to face particular types of limit experiences and the possibility of other worlds using the structure of their own psyches and imaginations. The whole series is an invitation to think beyond it, to engage in difficult confrontations and experiments in thought and imagination: it is an open challenge to question accepted visions of social and physical reality without this ever being a stated or obvious intention of the series. Thus, even if the series is a relatively short one, it offers far more fodder for creative discussion and invention than do a number of other longer running productions with more elaborately developed and codified world views and with far more visible signposts as to their intentions.

This article will take up the challenge and provide speculative answers to questions raised by Sapphire and Steel. These answers are by no means intended to dispel the original mystery and indeterminacy: their purpose is rather to open further opportunities for debate, speculation and imagination… And what better place to start than with the most obvious question?

Who are Sapphire and Steel?

Ostensibly, Sapphire and Steel are two operatives who are sent to earth to prevent or repair ruptures in the strictly ordered fabric of time, to maintain the integrity of past, present and future. These disruptions to time are initially assessed by ‘investigators’ who are never seen, who then brief and send in ‘operatives’ such as Sapphire and Steel. ‘Specialists’ are sent to the scene at a later stage to undertake any specialised tasks that operatives are unable to perform. This rather summary information emerges in a somewhat fragmentary and incidental manner at various points throughout the series in conversations between the two main characters, with humans and with the two specialists Lead and Silver. This is what Sapphire and Steel do but what sort of beings are they and where do they come from?

Are Sapphire and Steel alien or human?

This question is worth asking for a number of reasons, especially in view of a regrettable tendency in many American science fiction series in particular, to make most of the principal ‘alien’ characters semi-human at least in some way. In the original Star Trek, the alien Spock is only ‘half’ Vulcan, the ‘other half’ is human. The crew of the Enterprise in the next generation of Star Trek features a half human betazoid, a Klingon brought up by human parents and an android engaged in a life long quest to become human. And in conversations between the alien Q and Captain Picard we see the standard rhetoric that for all their faults and weaknesses, humans have ‘special qualities’ unique in the universe. In the other two offshoot series of Star Trek, Deep Space 9 and Voyager, the resident aliens are even more tedious and predictable than the humans. It might be argued that Babylon 5 is slightly better on this score – but the writer Joe Michael Straczynski still cannot resist the temptation of mixing human with one of the more ‘noble’ alien races, the Minbari. The Vorlons have also demonstrated suspicious fraternising tendencies – of a kind at least – in their use of figures such as Jack the Ripper to do their dirty work for them. Neither can Straczynski resist the ‘unique quality of humans’ school of rhetoric. Even in that post gulf war expression of military paranoia Space Above and Beyond, it transpires that the evil and hideous aliens had somewhere back in depths of time originated from the planet earth. British science fiction tends to perform a lot better on this front, but not even the Paul McGann version of Doctor Who, it seems, can survive a trans Atlantic regeneration intact. In a truly horrifying gesture, undermining a fine tradition of long standing – the completely alien doctor suddenly acquires a human parent, thereby ‘explaining’ his long term interest in earth. Is it really necessary to be part of a species or culture to show some interest in it? Why is there such a determined and rigid obsession with rendering the entire universe human in American science fiction? This is indeed a fascinating problem and certainly one worth exploring at more length. As some writers have suggested all of this is perhaps a thinly disguised reflection of the USA’s current imperialist stance with regards to cultures which are not American.

In such a human centred universe, Sapphire and Steel are a welcome arrival. They are clearly alien ‘in the sense of being extraterrestrial’ as Steel confirms in as many words in Adventure 5. Attempts to appropriate anything like a ‘human past’ for Sapphire and Steel have been firmly but politely rejected by the writer of the series P.J. Hammond in an interview with Rob Stanley.

How do Sapphire and Steel differ from humans?

As P.J. Hammond remarks, if Sapphire and Steel are more than ‘mere mortals’ they are still to some extent ‘mortal shaped’. They both speak English (that well known universal tongue!) and appear to have a human form, but for all this, the nature of their relationship to their bodies is uncertain. The opening animation, which shows glittering spheres representing a number of different ‘elements’, might suggest that their human shapes are something they adopt for the sake of convenience. Yet in Adventure 4, Sapphire, addressing a creature which changes its face at will, states that she and Steel have only ‘one face’. Their bodies can also be damaged as various incidents with absolute zero temperatures, barbed wire, knives, imaginary swans and attempts at strangulation indicate, but at the same time they appear to have remarkable powers of regeneration. In Adventure 3, the technician Silver refers in passing to a faculty of ‘instant reduplication’ which might explain these recuperative powers, but even this, it appears, is fallible. It is the failure of this faculty which results in his disappearance into his own past at the hands of the changeling, and he also mentions when threatened by the transient beings, that he would not survive in the Triassic period. One thing is clear, however, the relation Sapphire and Steel and similar beings have to their bodies is quite different to our own.

The fact that they are not human is apparent right from the outset. Almost as soon as they walk in the door in Adventure 1, we see Sapphire’s eyes turn a brilliant shade of blue as she briefly investigates the situation. The two operatives are able to communicate telepathically with each other and have obviously arrived at the house through some means of transport other than the more conventional ones of car and boat, which as the boy explains can be heard coming for miles in that isolated spot. Adventure 2 shows them teleporting and they make more use of this power in subsequent adventures. A marvellous but very brief scene in Adventure 5, a fine example of Shaun O’Riordan’s direction, offers perhaps the closest thing on film to a subjective view of teleportation. The background behind Steel fades to black and we see him in a closeup shot turning to face a new environment. Other series, notably Blake’s 7, Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Tomorrow People have all attempted subjective views of teleportation, but where Sapphire and Steel is radically different is in the fact that the two main characters do not require technology to assist them. Neither does Steel signal in any way his intention to teleport. Like many other scenes in the series it remains mysterious and there are no obvious indications as to how the viewer is meant to interpret it. As a result, this sequence arguably works far better than other more detailed and elaborate efforts to convey what teleportation might actually feel like.

It would also appear that the two agents have a very long lifespan in our dimension. In Adventure 1, they reveal that they dealt with a problem on the Marie-Celeste and indicate in Adventure 4 that the passage of hundreds of years is of little consequence to them. They have other powers as well: the enviable ability to change clothes and hairstyles in the blink of an eye, for instance. Sapphire parades a number of outfits in front of Rob in Adventure 1 and both she and Steel waste no time changing into their thirties costumes in Adventure 5. In addition, they both possess telekinetic abilities – very handy when it comes to locking and unlocking a variety of doors and turning off record players! Sapphire is able to ‘take time back’ for limited periods, to ascertain the age and nature of objects and to access historical data of both a general and individual kind. Steel can reduce his body temperature to just above absolute zero and he is very strong both psychically and physically and often acts as a kind of anchor for the more volatile Sapphire. Both of them appear to have hypnotic powers of persuasion over humans which they can exercise by a touch or a gaze but they only seldom choose to do so.

But these things aside, what most marks them as alien is the way they respond to situations and the kind of remarks they make about humans. They clearly regard humans as very different from themselves and Steel, in particular, frequently expresses a mixture of exasperation and puzzlement over human behaviour and customs. First impressions of both Sapphire and Steel are of a rather chilly and impersonal detachment. Steel is frequently abrupt to the point of downright rudeness and while Sapphire might initially appear more gracious, she is certainly a match for Steel when it comes to coolness. While shaking hands and making polite conversation with Tully, she is in reality communicating a cold scientific analysis of her subject to Steel.

Neither of them react in quite the ways we would expect people to react in similar situations, yet it is not a question of that other well-worn science fiction cliché: the aliens-who-know-no-emotions in the face of a unique, and as such, admirable, human prerogative. It is more a question of a different emotional response – one that does not always match our well trained social expectations. There is, for example, a definite, if very understated, romantic attachment between Sapphire and Steel, but the way this is played out is by no means conventional, leading some viewers to wonder whether their feelings for each other are real or indeed, whether they exist at all. Again, nothing is at it appears to be: the coldly distant demeanour of both characters is continually belied by their actions in taking the most extreme risks to save humans at every possible opportunity. If Tully is sacrificed, it is to save hundreds of human ghosts. Both Sapphire and Steel endanger themselves to help the woman in Adventure 6, Steel explaining to Silver that it is their duty to do so. Indeed, it is perhaps as a direct result of this concern that they are caught in the trap at the end. Both agents, in fact, display strong, if strictly controlled, emotional responses in relation to humans on a number of occasions. For example, when Steel realises that he has almost stabbed a baby and when the creature in Adventure 4 burns two people alive in a photograph, he is clearly upset. There are numerous other examples. But all these observations do no more than raise further interesting questions, further fodder for speculation. They merely begin to scratch the surface of the hundreds of possible questions that one might ask…

Links to other Sapphire and Steel pages

Revisiting Sapphire and Steel
Sapphire and Steel. Sci Fi Freak site
Page on TV Tropes
Stephen O’Brien SFX magazine
Page on British Horror Television

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Ina Rae Hark, Star Trek. London: BFI publishing, 2008.

My rating: ***

Star Trek (BFI TV Classics) Star Trek by Ina Rae Hark

The author of this book, Ina Rae Hark is a long-standing fan of the series, dating back to the original 1960s series. She is currently professor of English and Film Studies at the University of South Carolina. In preparation for writing this short but detailed overview of a huge franchise, the author (re)watched a massive 700 episodes of all the Trek series.

She makes no bones about the fact that her two preferred series are the original and Deep Space 9. She also demytholigises Gene Roddenberry’s role in the series. It appears he was a womanising sex addict who stole other people’s work and was impossible to work with. Other sources indicate that he would change the canon of the series at a whim, at one stage saying that the original series was no longer canon and that Star Trek: The Next Generation was henceforth to be regarded as the true canon cancelling out earlier efforts.

Hark mounts some interesting arguments about some of the fears explored by each series. The original series she says, explored the contrast between embodied emotion and non-embodied intellect, coming squarely down on the side of the former. STNG demonstrated a fear of consciousness being invaded or taken over by another. Deep Space 9 expressed an anxiety about identity and its invasion, takeover or anihilation and the co-existence of multiple identities in one body or even bodies with no fixed identity like the shape changer Odo. Voyager played with themes of death and the afterlife in various guises. Enterprise exhibited fears of being held hostage or prisoner against one’s will. Hark argues that this latter fear may be as much the result of a post 9/11 American paranoia as the result of the writers and others involved in trying to perpetuate the Star Trek franchise under increasing pressure from changes in production companies and ratings requirements. (pp. 147-8).

I will take the opportunity to state my own preferences here. My preferred series is Star Trek: The Next Generation. Its critics lambast it for its too perfect characters, corporate overachievers, who avoid family entanglements and interpersonal conflict. Further, they inhabit a space ship which is always spotlessly clean and always luxurious – like the hotels preferred by the CEOs of 1990s corporations. As for myself, I found the overachieving calm orderliness soothing after a hard day at work. I also enjoyed the intellectual problem solving often presented in the episodes.

If there is one criticism I do agree with in relation to this series it is the use of the ‘reset button’ at the end of each episode. There is rarely any reference to previous episodes and nothing ever changes with a static status quo reigning from one episode to the next. This is obviously an artefact of the need to play the episodes out of order when the series went into American syndication, but it is very tedious for the long-term viewer and was already increasingly out of place in a world where fans could either cheaply tape the series or buy it on video. Incidentally, Hark seems to imply that the term ‘reset button’ was coined in response to Voyager (p. 130), but the context in which I personally first heard it was in relation to STNG. And it is obviously used extensively beyond Star Trek. It was Joss Whedon’s series Buffy: The Vampire Slayer which finally had the courage to adapt to changes in video recording technology and serialise mainstream genre television.

But even STNG is still not sufficient to tempt me to want to own the DVDs. I find I have generally exhausted my interest after one or two viewings of episodes. For all the elegance of the series and its interesting philosophical discussions, the characters are simply too bland and develop too slowly if at all. But I am less keen on the other series. The original I find unwatchably cheesy, and in spite of the mythology surrounding it, I find it too reflective of the imperialist, sexist and racist tropes of its time. The melodramatic acting also becomes tiresome.

As much as I would like to enjoy Deep Space 9, particularly after reading Hark’s account, I always stall in my viewing due to my general lack of interest in political intrigue involving struggles for territory and over the governmental or sovereign rule of populations. When these intrigues involve imaginary alien species my interest is even further diminished. This was also a stumbling block for me (apart from the endless tracts of pompous monologue) in relation to Deep Space 9’s rival space station series Babylon 5.

Voyager is depressing viewing as the lost spaceship becomes more and more isolated in its desperate adherence to Starfleet values at any cost, values which seem out of kilter with its surroundings and ultimately with the natural development of its crew members. Perhaps this feeling is generated by, as Hark interestingly explains, the lack of fit between the Star Trek status quo and the 1990s. She notes ‘The repeated rehearsals of disaster [with reset button at the end of the episodes in question] show a writing staff yearning to explore the grittier and edgier territory of 90s’ science fiction television. The repeated resets show the timidity about altering the status quo that was making the franchise increasingly irrelevant as it entered the twenty-first century.’ (p. 134)

The final series, Enterprise, is a ‘prequel’ to the other series and is notoriously the lowest rating of all the franchise. One of the problems, as Hark observes, was that the writers wanted to return to 1960s basics. She reports commercials for the show ran the line: ‘Experience a future when the Klingons were still bad guys, the women were green and the Captain got all the action’. After the cultural and gender diversity of the later series and their sometimes complex philosophical and ethical argumentation, this was not what the new millennium audience wanted to see. An even bigger mistake, Hark suggests, was turning the Vulcans into devious, manipulative racists (p. 145). Incidentally, this view of the Vulcans seems to have been taken up to some extent in J.J. Abrams 2009 ‘reboot’ film and is perhaps one of my major quibbles (amongst many) with this particular film.

I personally found the first two seasons of Enterprise really interesting, with a strong and charismatic female character in T’Pol performed wonderfully by Jolene Blalock. There were interesting problems on show with translation of the language of other species and procedures for protection against pathogens. The humans were also portrayed as just one species out there exploring the universe, rather than the reigning human (read North American) superiority of earlier series. Unfortunately, all this was undone in Season 3, as the effects of the real life Gulf War kicked in: Captain Jonathan Archer’s character is abruptly changed in response to a terrorist attack on the earth and embarks on a rampaging and morally dubious quest to find and punish the culprits. T’Pol is rewritten as a female victim – making her the subject of an AIDS like illness and of drug addiction and also unexpectedly pairing her up with the Captain’s first mate and then making sure the relationship could never go anywhere. Interestingly, as a long time Trek fan herself, Jolene Blalock voiced her dismay in an interview in The New York Times at some of the un-Trek like aspects of the new series (p. 140).

As a non-American viewer of Enterprise, I found the return to a certain chauvinistic American-ness and maleness rendered the series hard to watch. I have always felt more than a little ambivalent about the military and often imperialist framework of the entire franchise and its often unconscious assumptions of human (read American) colonial superiority in the Trek universe. As the chorus of The Firm’s song ‘Star Trekkin” runs: ‘We come in peace. Shoot to kill. Shoot to kill.’

Enterprise had one of the most criticised endings of all the Trek series with the gratuitous killing off of one of the main characters, a drastic change of moral direction and status for another and the smug framing of the entire story on a future holodeck by two characters from the earlier STNG series. In fact, the series had two effective endings – the second last episode being written by Manny Coto who had been brought in in the last season to save the series – an episode which at least left the possibilities open – and the last by the two original creators which they claimed, rather inexplicably, to be a ‘valentine’ to the fans. One suspects that political struggles were raging behind the scenes.

Much has been made of the ‘optimism’ and ‘utopianism’ of Star Trek, but in my view Voyager and Enterprise are almost unwatchably bleak in their entirety, with endless moral compromises made by the characters while at the same time assuming moral superiority over everybody else, reset buttons in abundance, and dreary militarism all round.

To return to Hark’s book, however: Hark advances a number of interesting ideas and details about Star Trek which fans will no doubt be interested in discussing and picking apart and impressively manages to cram a detailed overview of the entire series into a short space.

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