‘Sapphire and Steel’ May Be Old, but It Still Has Shine

Dr. Who might get all of the convention cosplay love, but many science fiction fans recall a short-lived show called Sapphire and Steel equally fondly.

Running from 1979-1982, the show centers on the characters of Sapphire (Joanna Lumley) and Steel (David McCallum), two dimension-hopping operatives whose job is to fix time abnormalities. In the show’s mythology, time is an often dangerous force that takes any opportunity to exploit weaknesses in the continuum and then cause havoc, often by abducting people. These weaknesses are often caused by intersections of the past and present — parents reading old nursery rhymes to their children, or recreations of old settings, for example — and when time comes barging in, humans are rather ill-equipped to deal with things. That’s when Sapphire and Steel tend to show up out of the blue to set things right. Or, as the opening sequence informs us:

All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic, heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available: gold, lead, copper, jet, diamond, radium, sapphire, silver and steel. Sapphire and Steel have been assigned.

That sounds a bit silly now (and probably did then, too), but that’s largely where any sci-fi campiness ends. Sapphire and Steel is a show that does more with less. Whoever calculated the show’s budget was apparently of the opinion that shows like Dr. Who were opulent eye candy, because special effects and multiple sets are in short supply on Sapphire and Steel. Sometimes, it seems like proper lighting was considered a luxury, too. In the end, though, that may be one of the show’s saving graces.

Each Assignment, as the seasons are called, makes a point of continually moving forward (granted, this is “moving forward” in ’80s terms, which may seem a bit slow to modern viewers) because it has very little slight-of-hand to rely upon. Whether it’s a haunted train station or a mystery involving people trapped in photographs by a faceless man, the show pits Steel’s hard realism against Sapphire’s more “human” approach, and doesn’t back away from the fact that humans can be an expendable commodity when the integrity of time is at stake.

We’re not even bogged down with Sapphire and Steel’s backgrounds — what they really are, where they come from, etc. — apart from cameos by some of the other agents. Over the course of the six seasons, though, we do learn much more about the characters as they relate to one another. Despite quick references to both Sapphire and Steel having had relationships with other agents, it’s obvious that the two love each other. That’s not the point of the series, though.

The show’s not perfect. Longer seasons can drag a bit, and the quality does vary from season to season (with Season 2’s train station storyline almost universally regarded as the show’s high point). This is intelligent, atmospheric, and sometimes puzzling science fiction that grows increasingly darker.

Shout! Factory does its usual fine job of pulling Sapphire and Steel out of the vaults. There’s a regrettable lack of substantive bonus material, but the transfer to DVD is solid and light years beyond the 10th generation VHS tapes that I and many other American fans contented ourselves with back in the day.

RATING 7 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.