Appellate Judge James A. Stewart is practicing telepathy, in case he ever interviews Joanna Lumley.
"There is a corridor, and the corridor is time. It surrounds all things, and passes through all things. You can't see it, only sometimes—and it's dangerous."—Sapphire
In a Comic Relief sketch, Joanna Lumley once regenerated into the Doctor. With Doctor Who giving its new Doctor a welcome something like the NFL Draft, Shout! Factory releases Sapphire and Steel: The Complete Series on DVD. Lumley is one of a pair of vaguely Doctor-like extraterrestrials who pop up to solve time puzzles. Her colleague is David McCallum, who a few viewers might have noticed in an obscure series called NCIS (Just kidding!), hence the release. Even creator P.J. Hammond is still relatively active, with recent Torchwood and Midsomer Murders scripts under his belt.
Facts of the Case
Sapphire and Steel: The Complete Series has six assignments totaling 34 episodes:
• "Assignment One" (six episodes)—Parents disappear while reading "Ring Around the Roses" to their daughter. Sapphire (Joanna Lumley, The New Avengers) and Steel (David McCallum, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) appear. So do some strange old soldiers and time colleague Lead (Val Pringle, Ragtime).
• "Assignment TWo" (eight episodes)—On a dark and stormy night, some old soldiers—and Sapphire and Steel—haunt a psychic investigator at a deserted train station. It's autumn, but summer flowers are in bloom.
• "Assignment Three" (six episodes)—Futuristic tourists visiting the eighties get strange visions from the thought of eating meat, so being cut off from supplies doesn't appeal to them. Sapphire and Steel might help—if they can enter the travelers' pod. Silver (David Collings, Scrooge) lends a hand.
• "Assignment Four" (four episodes)—A faceless man is escaping from photos—and wants to put Sapphire and Steel in the frame forever.
• "Assignment Five" (six episodes)—Sapphire and Steel turn up at a party on the Summer Solstice that recreates the 1930s. The 1930s make a surprising appearance as well, along with a long-dead scientist. Soon, guests start making disappearances.
• "Assignment Six" (four episodes)—Sapphire and Steel go to a remote service station for repairs, as do visitors from various time periods. What—or who—do the others want to fix?
There's a point in Sapphire and Steel when David McCallum complains that tampering with vintage photos is something you never should do; it could unleash creatures from time. I took note of the fact that the particular story used a lot of vintage-looking photos, and such photos are used as shorthand for flashbacks and the like that the production couldn't afford throughout the series. This must have been a very dangerous production, then. Glad everyone made it.
Sapphire and Steel is talky, full of vague rambling explanations that don't make sense (How often have you seen a retouched vintage photo?), and a cheap production, even down to the credits. Still, it can be scary. The DVD cover compares it to Doctor Who. Just as Sapphire looks at objects and susses out their era, I'd say it looks like what I've seen of the Patrick Troughton era. It's got lots of shadows for mood, and David McCallum and Joanna Lumley give every line a sinister reading that works better than you'd think. Strange noises—from a radio on permanent time loop to ghostly repeating nursery rhymes—fill the soundtrack. Creating a malevolent world in which throwaway gag lines meant to lighten the mood feel as out of place as an iPad in 1930 is Sapphire and Steel's strong suit, and it does it well.
There are some goofy bits, though, as Steel throws a teddy bear into a time vortex or Sapphire chases—and tries telepathy on—a page torn from a Mother Goose book. Sapphire's powers—she seems to have most of them, although Steel can become absolute zero cool—are usually accompanied by Lumley's strange stare and Kmart blue lights in her eyes. There's also a near-absence of outdoor shooting, and a 250-year-old farmhouse obviously looks like a set.
Sapphire and Steel are intriguing characters, but you'd much rather run into the Doctor. The stories usually have some nasty element, as when the pair has to make sure a murder happens in the 1930s, that make the show a little less friendly than Doctor Who. Their mission is to protect time, not people, after all.
For the most part, the stories compel, so watching six or eight chapters—with a cliffhanger structure similar to classic Doctor Who—in one sitting isn't a problem. I did skip over the opening scenes which repeat the previous segment's cliffhanger, and the loud pounding music of the credits.
Presented in standard def 1.33:1 full screen with Dolby 2.0 Mono audio, some of the scenes are hard to make out with all the shadows, and the loud music can get on your nerves. Unlike a Doctor Who release, Sapphire and Steel: The Complete Series lacks the extras that would put the series and its stories into historical perspective.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's something Sapphire and Steel doesn't do very well. "Assignment Five," the only one that isn't written by creator P.J. Hammond, is a light parody of Agatha Christie, with a tone more like Joanna Lumley's The New Avengers. Six episodes of it were too heavy, though. It even has a scene with Steel trying to disarm a possessed Sapphire without injuring her, a chestnut of The Avengers.
Even though I enjoyed the series, I was disappointed that it ends with a cliffhanger. Oh, and as for family viewing, there's a bare bum in there somewhere, plus the general malevolence could be scary. With both high and low points, Sapphire and Steel: The Complete Series might be a natural choice for a group viewing. I'm definitely saving it for that fondue party I dream of having one day.
How do I know I liked Sapphire and Steel? Up until listening to the rhymes over and over again in the first serial, I hadn't had a nursery rhyme stick in my head for ages. I'm not sure whether I should be thankful for that or not, but it's certainly memorable. Moreover, Joanna Lumley's Sapphire is a character who I found fascinating, even though her appearance generally signifies doom.
If you enjoy classic Doctor Who, you'll probably like Sapphire and Steel, although its abrupt end could be a problem. Thirty years later, with McCallum occupied with some other show, I doubt there'll be a TV movie to wrap it up. Although, Wikipedia does say that the show has been resumed as audio plays.
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