Over the past few years I’d heard a lot about Ultraviolet, a Channel 4 science fiction miniseries about vampires. Since I wasn’t into Buffy at the time and was concerned that it’d be like all other UK science fiction efforts (i.e. nice idea, bad execution), I gave it a miss. Ultraviolet only ran for a single six episode series and wasn’t renewed; not because it was a failure, but because there wasn’t any real momentum to keep it moving. As a result, other than a typically ill-fated US adaptation, the show disappeared beneath the waves.
This makes it all the more impressive that, six years on, you can still find people praising the show. A few months ago I got a bit tired of all of this and ordered the DVD for the head-shakingly cheap price of £11. Precisely because the show had been hyped up so much to me on forums, I lowered my expectations in response. How good could a British serious vampire series be?
Well, I wasn’t bowled over by the first episode, which was pretty good but not exactly amazing. It was a decent introduction to concept of vampires living among us and the existence of a hidden arm of the government dedicated to eliminating them. I’m well aware it sounds totally absurd but the writer/director Joe Ahearne approached the idea from a completely serious perspective. What if there really were vampires? How would they get their money? What do they want? How do you identify them if you can’t see them in mirrors or videos or hear them on audio recordings? Are they even all that bad? It was a pretty intelligent treatment, and we saw it all from the eyes of a naive policeman who gets caught up in some vampire nonsense and eventually is recruited into the government organisation.
While the miniseries as a whole has a continuous story arc, the first four episodes stand mostly on their own; the last two run on from each other. The second episode of the series continued on much the same lines, doing the hard work ofbuilding up the world and developing the characters a little more. It had a pretty interesting story about the temptations that vampires can offer (eternal life, mostly).
It’s the third and fourth stories that made me sit up. They are respectively about abortion and paedophilia. They don’t tiptoe around the subjects either – those two episodes are without doubt the most stark and honest dramatic treatments I’ve seen of the subjects for a long time. They just happen to involve vampires in a key way, and they probably benefit as a result since there aren’t all that many people who would otherwise want to watch a show about such subjects.
It was about this point that I really began liking the series and the characters. Firstly, not a single one of the good guys is particularly likeable; they’re all quite flawed and some are downright nasty at times. This wouldn’t mean anything unless they happened to be interesting as well, which of course they are. Secondly, Joe Ahearne knows his science, or more accurately, his biology. I didn’t hear a single factual error during the series and he goes into a fair bit of detail about stuff like RNA virology, IVF, sickle cell disease and non-Hodgkins lymphoma. I have not seen a dramatic production that has featured quite as much accurate science before, and definitely not one about biology.
The last two episodes, which can be considered as a two-parter, are absolutely stellar. In a close to the series, we get to see a direct confrontation between the government and the vampires, and we find out exactly what the vampires want to achieve (it makes a surprising amount of sense). There’s also an incredibly powerful scene which every reviewer mentions* and so will I – one of the main good guys gets himself trapped in a locked warehouse with four vampires that are just about to wake up. He has no way to get out, there’s no way he can kill all of them. All he has is a gun. What happens next is five minutes of TV which I will never forget. The rest of the two-parter continues on a similar tone, which pretty much everything that can go wrong, going wrong.
*The other thing they mention is how no-one says the word ‘vampire’ during the entire show. Instead, they say ‘leech’ or ‘code five’. I suppose this would be more impressive if I hadn’t been expecting it. Oops.
There’s no chance we’re going to see Ultraviolet Season Two, which is probably for the best since Ahearne didn’t want it to turn into a ‘Dracusoap’ and the first season is good enough as it is. It would’ve been nice to have better special effects, as usual, but their mediocre quality didn’t really detract since there generally wasn’t much call for them during the series. Apart from a slightly slow start, I can wholeheartedly recommend Ultraviolet – it’s a smart, impeccably plotted and extremely dramatic show that hardly anyone has heard of or seen.