You’re perfectly normal, Peter, and yet you have the most bizarre Invention of anyone I’ve ever known.
—Shaun O’Riordan, “Intro to Adventure Six”
It’s customary for television pilots to set up protagonists and backgrounds. Sapphire and Steel goes another way. The British sci-fi series, which ran for six seasons over four years (the complete series now available in one DVD set from ITC),, introduces “time investigators” Sapphire (Joanna Lumley) and Steel (David McCallum) without explaining where they’re from or who sent them. They travel through our present, saving others from imminent dangers, as the series raises various ideas about the nature of time.
Sapphire and Steel
The Complete Series
US DVD: 28 Dec 2004
In their pilot, “Escape Through a Crack in Time,” Sapphire and Steel enter the old country home of siblings Helen (Tamasin Bridge) and Rob (Stephen O’Shea), to investigate the significance of a nursery rhyme, whose reciting caused the kids’ parents to disappear. When they declare their purpose, to recover the missing parents who are trapped in a time shift, Rob wants to call the police. “Your policeman stands no chance of getting [your parents] back for you,” Sapphire announces. “But we do.”
Series creator P.J. Hammond notes in his commentary that the mystery surrounding Sapphire and Steel was a function of his not wanting to commit to a specific history. While baffling, the sour guy in the suit and his beautiful companion are also intriguing. Not only do they communicate without words, but Sapphire also has other psychic powers, demonstrated as she instantly knows the history of Helen and Rob’s house. She can also turn back time for short periods. Steel’s power is more regular, namely, his investigative skill, by which he discerns the motivations and thought patterns of victims and perpetrators.
“I decided I’d like to write children’s fantasy without the use of men in silver suits and without ray guns,” Hammond says. Influenced by the works of H.G. Wells and J.B. Priestley, he is interested in “dark” science fiction tales. Yet Hammond’s effort to bring an adult intelligence to children’s sci-fi—Sapphire and Steel is similar in tone and style to some of the great kids’ TV of the past, including Chocky, Children of the Stones, and Ace of Wands (co-written by Hammond)—is evident only in Season One.
The reason for this, revealed by series director Shaun O’Riordan, who participates in the intros and commentaries with Hammond, was the casting of McCallum and Lumley. The network decided these actors warranted a later time slot and older audience, so the show rapidly shifts gear after that first series. By season Three, stories of haunted country houses and cute kids are replaced by intense tales of traumatized families or slaughterhouses, scandal and infidelity in Five, and deadly time invaders in Six. The special effects become rather gruesome as well, and the dialogue gets more adult. In “The Railway Station,” a “darkness” feeds on the anger felt by people who have prematurely died. Sapphire and Steel, with the assistance of Tully (Gerald James), a human ghost-buster they discover living at the station, attempt to bargain with the force so that it will return to its own time plane and leave the present day. After a terrific battle in which Sapphire is briefly overtaken by the force, the pair decides to sacrifice Tully’s life in order to irritate “Time itself.” Sacrificing the old man reveals the lengths to which the pair will go to get their job done.
Along with dramatic situations like this one, Sapphire and Steel’s relationship also turns more complicated. Whether they’re human, or just the human form of particular elements, is never explored; we do see that they share a strong emotional connection. Sapphire manages to enrage the overly serious Steel when she flirts with other men, which she does repeatedly, to win their trust or simply to lighten the mood. She openly teases her partner with this behavior, getting a little too close to coworker Silver (David Collings).
But Sapphire’s connection with Silver never goes any deeper that sly touches or shared jokes. But her love for Steel, much as she hides it, is as strong as his for her. She dedicates herself to assisting others (getting close to the man who’s actually a newborn baby in “The Creature’s Revenge” or to a lost soldier in “The Railway Station”), yet it’s only Steel with whom she shares herself fully. She knows what to say to calm him, and smiles at him with devotion.
We don’t know their past, we don’t know the extent of their connection, but when, during one mission, Sapphire leans in and kisses Steel with no mention made of it, we’re so in love with these characters ourselves that we appreciate such mysteriousness. O’Riordan sums up their appeal perfectly during the episode one commentary: “They’re so bloody good-looking, just beautiful.”