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Ultraviolet: The Complete Series

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Joe Ahearne
Jack Davenport
Susannah Harker
Idris Elba
Philip Quast
Collette Brown
Bottom Line: 
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This six-part British made drama series about a covert group of modern day vampire hunters was broadcast by Channel 4 back in 1998, when fantasy drama of any sort was so scorned and looked down upon in domestic TV circles that writer-director Joe Ahearne had to work extremely hard to bury the core SF fantasy-action content at its heart (which was what really interested him about the subject matter in the first place) behind a tranche of what were then much more acceptable but standard police procedural/medical drama/espionage tropes, just in order to have the opportunity of smuggling vampires onto British television screens at all! Ahearne reflects rather ruefully in the extensive retrospective interview included with this new 2-disc DVD set from Mediumrare Entertainment, that if you tried to get this show made today, you’d probably be faced with the opposite problem he had and be told that the subject was too old hat, since vampires are now plastered all over today’s cultural landscape like a bad rash (caused by exposure to too much sunlight, no doubt): from “True Blood” to the “Vampire Diaries” and the all-dominating “Twilight” franchise, the undead have never been more popular on our screens and in our reading. They've been especially potent when it comes to their use as a metaphor for the misunderstood adolescent outsider or for the mistreatment of social minorities. Back when Ahearne was writing “Ultraviolet”, the supernatural bloodsucker was still considered exclusively the preserve of a defunct campy Hammer Horror aesthetic, though – the great British studio being indicative of a style and a genre that was considered by the powers then reigning in Television Land to be no longer relevant, alongside almost all horror and fantasy subjects for that matter. In the late ’90s, drama had to be, as Ahearne remembers it, about ‘two people in a kitchen arguing about their relationship.’ By tacit consent, science fiction and fantasy were areas of drama best left to the Americans (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” had only recently started airing), who had plenty of money to waste on that sort of thing, while we got on with making ‘proper’ television on a shoestring budget.

Now in 2013, the TV landscape couldn’t look any more different from that scenario. What with the resurgence of “Doctor Who” leading the way (a success story which Ahearne was instrumental in bringing about, since he was employed to direct five episodes of the initial 2005 series with Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor), the last decade has played host to so many successful British series that have managed to incorporate at least an element of horror or fantasy into their DNA, that it would be a tall order to list them all. A few -- such as “Being Human” and “Misfits” -- have even been aimed unashamedly at a discerning adult audience, indicating that the disparagement of the science fiction and fantasy community is a thing of the past, at least for now. Apparently gone are the days when a non-realistic premise such as the one seen in “Ultraviolet”, would automatically be dismissed as an inappropriate subject for British drama. 

Back when this series was made, “The X Files” was still the main template of choice for addressing the subject of the supernatural and horror in TV drama, and the approach Ahearne brings to these six episodes (via the seriousness of the themes and the hard-edged, naturalistic visual style of the series as a whole) wears that influence very obviously on its sleeve while  attempting to downplay those elements of traditional vampire lore responsible for the general perception of tackiness attending vampire fiction at the time, couching the outlandish in technology-speak with a patina of faux science attached. Thus, wooden stakes are replaced as weapons here by carbon dum-dum bullets which are used in machine guns issued to vampire hunting paramilitary hit squads; the rationale for the creatures avoiding sunlight relates to their being allergic to the ultraviolet part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which causes them to combust when they're exposed directly to it; and allicin tear gas canisters can be used to incapacitate them -- allicin being the active ingredient of garlic.  The series possesses what the writer-director calls an ‘anti-Gothic’ look, and focuses on portraying its action in everyday London locales and in naturalistic environments one wouldn’t normally associate with the subject of vampires. In fact, the word vampire is never used, and the squad intent on tracking them down and uncovering their schemes always refer to them -- in militaristic type jargon -- as Code 5s.

Ahearne is unusual in British TV for managing to position himself as a director who writes many of his own projects, in a medium usually led by writers or producers, and where directors are more often than not merely viewed as hired hands -- although his name is probably better known these days for his hired work as a “Doctor Who” director. The thing that is especially interesting about the series when looked at again today is how Ahearne’s enforced naturalistic approach makes the subject feel amazingly fresh, even for a modern audience for whom vampires have today become yawn-makingly ubiquitous. By underplaying its fantastical premise, he devised a show here that does the opposite of what most of the modern vampire fiction we’ve become used to since does, as he keeps the vampires mostly in the shadows, operating as a mysterious, barely glimpsed presence; they remain in the background almost throughout the entire six episodes, with a veiled agenda that’s equally as elusive, carried out mainly by human sympathisers who are willing to do the vampires’ dirty work for them out of an unfathomable loyalty, which gradually starts to seem eerily justifiable. For the most part, the series looks like an ordinary, real world, realistic espionage or police/crime drama procedural (it anticipates the visual aesthetic, set-up and tone of early “Spooks” for instance), except that this hidden terrorist threat is  an undead one, and possibly supernatural in origin. Other than the fact that the enemy don’t’ have pulses and cannot cast a reflection in mirrors or show up on video (a further wrinkle to the lore has their voices not carry across phone lines as well), the Code 5s look and sound human, and there are certainly no fangs bared here at any point in the show. What there is plenty of, though, is paranoia, angst and mystery surrounding their schemes and what their true agenda might be, since the six ‘stories of the week’ all connect up at the end to become part of one grand endgame, which the small team of investigators who are the show’s main protagonists have to work to uncover, while also dealing with their own personal demons.

The first episode is charged with the necessary but debilitating task of setting out the series’ stall, so to speak, and establishing the ground rules and all of the main characters. It’s possibly the weakest out of all the six stories since the lead, Detective Sergeant Michael Colefield (Jack Davenport), starts out completely in the dark about what’s actually going on and only during the course of his investigations does he gradually discover the fact that the world is not ordered as he’d previously assumed it to be. It’s a fairly traditional structure for an opening series episode (“Torchwood” started out in pretty much the same way, for instance), but for the viewer there is no mystery about the vampires-are-among-us set-up and so we’re already rather ahead of the main character for a good portion of the action. In this case, the catalyst for the story is the sudden disappearance of Michael’s colleague and best friend Jack (a rather presciently cast Stephen Moyer from “True Blood”, but here looking and sounding unrecognisable with a floppy ‘90s hairstyle and a London accent) on the eve of his wedding to a woman called Kirsty (Collette Brown), whom Michael clearly has a bit of an unrequited thing for himself. Vowing to help Kirsty uncover the truth, Michael discovers his friend is being investigated by a shadowy internal affairs unit who claim Jack was on the take and actually involved with the counterfeiting gang the duo had been investigating just before he went missing after tracking its links to a drugs trade that was being used to finance its operations. However, Jack shows up again in Michael’s house, begging for help and claiming that a secret Government death squad is out to eliminate him. This story appears to ring true when Michael’s investigations also lead him to the hideout of a man involved with the counterfeiting gang, and he witnesses police marksmen in body armour gassing and then executing the suspect in cold blood. The two internal affairs people keep popping up in various locations as Michael conducts his own examination of the evidence, and so he attempts to find out who they really are since his ex-girlfriend, security expert Francis (Fiona Dolman), can find no record of their being involved with the police. He tracks them to a Catholic Church, and is astonished to find out that they actually both report to a priest, called Father Pearse J. Harman (Philip Quast)!

The group has been monitoring Michael’s activities it seems the whole time he’s been following them, and it has been decided to recruit him into the team, since his police skills might come in handy in uncovering their quarry's increasingly covert activities. They take him to their secret Government-funded headquarters in Central London and reveal that the human race is under threat from a race of blood-drinking undead immortals they call Code 5s. Their bites don’t show up except under ultraviolet light and they keep their existence a total secret from humanity, only taking enough blood from us to enable them to exist (‘a good parasite never kills its host’) and only “turning” those they feel could be helpful to them.

This secret combination of church and state power also constitutes a coming together of science and faith, with immunologist Angela Marsh (Susannah Harker) providing all the scientific research into vampire physiology and detection that makes these Code 5s seem like a real world entity rather than a supernatural one(although aversion to crucifixes and holy water appears to be a real but psychosomatic reaction), while former Special Forces expert Vaughn Rice (Idris Elba) deals with the brute business of disposing of them. Extinguished Code 5s become a heap of ashes that then have to be stored in a special sealed vault soaked in ultraviolet light to stop them from regenerating. Each of the team has suffered greatly at the hands of vampires: Angela’s husband and one of her daughters were taken and Vaughn’s colleagues slaughtered. But Michael finds the team’s fanatical Church backed conviction that the Code 5s are pure evil understandably off-putting, and when Jack is revealed to be one of them he actually makes quite a convincing case to Michael that the Code 5 squad is another instance of the church persecuting a minority it doesn’t understand. But when Jack reveals he eventually plans to have Kirsty “cross over” as well, Michael makes a decision that requires him to throw in his police job and join Harman and the others in their secret Government sponsored crusade against vampire-kind.

One of the cleverest decisions the series makes early on is to always give the vampires seemingly the best arguments. Clearly one of their talents is the ability to mesmerise and win over humans, but according to Vaughn this is because ‘they have a knack for finding out what you want.’ They claim that only those who want to cross over are ever turned, and that they always look to willing human hosts to feed off; but it also becomes abundantly clear that the ability to get inside human beings’ heads is one of their greatest talents, so how far we can trust them and how much of the team’s ‘crusade’ is driven by their own bitter past experiences is a question always reiterated in every episode and which exists at the heart of the show. The stories themselves progress from covert Code 5 financial scams on the futures market to the discovery of a series of secret experiments they seem to be financing and conducting into human blood pathologies. The plot-lines cover quite a few headline issues from the late-nineties, some of them still pretty current. An apparent attempt to create a vampire pregnancy in a human provides a venue for a story which tackles the abortion debate as well as the issue of in vitro fertilisation carried out using frozen sperm from a dead donor. An episode in which schoolboys begin exhibiting symptoms of vampirism ends up tackling the vexed subject of paedophilia with more frankness than I suspect would ever be deemed acceptable these days.

Later we learn that the Code 5s are experimenting with the creation of synthetic blood using research into sickle-cell anaemia as their cover. The main storylines are complimented by an arc involving Kirsty’s determination to expose the apparent execution of her fiancee and to find out what Michael knows about it. To that end she gets in touch with a newspaper reporter called Jacob (Thomas Lockyer) in order to have him help her dig up why Michael has moved address without telling her where he’s gone, as well as unearth what he knows about the conspiracy, but she puts herself in danger when Jacob’s investigation comes to the attention of the Code 5s, who decide to use her to help them infiltrate the squad.

A Hannibal Lecter vibe, redolent of the tone of the films “Manhunter” and “The Silence of the Lambs”, permeates the later episodes when the team sequester the coffin capsule of one of the top vampires (wonderfully played by Corin Redgrave), who proves to be especially talented at exploiting the emotional vulnerabilities of his captors, even from a high tech vampire-proof prison cell. Ahearne displays some of his best writing in the one-on-one dialogue scenes such as those which take place between Redgrave and individual members of the squad, with ex “This Life” star Jack Davenport also excelling in the unrequited romance subplot involving him, Collette Brown and his nemesis Jacob, played by Lockyer, the latter always shown dressed in a similar style to Michael as a subtle means of highlighting the undercurrent of struggle between vampire and human for possession of the soul of humanity, one of the themes running through the whole series.  

A pre “The Wire” Idris Elba is also a delight to watch as the terse, no-nonsense vampire exterminator Vaughn who, despite his uncompromising anti-Code 5 stance, which verges on being an irrational prejudice (he refers to them always only as ‘leeches’), becomes more likable as the series progresses and as his partnership with the sardonic Michael evolves; it is he who is involved in one of the series’ best and most quoted suspense set-pieces in episode five. Susanna Harker meanwhile, is saddled with the difficult-to-make-sympathetic icy blonde role, playing the inscrutable, buttoned up Dr March; but her torment over the death of her family, and her suppressed trauma after learning near the end of the series that part of the Code 5s’ ultimate agenda involves bringing her husband back from his vampire grave to help them complete their project, in the end provides one of the emotional centres of the show which Ahearne manages to tackle without overt displays of emotion running riot. In fact the series maintains a cool, muted tone throughout, exemplified in the personality of Philip Quast’s Father Harman, who, after he learns he is suffering from – oh, the irony – a potentially fatal form of blood cancer halfway through the run, decides to ignore it until the present case is solved. Could the vampires he’s been trying to exterminate actually possess the solution that could save his life? This idea speaks to one of the main sources of the series’ drama, apparent throughout all six of its episodes: for the Code 5s seem to have an ambiguous agenda … their quest for synthetic blood could indicate an honest desire to actually co-exist with humanity, but then again it might mean that they intend to be freed of their current dependence on their prey and that they merely want to engineer a situation in which they can dispense with the human race once and for all? …

This 2-disc set from Mediumrare features all six episodes (three on each disc) with some neat extras in the form of three commentary tracks with writer-director Joe Ahearne, accompanied by series producer Sophie Balhetchet on two episodes and series star Susannah Harker on the third. There are also numerous promo ads and a stills gallery, and a lengthy three part interview with Ahearne in which we learn that not only were local churches reluctant to let the show film on their premises when they were told what the theme of the show was, but that Heathrow airport also rejected their approaches, too, once it found out that the series was about vampires! On the other hand a fertility clinic was perfectly happy to let them film scenes at its facilities, despite aborting vampire foetuses playing a key role in the plot! Similarly Ahearne’s old school was perfectly happy to allow filming for a story about paedophiles and priests to take place there! The interview runs for nearly an hour and there is also a short storyboard comparison film contrasting Ahearne’s drawings and a finished sequence from one of the episodes, accompanied by a commentary from the director.

“Ultraviolet” ends with all the strands of the main story arc being satisfactorily tied up in episode six, although one also gets the feeling that the series could have easily run for much longer than this handful of episodes if Channel 4 had been willing to commission a second series. Certainly, the revelations of the final episode seem to be setting up the next stage of the drama even as they resolve the main mystery  that has been driving this first (and only) series. Unfortunately, that promise remained unfulfilled, but what does endure from this short-lived drama is a high quality SF/horror series set against a backdrop of contemporary reality, one which is well worth revisiting via this excellent DVD edition.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!

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