The slick and stylish British TV series that mixed vampirism, spy drama and action is better than you might have been led to believe.
When Ultraviolet was originally broadcast in the UK, back in 1998, British television was a rather different environment than it is now. At that time, anything more imaginative than a dour kitchen sink drama was frowned upon or dismissed, and so the fact that a TV series about vampires had even made it to air was remarkable. The fact that the critics were – to say the least – sniffy and sneering was less unexpected, and it seemed as though even those involved in the show were a little embarrassed by it, not seeing it as ‘proper’ drama. Main star Jack Davenport, fresh from the turgid and inexplicably fashionable series This Life, seemed especially dismissive of the show even as it was broadcast. In the end, it had a single, six-episode season run before British TV got back to the usual tedious social realism, cop shows and soap operas – and was never seen again.
It’s easy to think that if the series was made now, things would be very different. This slick, genre-hybrid show seems perfect for the generation who, a decade or so later, were gobbling up the likes of Being Human or Life On Mars/Ashes to Ashes. In lieu of any TV repeats (which, like any show more than a few years old, would probably now be considered ‘problematic for any number of ludicrous reasons), perhaps someone should be looking at remaking this for modern audiences.
Ultraviolet is a mash-up of police procedure show, spy drama and horror, with ordinary cop Michael (Jack Davenport) finding himself slowly drawn into a covert government unit after his partner Jack (Stephen Moyer) vanishes on the eve of his wedding to Kirsty (Collette Brown). It soon becomes clear that Jack was a corrupt copper and, worse still has ‘crossed over’ to join the vampire cult he was secretly working for. After killing Jack, Michael is persuaded to join the shady agency run by Catholic priest Pearse (Philip Quast), working alongside gung-ho ex-military man Vaughn (Idris Elba) and scientist Angela (Susannah Harker), both of whom have joined the agency after losing loved ones to the vampires – or ‘Code 5’s’ as they are referred to (the show – smartly or squeamishly, take your pick – never uses the word ‘vampire’, though no one should be in any doubt about what these characters are).
The subsequent episodes see the team battling cases involving paedophile priests and vampiric test-tube babies, while Michael tries to cut himself off from Kirsty (who he is in love with) in order to protect her, even as she tries to track him down and find out the truth about what happened to Jack. The show plays with moral ambiguities – the vampires argue that they are simply another minority persecuted by religion, and their scientific and medical experiments seem to offer as much hope to humanity as the undead, with research into curing blood diseases and creating synthetic blood. Given the brutal methods of the vampire hunters, the show manipulates the viewer into seeing the vampires as possibly being the lesser of two evils – especially as they don’t kill their victims, simply taking enough blood to survive and leaving the donor unaware that anything has happened. But as the series reaches its conclusion, the real, more ambitious aims of the vampires become clear.
With all six episodes written and directed by Joe Ahearne (who would go on to more, less impressive shows with a supernatural bent including Apparitions and The Secret of Crickley Hall) the show boasts a consistency of style that other series might not have – and there is certainly plenty of style, from the moody opening titles (backed with Sue Hewitt’s subtle but potently atmospheric theme tune) to the slick action, the ultra-modern science and the good-looking cast. It feels like a show where style might override substance and sometimes, that definitely seems to be happening – but on the whole, the story is given room to develop and the action is primarily narrative-driven. This is, of course, as far removed from the gothic as you can get and the closest relation to the series would be The X-Files, which is clearly an influence here. The show is admirably straight-faced and downbeat, grounding the fantastic in a plausible reality and it neatly brings the vampire myths up to date – these vampires are despatched not with wooden stakes but carbon bullets, the bites that fade from view immediately can only be detected by UV light, and the idea of vampires having no reflection (a major part of the drama here) is updated to include not simply not appearing on film or video, but also being unable to make telephone calls or having useable fingerprints.
The only problem with the series is its briefness. This is the curse of much UK TV, where few series have traditionally run beyond six episodes at a time. This is fine for self-contained sitcoms or dramas but becomes a real problem when you are trying to create a story arc. Trying to have a continuing drama while also having standalone stories is fine when you have 24 episodes to work with; it’s considerably harder over a mere six. Let’s be honest – some of the finest US TV series have taken the best part of a season to bed in. Ultraviolet, though, only has six shows in which to build its characters, build its world and mythology and tell its continuing story, and it takes a while to really get there. While the first four episodes are entertaining enough, they feel like an introduction and it’s only in the final two shows that the story starts to come together and that we know the characters well enough to care about what is happening. This would be fine, perhaps, if the show had continued. But as it is, we are left with a dramatic and exciting finale that leaves everything open-ended and never to be continued, with more questions than answers. It’s pretty frustrating.
Ultraviolet should have continued. Made today, it’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t have (though it’s claimed that Ahearne had become tired of the idea by the end, so who knows?). It’s a world worthy of further exploration – as I said earlier, someone should reboot it. It feels ready-made for modern audiences. As it is, the handful of existing episodes of Ultraviolet are impressive horror TV from a time when horror TV was dismissed as juvenile tat by critics and broadcasters alike.
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