Friday, 19 September 2008

'Ultraviolet' - The Television Series

If you want to watch the television series 'Ultraviolet' (1998) I warn that this posting gives away a lot of details of the stories that you might want to find out for yourself.I have just finished viewing the boxed DVD set of the British television series, 'Ultraviolet', not to be confused with the Mila Jovich movies of the same name. 'Ultraviolet' has a strong cult following and there is good coverage about it on the internet, but there are elements of it that I want to explore myself. It was shown in 1998 on Channel 4, in the UK. It ran to only six episodes. Though it finishes with potential leads into a sequel, the writer Joe Ahearne said that it was intended only to be that long. There is a comprehensive interview with him on the official website run by the company that produced the programme (since the late 1980s most drama series shown on British television have been made by small independent companies rather than the broadcasting companies themselves). See:

What is special about 'Ultraviolet'? It is a vampire series, focusing on four members of a special British unit whose job is to investigate what the vampires want, how they are going to achieve it and to ultimately eliminate them. The unit is very mysterious. The vampires suggest it is a Vatican-backed organisation, partly because the leader of the unit, Pearse Harman, is a Catholic priest, or possibly a lapsed priest. In fact, it is clearly an official part of the British police system. Its agents pose as CIB (Complaints Investigation Bureau, not the Companies Investigation Branch, which was a civil service unit 1985-2006, now the Insolvency Service), a real section of London's Metropolitan Police. This unit featured most prominently in the BBC series 'Between the Lines' (1992-4). Wrongly, on the box of the DVD collection, the text says that the unit is called CIB and that this is specially set up to combat vampires; in fact the title CIB is simply a cover for when the members of the unit are investigating other police officers and this deception is quickly revealed.

At other times, the team in 'Ultraviolet' present themselves as so-called 'T Section', an anti-terrorist section of the police service, though at the time, in reality, this role was filled by the Anti-Terrorist Squard of the Metropolitan Police. Certainly the unit portrayed in the series, with small but well-equipped headquarters can call on a specially equipped armed police unit with ease. So, we get a sense it is a paramilitary unit (the armed police wear balaclavas to conceal their faces, as SAS troops do when in action in civil situations). Thus, probably the closest equivalent is the section of the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigations) which Mulder and Scully work for in 'The X-Files' (series 1993-2002). Unlike the USA's FBI, the UK has no national police force but sometimes the Metropolitan Police officers work on national issues.

The Code 5 Unit Members

One characteristic of the series was the scientific approach to the issue of vampires. One of the team, Dr. Angela March (played by Susannah Harker who had had great success in the renowned 'Pride & Prejudice' (1995)) is a haemotologist whose husband, a leading doctor in the same field, and her younger daughter, had both been 'crossed over' by the vampires. The vampires are never referred to as such in the series, they are always 'Code 5s' (because the Roman numeral for 5 is 'V') mimicking the way the British police characterise different racial groups by code numbers, e.g. IC1 refers to Caucasians. In the series the vampires are colloquially referred to as 'leeches'.

The scientific aspect runs right through the series and it is interesting to see issues of concern in the late 1990s which have so quickly fallen out of the public view. The vampires are concerned that their food supply (humans) is being contaminated by disease. There are references to BSE (better known as 'mad cow disease), Gulf War Syndrome and sickle cell anaemia. Other contemporary topics which get drawn into the plots include police corruption, child abuse, immigration, ethnic cleansing, the after-effects of the Chernobyl disaster, the impact of damage to the rain forests, the possibility of nuclear winter and climate change.

Dr. Angela March played by Susannah Harker

The vampires are also seeking ways to spread their control of humans. When a victim is bitten in 'Ultraviolet' the wound is invisible except under ultraviolet light, it heals quickly and the victim has no memory of the attack. However, it infects them, making them irritated by light and religious symbols. It also makes them far more amenable to suggestions and so more likely to comply with subsequent attacks by the vampires. The vampires hope to spread this infection through an altered form of meningitis. In equally sophisticated plotting they seek to breed vampires through in-vitro fertilisation packaging vampire DNA in human sperm. They also try to develop artificial blood which is sustainable over a long period.

Dr. March studying a Code 5 wound under ultraviolet light

The way that the vampires are fought always raises interest and as with these other aspects it is on a scientific basis. In this 'Ultraviolet' is the precursor of movies such as 'Underworld' and especially the 'Blade' series, from 1998, (though, of course, that movie's bases go back to comic strips of the 1970s, so can be seen as a precursor of 'Ultraviolet'). The team use guns which fire carbon-tipped bullets and grenades with carbon shrapnel. Apparently these were proceeded by 'wooden bullets' that one vampire refers to. Dr. March has isolated allicin from garlic which is seen as the active ingredient against vampires and it is used in gas grenades.
Carbon-tipped Hollow-point Bullet
Pistol with Code 5 Detecting Sights

Interestingly vampires in 'Ultraviolet' not only have no reflection, but cannot have their voices or images recorded or transmitted by video, ultrasound, telephones, etc. To send messages they have to use voice synthesis systems. Nor can their fingerprints be taken even just using ink, which to me seems rather ridiculous. The invisibility to video means that the team's guns have small video screens so that they can tell the vampires from the normal population. If killed, the vampires in the series burst into huge flames and ash is left, something else seen in 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' and 'Blade', though in this case the explosion can be very forceful: agent Vaughan Rice escapes from a disused warehouse by killing a vampire and so blowing a hole in a steel door.

Vaughan Rice played by Idris Elba

The ash can be reconstituted (clothing the vampire in what they were wearing at their time of death too) by having vampire, not human, blood poured on it. To avoid reconstitution 'dead' vampires are kept in steel cylinders in a large chilled vault. The character Michael Colefield does use a stake once, a large shard of wood blown from a wooden children's roundabout, though he drives it into the right side rather than the left, heart side, of the vampire's chest to kill him. Apparently the carbon just has to enter the chest cavity to work.

Detective Sergeant Michael Colefield played by Jack Davenport
Standing in front of the vault of Code 5 remains

Ultraviolet light on its own does not seem to harm the vampires, though sunlight burns them very quickly and unlike, say, the vampires in 'Blade', they cannot recover from this. The vampires are immune to pain killers and cannot be anaethetised. March has to operate on the vampire Hoyle while he is fully conscious and wittering on.

The vampires are shown as being incredibly arrogant and manipulative. To weaken the opposition they seek out what each individual wants and exploit this, for example, through providing specific medical care or appealing to their desire for power or sex. They play on Michael Colefield's guilt over killing his friend, Jack Beresford, (played by Stephen Moyer who appears in the recent US vampire series 'True Blood' as Louisiana vampire Bill Compton) who had become a vampire, and his feelings for his Jack's fiancee, Kirsty Maine. They do this in order to recover the remains of Angela March's husband, Robert, a leading haemotologist who had been turned by them. Michael expunges his guilt by tricking them into reviving Jack rather than Robert.

The vampires argue that they do not force people into vampirism, but this is untrue as they manipulate them and have no qualms in forcing children into the condition if it gives them who they want, in particular control over powerful individuals and specific scientists. This gives them a modern unpleasant air which is different to the scares of traditional horror movies. It also seems to have parallels to how people are manipulated by the state. The vampires portray themselves as victims of a policy of racial extermination and argue that they are the ones seeking peace, though on their terms, which seem to be in a darkened world where humans are kept like battery hens for feeding.

Overall, the tone of the series is very low key and bleak which means it does not appeal to all viewers. There were attempts to replicate it in the USA with Idris Elba (who plays Vaughan Rice, a soldier who was a veteran of the First Gulf War where his unit was eliminated by vampires) repeating his role over there. However, the reason it failed (the pilot was never broadcast) is because the Americans cannot tolerate gloom in the way British audiences can. This is noticeable even in 'The X-Files' and 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' (series 1997-2003, with 9, not 7, series despite what many websites say) that there is an upbeat resolution even if individual episodes are bleak (and with 144 episodes there was room for that).

The casting was very good for adding to this gloom. Philip Quast, an Australian actor who played Harman had experience of playing priests before and brings a sober attitude that suggests that he is less confident in his faith than he later proves to be. Susannah Harker has a perfect mournful appearance, which worked so well as her Elizabeth Bennet being so out of her depth in 'Pride and Prejudice'. She acts well as a person who have lost a loved one and are trying to move on through work in particular but unable to do so. Idris Elba has a tough character who speaks softly and is probably the least complex, but this cold front reinforces the others. Jack Davenport who plays the 'hero' Detective Sergeant Michael Colefield was effectively reprising his cynical lawyer Miles from the very successful series 'This Life' (1996-7) an approach which has done him well in the three 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movies (2003-7) as Commodore Norrington. Corin Redgrave who plays Dr. Paul Hoyle in two episodes and ends up effectively as spokesman of the vampires, again is like the character he played in 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' (1994), polite, but arrogant and not someone you would want to spend time with.

Reverend (?) Pearse Harman played by Philip Quast

You do wonder if some of the names were particularly chosen. In Vaughan Rice, Rice clearly has parallels to the vampire author Anne Rice, and Vaughan to leading US author Robert Vaughan, who served in Vietnam and won the Air Medal with a V for Valour, amongst other numerous decorations. Angela March, well Angela and Angel is a typical connection; there was the screenwriter Joseph Moncure March; the March family are in 'Little Women' (1868); Frederic March acted in 'Long Day's Journey into Night', but perhaps now my links are getting too tenuous. In Pearse Harman, Patrick Pearse was an Irish author executed following the 1916 Uprising, there are lots of authors called Harman, including one from Australia, and Andrew Harman who writes comic fantasy novels, including 'Farenheit 666' (1995). Maybe this breaks down when you get to Michael Colefield as I can find no writers with that surname.

Overall 'Ultraviolet' was an excellent piece of work in bringing established horror concepts into a contemporary setting whilst addressing other grave issues facing the world. It has a consistently effective style featuring action, but not overly dependent on it. Yet, it shocks us and holds our attention in more sophisticated and subtle ways that are not purely dependent on the vampire element, but also nasty aspects of our own modern society, e.g. a paedophile used by the vampires and a woman carrying a vampire child. In turn, as some of the vampires do, this challenges us to reflect on how nasty humans are and whether we are actually no better than vampires. It also set down the foundations for the 'scientific' influenced vampire stories of the late 1990s and 2000s. It seems about time that we have something new that is like this.

The USA seems to be producing numerous vampire series and I will have to see the quality of these in coming months (I have series 1 of 'Blood Ties' to watch). Unfortunately, the 'Blade' series was pulled after only 13 episodes, suggesting the US audiences are not tolerant of complex stories of this ilk, even when backed with action. Saying, that 'Supernatural' has persisted well, though perhaps audiences associate with two clean-cut, white, American young men more easily. I have hopes for 'True Blood', but I doubt the Americans can pull off the really heavy impact of UK series, with moral dilemmas and foreboding. 'Ultraviolet' is a little classic and I advise you to go out and buy or rent a copy.

P.P. There is a good review of the series on another Blogspot blog: 'Talesin meets the vampires'. It is run by an author of vampire stories. The posting about 'Ultraviolet' is at:

P.P.P. Interestingly I have come across an anime movie released this year called 'Ultraviolet: Code 044' which is about a genetically engineered woman ('044') in Japan who works for a government organisation that eliminates 'Hemophages', as the vampires are termed. Unable to kill one 'Bacteriophage' (what that is, you have to imagine) during a battle she ends up on the run from the agency and the vampires.

P.P. 12/01/2012
I should have spotted this sooner, but you can now watch the entire series for free via the 4OD service run by Channel 4:

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