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UK, 1979–82

Doctor Who celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, a fact that, for many, forced the realization that the time-hopping dandy existed before 2005. I was having the opposite realization, trying to come to terms with all thatís come since 2005--and with mixed results. Fortunately, prodded by an excerpt from Mark Fisherís forthcoming book on The Quietus this August and an off-hand comment from China Miťville, I came across something to satisfy my peculiar fascination with peculiar í70s British sci-fi and horror telly: P.J. Hammondís Sapphire & Steel, which ran for four seasons on Britainís ITV, and starred two particular favorites of small screen, Joanna Lumley (Purdey from The New Avengers, Patsy from Ab Fab) and David McCallum (Ilya from The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Ducky from NCIS). These two play the eponymous duo, humanoid incarnations of certain elements (yes, I realize sapphire is not an element) who, much like The Doctor, work with some sort of interdimensional agency skipping around time and space sorting out problems.

The difference here is that Time itself is the problem, an unwieldy force whose integrity, when compromised, results in all sorts of problems: time loops, ghosts, doppelgangers, faceless men, and all manner of malevolent anachronisms unleashed and in need of putting in their place. Time, as Shakespeare and Deleuze have it, is out of joint, and itís up to these two (with occasional assistance from Silver, Lead, and Copper) to set to rights, across six ďassignments,Ē each taking place on a single set, ranging in length from 90 minutes to over three hours, and originally run as 25-minute installments. (Theyíre all available in their entirety on YouTube.)

A number of things are striking about this otherwise more or less forgotten series. First, itís notable that very little effort is expended in explaining or justifying the existence of Sapphire and Steel - they simply turn up and do things, usually without the usual Whovian science lesson - and this actually lends itself pretty well to the rather aimless structure of the serial: things just keep happening, until they stop. Second, and this is crucial, the protagonists also do very little to endear themselves to anyone. The Doctor seems to parade around time acquiring pals, but Steel is downright unfriendly, and Sapphire only as charming as she needs to be in order to convince people to help her or, more frequently, get out of the way entirely. Thus, the assistance of mere humans is almost never necessary, often pernicious, and human characters are various ignored, reprimanded, and, in at least one case, callously sacrificed and forgotten.

And did I mention this show was for children? And that itís terrifying? This is perhaps not so remarkable in itself, given the veritable wealth of dour, nightmare-inducing kiddie fare on British TVs in the late 1970s and early í80s (cf. Children of the Stones, Chocky, et al.) But somehow Sapphire & Steelís air of supernatural paranoia and otherworldly angst has a deeply chilly existentialism about it: the spirits of those killed unnecessarily in war, souls trapped in photographs, the vengeful gestalt of organic matter that has been dead for millennia. And though it was later revived in radio plays and other futile franchise-reboot attempts, the original series achieves an ending worthy of Twin Peaks, leaving its heroes in an eternal limbo thatís as cruel as it is masterful.