“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.” — opening narration for each episode.
When considering British time travelers, a certain chameleon-like eccentric with many faces and lives inevitably comes to mind. However, that well-known Time Lord is by no means the only such character from British TV history. Diving a bit deeper into TV lore reveals arguably the two most enigmatic beings to ever appear there…the title characters of Sapphire and Steel.
The series was not a long-running or particularly successful one, yet it definitely left an impact on those lucky enough to see it. It can be described as perhaps the most cryptic television series of all time. The title characters reveal nothing about themselves, they work for some cosmic force which is completely obscure, and their adventures are like puzzles that only have a bare minimum of clues. Questions are many and answers are few. It’s no wonder it never achieved mass popularity. But it intrigued enough people that more than 40 years on, it has amassed a sizable cult following.
Back to the Beginning
Sapphire and Steel appeared on Britain’s ITV network between 1979 and 1982. Six major storylines consisting of several episodes each ran during that period. The title characters were played by two well-known and popular actors; David McCallum played the gruff and taciturn Steel while the luminous Joanna Lumley portrayed the cool beauty, Sapphire. The series was conceived of by P.J. Hammond, who freely admitted from the outset of the show that not only would few answers to the show’s many mysteries be provided but that he himself didn’t know those answers.
So, what exactly was the show about? Put succinctly, it was about time. In the world of Sapphire and Steel, time is an all-encompassing power…but one vulnerable to attack from forces “outside” the normal confines of time. These outside forces are always seeking to invade the present and distort it. Some wish to bring the past into the present. Others delight in causing mischief and horror.
Working against these cryptic enemies is an equally cryptic force of agents: The Elements. Sapphire and Steel are two such elements. Over the course of the series, we meet a couple of others, Lead and Silver, and hear about even more. The Elements all appear to be human beings, but clearly have powers far beyond what any normal human would possess. Each has their own specialty. Steel can generate extreme cold and has superhuman strength. Sapphire can “run time back” up to 24 hours. All the Elements have the power of telepathy amongst themselves.
We never learn who the “boss” of the agents is. It could very well be God. And perhaps the Elements are his angels. It is never made clear. Sapphire and Steel simply show up at each of their assignments. We never actually see them dispatched or what/where their headquarters is. Also, it seems they are more guardians of time itself than of humanity. In fact, Steel seems to regard humans as little more than annoying insects. And although Sapphire is more sympathetic to people, she is still quite detached from them.
Ideas, Not Imagery
The show was described as science fiction but there are many elements of the supernatural. Many of the stories can be considered ghost stories that involve entities of the past intruding into the present. And those malevolent forces from outside the time stream seem to be nothing less than demons…almost Lovecraftian powers from a world beyond comprehension. The world of Sapphire and Steel is one of Great cosmic forces playing against each other, with human beings as mere pawns or observers.
Despite the cosmic theme of the show, the budget was miniscule to the point of ridiculousness. Each of the major storylines takes place in small, confined areas: an old railway station, an ancient house, a carefully restricted set of rooms used for a party. Almost no exterior shots are provided, giving each episode a very claustrophobic feel. As for special effects, these were the most minimal available. Even the “scrolling” image of the lead titles is amateurish. The result is that the show is focused on ideas, not imagery…an idea certainly foreign to many Americans who watched the show.
Assigned to Mend Time
Each of the show’s storylines were described simply as “assignments” by creator Hammond. Despite this, fans have attached their own more descriptive names to the assignments, and these have somehow stuck. The first story was “Escape Through a Crack in Time”, the second was “The Railway Station”, the third “The Creature’s Revenge” and so on.
The First Assignment
“Escape Through a Crack in Time” introduces us to Sapphire and Steel and their strange world. It takes place in a very old English house in the countryside where a family resides. The young son Robert suddenly notices the clocks…of which there are many…all stop working. Then as his young sister Helen recites old nursery rhymes, his mother and father vanish completely. As the two children try to fathom what has happened, two strangers arrive. Steel is a grim and taciturn man who immediately takes charge of the situation while his gorgeous companion Sapphire assists him. It soon becomes apparent to Robert that these two strangers are much more than they appear. The old house becomes ground zero for many ghostly appearances stretching back to when the house was a haven for refugees during the English Civil War.
This episode not only introduces us to the main characters, but also features a key idea of the series…that the past should remain in the past and that the presence of too many old or ancient things causes damage to the walls of time. We also meet another one of the Elements, the jovial big man Lead. Eventually a resolution to the time disruption is found, but to say the episode is cryptic would be a gross understatement. Future episodes would be even more enigmatic.
The Second Assignment
“The Railway Station” is even more of an overt ghost story than the first one was. It takes place completely in a deserted railway station known to be haunted. Ghost investigator George Tully has staked out the station and comes in contact with the spirit of a young soldier killed in WWI…an angry spirit who seems to be dragging the station into the past. Sapphire and Steel arrive and discover that a malevolent outside force that feeds on the resentment of those who die an early death is manipulating hauntings at the railway station. The demonic force is reluctant to give up its grip on the place and Steel is forced to make a ruthless bargain to outmaneuver that force. This episode more than any other showed Steel’s inhuman nature.
The Third Assignment
“The Creature’s Revenge” did the seemingly impossible and elevated the show’s bizarre and cryptic elements to even greater heights. The plot here is virtually indescribable. Sapphire and Steel are drawn to what seems to be an abandoned high-rise, only to find that strange time travelers from the future have established a kind of base there behind a forcefield. The people from the future are one of several teams dispatched to the past to observe people of the 20th century. But some inscrutable force has decided to attack the time travelers. It has taken their infant child and advanced him to a teenage state and also given him the power to dissolve things with a touch…including human flesh.
Very little is explicitly spelled out in this creepy and unnerving tale and Sapphire and Steel spend as much of the episode in the dark as the viewer. We also get introduced to the urbane agent Silver, who Steel detests and Sapphire apparently had some kind of prior relationship with. Ultimately, the malevolent force harassing the time travelers seems to be the spirit of all the animals murdered in the name of progress. In the future world, animals have apparently been eliminated completely, but their life force is hungry for revenge against the humans.
The Fourth Assignment
“The Man Without a Face” is regarded by many as the best of the series. It is certainly the creepiest. The agents are assigned to investigate an old building that seems to be haunted by children from the Victorian Age. The children are actually images from old Victorian photographs that have been brought to life by a sinister being that resembles a faceless man. Apparently, every photograph that has ever been taken has a bit of the life force of this diabolical entity. A researcher in the old building accidentally brought the Faceless Man fully into our world and he is happily tearing time to bits using people stolen from photos. This episode has really got some very uncomfortable images…when the Faceless Man burns a photograph, we can hear the screams of a person trapped in a building in the photo. He also has the power to put Sapphire and Steel themselves into photos. This episode is a classic of ghostly, unearthly foreboding.
Assignment Number Five
“Dr. McDee Must Die” is by far the most complex of the series and resembles a classic Agatha Christie whodunnit, only with time travel deeply embedded in the mystery. The eccentric millionaire Lord Mullrine decides to hold a party celebrating the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the company he created with Dr. George McDee, a brilliant scientist now dead for many years. The party is set in a series of rooms designed to be exactly like what they were in 1930. Once the guests arrive, they are sealed in the rooms and contact with the modern world is cut off. The only problem is, once the party starts, guests begin dying in unusual ways and the rooms really do seem to be back in 1930. The late Dr. McDee appears alive and well. Two of the party guests are none other than Sapphire and Steel, who have detected a force from outside of time causing mischief at the party. The episode throws a ton of complex ideas at viewers, and it seems every single person at the party has an ulterior motive for being there. In fact, the episode is so complex that it is very likely that a complete resolution to its many mysteries will never arrive.
No story was more frustrating than the series’ finale, “The Trap”. Not only does it set up another baffling time travel conundrum, but it ends the series on a cliffhanger that is never adequately resolved. In this one, Sapphire and Steel are drawn to a strange gas station/cafe combo where time is frozen into place. Stuck in this odd location is a couple of enigmatic strangers from the year 1948 who seem to know more than they should. Our intrepid agents learn too late that the whole set up is indeed a trap by their mysterious “boss”. It seems the “boss” is no longer satisfied with Sapphire and Steel’s performance and has set everything up as a way to remove them from action.
“The Trap” marked the end of the official Sapphire and Steel program. P.J. Hammond apparently had written the next story which would have resolved the predicament of “The Trap” and given the agents a new purpose. But that story was never filmed. To the surprise of few, the cryptic series confused many viewers and although it got a strong response, the numbers didn’t justify it continuing. McCallum and Lumley moved on to new projects and Sapphire and Steel receded into the realm of televised obscurity.
Sapphire and Steel Today
The characters did continue in a fashion after the show’s cancelation. A comic strip featuring Sapphire and Steel ran in Britain’s Look In magazine for a while. As late as 2004, there were a series of audio adventures on CD released. In the audio plays, actor David Warner played Steel and Susannah Harker portrayed Sapphire. These audio adventures were quite involved and introduced new Elements like Gold and Ruby into the stories.
There has been talk in recent years of trying to revive the series with new actors, but nothing ever came of it. Strangely enough, the show which was buried in almost total obscurity in the ‘80s and ‘90s has become more and more popular in recent years. The original episodes can now easily be found on the Tubi streaming network and DVD collections are available.
The legacy of Sapphire and Steel is in the creation of its universe that is almost totally inscrutable to ordinary humans, where time is more often than not a hostile force and great powers are playing games with it. Humans seem to be completely incidental and at the mercy of such powers, including Sapphire and Steel themselves. Again, it’s an almost Lovecraftian view of the universe. There is no lovable Dr. Who racing to the rescue of mankind here…Sapphire and Steel have no sentimental feelings for humanity and seem to approach their job of fixing time almost like glorified repairmen. It’s a cosmic viewpoint almost unique in television history and one well worth checking out if you don’t mind a bit of mystery in your TV viewing. Who knows? Perhaps one day, the enigmatic pair may return to action…