Sunday, November 16, 2014

From the Archive: Sapphire and Steel: Assignment 4 (1980)

As I noted in my earlier post this morning, Sapphire and 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 over thirty years ago, and there were six, multi-part stories overall.

Usually, an entire multi-part serial is  set at just one location (like a haunted train station, an isolated country house; an abandoned antique shop, or even a futuristic penthouse apartment building). 

Each of the serials also features 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. Sapphire and 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 sight, in the shadows...but present, powerful and malicious.

In particular, Sapphire and Steel recounts the adventures of two distinctly non-human protagonists who combat such forces.

Sapphire (a beautiful and charismatic woman, played by Joanna Lumley) and un-emotional, arrogant Steel (David McCallum) are our enigmatic leads. They are "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, "Sapphire and Steel" have been "assigned;" though they are sometimes aided by "Specialists" such as Silver.

What this all 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."

Meanwhile, 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, ingenious and unconventional 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 as well..

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 and 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 and 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 an Steel's world per serial, and that's just as it should be. 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 and 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.

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 monologue/poem is just great; a kind of vacant, half-remembered terror, like a nursery rhyme from childhood.

I love this artistic way of generating chills, and in general, greatly admire the manner in which Sapphire and 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 of horror. 

For instance, this serial also involves the unnerving repetition of another 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 adventure 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and Steel themselves become frozen inside an old photograph, 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 and Steel. Over this un-moving 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 and Steel taps the same kind of horror, suggesting that you can actually see this "Monster" in every photograph you keep in those old family 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 idea is 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 and 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 and 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 and 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. I recently re-watched this show for the first time since it terrified the hell out of me as a child. Thought every individual element of it held very well, with one misgiving - each of the stories is dragged out a lot longer than it needs to be. Other than that, a remarkably atmospheric creation.

  2. Anonymous12:16 PM

    I always thought of this series as the converse of Leiber's The Big Time.

    S&S operates in our real world, with only hints of what's going on outside time.

    The Big Time operates outside of time, but there's still only hints of what's really going on.

    (I've always wondered whether the Spiders and Snakes shared the same R&R facilities on The Big Time, as no one seems to know which side they're actually on.)