Sapphire & Steel Titles

Reviewed: The Silver Archive #1A – Sapphire and Steel Assignments 1 and 2

This July, it will be 40 years since Sapphire & Steel knocked firmly at the door and strode onto our screens. Supernatural beings, elements, the universe made flesh, alien police, ‘time menders’; the enigma of what precisely they were still gleams today. We know only that, through the course of half a dozen ‘Assignments’ (they were never titled) over 4 years, this mysterious pairing defended the fabric of our reality against unfathomable, Lovecraftian peril. They froze light, parleyed with the darkness, tore infants from the thrall of vengeful basilisks, imprisoned faceless demons in pyramids of ice, and halted hubris on the precipice of extinction. Then, in the end, they suffered the envy of a higher authority.

Sapphire & Steel on stairs
Sapphire & Steel on their first Assignment

To many, this writer included, Sapphire & Steel is compelling television: cryptic, unnerving, and authentically haunting. The density and confidence of its scripts, the lack of concession to its audience, the measured cultivation of atmosphere, and the committed, intense performances of its leads (David McCallum and Joanna Lumley) all rebuke the facile coddling of so much television before and since. While the bulk of screen drama takes one immediately by the hand and has its characters routinely narrate events and announce their motives, P.J. Hammond’s masterpiece demands that you do not merely watch but scrutinise it.

It was not for everybody. As the late Peter Nicholls concluded in the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, “many saw it as drivel, some as a triumph of popular surrealism – Magritte meets The Avengers – challenging our perceptions of what is real.” I have seen no series since that has managed so effectively (and so cheaply) to conjure such a consistent atmosphere of claustrophobic, eldritch dread. The only contender I can think of in recent years is the mesmerising finale of the revived Twin Peaks. If I were to trust anyone to remount the series with fealty to its essence, it would be David Lynch.

The nightmare in your bedroom

It’s little wonder, then, that people write about the series to this day and that brings us to the subject of this review  ̶ The Silver Archive #1A  ̶  a monograph on Assignments One and Two by the husband and wife team of Lesley and David McIntee. David McIntee is known as an author of genre science television tie-ins, having written original works of fiction and non-fiction for the Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, and Space: 1999 universes. Lesley graduated with an MPhil in 2011 from the University of Manchester. Her interest was the Magus (a general term now for magicians but with a specific root in Zoroastrianism) and, more generally, the occult and folklore. It is Lesley’s interests that seem particularly relevant for this volume of the Archive, which is very much academic in its tone.

The McIntees’ project, although they never state it explicitly, is to situate Sapphire & Steel within the history of folkloric myth and to illuminate the cultural influences, tropes, and archetypes that P.J. Hammond drew upon when fashioning his creation. Having read all 23,000 words of the McIntees’ entry, I can say that it’s a laudable goal but poorly executed.

There is undoubtedly much of interest within the work. The McIntees’ erudition is evident: they reference any number of obscure (certainly to me) works of literature, folklore, mythology, and parapsychology; as well as comparatively more recent genre series, such as Quatermass, Doctor Who, and The X Files. There are several genuinely intriguing allusions that would make promising departure points for readers wanting to delve deeper into the Fortean world: the allegorical subterfuge of Graeco-Roman and Arab alchemists, the Stone Tape Hypothesis, the ‘monomyth’ concept popularised by Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, and Kabbalistic notions of a fallible god. From this, I have little doubt that the McIntees would be enjoyable company over a pint. Unfortunately, their enthusiasm and knowledgeability are sabotaged throughout by a lack of structure; strained, muddled argumentation; non sequiturs and contradiction; banality dressed as profundity; and bloated, ramshackle prose. This latter defect questions David McIntee’s involvement with the final manuscript, since it reads more like an undergraduate dissertation than the work of a competent novelist.

Let’s begin with an example of weak argument. After a lengthy, quite interesting discussion on the potential influences of earlier war literature on Assignment Two, the McIntees go on to discuss an early meeting between our heroes, the hapless amateur ghost hunter George Tully, and the ghost of the tragic Sam Pearce,

Sapphire & Steel again strays into subversive territory here, when Tully, for example, is understandably appalled on behalf of Pearce when Steel questions the ghost. ‘Can’t you see he’s a soldier?’ The assumption of both heroism and moral values –honesty/honour/truthfulness based on Pearce’s uniform – leads to a dangerously erroneous assumption on Tully’s part, and, initially, also on Sapphire’s. Assuming Pearce’s truthfulness, and that he cannot be malevolent, is the trick played even on Sapphire’s acute super-senses.

Sapphire, Steel, and Tully talk with the ghost of Sam Pearce
Interrogating the dead

I assume the passage they’re referring to is at the beginning of episode 2 when Tully, says “Surely, you can see he’s a soldier?” (not “can’t you see…” as the McIntees misquote the text). But their reading, that he says this because he is appalled that Steel is questioning Pearce, is bizarre. He says it because Steel has just asked Pearce, “Who were you?” There is no ‘assumption’ of heroism and moral value; it’s simply Tully mistaking Steel’s specific interest in Pearce’s identity for being merely a general one. The notion that the series is ‘subverting’ the concept of the ‘honest Tommy’ appears to be based solely on the McIntees’ observation that Tully and Sapphire both mistakenly think Pearce cannot be ‘malevolent’ when actually he is. Even if true, this solitary piece of data is a spindly peg on which to hang a whole argument. In fact, though it’s only my interpretation, I would argue that Pearce is ultimately far from malevolent; rather, he is hostile, bitter, desperate and  ̶  forever  ̶  a callow and lost boy.

Sapphire with red hair
Queen of the Elves?

This kind of over-reaching occurs throughout the text. The McIntees take observations from literature, cultural history, pseudoscience and so forth and attempt to make them fit with some feature of the series. Sometimes it’s reasonable, sometimes it’s strained but, very often, the abstraction is so high, the connection so tenuous, that it’s impossible to evaluate their assertion at all. For instance, they note that, in Assignment One, Sapphire briefly assumes a form with red hair. They then note that the Queen of the Elves was often depicted with red hair and there follows several hundred words on elvish mythology before they’re able to bring themselves back to Sapphire & Steel. The excursion is interesting in and of itself but the link is little but assertion. Or take this, from a discussion of Grimms’ fairy tales,

[Grimms] tales were anthologised and published for adults at a specific historical point in time, and under specific cultural conditions, some of which (paradigm shifts, economic upheavals, questions of national identity that would eventually lead to the formation of a single Germany, class strictures, and occupation by foreign military forces) were very relevant when Sapphire & Steelwas made. In 1980, Germany was still split into East and West, with several European countries garrisoned by Soviet forces. They were Geiger counters of the Zeitgeist, and anything that references them tends to have the same quality, especially when watched by adults.

What is the reader to make of this passage? Of course, it would be churlish to point out that everything that has ever been published was issued at a “specific historical point in time” and under “specific cultural conditions.” That’s banal. The main contention seems to be that the Grimms’ tales were “Geiger counters of the Zeitgeist,” which I assume is merely a pretentious way of saying they reflected the concerns and preoccupations of the time in which they were written. But then the McIntees seem to be saying that anything that references them (including Sapphire & Steel) similarly is a ‘Geiger counter.’ Now, I’m entirely happy to accept that the folklore recorded by the Grimms was a barometer of its time, but the argument that anything that references it must also be is over-reaching, unevidenced hyperbole.

There’s another example of tenuous connections concerning names, when the McIntees discuss Pearce’s name. They opine:

It may also be worth noting that Pearce is one letter out from Peace, and a homonym for pierce, considering what we discover about his death, shot and pierced by barbed wire after peace had been declared. His name definitely has a meaning, and his reluctance to have it divulged suggests it may have some power over him.

Or, it might simply be that his name was Pearce. As even that master of strained inference, Sigmund Freud, once conceded, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Is it impossible that Hammond had this piece of abstruse wordplay in mind when he named his character? Of course not. But is it plausible? Perhaps if the McIntees could cite a few more examples they might make a credible case but, without them, this looks like the overreading that, in my limited acquaintance with it, often bedevils cultural studies and semiology.

Or take the following passage, which I had to read a couple of times to make sure that I wasn’t missing a more sophisticated argument and that it is in fact merely silly:

Herein lies one of the most disturbing aspects of Sapphire & Steel. If these are the otherworldly figures of our traditional myth, our folklore, if they are the elemental archetypes… If these (mostly) benevolent travellers in time, time-menders (as the original script called them), are the authorities sent to deal with intrusion of horrors into our dimension, then how can there by [sic] forces in this universe of which they themselves are very, very, afraid?

There are so many words scattered across the page here that they cloak (perhaps mask) the emaciated logic beneath. The fact that Sapphire and Steel arrive at all presupposes that the forces they encounter are a threat: to our world or at least to the characters in the story. It would be abysmal drama, if nothing else, if none of these malevolent forces also posed a threat to the show’s protagonists.

While the arguments in the above examples are weak, more frustrating were the passages (sometimes whole paragraphs) where I struggled to detect any argument at all. I’ve read the following several times and I’m still unable to divine its meaning.

Ambivalence with regard to authority exists in both Sapphire and Steel from the outset of the series. Though most of the ‘bad guys’ in the series are either neutral or male, a fraction of doubt remains around the feminine and even around Sapphire, establishing the tension which will exist throughout the series, thanks to an introduction for both viewpoint characters, and their target audience, to an adult world where not everything is as it seems, a threshold crossed from certainty into uncertainty which cannot be crossed back.

Sapphire, possessed by the Darkness
Argh, my eyes…

There are many niggling examples of the McIntees’ ‘more is more’ approach to language. Of Campbell’s monomythical hero, they write “Even if return is effected,” when they might simply have said ‘if he returns’; when they want to tell us that Helen in Assignment One must discard what she learnt in school in favour of her new experiences, they instead foist “experiential conclusions” upon us. In a discussion on trains and warfare, they cannot tell us simply that America had trains during its Civil War but must instead make us splash through “America already had trains co-existing with warfare in the Civil War of 1861-65…” The McIntees allow the words, like an errant dog, to drag them through bushes, while we follow along behind. There are many examples of overblown or ungainly prose, used to say something quite mundane; for example:

If mankind’s favourite occupation has always been war, it’s no surprise that it is also one of his favourite subjects –probably, with the possible exception of sex, his favourite subject singular – to read and write about.

Did either David or Lesley ever stop to read this aloud; to breathe life into this distended assemblage of words and struggle heroically to its end? Sometimes, the overwrought prose style is unintentionally comical. For example, when the McIntees write:

The sense that anything could be out there, and that the slightest move, even an innocent gesture such as the reading of a nursery rhyme, could open us up to a world below, beneath, beyond, or even behind the safe and everyday is fairly explicit in the series.

Below and beneath?  Even behind, David and Lesley? Steady on, you’re frightening me.

There are also points when the McIntees stray from their area of expertise and make scientific errors. For instance, when they write:

We can safely assume that Sapphire, Steel, Lead and Silver are not the agents’ real names. By calling something out of the shadows and naming it, so we hope to neutralise it – that’s very old magical, irrational, thinking, though it mirrors scientific thought which says that we change the state of things simply by observing them.

Here we see a misunderstanding of the ‘observer effect’: the notion that measuring a thing changes that thing. True, in quantum theory it is evident that measuring particles can affect their motion, but this is an effect of instrumentation, not the mere presence of an observer. Elsewhere, they write that carbon increases the flexibility of steel when carbon is added to iron during steel-making precisely to reduce its ductility.

Informative as it frequently is, there is little by way of sustained argument to the McIntees’ monograph. The closest I could detect to a central thesis is that the text of Sapphire & Steel draws consciously or unconsciously on cultural and literary tropes. This is an accurate observation but a truism. The structure of the piece is more a collection of observations and adduced connections and linkages: this bit of Assignment One is a bit like X, that bit can be seen in Y. Often, this is quite interesting. A number of the observations are intriguing and, as I said earlier, the McIntees’ wide reading means the text is replete with enjoyable nuggets of information and inspiration to further reading. But the pieces are not drawn together into an argument. As such, the introduction and the conclusion are little of the sort. The former sets out no case or roadmap, the latter provides no summary or synthesis. There is no sense of progression: the essay merely commences, wanders on a while, and then stops.

I said earlier that I thought the McIntees would make agreeable social companions. I think reading their text is much like being at a student party and finding oneself in the company of an affable if stoned undergraduate who has become carried away with her latest area of reading; though without the cushion of having some of what she’s having. There is much to enjoy in the source material and the footnotes. It is possible to take several items of interest from the sprawling text but it’s frustrating that the McIntees were not able to meld their material – and corral their words – into a more concise and carefully wrought essay.

The Silver Archive #1A by David and Lesley McIntee is available from Obverse Books, priced £5.99.