Star of the "other Avengers" conquers time and space--and looks sensational, too @ 30 August 2013 05:18 PM

How could I, as a self-respecting fan of The Avengers (the Patrick Macnee TV classic, not the comic book entity) resist 34 half hour episodes of a different sci-fi/fantasy series in which Joanna Lumley appears, solves mysteries of time and space and appears decked out in one wondrous style after another?



To me, Joanna Lumley is the whirling warrior of bizarre crime in 1977's The New Avengers, the fourth partner of John Steed on his various quirky quests. Others know her best from Absolutely Fabulous or even James and the Giant Peach, in roles that were broader and less flattering, but prove she's a actor with no fear.


Her smooth, deep voice also graces many an audio book. She sounds like the caramel inside a Cadbury Bar if it could speak.


Sapphire shows little fear either. Steel is well, Steely. David McCallum is generally not known for his zaniness. In his two American series, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Invisible Man, his persona is stern as it is here, though Steel is even more dour.


Sapphire and Steel is a TV recipe blending a few slices of time travel from Doctor Who, a helping of serial format similar to that of Dark Shadows and a dash of Upstairs, Downstairs (particularly in Assignment 5). There's even a little of Land of the Lost here, in that the scripts are far more ambitious than the visuals, but they do the best they can and hope you'll let your imagination fill in the rest. (The premise of a "rip in time" is not unlike the 2005 Doctor Who episode, "Father's Day.")


Shot on videotape, the series has sparse special effects that appear quickly and carefully to obscure their modest nature. The sets, nice as they are, become really, really familiar to you as the actors spend lots of time on them.


Each of the six untitled "Assignments" are  clusters of episodes that make up individual story arcs. An Assignment can run anywhere from four to six half-hour episodes.


My favorite is the fifth one, which features the largest cast and the most dry wit. A millionaire throws a 30's party in which nothing contemporary is allowed. When such anomalies occur, there are these "rips in time" and that means it's time for Sapphire and Steel to crash the party, get bossy when murders seem to occur and even give one of the guests their power of telepathy.


A few caveats, I'm a fan of the musical director, Cyril Ornadel, who did a number of fine recordings I grew up with, as well as the Original Cast Album of My Fair Lady. But don't let theme music and the stentorian announcer make you think the show is campy. It's actually very serious, highly ethereal and ambiguous.


Also don't expect the pace and panache of the recent Doctor Who episodes that began in 2005. The stories are leisurely paced and require focused attention as they can be serpentine and puzzling (some never really make sense by their own design).


My advice is to avoid binge-viewing Sapphire and Steel, but to watch one or two at a time and return to it fresh. Otherwise it seems to wander and so does your concentration. Savor each episode.


Approach Sapphire and Steel as a collection of imaginative teleplays, not mini-movies. Let the series unfold before you on its own fascinating terms.


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