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Lockdown Recommendations: Sapphire & Steel


What?! OMG which ones…?

Well, no, that’s not fair – Sapphire & Steel was never lost and it’s not Doctor Who – but please believe me, this is the very next best thing.

I LOVE this series partly because, if you squint, it’s about two kickass Time Lords battling evil with wry looks, a sharp suit, and brains. If you un-squint, it’s about two Time Agents from a regiment of ‘elements’ (neither are exactly ‘elements’ but they are great names) who might rank alongside the Osirians, Black and White Guardians, and other ancient races in the Whoniverse.

Consisting of 6 stories or ‘Assignments’ of 25 minutes across 34 episodes and broadcast between July 1979 and August 1982, it’s largely a studio-bound drama, sometimes a chamber piece. It was low cost delivering chills on a budget – special effects are used judiciously and the emphasis is on great writing, direction, and performances. And style – the leads being the phenomenal Joanna Lumley (The New Avengers, Absolutely Fabulous) and David MacCallum (The Man from Uncle, The Outer Limits), this is talent and sophistication channelled into fantasy telly.

What’s it about?

I’d heard about Sapphire & Steel like most Who fans have, but when I sat down and watched it, it was absolutely like stumbling across unknown late ’70s era Doctor Who but for an adult audience and with Philip Hinchcliffe brought back with a remit to terrify…

Sapphire & Steel is about two agents from an advanced, mysterious power, sent on assignments to fix breaches in the time corridor. These breaches are almost always due to a malevolent entity whether it’s trying to steal lives, feed off hatred, or setting a trap for our protagonists. It’s a loosely science fiction premise – more fantasy in practice – that brought us some of the most disturbing ghost stories and tea-time horror British television has seen.

It was written by PJ Hammond, whose earlier career included scripts for 1960s police dramas Dixon of Dock Green and Z-Cars and later for household names like Emmerdale and most recently Midsomer Murders. He was known at the time for a number of children’s fantasy programmes including creating the Thames Television series Ace of Wands – an adventure series set around magic and Tarot Cards. Doctor Who fans might otherwise know him for writing two episodes of Torchwood: Small Worlds and From Out of the Rain.

In 1978, Hammond, while writing on another Thames children’s series, was asked whether he had ideas of his own to develop a fantasy series for younger audiences – the proposal, provisionally titled the ‘The Time Agents’, was turned town by Thames and picked up by ATV when their head of drama was, allegedly, so deeply troubled by the proposal that he couldn’t sleep.

I’m intrigued: Where should I start?

Though the stories and performances have aged fairly well, this is of its time – the 25 minute chunks are very digestible though the pace is gentle compared to modern telly. You really get to know the characters and the atmosphere has time to really pull you in.

You can happily start from the beginning and work through but here’s a brief taster of the first three stories (mysteriously referred to as Assignment 1, 2, and 3 – there never were any actual story titles, though fans have tended to name them out of habit over the years).

Assignment 1:

6 episodes

This is essentially a haunted house drama with missing parents and two mysterious strangers who turn up instead of the police when the children ask for help (somewhat reminiscent of The Eleventh Hour, Matt Smith’s debut in Series 5 of Doctor Who). Time is tricking you, ghosts are parading through your home, mere words become dangerous, and put a foot wrong you may just step outside of this reality…

Featuring Sapphire, Steel, two chlild actors who are pretty good, and a guest appearance from Lead…

Assignment 2:

8 episodes

This includes some truly fine television drama and is genuinely moving at times. It’s long, but the final episode is terrifying, desperately sad, and entirely worth it. Assignment 2 is set in a deserted train station that’s gradually attracting more and more ghosts. Resentful ghosts providing seething hateful energy… Something is recruiting them – something genuinely frightening…

Highlights here are the performance by Gerald James (The Man with the Golden Gun) as the watcher and Joanna Lumley’s terrifying double performance. Dubious ethics, genuinely claustrophobic, and the only way out is very unpleasant…

Assignment 3:

6 episodes

An apartment, or is it…? A young married couple with a baby, or are they…? They’re there but they’re not and something is attacking them. This mystery is truly inspired, horrific, and bizarre – a science fiction reflection on ethical concerns that plague us now. The premise is so inventive it’s an order of magnitude far above what you usually find on television. It also features my favourite guest performance in the series, from David Collings (Poul in The Robots of Death, Mawdryn in Mawdryn Undead) as Sapphire & Steel’s debonair colleague, Silver…

In Summary:

Torchwood tried to do Doctor Who for grown ups but this series nailed it more than 20 years earlier. Haunted houses, science fiction body horror, questionable ethics of a super-human race battling powerful forces of darkness – and all with a couple of rooms, some furniture, fabulous tailoring, and kickass dialogue. Ladies, gentlemen, Eternals and other – I give you, Sapphire & Steel!

All episodes can be streamed on Amazon Prime but only in the US – I believe they are all available on YouTube though you can also find any of several full DVD releases via the larger online retailers.

James Lomond

Lockdown Recommendations: Sapphire & Steel

by James Lomond time to read: 4 min
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