Sapphire and Steel, and the value of not explaining things

“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.

Sapphire and Steel have been assigned.”

I discovered this classic but little-known British TV show a few months ago, and I’ve just finished working my way through it on evenings when I’ve been alone in the flat–my girlfriend having caught a few minutes of it and declared it far too creepy for her tastes. It’s a brilliant example of what can be done with very little: an obviously limited special effects budget, but also a minimalist approach to storytelling in which very little is explained to the viewer. I found it to be intense, claustrophobic, surreal, and at times gripping and terrifying.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes Sapphire and Steel as “Possibly the most mystifying and least coherent sf series ever to appear on television.” I certainly found it to be mystifying, but I didn’t feel that it was incoherent, exactly: rather, it felt to me that there was a coherent world behind the stories, operating to its own rules, but this world and these rules were outside of normal human experience and perhaps outside of our comprehension. Its stories felt inexplicable, but never arbitrary. This is a difficult balance to strike, and one that some prominent shows have failed at (e.g. the rebooted Battlestar Galactica: revealing arbitrary events to be the work of God isn’t a satisfying explanation if it leaves you with a God who acts in a arbitrary and illogical way). Sapphire and Steel manages it.

sapphire-and-steel-box-se-007

The title characters were inhuman entities sent by some higher authority to protect the fabric of time from extra-temporal threats. These entities were generally invisible and interacted with the world by causing temporal disruptions which manifested as ghosts and similar disturbances. (The series’ weakest story, in my opinion, is the only one in which the monster turns out to be a physical creature with a clearly-explained origin.) Sapphire and Steel investigated and dealt with these incursions using various superhuman powers (both are telepathic; Sapphire can psychically divine information; Steel has superhuman strength and can lower his temperature to absolute zero which for some reason harms ghosts).

The show admirably eschews as-you-know-Bob dialogue. Sapphire and Steel regularly talk to one another using terms that they both understand, not explaining them and leaving the viewer to guess what they mean. The closest things to an explanation were are given are the evocative opening narration (quoted at the top of this blog post) and a couple of times when the pair explain themselves to temporary human allies, in which they are clearly using metaphors to explain complex concepts as if (or in once case actually) to a child.

These hints of a wider universe engaged with my imagination, so that it was difficult to watch without imagining my own answers to the questions the hints pose. (Does the fact that Sapphire and Steel temporarily grant powers to a human mean that they themselves were once human? What is the relationship of the “transient beings” to beings of Sapphire and Steel’s type? Why can the transuranic heavy elements not be used where there is life? And so forth.) This wondering, this uncertainty, evoked the sense of wonder more fully than any possible explanation could.

It can be tempting as a writer to reveal all the important information about the world you have created, and tempting as a reader to demand explanations, whether from the text itself or through other channels. Sapphire and Steel is an example of what can be achieved by resolutely resisting those temptations. To explain the exact nature of the higher power for which Sapphire and Steel work, the nature and goals of their enemies, the limits of their powers, and so forth, would be to destroy the story’s sense of wonder.

This is also, perhaps, one reason why the show only lasted for six multi-episode stories: if it went on for long enough it would have to eventually explain its universe or become tiresome by not doing so. What exists of it, though, is a great example of the sense of wonder that can be evoked with never-to-be-revealed mystery.

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One Response to Sapphire and Steel, and the value of not explaining things

  1. Felix Pearce says:

    The end of new BSG was a deliberate cop-out because the writers didn’t have the guts to really critique American culture. It would have been a truly legendary show if they’d actually pushed that through.

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