Sapphire & Steel #1: Escape Through a Crack in Time Part 1

"There are things - creatures, if you like - from the very beginnings of Time, and the very end of Time. And these creatures have access to the corridor. They're forever... moving along it. Searching... looking... trying to find a way in. They're always searching, always looking."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Jul.10 1979. Each series tells one whole story over the course of a variable number of usually twice-weekly 25-to-30-minute episodes. These have no titles, but the original Region 1 DVDs (not mine) give each "Assignment" (series) an overarching title, which is what I've used to differentiate them. It's unclear where these came from - some fanzine, potentially - and writer/creator Peter Hammond denies any involvement.

IN THIS ONE... Two kids' parents disappear down a time corridor triggered by a nursery rhyme. Sapphire and Steel have been assigned.

REVIEW: Famously rivaling The Prisoner for impenetrability, Sapphire & Steel never actually explained the details of its premise, but I don't think creator Peter Hammond even intended to. And so we never find out what kind of beings Sapphire, Steel and other "time elements" are, who or what actually assigns them, or even what "elements", more alchemical than scientific, have to do with anything. But that's fine. I'm all for ambiguity, and I love to read between the lines. The first episode of the series does tell us there are beings book-ending the space-time continuum trying to invade reality somewhere in the middle. Presumably, these beings are unhappy with the physical conditions at either end (because there are no other living beings there, or at least none to subjugate), or they might even be from before and after the universe's life span, or outside of it (or outside the three basic dimensions, nevertheless having access to the fourth, time). Whatever the case, they must be fought, and agents like Sapphire and Steel are reality's first line of defense, assigned by video graphics to stop any incursion. There's the case of a ship, briefly mentioned, but evoking stories like the Bermuda Triangle or the Mary Celeste, and there's the disappearance of these children's parents.

If the reasoning is scientific - time corridors and the like - it plays out as a haunted house story. A nursery rhyme from the days of the plague, "Ring Around the Rosie", makes clocks stop and parents vanish, the rhyme acting as a spell that spools the process forward and backward as it's recited front or back. We see ghosts that bridge the rhyme's age, and our time-mending duo immediately sees the danger inherent in an old house, full of old things, owned by an old family, saying old words. It's a "pressure point" through which a relatively large chunk of history can be accessed. Everything is designed to be creepy. An old house in the evening, apparently isolated on an island (the police would come by boat), just as Helen's room is an island in time. The claustrophobia is palpable. A little girl who likes to repeat things (and unfortunately, mumble them). Sound design that emphasizes the silence by blowing noises out or proportion. And where even the protagonists are a strange, aloof couple showing up at the kids' door out of the blue.

The older boy, Robert, is immediately taken by Sapphire (Joanna Lumley), however. She's beautiful in a posh, sophisticated kind of way, and her charisma and empathy are a necessary complement to David McCallum's Steel's, well, steeliness. He's cold and dour, always reminding the boy of the danger, in no way a comforting presence. Just note how he manhandles the little girl, not violently or even roughly, but without a hint of tenderness. Even so, Sapphire says some rather Doctorish things (and see On the Other Side of the Vortex for more Doctor Who connections), like when she takes a potshot at the "idiot" policeman Robert has called. She's not all smiles and hugs. She's just the ambassador, the face presented to the locals to keep them calm and on track while Steel stands staring in the background. The two "time CSIs" - that's as good a description as any, as they do a fair bit of procedural investigation - have a suite of powers available to them, like a telepathy and access to the time wardrobe Sapphire uses to change her look. It's all so bizarre, you can't question it.

Obviously, as ITV's answer to the BBC's Doctor Who, connections between the two series could prove an amusing diversion, just as comparing B5 to DS9 was. S&S is a spooky time travel show featuring aliens with unusual powers and personalities, in a sense tonally picking up where Who left off in the late 70s as Doctor's Gothic stories turned to silliness instead. Peter Hammond never wrote for Doctor Who per se, but he did write two Torchwood episodes, Small Worlds and Out of the Rain, both about strange abductions with a supernatural bent despite the science fiction framework. Joanna Lumley has the distinction of having played the first female Doctor, albeit in the non-canonical comedy episode Curse of the Fatal Death. Looking at this now, it's hard not to see the show as an influence to contemporary Who writers. Steven Moffat is, for example, rather obsessed with nursery rhymes and people disappearing through cracks in time.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - A great start, by turns creepy and intriguing, like a dark fairy tale from the post-Einstein age. And though it remains mysterious, it packs a lot of information in less than a half-hour.


Anonymous said...

What a great choice! Do you have plans to do the big finish continuation as well?

Siskoid said...

Not at this time, mostly because I'm already blowing my Big Finish budget as it is.

After all, if I did, I'd start getting pressure to review the Doctor Who ones, and that way lies madness.

dannyagogo said...

I have the boxed set of this series and watched it years ago. The first episode had incredibly slow pacing. The pacing reminded me of late-60s Dark Shadows or Strange Paradise episode in fact, like there wasn't enough dialogue to fill the 25 minutes...

Siskoid said...

We'll see in 5 days if that's a plus or a minus.

Timothy S. Brannan said...

I loved Sapphire and Steel. Just hearing "Sapphire and Steel have been assigned" still gives me goosebumps.

I have often thought about doing a Doctor Who game based on this series.

Siskoid said...

Funny you should say that.

I don't know if you remember DWAITAS posts about alt-campaigns, specifically Quantum Leap, Time Tunnel and Voyagers?

(shhh spoilers)

Martin Gray said...

I remember when this first aired, at 7pm or something, and it was tremendously unsettling - and not just because Joanna Lumley had shed the 'Purdey' bob. The mystery, the tone ... It was just so very creepy. I wonder how this would work Big Finish style. Hmm, time to go shopping ...

Siskoid said...

Yes, despite my being replete with BF Who to listen to, I may end up sampling the S&S audios in due course.


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