Saturday, August 02, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 53: Sapphire & Steel: Adventure 4 (1980)

Sapphire & Steel (1979-1982) is a textbook example of a TV series that does a lot with very, very little. This resourceful genre series ran for four years on British television almost thirty years ago, and there were six, multi-part stories overall.

Usually, an entire multi-part serial was set at just one location (like a haunted train station; an isolated country house; an abandoned antique shop, or even a futuristic penthouse apartment). Each of the serials also featured absolutely minimal special effects, and (for the most part) only a handful of guest cast. The result, however is a triumph of mood and atmosphere; one of the most suspenseful, creative and compelling (not to mention weirdest...) series of all time. It's also one of my personal favorites.

It's portentous. It's mysterious. It raises more questions than it answers. It is...unnerving and enigmatic. So much of our entertainment (even in the genre, alas...) is obvious and superficial. By contrast, Sapphire & Steel (created by Peter Hammond) is like a puzzle; one that demands to be solved and understood. As a series, it focuses intensely on the notion of of "The Unseen." Of Evil Forces lurking in the periphery of reality, just out of the shadows...but present and powerful (and malicious...).

In particular, Sapphire & Steel recounts the adventures of two distinctly non-human protagonists. Sapphire (a beautiful and charismatic woman, played by Joanna Lumley) and un-emotional, arrogant Steel (David McCallum) are our enigmatic leads. They're "Operatives" working at the behest of another Unseen Force to repair breaches and incursions into Time Itself (which in one episode is described as "a long tunnel"). Such "irregularities" in time, according to the opening narration of the series are "handled by the forces controlling each dimension." In the cases we see on the sTV eries, "Sapphire & Steel" have been "assigned;" though they are sometimes aided by "Specialists" such as Silver. Got that?

What this amounts to is - in essence - a paranormal police procedural of a most unique and singular quality, with Sapphire and Steel utilizing their special unearthly skills to preserve the integrity of time. Sapphire is a touch-telepath capable of psychometry, for instance. She also possess the unusual ability to "take back time" twelve hours. The cold-blooded (and calculating...) Steel can reduce his body's core temperature to "absolute zero," is incredibly strong, and possesses the ability to open any lock on any door. Sapphire and Steel also communicate telepathically on several occasions throughout the series; as if the very act of talking is beneath them; somehow primitive or human. And that's one aspect of the series I really like: humanity is not at the center of this show's drama or narrative. We're not delicate snowflakes; we are not the prized children of the universe (like in Star Trek or Dr. Who). Humanity is involved in the stories; at the center of several time breaches, but mankind is treated more as a nuisance and less as God's gift to creation. That's an inventive and ingenious view.

There's always a great joy in watching opposites Mulder and Scully interact on The X-Files and there's a similar thrill in watching the partnership of Sapphire and Steel here. Steel is a tough-minded, a bossy brooder; Sapphire boasts a devilish sense of humor and has a gleam in her eye. Although the actors' deliver their lines deadpan and non-emotionally, a whole universe of subtle emotion flourishes between the lines; in their eye-contact; in their physicality; in their tone, in Sapphire's occasional smile, even in their proximity to one another. These are amazing performances which strongly "hint" alien, but are also filled with a kind of nuanced complexity and humanity.

Today, I've decided to focus on the fourth adventure in the series, which is sometimes known as "The Man Without A Face." Here, Sapphire & Steel are assigned to investigate a new breach in time, one that occurs at an English antique shop (and connected upstairs apartments) in England of 1980. In particular, a "time break" involving antique photographs has occurred. A faceless man -- one who won't show his real face -- has broken out of his prison inside an old photograph, and come into the real world with a devilish agenda. Sapphire & Steel attempt to deal with this interloper, and early in the episode share a spirited debate about their purpose and mission, wondering whether it is better to arrive after Time's integrity has been breached; or rather to sit around waiting for it to happen. Sapphire notes that "there aren't enough of us" to wait in the locations of Time Breaks, to which Steel scoffs. This enigmatic conversation -- with precious few specifics -- is about as much background as we get on Sapphire & Steel's world per serial. Just hints. Just touches.

This fourth adventure deals explicitly with the idea that a life-form - an evil one - dwells inside every photograph across the span of human history. It lived inside the first photo ever taken; and it lives inside the photo you just took this morning before you read my blog. "Each and every photo is mine," it says with coiled menace. Apparently, this thing was trapped within the world of the photograph (an infinite world, Steel suggests), but the amateur conjuring of a photographer living in this very building -- the combining of a very old image with a new image inside a kaleidoscope - has released it into our reality. This monster possesses fearsome powers too. For instance, he can trap living beings inside photographs. In one of the most horrific (not gory, but horrific...) scenes I've ever seen on television, Sapphire & Steel stand by helpless while the Man with No Face burns up a photograph with a living woman trapped inside it. We see the photograph burn to ash, and we hear her dying screams as she is seared alive. Yikes.

Before she is killed, this innocent woman communicates to Sapphire her first sight of the released Man with No Face. She does so not in straight eyewitness testimony, but in the creepy sing-song of a poem she half-remembers. She recites the poetry as if in a daze, a trance. "As I was going up a stair, I met a man who wasn't there. He wasn't there again today; [although] I wish he'd stay away..." The delivery of this is just great; a kind of vacant, half-remembered terror.

I love this artistic way of generating chills, and in general, greatly admire the manner in which Sapphire & Steel utilizes clever, memorable and intelligent language to foster authentic and deep scares. It has no monster costumes and no special effects to rely on, so it reaches for (and frequently grasps) a more literary, more cerebral style. For instance, this serial also involves the unnerving repetition of an old Nursery rhyme, "This is the way to London Town..." A clutch of sepia-tone "ghost" children (replete with deathly pallor) whisper this rhyme again and again in the episodes, and it gets under the skin real quick. Combined with eerie sound effects (particularly in a scene in which Sapphire attempts to turn back time to see the "real face" of the Photograph Man), these vocal touches are very effective.

But I reserve my greatest admiration for the precise, meticulous camera-work of Sapphire & Steel. The photography is so beautifully-vetted, so utterly painstaking that it actually creates scares too. All by itself. I note, for instance, the preponderance of shots in this fourth adventure featuring our protagonists (Sapphire & Steel) perched behind bars (of a half-lit staircase; of an iron gate, and so on), indicating a sense of entrapment and doom. I note also the shadows on the walls, simultaneously frozen and yet foreboding -- suggesting the presence of the Unseen. Every episode of Sapphire & Steel is like this: rigorously, scrupulously-mounted. I know of few series (besides The X-Files and Millennium) where the staging is so picture-perfect; so chilling. It's fascinating, but in eschewing transitory special effects and focusing instead on extremely careful camerawork, Sapphire & Steel today looks not dated...but rather...timeless.

Even the climax of this fourth episode is something of an audacious masterwork; a master's thesis on economy of storytelling. Sapphire & Steel themselves become frozen inside an old photography, and must telepathically communicate with a human woman to free them. All the while, the Man with No Face nears...ready to burn our heroes to cinders. The scene thus involves a long sequence in which the audience is gazing at nothing but a photograph of Sapphire & Steel. Over this unmoving image, we hear their dazed conversation. They are frozen, slow, unable to concentrate, and the visual lingering on a "still" serves as the perfect reflection of their paralysis. As evil approaches, the paralysis becomes practically tangible.

Some of the greatest horror in history involves the idea that commonplace things (or locations) are dangerous. For instance, the shower in Psycho. Or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which suggests that sleep is the venue through which mankind will lose his soul. Well, we all have to sleep, don't we? This adventure of Sapphire & Steel taps the same kind of thorror, suggesting that you can actually see this "Monster" in every photograph you keep in those albums. That...maybe he's that figure in the background; the one with his back to the camera; or half-turned away from you. Or maybe he lurks in the distance, in one of the upper windows of that building far back in the frame. This is amazing and chilling, and this kind of horror requires very little by way of special effects. The episode's valedictory frisson arises from the universal nature of this beast (once more trapped, but not killed). Sapphire & Steel warn the young lady (a dancer) who rescued them: "never to have another photograph taken." Why? Because that thing will always be there with her, lurking. "In years to come," it tells her with a hiss, "I'll find a photograph...nothing lasts but me."

Impressive in narrative and awe-inspiring in visualization, Sapphire & Steel's fourth serial is a perfect little horror gem. One setting. A few characters. A terrible menace. The Unseen lurks in the shadows, in photographs...even in mirrors, and you get the unsettling feeling that Sapphire & Steel barely scrape by unscathed.

And that last bit? About escaping unscathed? It's not always the case on this remarkable science-fiction/horror series...


  1. Anonymous4:12 PM

    Ah, Sapphire and Steel. It was good to see this little British jewel of a scifi show discussed. I personally prefer the train station episode as the best source of chills and mystery, but the episode discussed is certainly worthy, also. I bought the complete series on DVD a few years back and thoroughly enjoyed the trip down memory lane. Cheers.

  2. The train station episode is amazing. What a creep-show! Actually, all the shows are pretty amazing. I wanted to discuss the last serial, but then I'd be getting into spoiler territory...


  3. Vincent Paul Bartilucci9:10 PM

    Have you had the opportunity to listen to ny f the new Sapphire & Steel audio adventures produced by Big Finish? I beleive there are about a dozen released on CD, so far.

    I purchased the first adventure entitled The Passenger. The roles of Sapphire and Steel are essayed here by David warner and Susannah Harker and they're both wonderful. And the story is pretty darn entertaining with a really creepy nursery rhyme about a train playing a small but crucial role in the mystery.

    On the down side, it doesn't really address the end of the TV series. Maybe one of the later CDs will explain how ....

    Nah, I wouldn't do that, would I?