Sapphire and Steel (TV, 2007)

A review of the 2007 DVD release of the seminal SF/horror series. From Death Ray 8. There’s my interview with the creator, PJ Hammond, here.

1979-1982/850mins /PG

Starring: David McCallum and Joanna Lumley

Written and created by: PJ Hammond

Travel back in time and revisit your childhood TV terrors with the enigmatic elemental agents, Sapphire and Steel.


Joanna Lumley. She looks a little like my wife, you know.

Time is not merely a dimension to the universe, but also a monstrous, unfathomable force bent on destruction. So runs the unusual premise of PJ Hammond’s eerie SF masterpiece.

Lurking on the edge of the science fiction genre like one of time’s spooky manifestations, Sapphire and Steel owes as much to the English ghost story as it does to mainstream SF. The show deals in malevolent, cosmic things that move just beyond the periphery of humankind’s dim vision, and in that it is akin to Lovecraft, but the settings and the tone and the nature of time’s extrusions – Roundheads, WWI soldiers, faceless men in bowler hats – are British ghouls worthy of MR James or Algernon Blackwood.

That the origins of Sapphire and Steel themselves are never made explicit adds to the sense of unease: ghosts fighting ghosts in places made all the more unsettling by their familiarity.

Nearly thirty years old, Sapphire and Steel stands up very well. The lighting and set design are streets ahead of much glaringly lit, 1970s TV. PJ Hammond is a master writer, with a talent for immersive dialogue, though no-one in a drama will ever speak naturalistically, Hammond’s character’s come closer than most, further building the sense that these are ordinary people trapped in dangerous circumstances beyond their understanding, and taking us away from the stagey nature of the period’s telly.

The glacial perfection of the leads cannot be forgotten either. Lumley is statuesque and charming, McCallum is slight and brooding. There may be kindness and irascibility respectively laid over Sapphire and Steel’s alien personas, but the actors never leave us any doubt that their characters are far from human.

Though each adventure is overly long at between four and eight twenty-five episodes, there remains much to chill in this grown-up answer to Doctor Who. So what if its budget is so small as to be almost invisible? Ripe for a remake, surely.

Extras: Not a bumper crop for a special edition, but we’re nevertheless adequately served by commentaries from Hammond and producer Shaun O’Riordan on the very first and very last episodes, several PDFs of scripts, studio floorplans and PR material, and image galleries. The best extra is ‘Counting Out Time’, a documentary made especially for this set and featuring Hammond, Lumley and McCallum.

Did you know…?

Though called “elements”, some of the agents’ code names are not. Sapphire is a variety of the mineral Corundum – mostly made up of Aluminium Oxide. Aluminium is an element, Sapphire is not. Steel is basically an alloy of two elements – carbon and iron. Jet is a mineraloid (major constituent element carbon). But Silver, Gold, Radium, Copper, Mercury and Lead are elements.

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