With time being at the core of the series, Sapphire and Steel is perhaps one of the few cult television programs whose narratives can convey astutely some questioning of the philosophy of temporal concepts.  Rather than being a framing device for journey and travel, as in series like Doctor Who (1963-1989), time becomes a force that is questioned, harnessed and even fought against in the series.  With the concept being at the centre of its many mysteries, the series variously seeks to re-pattern time through extensive narratives, with a diegetic harnessing creating an almost physical entity.  Created by P.J. Hammond, Sapphire and Steel focuses on two agents of some unknown power, sent to various periods in Earth’s history in order to fix time distortions and problems, often manifesting in ghostly forms and anachronisms.  The series is split into assignments and it is its first assignment that is most relevant to the area of interest of this article; the concept of duration and crystallisation of time, considered and outlined by Henri Bergson, but found within the very diegesis of the assignment’s narrative rather than simply its audio-visual form (as often applied as a theory by Gilles Deleuze).

Assignment One sees the two agents sent to an isolated country cottage where two young children are living.  Before they arrive, the children’s parents disappear in some sort of time fluctuation, later to be shown to be caused by the reading of nursery rhymes; the very act rupturing the time of the cottage into a two-way system, capable of being traversed by both such entities who have taken the parents away and older figures derived from the history of the building.  The latter are largely depicted through soldiers in Civil War garb, bursting through the bubble and into the house; the anachronism caused being both symptomatic of the time distortion, but also aiding its further disruptive effects.  After the entity has trapped Sapphire in a painting (hinted of being part of the house which tells of a potential witch-hunting history to the place), Steel uses his powers over temperature to rescue her from the painting; an interestingly physical solution to something that is effectively a temporal problem.  The strange power is eventually trapped in the basement and contained by their colleague, Lead, once the young boy, Rob, has been rescued after a brief excursion to the past.

The first framing of this narrative suggests several Bergsonian problems.  The first is the sheer impossibility of movement itself, with its infinite splitting of the moment and subsequent fall-out on duration itself being gained.  Assignment One reminds of one of Bergson’s three “images of duration” (1912), where its characters have been sent to a building which itself confirms the philosopher’s view of our relationship to time being represented by two spools; one extending out as time progresses whilst the other wraps inwards as perceptive memory is stored.  Bergson writes “Then, as it is incontestable that in following the usual data of our senses and consciousness we arrive in the speculative order at insoluble contradictions, they concluded that contradiction was inherent in change itself and that in order to avoid this contradiction one had to get out of the sphere of change and lift oneself above Time.” (1912).  Though Sapphire, Steel  and Lead could arguably be said to already be “above time” themselves, Assignment One provides the most effective example of a Bergsonian “contradiction”; a time anomaly that requires removal through characters who are themselves above and out of time.

Assignment One‘s drama comes from the ability of time to not only be morphed and crystallised, but by this power being available to both protagonists and antagonists alike.  Bergson further writes of his rationale in regards to such movement within the physical world, where:

We need immobility, and the more we succeed in imagining movement as coinciding with the immobilities of the points of space through which it passes, the better we think we understand it. To tell the truth, there never is real immobility, if we understand by that an absence of movement. Movement is reality itself, and what we call immobility is a certain state of things analogous to that produced when two trains move at the same speed, in the same direction, on parallel tracks: each of the two trains is then immovable to the travellers seated in the other. (1912).

If this is the problem in the mere infinite divisibility of spatial movement, then what would Bergson consider if such a portal-like movement through time was possible?  Of course, the building seems similar to this train metaphor, except that the distortion has misaligned the trains (and the movement was one that breaks temporal linearity too).  Assignment One doesn’t consider the divisibility of spatial movement as its problem; it is one that is more temporal but, by moving emphasis onto the very ability of movement through time in such a spatial way (i.e. things coming back and forth through the disruption caused by the nursery rhymes), the narrative presents a surprisingly complex variation upon the very concept of duration as a whole.  Sapphire herself has the ability to move time backwards and forwards in small amounts, yet the reality of this power doesn’t seem to constitute all of its spatial qualities; sometimes the ghosts of the play can be effected by such a power whilst the characters in question remain in situ.  Mark Fisher has written that this power itself accounts for the character’s treatment of humans, writing that her sympathetic nature was always “under the suspicion that her apparent affection towards humans was something like an owner’s benign fascination for her pets.” (2014).  This is again an example of a Bergsonian “above time” status, or at least a psychological implication of it, albeit examined through an enjoyable pulp drama rather than through a tract on metaphysics; such an unquestioning relationship towards movement betrays a deep gulf of power between the time-agents and the people caught in the anomaly which they have been sent to fix.  But, essentially, Assignment One asks the same questions regarding the interrelationships between, perception, movement and time; where problems are caused and resolved through a juggling placement of all three.

Adam Scovell


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