❉ The first 3 volumes of Obverse Books’s new range covers the entire run of one of the oddest, creepiest, most cerebral series of them all…
“Remember how Sapphire And Steel could conjure terror from the simplest of things, the most mundane and comforting of settings. Recall how dreadful, paranormal threats to your very existence could emerge from a chanted song from childhood, a quiet railway station platform, a photograph on your mantelpiece or bedside table.”
As Time has rolled on, two distinct ways of writing reference works on cult films and TV series have emerged. They both have their strengths, and their weaknesses. They’re both valid approaches. See if you can guess which one I prefer.
To deploy an academic metaphor briefly, one is the type that appeals to the student of History or Engineering. The student who wants to know the facts and figures, the dates and major personalities, or how exactly Nut A connects with Screw B to produce Joist C. This school is exemplified by such excellent authors as Andrew Pixley, Michael Seely, or – if you’re desperate – Robert Ross.
The other type appeals more to the student of Literature or Philosophy. The student who wants to know the subtexts and the influences, the schools of thought and pop cultural references, or how exactly Character A works in Story B to produce Outcome C. This school is in turn exemplified by such other illustrious scribes as Tat Wood, many early fanzine writers (often, interestingly, female) such as Val Douglas or Jackie Marshall, hell – if you’re prepared to pull on your wellies and slosh through the self-indulgence – Paul Cornell, who usually has at least a thing or two worth the reading.
“There are times in all three books where you get the uncanny feeling that you’re not so much reading a reference guide/critique as much as turning the pages of one of Poe’s tomes of forgotten lore, or Lovecraft’s Necronomicon.”
Obverse Books, with their ongoing project to cover each and every Doctor Who story, The Black Archive, has plumped very much for the latter. Their books won’t tell you much about AI ratings or the CV of the third extra from the left in scene 56 – what they will inform you about are the story’s roots, in other works of fiction, in sociological concerns of the day, in mythology and religion, even in the game of cricket.
And their new series, The Silver Archive, looks set to continue this thought-provoking, slightly head-in-the-clouds approach of the dreamer and the imaginer, rather than the palaeontologist or the architect. Their mission appears to be to peer into some of the slightly dimmer corners of cult fantasy – the five initial titles cover the Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode Innocence (I can take or leave the Buffy TV series despite the efforts of many to convert me, though I love the film – but, if anyone seems able to change my mind, then Jon Arnold’s a damn good choice), and – to my delight –The Strange World Of Gurney Slade by Andrew Hickey, which is headed straight to my want list. What Obverse has to say about Anthony Newley’s unique ego/head-trip of absurd comedy-drama is something that I must read.
And the other three? Well, they cover the entire TV run of one of the oddest, creepiest, most cerebral series of them all. Sapphire And Steel.
So…how do they approach it?…
Well, the authors – David and Lesley McIntee on Volume I, Assignments I and II; Cody Schell on Volume II, Assignments III and IV; and James Cooray Smith on Volume III, Assignments V and VI – all address their subject in a broadly similar manner, one which embraces the ethos of this very strange series perfectly. There are times in all three books where you get the uncanny feeling that you’re not so much reading a reference guide/critique as much as turning the pages of one of Poe’s tomes of forgotten lore, or Lovecraft’s Necronomicon.
Like their inspiration, they’re works that start out in the realms of the everyday, a brief veneer of the mundane – yes, you do get brief lists of the facts and figures, the original transmission dates and times, the main cast of each Assignment. Then, straight after that, you’re plunged abruptly into a mystical, mythical recounting of the original cataloguing of the Elements and their many arcane connections, and sent careening through nursery rhymes, wars civil and global, E M Forster and Isaac Asimov, trick photography and Rene Magritte, Agatha Christie, motorway cafes and travelling entertainers, along the way learning more about at least some of them than you already knew. Perhaps, in some cases, more than you wanted to know if you planned on sleeping soundly tonight.
“The books are full of the questing spirit of joyous adventure, leading the reader on a roller-coaster ride through books, TV series, films, mythologies, magicks, sciences and philosophies which cast fascinating light on so many possible sources and interpretations of the series and its stories.”
For those few who don’t already know, Sapphire and Steel are Elemental agents in human form, sent to our World, our Time – initially, at least – and who, with the help of their fellows, battle against the true villain, the monster, of the show itself. Time. In these Assignments, Time isn’t so much an impersonal as a malevolent force, forever trying to exploit the occasional cracks between the Present and both the Past and the Future to do terrible things. It’s never explained why Time seeks to do this – all that we learn are that such intrusions are termed irregularities by some mysterious, benevolent – or so we can but hope – booming-voiced, cowled overseer, who appears only in the opening titles of each episode and assigns the appropriate agents to hold Time’s schemes in check. These agents are sometimes opposed or threatened by the Transuranics – which may not be used where there is Life. Our enigmatic controller of the Elements presumably is tasked with somehow maintaining a balance between these two sides, as well, and we get the unsettling impression that it is, by necessity, a balance of terror. And that’s all that you should really be told about the plots of every story in the series, if by some chance you’ve yet to see them.
And again, this is very fitting in the context of the Archive, as well as the series. There’s a common driving force behind them both. Curiosity.
For the TV series, curiosity is almost inevitably of the kind that killed the unfortunate cat, whether it’s Tully the ghost hunter in Assignment II, determined to prove the existence of spectres and getting greater and more dreadful proof than he expected, the lonely old landlord in Assignment IV whose dabbling in photographic effects unleashes the entity that destroys him, or arguably even that of our main characters themselves. Their curiosity may be benign in intent, but it leaves a lot of devastation in its wake, on a large or small scale.
“These three tomes are slender affairs in size, but – like Steel’s travelling chess set trap – there’s a lot going on inside them, with the ability to draw the reader with even a smidgen of imagination inexorably in. And, once that reader is ensnared, they’ll be reading – and discovering – more, until they emerge blinking back in to the light of normality.”
The books that make up the first three volumes of the Silver Archive, on the other hand, embody the satisfied curiosity that brings the said feline happily back. They’re full of the questing spirit of joyous adventure, leading the reader on a roller-coaster ride through books, TV series, films, mythologies, magicks, sciences and philosophies which cast fascinating light on so many possible sources and interpretations of the series and its stories. They find roots both obvious and obscure. Along the way, they even find room to toss in tantalising gobbets of trivia – yes, read these books and you’ll find out the two Elements who never were, originally planned to appear at least in the opening monologue, not to mention a few more details of how Silver was supposed to save the day at the end of the final Assignment that I’d not heard before. Fittingly, what he was planned to do was part Doctor Who, part James Bond, and part sympathetic magick…
These three tomes are slender affairs in size, but – like Steel’s travelling chess set trap – there’s a lot going on inside them, with the ability to draw the reader with even a smidgen of imagination inexorably in. And, once that reader is ensnared, they’ll be reading – and discovering – more, until they emerge blinking back in to the light of normality.
However, a final recommendation. Like the TV series, I have the distinct feeling that these books may be best enjoyed at night. Turn off the overhead bulbs, switch on a dim lamp that casts just enough illumination to read the pages – better still, light a decent-sized candle – and absorb what’s set before you.
Remember how Sapphire And Steel could conjure terror from the simplest of things, the most mundane and comforting of settings. Recall how dreadful, paranormal threats to your very existence could emerge from a chanted song from childhood, a quiet railway station platform, a photograph on your mantelpiece or bedside table.
Pause for a moment and consider how Time is always with you. Maybe, even now, it’s found another crack in the bricks and mortar of Reality, another chink in the armour of your World. Perhaps, in fact, in the turning, riffling pages of that book you’re holding, right now…
Just hope that Sapphire, Steel and their allies are at hand – or at least, that their chroniclers can lead you safely through to the other side of dawn…
❉ ‘The Silver Archive – Volumes I-III, Sapphire And Steel’ are available now from Obverse Books, priced £4.99 each.
❉ Ken Shinn is a lifelong fan of all things cult. His 54 years have seen him contribute to works overseen by the likes of TV Cream and the British Horror Films Group, as well as a whole batch of short stories of the fantastic, with his first novel on the way. Whatever the field, he intends to enjoy Cult in all its forms for many years to come.