sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2017-06-08 04:18 am
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And there's no machine—past, present, or future—that I cannot handle

I have now seen the first three serials of P.J. Hammond's Sapphire & Steel (1979–82) and while I have not gotten the sleep I wanted, I am tired of not writing about things. Preliminary notes.

Sapphire & Steel is weird stuff. I mean that as both description and taxonomy. I can trace a common lineage with other genre-mixing, time-crossing British TV like Doctor Who (1963–), The Stone Tape (1972), and Children of the Stones (1977), but I can't remember the last anything I ran into that reminded me simultaneously of Robert Aickman, John le Carré, and Diana Wynne Jones. There's not even that much of it. Six serials aired on ITV over a span of four years, irregularly spaced and eventually canceled; all but one were written by Hammond and none of them have official titles, which is why I have been watching them on YouTube under the designations "Assignment 1" and so forth. It is glacially paced and nearly no-budget. And it is so far some of the most haunting, liminal, minimalist TV I have ever encountered in my life. It's full of ghosts and echoes, ambiguities and unanswered questions. Its worldbuilding hangs in implication behind its characters; its characters know each other so well, they don't need to talk about themselves. It gets more out of explaining less than any science fiction until Shane Carruth's Primer (2004). To match the single sets that give each serial the atmosphere of a filmed play,1 most of the show's best effects are practical and theatrical: changes of light, juxtapositions of costume, and suggestive, spooky sound work on a par with the heyday of the Radiophonic Workshop. The plots run on something more patterned than dream logic, but like nightmares they can take perfectly ordinary objects and charge them with unspeakable danger and dread—a child's nursery rhyme, a marching song, a swansdown pillow. Time itself is a source of horror; it cracks, frays, gives way beneath the pressure of aeons and the entities that prowl endlessly outside the "corridor of Time," looking for a way in. History deforms its fabric like gravity. Heirlooms and memory can become a black hole. Ghosts come out, if you're lucky. Other things if you're not. This is classic cosmic horror, but it's not, except in the introductory scenes, played from the viewer's accustomed perspective of humanity. Whatever Joanna Lumley's Sapphire and David McCallum's Steel may be—and I don't ever really expect to find out—human is definitely not it.

There are a lot of reasons for me to love this series, especially its consistent atmosphere of slowly building weirdness and its sense of time as something scarred and permeable, so densely echoing with the past that it's a wonder the present has room to breathe, but the alienness of its protagonists is a big one. They feel less human than many explicit extraterrestrials of the time despite looking like nothing stranger than a short, curt, fairish man who can tie knots in elevator cables and a tall, pleasantly watchful blonde woman whose eyes sometimes turn chroma-key blue. Their powers are a surprisingly small part of it. Sapphire is the sensor of the team, able to perceive people and objects at a distance and tell their age and origins from touching them; it feels in keeping with her affinity for history that she can also "take time back," performing a localized, limited rewind in order to observe or reset events. Steel has more-than-mortal strength and endurance to rely on, but if necessary he too can interfere with time, freezing patches of it at the cost of reducing his own temperature to -273.1°C; it feels both scientifically and folklorically correct that he can slow time nearly to a stop, but cannot halt it altogether, because nothing in the universe can ever achieve absolute zero. They are telepathic with one another, not so far as I've seen with humans. They share the life-risking trust and the physical intimacy of long partnership, although I would not presume to guess its terms since I cannot imagine the relationships of their kind function all that much like their human equivalents, on which more in a moment.

I really like that neither of them is exactly the character type they first appear. Steel is brusque, businesslike, and built like a tank for his size; he's not invulnerable. He's as ruthless with his own energies as he is with other people's, but that means he badly wrecks himself in Assignment 1 retrieving Sapphire from the painted reenactment of a seventeenth-century execution and has to spend a protracted, unheroic stretch wrapped stiffly in a bathrobe by a fire he can't feel, seeing and speaking with difficulty, because he pulled his supercooled ghost-shattering stunt without Val Pringle's Lead around to act as his "insulation" and the first thing Lead does when he turns up, a genial, Black, bass-voiced brick shithouse of a man who can lift Steel off his feet as easily as a child, is affectionately yell at his fellow agent for it. "I mean, you can almost guarantee it, can't you? You can guarantee that whenever you wander off and ice yourself up, without me around you're in trouble . . . You tell him, Sapphire. He shouldn't be doing that below-zero stuff without me." Meanwhile, Sapphire's sensory powers and her designation as the team's "diplomat"—along with her gender and her beauty—lead the viewer to expect she'll fill a correspondingly softer, more emotionally expressive role on the show, providing the grace and sensitivity to temper Steel's blunt-force approach, but she's just as cool as her partner, just from a different angle. She's gentler with humans. She seems to find them less impediments to her work, more interesting in their own right. I'm just not sure how much more that means she cares about them. Meeting a man who might be a ghost in Assignment 2, she clasps his hand in hers, smiles graciously, and while her voice speaks light, socially smoothing pleasantries ("I suppose my friend didn't bother to introduce himself . . . He never does—I'm always having to apologize for him"), her thoughts transmit the clear, impersonal data taken from his skin. In the first serial, Sapphire and Steel work together to reunite a family and root out the haunting of their house that is both symptom and accelerant of a worsening hole in Time. Thereafter they will each demonstrate—separately, so the viewer can't mistake it—the willingness to trade human life for the stability of Time. It makes them an intriguingly amoral force for the greater good, assuming that's what they are. More on this in a moment, too.

For reasons not important to this post, my first experience of Sapphire & Steel was actually Assignment 3, which means that along with my initial impressions of Sapphire and Steel I got David Collings right off the bat as charming, cagey, slightly skittish and thoroughly scene-stealing Silver. As with Lead in Assignment 1, he's a valuable addition to the cast because he deepens the world and our oblique understanding of its inhabitants; he is also the kind of character who essentially came with a package label reading hello, here's your series favorite, which considering how much I already liked the protagonists was a lovely surprise. He makes his first appearance leaning against a TV aerial, insouciant as Loki of the Information Age. He is a "technician," which he firmly qualifies as different from an "explorer" before resigning himself—so pointedly that it feels like a callback to an assignment we'll never see—to coming along on the job; he has a jackdaw's eye for small stray shiny things and he turns them into Clarke's Third Law with a conjuror's flair. He likes the razzle-dazzle. "Quite a work of art, isn't it?" he calls to Steel as he coaxes out the sparking gossamer beginnings of the gate (teleporter, time machine, Silver doesn't call it anything because nobody on this show defines terms unless they have to) that will transport all three of them from two different locations across a time field into the same sealed space. He made it out of a binder clip, a bottlecap, and a wood screw; it shines between his hands like a young star. "I suppose you would prefer something a little less decorative, hm? Something more—coldly efficient." When I related this interaction to [personal profile] spatch, he pointed out that the agents are merely living up to their names. Steel is a functional metal. Silver is an ornamental one. You almost expect to find out it's short for quicksilver, Mercury the magician, the alchemical trickster. Something of a dandy, with his sharp tailoring and his Romantic painter's wing of red hair. Amused by Steel's impatience with him, which is why he never misses an opportunity to tweak his serious colleague. He and Sapphire share the same casual physical closeness as Sapphire and Steel, so after the crackle of irritation and playfulness between Silver and Steel, it appears I OT3 everyone in this weird semi-periodic elemental party, which is not my usual style at all.

The show is very clear that its protagonists feel emotions: they are protective of one another, they can be hurt or amused or frightened, Steel especially has a wide and nuanced range of annoyance. They have society—Sapphire claims that there are 127 of their kind, while Steel only counts 115 properly since the transuranics are unstable. We hear some of their gossip: "By the way, Steel, Jet sends her love . . . And Copper's having problems with Silver again." We know they form attachments. Steel speaks of "the Sapphire that I've come to know and love." After the catastrophic disappearance of Silver, Steel diffidently refers to him as "a useful sort of person" and Sapphire replies simply, "I miss him." They have lives. I'm just skeptical that they have life cycles.2 Steel states flatly in Assignment 2 that he doesn't sleep. Silver on being recovered from the embarrassing consequences of confusing a changeling with a robot protests, "I never make mistakes . . . In fact I'm unable to make mistakes. It's built in!" I haven't been able to decide if they really need to eat or if Lead has just cultivated the habit for the fun of it. I don't place bets on anybody's life span when time travel is involved, but I am pretty sure they have all looked mid-thirties to mid-forties for some centuries now. It seems highly likely that human is not their natural form. (On limited evidence, I'd say Sapphire finds it aesthetically and perhaps anthropologically enjoyable, Silver treats it as an opportunity for play, Lead appreciates the experience of the world—anybody who likes food and sea chanteys knows how to have a good time in my book—and Steel mostly just wants to get the job done.) And none of this information points toward a particular origin. They don't seem to be what most people would consider aliens. I have a lot of trouble believing they're angels. If they got back much farther than the twentieth century, I suspect they could be mistaken for fairies: beautiful, inhuman people with goals and rules of their own.3 I can't even tell if Earth is their area of specialty or whether we're just seeing the human-centric assignments because other planets were above ATV's pay grade. "Great Wars, civil wars, holy wars—" Steel fumes in a derelict railway station haunted by a soldier's resentful ghost. "You know, sometimes I wonder why they bother to send us here!" As far as I can tell after three serials, the answer is: because you're not radioactive and otherwise Time will collapse. Any benefit derived by humanity may well be a side effect.

The colorful terminology of John le Carré's Circus—scalphunters, lamplighters, ferrets, inquisitors, the Competition, the Cousins, and the Reptile Fund—covers a very cold world indeed. So does Sapphire & Steel's superficially pulpy premise of interdimensional agents vs. monsters from outside of time. The first concern of every assignment is the integrity of the space-time continuum.4 It's nice work if you can save people in the process, but they're a secondary consideration. When Steel has to choose between the lesser of two evils in Assignment 2, what he's measuring them by is their degree of damage to Time. Left to itself, the "darkness" which breathes like black mold through the empty air of the station will go on gathering ghosts to itself, enwebbing the human dead who believe they got a raw deal and putting them through their paces of death and haunting in order to draw off their anger and their longing and their pain; it will grind time on the site thinner and thinner until finally something tears. In order to make it give up its dead, to buy it off with "enough negative energy, enough resentment to last for five hundred years—maybe even a thousand years," Steel offers it an "original source of resentment" in the form of a human life not due to end for another five known, recorded, historical years. The mortal protests of one man who died before his time are nothing compared to the towering objections of Time cheated of its proper order. The darkness takes the deal. The sacrifice, although I think he guesses something, doesn't get a say. Technically Steel has restored the normal, unhaunted state of time at the station, but he has still damaged the history it is his explicitly stated duty to safeguard and repair and I cannot imagine his superiors will be thrilled when he and Sapphire get back to whatever their pan-dimensional dispatch office looks like; also, he straight-up killed a dude. The decision Sapphire makes at the end of Assignment 3 may be even colder. Here the disruptive force comes from the future, in the form of a 35th-century research team who have unwittingly brought their doom with them to 1980 London. On discovering its nature and realizing that the time-manipulating, illusion-casting, utterly anachronistic entity is trying to break out into the twentieth century where it will wreak who knows what havoc, Sapphire gives the order to return the team to their own era even though that will not lessen the danger they're in: "It is their problem . . . They caused it; let them solve it!" So long as the fireworks don't go off on a roof in London fifteen hundred years ahead of schedule, it really is not her responsibility. But there's a chill on the inside of this agency, too. We get a hint of it from Silver, saying apologetically when Steel asks about the other research teams, "You don't need to worry about them. They don't matter anymore." (Everybody is dead, Dave.) Already suspicious that the technician got better intel on the mission than either himself or Sapphire, Steel is not much reassured when Silver's airy double-talk of "just happen[ing] to be passing" resolves into the quasi-admission that their information was "not wrong . . . incomplete, perhaps, but not wrong." The nice explanation is that their superiors got a better handle on the situation between sending Sapphire and Steel and sending Silver; the Tinker, Tailor one is that someone upstairs is playing games. They never seem to know what they'll have to deal with, only where and when. I know Charles Stross is famous for mixing Lovecraftian horror with espionage in "A Colder War" and the Laundry Files, but I really think Sapphire & Steel got there first and better. No tentacles needed, just the endless reaches of time and the slow turning of questions of trust.

And despite everything I have said just now about cold equations and earlier about dread, I don't find it at all a depressing or an upsetting show to watch, because it is so beautifully and strangely put together and so unlike anything else I've seen from TV that even if I weren't actively fond of the characters, it would be a pleasure. (I can't imagine it being made or remade today; if nothing else, I worry modern audiences would balk at the pacing and it's crucial. You couldn't speed it up and get the same effect because so much of its unheimlich comes directly from the unhurried real time in which the wrongness accumulates. Nothing jumps out and scares you. You wish it would and get it over with. Maybe the people currently watching the revival of Twin Peaks would sit still for Sapphire & Steel, but I feel the two are fundamentally different kinds of weird.) The oddest thing about discovering this series now, honestly, is that I can see its echoes in my own work. Or I can see things in it that look like direct ancestors of things in my own work, a lot of ways I think about time and hauntings and the dead, and I can't tell if that means I got its influence secondhand or if I just read widely in the traditions it was drawing from; I expect the answer is both, but it's still a little eerie, like reading the poetry of Owen Sheers. On the bright side, it probably guaranteed that no matter what age I found this series at, I'd love it. Sapphire follows the hollow drip of water through a ghost's glass-blue eye into the shattered monochrome of no man's land. A lightbulb glows in Silver's hand and when he's done with it, he tosses it to Steel and it dissolves mid-air into a glittering chime of silver water. This is the house that Jack built, all the way back to the foundation stone new-cut under the winter stars of an eighteenth-century sky.

That was a lot of notes for a preliminary. In conclusion, the following dialogue just took place between me and Rob—

"Hey, I think the worst possible thing happened that could happen while a person is talking about Sapphire & Steel."

"Did they go off of YouTube?"

"No, my watch stopped."

—so I think I should perhaps get out of here before something comes out of the music I'm listening to. It was Belbury Poly for a while, which is very much in the same hauntological tradition. Maybe an album drawn from recordings of Ganzeld experiments was not the best alternative. So long, it's been good to know you. I'm not sure I can count half a TV series for Patreon.

1. The third serial includes some cutaway scenes on a roof which [personal profile] ashlyme tells me belonged to the ATV offices themselves.

2. The subject is slightly lampshaded in Assignment 3, when Steel gives a rare laugh at the thought of "Silver having any kind of beginning, any kind of childhood" and Sapphire responds that she was just thinking the same about Steel. He's indignant: "I have very positive origins! Inexpressible, maybe, but positive." A scene or two later, he's still mentally muttering, "I have impeccable origins."

3. At this point in the process my brain completely jumped its tracks and I thought of Silver in the role of Puck, Steel as Oberon, and Sapphire as Titania, and Ashlyme didn't help by calling the thought of a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream possessed by Time "mouthwatering." I just don't want to have to write it.

4. You know what I'm genuinely surprised doesn't exist? Crossover fic for this series with A Tale of Time City (1987). Otherwise the ways in which it reminds me of Diana Wynne Jones are more tonal and thematic: ordinary-looking people of strange domains and powers, magic-like science (or science-like magic) that works sideways in ripples and allusions, not explaining things. I find myself thinking of the luminaries of Dogsbody (1975), the Reigners of Hexwood (1983), the families of Archer's Goon (1984) and The Game (2007). So far there is slightly less of a tendency in Sapphire & Steel for people not to know who they are, but I'm willing to wait.

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