Slightly less old -- but much more odd -- TV

Sapphire & Steel is a very strange series. Mounted by ITV in 1979 as their attempt to compete with Doctor Who, it was theoretically a science-fiction adventure show. Really, it turned out more of a supernatural thriller. It was made on an even more desperately tiny budget than Doctor Who, which meant that very nearly the entire thing was studio-bound, lit for stage and shot on video, and littered with practical effects. The resulting claustrophobia works for it, rather than against it, and turns it into something quite different.

You really have to see these things to believe them. Fortunately, someone else also thought of that, and has edited the serials together into omnibus editions, and whacked them up on YouTube. They have no formal titles, and hadn't even when they first aired; they've since been dubbed Assignment 1 through Assignment 6.

Assignment 1
Assignment 2
Assignment 3
Assignment 4
Assignment 5
Assignment 6

You can begin at the beginning, as is traditional, although the second Assignment is the fan favorite and generally the recommended place to start. Don't worry that you'll miss important explanations by skipping the first Assignment, because there aren't any. One of the more unusual features of Sapphire & Steel is that it makes a point of never actually telling you much of anything about anything. You learn that Sapphire and Steel are Operators who are assigned to keep Time from "breaking in" or "breaking through". You infer from the dialogue that this would be a bad thing. Demands for further information generally end in either deftly circular answers from Sapphire, or annoyed shouting from Steel.

It results in a rather dream-like environment where there are no rules to the universe until someone specifically states one on-screen. You never learn where Sapphire and Steel are from, but someone does once get out of them that they're not human -- they're alien, "in the sense of extraterrestrial". This implies that there are other senses in which they aren't alien, but which ones are left up in the air. They don't seem to be able to intentionally travel back and forth in time, but refer to having dealt with something mysterious on the Mary Celeste; the Assignments take place in (what is supposed to be) the present, so they've been around for a century at least. P J Hammond, the creator/producer, suggests that they've been around quite a lot longer. On the other hand, another Element lodges some fairly strenuous objections against a threatened trip to the Triassic, on the grounds that he wouldn't survive it. They seem to look human for a reason, so one might posit that they've been around for, at most, as long as humankind.

Big Finish has produced some audio plays for the series; Joanna Lumley and David McCallum were unavailable (stage work/AbFab and NCIS, respectively), so Sapphire and Steel have been recast as Susannah Harker and David Warner. The former is more familiar to UK audiences than US ones, but the latter is the same David Warner who has provided voice work and character parts for about a kajillion very geeky things, including Dillinger/Master Control Program in TRON. Supporting cast includes David Collings -- the only actor to reprise his role from the original series -- and Mark Gatiss as the Specialists Silver and Gold, and Lisa Bowerman as the Operator Ruby. They're generally enjoyable, if occasionally rather confusing, ghost stories per se, but they're most comprehensible when you've seen the original series and the relatively little it established about the Elements and their abilities.

They unfortunately also lose one of the best features of the television program, the irregularly eerie behavior of the protagonists. Sapphire and Steel are unexpected in many ways, particularly together. Sapphire is taller, for one, which breaks one of the cardinal rules of casting these things. Joanna Lumley is a couple inches taller than David McCallum even in bare feet, and they keep putting her in heels. But clever camerawork -- and sometimes a lot of slouching on her part -- make this less obvious on some occasions than on others, which makes one wonder if perhaps Sapphire and Steel themselves are not consistent about it. Steel's slighter build belies a superhuman strength that can tie knots in elevator cables. Part of Sapphire's job is to be the social interface for the pair, and to that end she may have become, or been made, beautiful, but she is so meticulously so that she looks almost unreal. (I'm not sure that would have succeeded with anyone other than Joanna Lumley. She is quite open about the fact that she has paid a hell of a lot of money to have herself reconstructed to her own exacting specifications over the years, and she likes it that way.) Steel, although he technically knows how to be polite to people, seems to have little social sense and also doesn't see the point in developing one.

For people who don't make a habit of explicitly parsing body language, it might also take a while to pinpoint the biggest oddity about the two of them. The Elements are telepathic, at least with one another, and there are moments when they explicitly carry on one conversation aloud and another one mentally which have nothing at all in common. More often, the strangeness is that their conversation and their gestures don't necessarily look as if they're connected. Sapphire is some sort of psychometric analyst, and since she can use it on living things as well, it makes her effectively also an empath. More than once, she goes into hysterics, or simply sits down and bursts into tears, because of what she's sensing. Steel, if he's not shouting at her about something dangerous at that point, simply ignores it -- and often, so does Sapphire. It's as if these instinctive emotional responses of fear, or anxiety, or sadness, are just some sort of indicator needle to them, a clue to what's afoot in the environment, and lack the visceral quality they take on in human beings. Sapphire doesn't seem to resent the treatment, and Steel shows no remorse.

Conscious gestures, on the other hand, do seem to be meaningful to them, and generally in the same way as ordinary people intend them. One thing that is unfortunately lost in the audio stories is that Steel, best described as 'irascible' even on his good days, shows Sapphire a lot of silent affection. The dialogue may be a heated argument about what to do about Time breaking in on somewhere, but he gives her a lot of significant looks, he holds her hand, he catches her if she looks like she's about to hit the floor, and he even kisses her once or twice. The two of them are most definitely pair-bonded, in a way that comes across to humans as having romantic overtones -- most of them talk to Sapphire, and most of them automatically assume that Steel is her boyfriend or husband. Steel tells people she is his 'business associate' in the same cranky tone he tells them everything else; Sapphire, unless she has a specific reason she thinks being seen as married or unmarried would be helpful, describes him as her friend.

Steel also gets fairly crabby when other people try to engage with Sapphire. With humans, he's mostly impatient with things that are delaying their work, and sometimes gets very frowny at Sapphire for wasting time on banter; he doesn't have any reason to see them as competition. The reaction is much bigger when the Specialist Silver turns up. Silver behaves very much like a systems person, in that he enjoys prodding things to see if he can get a reaction, and he is especially delighted if the reaction is orderly and/or pleased. He's essentially their pernickety techno-machinery magician, and not incidentally an irrepressible charmer. (Same idea. Pressing buttons and all.) Sapphire and Silver obviously like one another very much, flirting included, and Steel makes a great show of being annoyed when they get into it while there's work to be done -- but he also knows Silver well enough to keep his mind on the assignment by leading him around with a series of shiny magpie-objects the first time he shows up, and he doesn't shout at Silver nearly so much as he does a lot of other people. If you watch Silver and his sometimes-interesting idea of personal space, he quite clearly thinks he and Steel are on friendly terms, and considering Steel hasn't put him through a wall yet, he's probably right. Whoever sent them on Assignment 6 sent for Silver as well, suggesting the three of them are considered as a set, or at least that someone thinks Silver is their favorite technician.

There's a brief documentary snippet here, although in keeping with tradition, it doesn't answer anything, either. ITV was apparently thinking of diving into a remake a few years ago; Hammond was displeased with their ideas and shot it down. None of the original principles were contacted about it, evidently, and when McCallum was asked once in an unrelated interview, his only real comment was, "Who would they ever get to replace Joanna Lumley?"

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