Media Heaven

Back when I was a kid, the BBC were really the kings of British Sci-Fi. The commercial channels showed US shows, but there was almost nothing homegrown to rival the popularity of shows like Doctor Who and Blake’s Seven. That’s not to say that the BBC had the playing field entirely to itself.

Sapphire & Steel was a show that, for a few short years, gave us almost no answers about the main characters at all. Sapphire and Steel were “operators”, agents of an unknown force that regulated our dimension. They protected us from the effects of Time; a rapacious force bound in chains of causality and eternally struggling to break free. Gifted with telepathic powers and elemental abilities, Sapphire and Steel were almost certainly not human, and were played brilliantly by David McCallum and Joanna Lumley. Steel, was a hard-hearted pragmatist; Sapphire, an empathic time-sensitive. Curiously for a show of that era, Sapphire was the one with real power. She could read minds, turn back time, scan objects with psychometry, and do a host of other neat tricks. Steel was very strong, and could survive serious injury and extremes of temperature, but his role was really that of detective, puzzling out the plans of Time before it could break free.

The cool thing about Sapphire & Steel was that it really threw you in at the deep end straight away. There was no explanation of their powers, who they worked for, or even what they really where. Frequently their conversations where quite technical, becoming fairly opaque to the viewer who could really only understand that something very complicated was going on. About the clearest explanation of the enemy came in the very first story, and that consisted of a pretty brief conversation with a child. If the show had to be summed up in one word, that word would be “mysterious”.

It was also compelling viewing. Sadly, the show only lasted three years before falling victim to a shift in the licensing for independant television in the midlands. It vanished for years, before resurfacing as a DVD boxed set. In the early 2000’s, the show was revived as a series of CD audio drama by Big Finish Productions, the company responsible for the Doctor Who audio dramas, with David Warner (of innumerable Star Trek shows and horror flicks) and Johanna Harker taking over the roles of Steel and Sapphire. It was spell-binding. While not as dense or opaque as the TV version, the audios managed to capture the atmosphere and menace of the series, while being far superior in the quality of the story.

The Tomorrow People was a classic piece of early 70’s kids science fiction. Heavily influenced by the “Age of Aquarius” types and the burgeoning New Age movement, it told the story of a small group of young people who had discovered that they where the first of the next step in human evolution. Each of them were gifted with psionic abilities; telepathy, telekinesis and teleportation. Genetically unable to kill, they were the heralds of a new age of peace for humanity…provided they lived long enough. Every week, they fought against evil extraterrestrials and the occasional evil human to defend the Earth and protect their emerging species. Every child, the series said, had the potential to be a Tomorrow Person.

Like Sapphire & Steel, the series had something of a cult following, and were revived for a few years in a series of audio dramas from Big Finish, featuring some of the original cast reprising their roles as well as new characters continuing the saga. The original episodes themselves have since been released on DVD. Watching them now, it’s easy to see the show’s faults; primitive special effects and a miniscule budget led to some truly cringe-worthy moments. But, like Doctor Who, underlying it all is a tremendous inventiveness and spirit of adventure. The show had grand ideas, and while it may have foundered on the rock of its poor budget and limited technology, those ideas still remain grand, and the stories themselves still have the power the entertain, and occasionally produce real scares.

Fans of classic (read “old”) SF in this age of DVD boxed sets and cheap releases often run up against the fact that the memory cheats; that things very often simply aren’t as good as one remembers. Thankfully, it occasionally plays fair.


2 thoughts on “Media Heaven”

  1. I also remember that ‘Space: 1999’ was on ITV, along with (at teatime) ‘Children of the Stones’ and ‘Into The Labyrinth’ (with Ron Moody and the rather gorgeous Pamela Salem).

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