By Owen Quinn author of the Time Warriors and Zombie Blues
Time- oh, time. As Picard says, it’s the companion that walks alongside us through life; to the Doctor and his friends, it’s the ocean in which they swim daily. To Sam Beckett it’s where he can put right where things once went wrong; to the Star trek crews it’s the one place they find themselves in that cannot be altered in case there’s a war with the Klingons except of course if your name’s JJ Abrams, then nothing is sacred, especially if you’re a Vulcan. Talk about kicking a culture when it’s down.
But what if time was your enemy? A living breathing entity that could enter our reality and literally do what it pleased with the innocent and unsuspecting? What if it were the ultimate silent killer; no maniacal laugh, no grand schemes, no boasting of its plans to the hero. What if it were the ultimate enemy where the war literally would never end? No matter how many times you stopped it, another scheme would pop up somewhere else.
And who could possibly stand against such an enemy?
Well, that’s where you call in Sapphire and Steel.
This show slipped onto our screens almost without a fanfare in 1979 and ran until 1982 on ITV. Produced by ATV and written almost entirely by P J Hammond. The only exception was story 5 which was co-written by Anthony Read and Don Houghton, names familiar to Doctor Who fans. Hammond himself incidentally has gone on to contribute two scripts to Torchwood- Small Worlds and From Out of the Rain.
Starring David McCallum and Joanna Lumley (Man from Uncle and The new Avengers respectively), Sapphire and Steel are elementals in human form who are assigned each time to stop whatever is happening. They have mental abilities far beyond anything we know but they can be killed or at least displaced.
At the start of each episode a fiery web would appear with a voice over that would tell you irregularities have been found and that Sapphire and Steel have been assigned (see below).
Uniquely each story has no title and is known only as story one, two etc and each was basically a stage play with the third story the only one having any location filming.
The greatest tool any show has to scare its audiences is to make normal, every day things turn against us and in story 1 it was the use of nursery rhymes.
In a house in the country, a mother and father are singing a nursery rhyme to their daughter when some force invades leaving the child alone. All the clocks stop and the parents have vanished. Calling the police only brings Sapphire and Steel.
The series boasted limited special effects and no background music – again making it a stage play of sorts. This only added to the atmosphere and in a lot of respects when the nursery rhymes like Ring around the Rosie and Goosey Goosey Gander are being used by the entity it is very Amityville Horror/ Poltergeist in nature. This utterly terrified the viewer, as winds would strike up out of nowhere as it tried to kill our heroes.
Steel was gruff, with poor people skills, while Sapphire was more caring. Joanna Lumley was stunning as Sapphire and their underplayed partnership conveyed a deep trust and caring between the two. Long before Steven Moffat made the phrase ‘Tick tock goes the clock’ frightening in Doctor Who, Sapphire and Steel were doing this in abundance. Hammond infused them with lines that could chill to the bone: ‘A-tishoo, a-tishoo, we all fall down’ took on a whole new meaning as the force tried to lure the children – and our heroes – into its trap and much more effectively than Who has ever done.
Add the claustrophobic constraints of a house and a simple landing and the show worked perfectly, and to this day remains a fan favourite. There is a real sense that they will not succeed in saving the day as time attacks again and again, manipulating the simple phrases of a nursery rhyme to open dimensions and trap Sapphire in a painting. If she moves one muscle she will be trapped forever and this is where we see the magic of this show. Steel is helpless to save her and desperately races to free her. Here he is forced to rely on the children and using his emotion to save her but there are no hugs or smiles when he does. The look between the pair conveys a thousand words which highlights their alien qualities and deep respect at the same time. While Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers were special effect filled extravaganzas, Sapphire and Steel works best on minimalism.
Language is the key to this series and knowing what can scare people. Like Danny Glick scraping at the window whispering to be let in in Salem’s Lot scared the life out of people, so Sapphire and Steel achieve this effect in equal measure.
As I have already said ‘We all Fall Down’ resonates to this day as it takes on a whole new meaning in this story when twisted by the evil. The world’s survival depends literally on a child not saying these words, something that is the norm for all children. Looping a policeman in time so he is eternally knocking a front door is another example of the beauty of this show. The house is a battleground where children are being used to subvert reality. There is no conscience, no morality, just a cold determination by evil to imprint itself on our world. The resolution lies in the past itself but unlike other shows there is no heart-felt goodbyes at the climax. The problem is solved and Sapphire and Steel simply vanish like ghosts. Maybe modern horror trying to emulate a good ghost story should stop for a moment and look back at this story. It is a quintessential master class in not only how to write a scary story but how to execute it as well. And that’s why this show remains one of the most loved in sci-fi history.