Sapphire and Steel

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"All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available: Gold, Lead, Copper, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver and Steel.

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Sapphire and Steel have been assigned."

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1979-1982 British Science Fiction series, ATV's answer to the classic Doctor Who series. The titular characters, played by Joanna Lumley and David McCallum, are inter-dimensional agents who protect, um, something. The opening monologue above is really all the explanation we ever get. Their role seems to involve preventing Lovecraftian horrors from slipping in through weak spots in time and snatching things. Exactly what this means – or for that matter, what Sapphire and Steel really are – never quite becomes clear.

Sapphire and Steel combat these breaks in time primarily by glowering at them. The show used minimal staging and special effects, with cinematography reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman. For example, Steel emptying a refrigerator is the closest thing to an action sequence in the third episode. This lent to the surreal and detached air about the characters, and also kept production costs in the single digits, but often gave the show the pacing of Star Trek: The Motion Picture on thorazine.

Sapphire and Steel were, in addition to being irascible and detached, telepathic. Sapphire also had the ability to "take back time", rewinding it a bit over a localized area, and could deduce the age and background of things and people by touching them (or perhaps the information was being transmitted to her by Mission Control; like everything else, it's not clear). This made her eyes glow blue. Steel, on the other hand, was even more detached and irascible, could sustain a temperature of absolute zero (allowing him to freeze, well, time), and was telekinetic. But mostly, they just stood very still and looked directly into the camera. Given the calibre of the actors in question, this is a lot more interesting -- and a lot more scary -- than it sounds, and McCallum and Lumley somehow manage to hold it together.

Other "elements" (there were allegedly 127, but the 12 transuranics were "unstable" and could not be used) occasionally assisted them: Lead and Silver both guest-starred, and others, such as Jet, are mentioned.

While most other notable British Science Fiction shows were over-ambitious in their special effects, with results ranging from the troubling (Doctor Who) to the disastrous (The Tomorrow People), S&S simply did not try to do anything the budget wouldn't allow. The result called for milking Surreal Horror for all it's worth, creating a show that is, while definitely not for everyone, quite capable of reducing so-inclined viewers to quivering little heaps behind the sofa.

Sapphire and Steel probably influenced The X-Files and Babylon 5. Its creator, Peter J. Hammond, would go on to write for Midsomer Murders, and also stand responsible for two of the most bizarre episodes of Torchwood, "Small Worlds" and "From Out of the Rain".

Revived by Big Finish as a series of audio dramas, casting Susannah Harker and David Warner in the title roles.

Along with Blake's 7 and Doctor Who, Sapphire and Steel forms the Holy Trinity of British Science Fiction television.


Tropes used in Sapphire and Steel include:
  • Anchored Ship: Sapphire and Steel clearly care for each other and occasionally make affectionate gestures, but the dynamics of their relationship are complex and never fully explained. The fact that they're not human complicates the issue quite a bit too.
  • Artistic License Chemistry: Of the "elements" mentioned by name in the opening titles, two are non-elemental gemstones and one is an alloy. It would be easier to overlook or Hand Wave if two of them weren't also the main characters. Hammond did the research, but he didn't particularly care as long as the title (and opening narration) had a cool ring to it.
  • The Bad Guy Wins / Downer Ending: Assignment 6.
  • Big No:
    • Rothwyn, in Assignment 3.
    • The ghost of the soldier in Assignment 2.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Assignments 2 and 5.
  • The Blank: Mr Shape in Assignment 4.
  • Black Eyes of Evil: Happens to Sapphire when channeling the darkness in Assignment 2.
  • Bridge: Sapphire is invited to join a game at the dinner party in Assignment 5, and gets so caught up in it that Steel fears she's been got at somehow.
  • Blue Eyes: Sapphire has mesmerizingly blue eyes that glow whenever she uses her Psychic Powers.
  • Bottle Episode: All of them.
    • The only location footage in the entire series was filmed on the roof of ATV's own offices, masquerading as an apartment block.
  • British Brevity: On for 6 "assignments" with a total of 34 episodes. Each assignment has 4-6 episodes, the longest one (Assignment 2) has 8.
  • Charm Person: As opposed to Steel, Sapphire has a very alluring personality which often attracts others. She can easily charm information out of people. It’s even slightly lampshaded in Assignment 5 after the secretary discovers that Sapphire was distracting her while Steel looked for information in the computer.
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Anne Shaw: That bitch!

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  • Cool Old Guy: George Tully might be mystified about how to handle the ghosts at the railway station, but he proves to be pretty useful anyway.
  • Creepy Child / Creepy Children Singing: The children in Assignment 4 repeatedly sing nursery rhymes and disappear at will.
  • Eldritch Abomination
  • Everyone Can See It: Played with. Tully notices quite quickly that Sapphire is "important" to Steel and Liz refers to Steel as Sapphire's boyfriend several times. They neither confirm nor deny either assumption about their relationship.
    • Everyone at the Mullrine dinner party in Assignment 5 believes Sapphire and Steel's cover story as a married couple. They don't have to do much to make it convincing.
  • Evil Counterpart: The Transient Beings to the protagonists and their ilk.
  • The Faceless: Whatever the "higher power" in the opening credits is supposed to be.
  • Fancy Dinner: In Assignment 5, Sapphire and Steel attend a 1930s theme party thrown by a rich businessman. Steel's near-complete ignorance of human etiquette gets a good airing, but Sapphire manages splendidly.
  • Fainting Seer: Sapphire spends a good deal of time unconscious after a seance goes wrong in Assignment 2.
  • Future Imperfect: The time travelers in Assignment 3 have nearly every detail correct -- but they're about a thousand years out in the matter of common English names.
  • God: Extremely creepy yet still good example.
  • Good Is Not Nice: Steel. He cares about saving human lives, but usually talks as though he couldn't care less.
    • The crowning example perhaps being when he makes poor old Mr. Tully a sacrificial offering to the darkness in Assignment 2, without Tully's permission, so that the ghosts can be freed, although he does inquire whether Tully has any dependents, and seems relieved that Tully's cats will be looked after by the neighbors.
  • I Do Not Drink... Wine: When offered a cocktail at a fancy dinner party in Assignment 5, Steel says he doesn't drink. Sapphire, however, has a glass of champagne.
  • Ironic Nursery Tune: In Assignment 1, Assignment 3, and Assignment 4, and any number of the audios.
  • Late Arrival Spoiler: The unofficial but widely-used episode titles, having been created by fans more concerned with having unambiguous referents to episodes they'd all seen already. For example, if you've seen it, you know exactly which Assignment matches the title "Doctor McDee Must Die", but if you haven't, the title gives away something major that's not revealed until over halfway through the story.
  • Living Shadow: The Darkness in Assignment 2.
  • Magical Security Cam
  • Meanwhile in the Future: A variation; since time is in a state of disarray, multiple time frames often coexist.
  • Name and Name
  • No Ontological Inertia: In Assignment 3, when Steel restores the Changeling to his proper form, everything the Changeling had touched is also restored.
  • No Sense of Personal Space: Even in mundane conversation, Sapphire and Steel have a habit of getting extremely close to one another when talking.
  • No Social Skills: Steel knows little of human social conventions and doesn't particularly care to learn.
  • The Nth Doctor: In the Big Finish audio dramas.
  • Opening Narration: Quoted above.
  • Open Says Me
  • Phantom Zone Picture: Somewhat in Assignment 1, and much more in Assignment 4.
  • The Power of Rock: Sometimes it works, sometimes...not so much. Also, it's usually traditional songs.
  • Pstandard Psychic Pstance: Averted. Sapphire has a characteristic stance -- whenever she channels information or takes time forward/backward she stands still and her eyes glow a bright blue -- but it's not the pstandard pstance.
  • Psychic Link: Sapphire and Steel can communicate telepathically and are very in tune to each others thoughts and feelings. Presumably, all agents can communicate this way because Silver and Lead also have this ability.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: Private. Ess. PEARCE!
  • Reset Button: Used in both Assignments 1 and 5. In Assignment 1, Sapphire and Steel save Rob and succeed in freezing the the evil-light. Sapphire takes time back and everything returns to normal for Rob. At the end of Assignment 5, Sapphire and Steel walk out of the Mulrine mansion and the dinner party begins again as though they were never there.
  • Sacrificial Lamb: Mr. Tully is sacrificed, without his consent, by Steel to the darkness at the end of Assignment 2 to save the ghosts from a Fate Worse Than Death.
  • Scary Black Man: Lead on his first appearance, though he soon turns out to be the Gentle Giant variety.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: How Sapphire and Steel contain Mr. Shape at the end of Assignment 4.
  • Sealed Room in the Middle of Nowhere: Sapphire and Steel's fate at the end of Assignment 6. The café was a trap all along and everyone in the diner except Silver was in on it. The last scene of the show has Sapphire and Steel trapped in the café, destined to drift out in space for eternity.
  • Shrug of God: Hammond has said in interviews that he knows nothing about who and what Sapphire and Steel, their colleagues and their opponents really are beyond what was in the stories.
  • Shoot the Dog: In Assignment 2, Steel makes a deal with Time by giving it a perfectly innocent man (who he does not bother to consult first on the matter) in exchange for releasing its hold on an abandoned railway station. In the Big Finish audio "Daisy Chain", a similar scene plays out, but is a good deal creepier: Sapphire talks a teenage girl into committing suicide while Steel keeps her family distracted.
  • Soul Brotha: Lead
  • Special Effects Evolution: If you know much about 1980s post-production effects, it's obvious that the effects people got a new toy to play with for Assignment 6, resulting in some effects that actually impress. And then the series was cancelled.
  • The Spock: Both of them, but Sapphire has a fair share of McCoy moments.
  • Spooky Seance: Sapphire and Steel agree to give Tully's methods a chance by holding a seance. With Sapphire as a medium, Steel and Tully communicate with several ghosts that have gathered at the railway station.
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Aborted. In the last episodes, Mercury takes the place of Lead in the opening narration, though the series was cancelled before he appeared in person.
  • Teacher-Student Romance: Played with. The dead soldier in Assignment 2 had a relationship with a woman who used to be his teacher, after he was out of school.
  • The Teaser
  • Telepathy: Sapphire and Steel communicate with each other using their minds. Other agents, like Silver, also have this ability. Sapphire can also read human minds when the conditions are right.
  • Television Serial
  • Theme Naming: The "elements" in general; and more specifically, it's worth noting that of the ones whose gender is known, the female ones are gemstones and the male ones are metals -- except Copper.
  • Time Is Dangerous: And how. All of Sapphire and Steel's assignments involve time doing something nefarious.
  • Timey-Wimey Ball
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Sapphire & Steel; Sapphire & Silver. Fanon also assumes UST between Steel & Jet.
  • Video Inside, Film Outside: In Assignment 3, the establishing shots of the apartment building and the scene of the roof are filmed. Every other story was studio-bound and video-only, even for scenes set outdoors.
  • Whispering Ghosts: When the Darkness moves around the railway station, creepy whispering voices always follow it.
  • Woman in Black: The woman at the end of Assignment 6.
    • Subverted when Sapphire wears a lovely black gown in Assignment 5.