Sapphire and Steel (1979-1982) is a British series sitting squarely at the intersection of Science Fantasy and Horror. It was created by ATV, one of ITV's regional franchises, and was probably the best of ITV's several attempts to produce or buy in an answer to The BBC's classic-era Doctor Who. The title characters, played by Joanna Lumley and David McCallum, are stoic 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 themselves really are — never quite becomes clear.
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.
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.
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 (1973)), S&S simply did not try to do anything the budget wouldn't allow. The result called for milking Surreal Horror for all its 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. He would also stand responsible for two of the most bizarre episodes of Torchwood, "Small Worlds" and "From Out of the Rain", which are more like Sapphire and Steel than they are most other Torchwood episodes. He also wrote the Doctor Who story "Paradise 5", which would have been part of the original Season 23 (which was cancelled), and was eventually produced by Big Finish.
From 2005 to 2008, Big Finish released a series of Sapphire & Steel audio dramas; unusually for Big Finish's audio ranges, the original cast did not return—bar David Collings as Silver—so Susannah Harker and David Warner were cast in the title roles. (McCallum, a series regular on NCIS, was living in the US; Lumley simply declined. That said, both are on record as still fond of the series and proud of their work on it.) The range is currently unavailable due to licensing issues.
Sapphire and Steel provides examples of the following tropes:
- 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, one is a specific carbon allotrope, and one is an alloy. It would be easier to overlook or handwave 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.
- Listing both "diamond" (= carbon, atomic weight 12.011) and the likes of radium (226.0254) and gold (196.966) as "medium-weight elements" rather implies that Stoic Extra-Dimensional Entities Have No Sense Of Scale.
- 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 4-8 episodes.
- Charm Person: As opposed to Steel, Sapphire is "the diplomat" and can quickly develop a rapport with humans. She can use this to charm information out of people.
- Cliffhanger: Every episode, except for the end of each Assignment, has one.
- Closed Circle: Happens in Assignments 3, 5, and 6. In Assignment 1 it's Sapphire and Steel who are stopping people from entering or leaving, and in Assignments 2 and 4 Steel (unsuccessfully) tries to get human bystanders to leave before things get too serious.
- Cosmic Horror Story: The universe as humans perceive it is a small patch of light surrounded by dark and nameless horrors that are always trying to break in. Sapphire and Steel and their colleagues fight them, but battles are not always won, and there's no prospect of an end to the war.
- Distress Ball: Sapphire needs to be rescued an awful lot. According to Word of God, this was deliberate and meant to be justified in the context of their roles: Sapphire was conceived as the member of the duo who investigated and sensed what was going on, and Steel as the one who did things about it. Because her powers were more about detecting danger than getting out of it, this meant that hers was actually the more dangerous role of the two.
- Eldritch Abomination: The series' main antagonist(s). Maybe.
- The Faceless: Whatever the "higher power" in the opening credits is supposed to be.
- The Gad Fly: Silver loves to pick on Steel because Steel is so serious, and often says things—or flirts with Sapphire—just to get a rise or reaction out of him.
- Glowing Eyes: Sapphire's eyes glow bright blue when she's using her powers.
- Good Cop/Bad Cop: In most of their interactions with humans, Sapphire is "good" and Steel "bad".
- Good Is Not Nice: Steel. He cares about saving human lives, but usually talks as though he couldn't care less.
- Humanoid Abomination: Possibly, Sapphire, Steel, and their colleagues.
- 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.
- Meanwhile, in the Future : A variation; since time is in a state of disarray, multiple time frames often coexist.
- Metallic Motifs: Steel, Lead, and Silver all have symbolic connections to the metals they're named for.
- Mind Screw
- Minimalist Cast: The number of guest characters in each Assignment can usually be counted on one hand. Assignment Five averts this by having a fairly large cast that gets whittled down over the course of the story.
- My Significance Sense Is Tingling: The primary way Sapphire and Steel determine how time operates in any given assignment. They are able to sense time breaks and villainous presences using their otherworldly talents.
- Name and Name
- No Sense of Humor: Steel. Silver loves to crack jokes with Sapphire or at Steel just to see them fly over Steel's head or just simply annoy him.
- 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.
- Nothing Is Scarier: This series loves this trope.
- Occult Blue Eyes: Sapphire has mesmerizingly blue eyes that glow whenever she uses her Psychic Powers.
- Ontological Mystery: The series has these both on a story-by-story basis and as a whole. The audience never understands the real nature of The 'Verse presented here.
- Opening Narration: Quoted above.
- The Power of Rock: Sometimes it works, sometimes... not so much. Also, it's usually traditional songs.
- Often a favorite technique of the forces which S&S fight against, as chanting or whistling an old-time tune or engaging party-goers with vintage songs serves to draw unsuspecting bystanders deeper into whatever "irregularity" is going on.
- Power Trio: When Sapphire and Steel are joined by either Lead or Silver. Is a Token Trio when joined by Lead, and a trio of Beauty, Brains, and Brawn when joined by Silver.
- Pragmatic Hero
- Pstandard Psychic Pstance: Averted with Sapphire, who has a characteristic stance — whenever she channels information or takes time forward/backward she stands still and her eyes glow a bright blue — but 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.
- Psychometry: One of Sapphire's abilities.
- Reality Bleed: A common problem, particularly in the form of different time zones bleeding into the present.
- Sharp-Dressed Man: Silver.
- The Spock: Both of them, but Sapphire has a fair share of McCoy moments.
- The Stoic: Steel.
- Surreal Horror: The series' stock in trade.
- Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Averted. In the last episodes, Mercury takes the place of Lead in the opening narration, though the series was cancelled before he appeared in person.
- The Teaser: The first episode in every assignment has a cold open teaser that introduces the setting and guest cast. Later episodes use the cliffhanger reprise as a teaser.
- Technopath: Silver.
- 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.
- 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, of course; Sapphire & Silver, of whom Steel gets adorably jealous in Assignment 3. Fanon also assumes UST between Steel & Jet based on Jet "sending her love" in Assignment 1.
- Video Inside, Film Outside: In Assignment 3, the establishing shots of the apartment building and the scenes on the roof are filmed. Every other story was studio-bound and video-only, even for scenes set outdoors.
(Please note that even the name of a trope may be a major spoiler for the episode it appears in.)
Two children are left alone in an isolated house when their parents vanish into thin air, and their only hope appears to be an enigmatic woman and man calling themselves "Sapphire" and "Steel".
- Decoy Protagonist: This story is made largely from the point-of-view of the boy Rob. Later stories, the characters being established, would follow Sapphire and Steel themselves more closely.
- Ear Worm: A weaponized version, when the entity puts a rhyme into Helen's head to try to force her to recite it aloud.
- Gentle Giant: Lead.
- Ironic Nursery Tune: The malevolent Time uses a nursery rhyme from a child's storybook to enter this universe.
- It Can Think: The first time Steel seems at all perturbed by events is when he informs Sapphire that the Time-breach itself seems to exhibit the ability to reason and plan this time.
- "Open!" Says Me:Steel: It's locked.
[Lead thumps the door, which falls off its hinges.]
Lead: It isn't now.
- Phantom Zone Picture: Sapphire is trapped inside a painting, and almost killed by Roundhead soldiers before she is rescued.
- Reset Button: At the end, after the source of the trouble has been dealt with, Sapphire takes time back and the story ends with a repeat of the events that began the first episode (but this time without devolving into spooky goings-on).
- Scary Black Man: Lead on his first appearance, though he soon turns out to be the Gentle Giant variety.
- Soul Brotha: Lead
- Stealth Pun: When Sapphire is saved from the painting, the Roundheads get a taste of cold Steel.
- Stock Unsolved Mysteries: The disappearance of the Mary Celeste is revealed to have been a past assignment. Sapphire, Steel, and Lead were apparently involved.
- When Props Attack: Surprisingly averted. Although obviously done with wires, the poltergeist sequences are surprisingly frightening, and devoid of actors waving props around and pretending to fight them.
Sapphire and Steel arrive at a derelict railway station, where an amateur spiritualist is investigating reports of ghostly manifestations.
- Bait-and-Switch: Upon meeting Tully as he comes off the footbridge, Steel tells him that he is from the "other side" ... as in, the other platform of the station. Given that it's Steel who says it, it's all but impossible to decide if he's trolling the man or not.
- Big "NO!": The ghost of the soldier.
- Bittersweet Ending: The Darkness is dealt with, and the ghosts given release, but at the cost of Mr. Tully's life.
- Black Eyes of Evil: Happens to Sapphire when channeling the Darkness.
- Condensation Clue: A series of 11s keep reappearing on a hotel room window, finger-etched in grime. They indicate the exact date and time of Private Pearce's death.
- 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.
- Disastrous Demonstration: Three of the ghosts died of asphyxiation after the sea-trial demonstration of the submarine they'd help build had Gone Horribly Wrong, stranding them on the seabed.
- Emotion Eater: The Darkness feeds on resentment.
- Fainting Seer: Sapphire spends a good deal of time unconscious after a seance goes wrong.
- Good Is Not Nice: In perhaps the crowning example from the series, Steel makes poor old Mr. Tully a sacrificial offering to the Darkness, 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 cat will be looked after by the neighbors.
- Ironic Nursery Tune: Though not technically a nursery rhyme, the usually upbeat "Pack up your Troubles in your Old Kit Bag" is used to much the same effect, with a vengeful soldier's ghost whistling it constantly.
- Living Shadow: The Darkness.
- Mood Dissonance: After they have won by abandoning Mr. Tully to a horrible death at best and eternal torment at worst, Sapphire and Steel literally skip off into nothingness doing jazz hands, in what almost looks like a parody of the Morecambe and Wise ending sequence.
- Nightmare Face: When Sapphire is possessed by the Darkness there's a brief flash of her face as what looks like a huge mass of cancerous tumours.
- Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: Private. Ess. PEARCE!
- Retirony: The fighter pilot, who died in a crash on his last flight before he was due to be demobilized.
- Sacrificial Lamb: Mr. Tully is sacrificed, without his consent, by Steel to the Darkness to save the ghosts from a Fate Worse than Death.
- Shoot the Dog: 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.
- Sound of Darkness: The Darkness is accompanied by the whispering of the souls bound to it.
- Sound-Only Death: The last we hear of Tully is an awful scream before the Darkness devours him.
- Spooky Séance: 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.
- Teacher/Student Romance: The dead soldier had a relationship with a woman who used to be his teacher, after he was out of school.
- Whispering Ghosts: When the Darkness moves around the railway station, creepy whispering voices always follow it.
A time-travel experiment by historians from the far future goes horribly wrong, and Sapphire, Steel, and their technical assistant Silver have to pick up the pieces.
- Big "NO!": Rothwyn.
- Cut Apart: Used when Sapphire and Steel enter the flat on the top floor of the block, leading to the revelation that the time travellers are not in that flat, but in a replica of the flat located in an invisible capsule on the roof of the building.
- Driven to Suicide: The occupants of the other experimental capsules resorted to this when faced with no way out.
- Extinct in the Future: This arc features a family of time travelers from a distant future where all animal life on Earth is extinct.
- Future Imperfect: The time travellers have nearly every detail correct — but they're about a thousand years out in the matter of common English names.
- Humans Are the Real Monsters: The revelations about the source of the future people's technology.
- Hypocrisy Nod:Steel: Nobody should mess around with time.
Sapphire: Except us.
Steel: Except us.
- Ironic Nursery Tune: The leitmotif for the changeling is a creepified version of the lullaby his mother sang him when he was a baby.
- Magical Security Cam: Almost averted, as the capsules' surveillance cameras produce fixed-angle images with no zooms or other dramatic trickery — except in one sequence, which cuts between Sapphire in Capsule 3 and Sapphire's image on a monitor screen; the monitor screen image is clearly the same footage with a video effect on it, and includes a dramatic zoom.
- No Name Given: Rothwyn and Eldrid never refer to their baby by name, and the changeling doesn't know it either.
- No Ontological Inertia: When Steel restores the changeling to his proper form, everything the changeling had touched is also restored.
- Organic Technology: Used by the time travellers. It turns out to be very unhappy about being used for that purpose.
- Pstandard Psychic Pstance: Rothwyn uses the pstance.
- Psychopathic Manchild: The changeling, as he's a baby raised to adulthood and mind-controlled by an insane piece of biotech.
- Veganopia: Subverted. In the future, all humans are vegan, not because of any sense of immorality about eating meat, but because they find animals disgusting and unclean and have exterminated all of them.
- When Props Attack: Steel being "attacked" by a pillow.
- Wrong Genre Savvy: Silver is convinced that the changeling is a robot, and tries to dismantle it with disastrous results.
Sapphire and Steel investigate a junk shop plagued by mysterious disappearances, and the appearance of sinister sepia-tinged children.
- And I Must Scream: The Shape's fate when trapped in a kaleidoscope. He is briefly seen literally screaming.
- Appearance Is in the Eye of the Beholder: The Shape appears to have a different face to each person who looks at him.
- The Blank: The Shape.
- Creepy Child/Creepy Children Singing: The children repeatedly sing nursery rhymes, disappear at will, and ask the Shape gleefully, of Sapphire and Steel, "Can we hurt them?".
- Faux Affably Evil: The Shape.
- For the Evulz: The Shape seems to have no particular motivation for what he's doing except malice and cruelty.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: Liz is gently hinted to be some kind of sex worker.
- Humanoid Abomination: The Shape.
- Ironic Nursery Tune: The sinister childhood rhymes sung by the creepy children.
- Monochrome Past: The photographs The Shape manipulates are all in sepia-tone. The children, after he brings them into the real world, are still in sepia-tone.
- Neverending Terror: At the end of the story, the Shape is converted into a Sealed Evil in a Can, but Sapphire and Steel warn Liz that it will probably escape and come seeking revenge eventually, which it will be able to even if she's dead by then if there are any surviving photographs of her. So she's going to have to track down and destroy any photos that exist of her, and spend the rest of her life being paranoid about being captured on film.
- Phantom Zone Picture: The plot is mostly about people who belong in photographs being taken out of them and people who don't belong in photographs being taken into them.
- Sealed Evil in a Can: How Sapphire and Steel contain the Shape at the end.
- Soft-Spoken Sadist: The Shape.
- Sound-Only Death: Ruth is burned alive while trapped inside a photograph. We hear her screams but never see her.
Lord Mullrine's retro 1920s-style country house party gets out of control when a dead man comes back to life, and the living guests start suffering violent deaths.
- Bittersweet Ending
- Code Name: A human assisting Sapphire and Steel assumes that "Sapphire" and "Steel" are code names, and asks if he can have a code name too. (He gets dubbed "Brass" for the duration.)
- Everybody Lives: Well, all the characters who were alive at the beginning are at the end...
- Fancy Dinner: 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.
- Gone Horribly Wrong: Dr. McDee's biotechnological experiments, intended to cure disease, would have created a plague that would wipe out the human race.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Dr. McDee
- Identical Grandson: Howard looks identical to his father at that age and the father and son Grevilles look identical.
- Omnidisciplinary Scientist: Dr. McDee is identified at one point as a physicist, but is doing microbiological experiments. This may explain why they go so badly wrong.
- Reset Button: At the end, Sapphire and Steel walk out of the Mullrine mansion and the dinner party begins again as though they were never there.
- Set Right What Once Went Wrong: Emma Mullrine thinks she's doing this, although it's actually the reverse.
- Super Empowering: Sapphire temporarily grants Felix telepathy so that he can help.
- Taking the Bullet: In the "correct" timeline Dr. McDee died this way when his lover Emma Mullrine attempted to shoot his wife.
- Ten Little Murder Victims: The story plays as a variation on the classic versions of this plot. The apparent murders are really Time disposing of the people who weren't involved in the original events, in order from the youngest to the oldest.
- Undercover as Lovers: Sapphire and Steel pose as a married couple. There's even an almost-Fake-Out Make-Out when they sense someone's about to walk in on their planning session.
Sapphire, Steel and Silver find themselves in a deserted and time-locked roadhouse with a couple from the 1940s, a former owner of the property from the 1920s, and a sinister hippie street performer from the 1960s, but what exactly is wrong and what they are supposed to do about it remains stubbornly mysterious.
- The Bad Guy Wins/Downer Ending: The whole situation 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.
- Cliffhanger: One that was never resolved on television.
- Cover Drop: The nothingness outside the diner at the end is the starfield from the show's opening and closing credits.
- Did You Just Scam Cthulhu?: Silver uses his reputation for being the most practical one when it comes to knowing when he's up against something he can't handle and suggesting or undertaking a tactical retreat (aka a coward) and the fact that he is physically one of the weakest Elements, to stall the Transient Beings (to whom even Steel is a weakling in comparison) into listening to him bargain for his own safety with a copy of an artifact they were after to give Steel time to get it away from them.
- Everybody Did It: All four of the characters at the diner are part of the plot to trap Sapphire and Steel.
- Evil Counterpart: The Transient Beings to the protagonists and their ilk.
- Gainax Ending: Although with a series like this, the ending actually seems fitting.
- Gas Station of Doom: The British equivalent is the setting of this story.
- Glowing Eyes: The Transient Beings, when they reveal their true nature.
- Living Shadow: Sapphire and Steel see all of the people in the garage appear like this at some point.
- Monster Clown: Johnny Jack.
- Sealed Room in the Middle of Nowhere: Sapphire and Steel's fate at the end, trapped in a diner which has been set adrift in deep space.
- 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.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: What happened to Silver?
The Big Finish audios provide examples of:
- Deceptive Disciple: Gold, who was apprenticed to Silver but got swayed by the Transients
- Faking the Dead: In "Zero" Gold tries to kill Silver by sending him drifting off into space when Silver goes out suited up to try to fix something, but Silver had suspected Gold and fakes it and even sends out a goodbye psychic soliloquy
- Humans Are Morons: A view held in varying degrees by all the Elements because of how often it is humanity through whose meddling and inventiveness that creates ways for Time to start escaping and wreaking havoc. Steel sees humans as stupid, but will fight to his last breath to save them, though if what they do threatens the stability of the rest of the universe, he would not hesitate to sacrifice them as an acceptible loss; Sapphire more thinks humanity has more a charming, if troublesome, flaw of being very imaginative and ambitious and thinks the universe would be a much poorer place without them; Gold thinks humans are straight up morons who should be wiped from the universe to save the Elements and the rest of the universe the trouble they cause; and Silver sees humans as morons for getting into and creating things of which they do not fully count the consequences, but he admires their ingenuity and inventiveness and does not particularly begrudge them the amount of work they cause him.
- Insufferable Genius: Gold
- Intrigued by Humanity: Silver finds humanity rather confusing, but interesting. Sapphire sometimes envies humanity and the freedoms and the Power of Love they have.
- Ironic Nursery Tune: In any number of the audios.
- The Mole: Gold
- The Nth Doctor: Sapphire, Steel.
- Redemption Equals Death: Gold. Steel practically invokes this trope by name when telling Gold how Gold can atone for his betrayal.
- Shoot the Dog: In the audio "Daisy Chain", Sapphire talks a teenage girl into committing suicide while Steel keeps her family distracted.
- Smug Snake: Gold