Sunday, February 03, 2008

Ultraviolet – review (TV series)

Director: Joe Ahearne

First aired: 1998

Contains spoilers

The day before writing this review I received a comment on the blog from reader Ian who mentioned that I hadn’t reviewed the series yet. There are plenty of films in my collection that I haven’t yet gone back to and this UK mini-series was one of those. I’m always happy to receive review suggestions and dug the old DVD out, and once on couldn’t stop watching. Really, I remembered this being good, I’d forgotten just how good.

The series ran for 6 episodes and was composed of self contained stories with an over-riding arc. It also didn’t mention vampires, though vampires they are as we shall see when we look at lore, instead referring to them as leaches (as a derivative term) and code 5s. Why code 5? Roman numeral V… ahh…

The series follows Michael (Jack Davenport), a cop who is on the stag night of his colleague and best friend Jack (Stephen Moyer) when a snitch calls. By the time Mike has dropped Jack off and found the snitch he has been assassinated. Mike chases after the suspected shooter but looses him in the underground when he checks round the corner through a mirror. Unbeknown to him the assassin is stood there – vampires do not cast reflections. By the next day Jack has gone missing, leaving his fiancé Kirsty (Colette Brown) jilted at the altar.

The investigation of Jack’s disappearance is taken over by Vaughan Rice (Idris Elba) and Angie March (Susannah Harker) claiming to be from CIB but agents of the organisation set up to investigate and exterminate code 5s. With Jack turned, Mike gets drawn into the shadowy world and becomes the Agency’s newest recruit. What the series does really well is make you question who the good guys and the bad guys really are and this is seen mostly through Mike’s eyes.

All the main human character’s are flawed in one way or another and the backgrounds of the characters lend them to be... I would say dour but gritty would probably be a better term. Angie is a doctor whose husband and one of her twin daughters were turned, in order to draw her in. The Agency 'took care' of her daughter and husband – we’ll get to vampiric death soon.

Rice was a soldier in the (first) gulf war. He was the survivor of a squad attacked and turned by a vampire. We find out later he survived by running whilst his squad stood their ground and, by the time they got to him, the sun was rising. He had to deal with his squad and then was medically discharged from the army with PTSD.

Leader of the Agency is Pearse (Philip Quast), a priest (though he never wears paraphernalia) we do not hear much of his past, except a supposition that it was the vampires who drove him to the priesthood. He has his own, more contemporary to the series, demons to fight. There is a suggestion that the Agency is run by Vatican money but Pearce confirms it is funded by taxpayers money.

We see lots of Agency soldiers from time to time. We are not in the realm of stakes and crosses but grenades and guns loaded with carbon tipped dum dum bullets. The main non-Agency character is Kirsty whose obsession with discovering what happened to Jack and Mike, who essentially vanishes from the face of the Earth when he joins the Agency, suffices to place Mike and herself in peril.

The vampires do not have fangs. The jury is out on holy items – it depends on the faith of both the user and the vampire. I mentioned that they do not have reflections, nor do they show up on video (the guns are fitted with cameras to ensure the target is code 5) and their voices cannot be recorded or be carried on a phone signal (it 'makes surveillance a bitch'). They feed on blood and the bites heal rapidly leaving no humanly visible trace of attack. A complete drain turns but a taste leaves an infection, or taint, that can only be seen in UV light and makes the victim susceptible to suggestion.

The death of a vampire is explosive, to say the least, and leaves a powder behind. Once turned, however, a vampire cannot truly die. The ashes can be reformed (we find out how in the last episode) and so they are kept in secure storage – a prison of ashes if you like. Male vampires are sterile and female vampires do not menstruate, they only use sex as a method of seduction.

As well as the conspiracy angle these vampires are seductive. They claim they never force someone to cross over (as turning is termed) but they find out what the person wants the most and offer them that. One of their number claims that they created all religion and that they are the afterlife – he claims he crossed over to save his own soul. One question, as the series does actively challenge the viewer during its length, is whether the vampires are actually the enemy and whether what they are after is peace or the peace of a final solution.

Merging gritty police drama with supernatural elements, this worked really well. All the performances are excellent and the soundtrack enhances the viewing experience. There is a nice photography distinction between night and day, the filmmakers purposefully aiming for leafy suburbia for the majority of day shots and the seedy city underbelly for night shots, offering a visual distinction beyond light differences.

The effects were sparingly used as the budget seemed a little low for full-on Hollywood type effects, the series does not lack for this rather it concentrated on story and character. Some of the story lines touched on very controversial social issues and yet never sensationalised them, handling them with a combination of gritty realism and sensitivity.

The whole series closed off the main arc nicely but left enough open to pique the interest for a second series. That never came to pass and series creator Joe Ahearne claims he did all with the series that he wanted to. This took the genre out of the gothic and into the modern without seeming silly and built genuine tension into some of the episodes 8 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


Anonymous said...

Well there you are - ask & you shall receive. Good review as well which I would completely agree with, in particular you highlighting the ambivalance over which was more sinister, the international Vampire conspiracy or the secret Agency hunting them.
I also remember noting that the V-word was never used in the series, and Pearce commenting that the Agency was funded from the Health Service budget - "It is a public health issue, after all."
The one thing that did jar for me in Ultraviolet though was vampires not having a reflection in mirrors / image on video, etc. The series went for an unmystic, hard (pseudo)science explanation for vampirism, but how does that sit with not having an image in a mirror?
Minor quibble though. An excellent (and different!) take on the genre that succeeded in combining classic vampires and a brooding, menacing high-tech thriller. About as far in style from the 2006 Ultraviolet as you can get.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Ian, no problem and any other review you'd like to see just mention and (if it is in my collection) I will jump it ahead in the queue.

The point about the jarring issue is well made, however, it didn't seem as bad on re-watch as it did when the series first aired. I think the problem was, in the first episode, the expectation that there was going to be a scientific explanation was raised - but in reality no bona fide explanation was ever really offered, though both the hunters and the vampires mixed science into their actions. Science had been able to detect code 5 material, but what that was they never really explained it just was.

As you say, a million miles away from the 2006 flick

Anonymous said...

Susannah Harker - Mmmmm nice.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

lol - no answer to that Slaine

Rooksmoor said...

I agree with Ian about the reflection issue. On occasion I think it was a useful plot device. It does bring us back to the fact that why traditional vampires have no reflection. I have always supposed that that went back to them not really being alive, which suggests that they are more like ghosts than physical. This may explain how they can change form easily in traditional stories, especially into a cloud.

'Ultraviolet' was great in bringing the vampire story up to date. It seems appropriate that given vampire and other horror genres flourished when there was so much concern about syphilis and different aspects of the psyche that such stories should see a revival when AIDS and other blood conditions were receiving attention and when psycho-therapy seems to have become an almost a mundane treatment.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Cheers Rooksmoor

The idea about vampires and reflections is odd and I don't think anyone has a definitive answer as to where it came from.

The spirit aspect was certainly there... either mirrors, like photographs, capture the soul and without a soul there is nothing to capture - but that doesn't work for me as it would mean that any inanimate object had a soul. Or indeed that the creatures were more spirit than physical - hinted within Dracula when, for a second, Harker can see the blue flame through his coachman (Dracula in disguise) giving the impression that he was transparent.

Then there is the idea that, due to the traditional reaction between a vampire and silver, that the reflection did not hold as a mirror is silver backed.

I have my own irk around mirrors and that is, why don’t the clothes reflect? Actually some prime uses of this area of lore have had the clothes reflected whilst the vampire does not – the vampire’s ghost being the one on my mind.

All that said, I can understand why this irks in ultraviolet more than in a more gothic setting, as ultraviolet did try and be scientific and yet there is no rationale for it offered.

Many thanks for the comment.

Simon Dyda said...

A real pity there was no second season for this series, although there's enough substance in these six episodes that the first season isn't undermined by the lack of a sequel.

On the subject of reflections, two points of interest: firstly, the older version of the vampire strikes me as being an entity that was effectively half-man half-ghost (which makes the term 'undead' a rather fitting one), caught between a physical and non-physical state, hence no reflection (in this scenario I presume the vampire's clothes share this semi-ghostly aspect, being presumably the clothes it was buried in); secondly, for a more contemporary take, people (such as myself) who have genetic visual impairments find it difficult to see their own reflections, which might offer a possible new spin on this characteristic for writers who want to base their vampires on some kind of genetic condition.

Simon Dyda said...

"All that said, I can understand why this irks in ultraviolet more than in a more gothic setting, as ultraviolet did try and be scientific and yet there is no rationale for it offered."

Yeah, especially as it's not all that difficult to invent a scientific explanation. For example, a human body generates its own electromagnetic field, so we could just say that the vampire has an electromagnetic field that absorbs light - not completely, otherwise they'd be invisible to the human eye, but enough to rob them of reflections and make them invisible to cameras. I'm sure a similar theory could have been knocked together to explain their inability to speak on telephones.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Simon, absolutely... some early traditions make it sound as though the vampire is simultaneously abroad and in the grave giving credence to the almost ghost aspect and explaining how they could be out and about and not disturb the grave.

I do personally like the films that have the clothes reflected but the vampire not, however.

Simon Dyda said...

"the vampire is simultaneously abroad and in the grave giving credence to the almost ghost aspect and explaining how they could be out and about and not disturb the grave."

The thing I like about this ghost aspect is that it also offers us a reason for the vampire's need for blood, namely to enable it to transform its spectral body into a physical one (ectoplasm + blood = preternatural flesh), which of course would always need topping up and, when exposed to sunlight, would revert to its component ingredients.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

There is certainly a lore developing there...

btw, for ghosts devouring blood (and flesh) to create a physical body see the Fades

LoBo said...

Hm, i wonder if i will enjoy this mini-series? Is this similar to any films or series?

Taliesin_ttlg said...

I would say no... it was fairly unique (at its time at least)... of course certain tropes are replicated in other films - vampire nation with pretensions of a new world order - but this stood out.

Give it a go, I recommend it.

LoBo said...

Ok, i will soon buy it.

LoBo said...

Ok, i finished watching it 2 days ago. I must sadly say i was disappointed.

You barely see the vampires and when you do, not much interesting is happening, in my opinion. You don't see them attack a lot either.

Perhaps my biggest problem with this mini series, was that the policemen get's most of the screentime and i wasn't so impressed with the storylines.

Hm, too bad.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

sorry you didn't like it Lobo but, then again, if we all liked the same things the world would be boring ;)