Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Review: Sapphire and Steel

Reading about Doctor Who, I saw a number of references to another British television show, Sapphire and Steel, which ran on ITV from 1979 to 1982 and is now available on DVD.

The show follows two “elementals,” Sapphire (Joanna Lumley of The New Avengers and Absolutely Fabulous fame) and Steel (David McCallum, from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and currently in NCIS). As Sapphire says, “It’s our job to safeguard the structure of time.”* Each story - an “assignment,” in the show’s language, is made up of multiple half-hour episodes. The agents arrive on scene with a vague idea about what’s wrong, and spend the assignment investigating and resolving the issues. This site provides a more thorough description of the series.

Steel is generally grim-faced and, yes, steely, demanding answers from those around him and generally playing the heavy. Sapphire has certain powers to analyze objects and rewind time, and knows about the habits and customs of humans. They are occasionally aided by other agents, namely Lead (a large man who can knock down doors with a single blow) and Silver (a “technician,” rather than an “investigator,” who can manipulate metals and machinery when not flirting with Sapphire).

The show seems to have been shot on a budget of about $25 per episode. There is generally a single set, whether it’s a house (assignments one, four, and five), a train station (assignment two), an apartment building (assignment three), or a gas station-cum-diner (assignment six). The number of speaking parts is limited, and the combination of the single set and limited number of roles gives the show the feel of a staged play.

In Assignment One, creatures are using children’s nursery rhymes to enter the corporeal world. In Assignment Two, a man in a disused train station is attempting to make contact with the spirit world and finds soldiers killed in battle trying to return to life. In Assignment Three, time travelers from far in the future come to 1979 to understand the period - but they with them a force that can influence time. In Assignment Four, Sapphire and Steel investigate a man with no face who can take children out of photographs. In Assignment Five, a 1930-themed dinner party creates a shift in time so that the guests find themselves actually in 1930, where guests are murdered one at a time. In Assignment Six, the time agents are in a gas station in 1981, where a couple from 1948 has arrived in their car. The last two stories are the best, most coherent ones of the series.

 One difficulty with the show is that it’s too mysterious for its own good. We never learn what these “elementals” are - certainly not human, despite their form, but also capable of being killed - or who they work for, or how time can get out of whack. We never seen any underlying logic to the show’s universe, so that much of the peril for Sapphire and Steel, and many of the resolutions, seem to come out of thin air. The two leads, Lumley and McCallum, are accomplished actors who try to overcome the often-weak material. The show deserves credit for creating something out of the mainstream, with an intriguing premise, but is ultimately let down by its scripts and its incomplete vision of its own universe.

*No, neither sapphire nor steel are elements.

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