WTD: Sapphire and Steel

Watching the Detectives is a series of posts about drawing inspiration from fictitious paranormal investigators, occult detectives, police psychics, and monster hunters. The rest of the series can be found here.

What if someone made a detective show in which the central crime was never actually addressed? What if someone made a detective show in which the primary antagonist was time itself?

Culture reproduces itself by teaching us how to see. Everything we watch, read, and listen to contains ideas and structures that are immediately put to use helping us to digest the next piece of culture we encounter.

Taken by themselves, these ideas and structures form the basis for a mode of self-education. We don’t just make sense of culture in terms of the culture we have consumed, we also make sense of things and people using fragments and theories derives from old movies and TV shows. Control the culture, you control what culture people will produce in the future. Control the culture and you determine how people see the world.

The tragedy of science fiction is that while it may have started out as a means of creating breaches in the surface of received culture, it is now primarily in the business of showing people what they want to see. The market for culture that engenders feelings of certainty and righteousness will forever be larger than the market for culture that brings doubt.

One of the lovely things about consuming older pieces of genre culture is that they often pre-date the rules that govern contemporary cultural production. Old ghost stories are not like contemporary horror films and the differences between the cultural forms remind us of the absolute fragility of the present as well as the ideologies that help to construct it.

I have seen Sapphire and Steel described as ITV’s attempt to come up with its own version of Doctor Who, albeit one rooted in fantasy rather than science fiction but this does Sapphire and Steel a grave disservice. For all of its iconoclasm, Doctor Who has always been a series of conventional narratives wound around a more-or-less conventional hero. The ease with which Who was rebooted speaks to the fact that its ideas and structures were never that different to the ones that have come to dominate mainstream popular culture. Sapphire and Steel is not so much a science fiction series as it is a science fictional detective series built from the bones of old ghost stories.

Sapphire and Steel is set in and around what we are encouraged to view as the real world. This world, the thunderous introductory voice-over informs us, is prone to irregularities. Irregularities must be resolved by the forces governing each dimension and the forces governing our dimension deals with anomalies using a group of beings named for substances with lighter elemental weights. Substances such as Sapphire and Steel. Repeated at the top of every episode, this spiel is as close as we get to either a backstory or an explanation as to what it is that is actually going on. There are no goodies, no baddies, just irregularities that need to be addressed.

Sapphire and Steel are gloriously inhuman creations. David McCullum’s Steel is hard, unyielding, but also remarkably brittle while Joanna Lumley’s Sapphire is a combination of dazzling beauty and cold polished stone, her allure always a reflection of other people’s desires and thus a source of power over them. Sent by an unspecified power or agency, the two ‘operators’ turn up in places where there has been a breakdown in the normal functioning of time.

Sapphire explains their role in quite technocratic terms: In some places, the structure of time wears thin causing the normal processes to fray and break down. These irregularities are then seized upon by outside forces that use the irregularity as a way of gaining purchase on the real world. While none of the characters ever explains how this process functions, each episode orbits an irregularity caused by some traumatic event: In one case, it’s a gruesome murder by civil war soldiers, in another case it’s a load of civilian tradespeople who inadvertently get sucked into the gears of the military-industrial complex, and in the most puzzling of case it appears to be the result of some future human civilisation allowing (or possibly causing) the mass extinction of all non-human life forms as part of some unspecified drive towards greater efficiency.

The source of the irregularity is always distant from the point at which the consequences of the irregularity begin to surface. Sometimes the future impacts the present, other times it’s the past. Sometimes a more remote past impinges on a more recent one.

Because the source of an irregularity is always temporally dislocated from its consequences, the event itself is never that well described. In truth, Sapphire and Steel are rarely interested in the sources of irregularities, their focus is always upon dealing with the consequences and ensuring that temporal processes resume correct functionality.

The show is also quite evasive on the question of who or what these outside forces represent. There are times when the forces act through people and there are definitely a few times when they seem to take more-or-less human form but Sapphire and Steel act less like cops than they do management consultants. In fact, if I had to point you to another character that resembles Steel I would walk straight past the various iterations of Sherlock Holmes and point the finger straight at Kitchen Nightmares-era Gordon Ramsay.

Much like Ramsay, Steel’s job seems to primarily consist in turning up unexpectedly, being unnecessarily rude, and fixing chaotic workflows. The goal is never to assign blame or defeat baddies but to ensure that everything is running as smoothly as possible. There is even an episode when the-powers-that-be decide that Sapphire and Steel need some additional support and so they dispatch the endearingly camp Silver who insists that he is just a technician there to deal with a specific scientific problem. It’s a bit like when Gordon brings in a specialist chef or an experienced head waiter to solve a specific problem for a particular restaurant.

While series like Doctor Who and films like Back to the Future have trained audiences to cope with the kinds of narrative that time travel can produce, both of those series lean into the idea that the past is a real place where one can immerse oneself. Even when they play the fish-out-of-water card for comic effect, the result is inevitably to embed the audience in the perceived reality of the new timeframe. Much of the power of Sapphire and Steel comes from the show’s absolute refusal to acknowledge the reality of any specific time.

Made for comparatively little money and shot with very small casts, each episode of Sapphire and Steel winds up taking place on quite a small series of sets populated with a small number of characters. There are rarely any outside shots and even when there are, they tend to be of liminal non-places like garages and rooftops. This production style combines with narratives centred upon time breaking down to make every present moment feel archly performative. There is even an episode that revolves around a bunch of people in 1980 celebrating a fiftieth anniversary by having a dinner party set in 1930. At first, the hosts’ insistence on period-appropriate décor and behaviour comes across as a bit of an affectation but by the end of the episode you are left wondering what ‘being in 1930’ might involve beyond being surrounded by certain kinds of objects.

This sense of unreality is reinforced by the series’ supporting characters as every person Sapphire and Steel encounters turns out to have been wrenched from their native timeframe and catapulted either into the past or future. In the world of Sapphire and Steel, time has no weight and no reality as everything is set-dressing.

Sapphire and Steel is a series that upends everything we know about narrative: There are no antagonists, there are no character arcs, there are no messages or morals. What we have is a series that leans into the Freudian model of traditional ghost stories but has little interest in trauma itself. Rather than treating trauma as a mystery to resolve or an excuse to explore characters, the series treats the trauma as the ultimate source of technical challenges that need to be overcome. It’s as though someone had written a hard science fiction story like Andy Weir’s The Martian except instead of Matt Damon growing potatoes in his own shit you have Joanna Lumley allowing an enigmatic smile to creep across her lips as she uses the power of her will to steal a few seconds from last Thursday.

At this point, you may very well be wondering why I have chosen to write about Sapphire and Steel under the rubric of Watching the Detectives. I mean… this all sounds pretty weird, and how the hell do you write an RPG scenario with no antagonists? One of the fascinating things about Sapphire and Steel is that, despite its stubborn lack of world-building and experimental narrative structures, it has already inspired an RPG and that RPG has now had not one but three separate editions spanning three decades.

If you want to know what a Sapphire and Steel RPG would look like then look no further than Jenna Moran’s Nobilis.  First released in 1999 and re-released more recently under the name Field Guide to the Powers, Nobilis is a diceless RPG in which anthropomorphised concepts are sent to deal with beings from outside of reality who seek to undermine consensus reality and collapse the boundaries between sanity and madness, being and non-being. Nobilis is quite obviously Sapphire and Steel the RPG except that where Sapphire and Steel was content to skate over a lot of the background, Moran filled in all the gaps by drawing on a variety of different mythological sources.

I have only ever tried to play Nobilis once and I must admit that the combination of an idiosyncratic system and a rather involved and weird setting resulted in my feeling completely out of my depth.  I can remember everyone using the GM as a kind of conduit to the rules, asking if we could do stuff and then squinting at our character sheets in search of numbers that felt almost completely meaningless.  In fact, now that I think about it, Nobilis essentially turned back the clock and turned a group of seasoned gamers into first time novices, lost in systems and settings that felt utterly alien.

While I have never been all that sure that Nobilis itself is actually playable as a game, the core idea of mystical beings dealing with broken down systems feels really compelling. There’s a PC game called INFRA about an engineer exploring urban environments in order to fix problems in their deteriorating infrastructure and I think that this is what a game inspired by Sapphire and Steel should feel like: You start by noticing that something goes wrong, then you work out which sub-system has failed, and then you try to fix the sub-system whilst dealing with the people who have either caused the system to degrade or who are benefiting from its degradation. The cause of the degradation does not matter… it’s not your job to worry about that kind of thing. Your focus is merely upon fixing the processes that keep everyone safe and alive. INFRA explores this in quite a mundane context but Sapphire and Steel takes that idea and makes it beautifully weird.

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