With the announcement that True Blood is finally getting staked next season (not before time, many would argue, but that’s a discussion for another day), does the thought of a slick vampire drama starring Bill himself, Stephen Moyer, alongside such heavy hitters as Idris Elba and Smash’s Jack Davenport make your blood tingle? Well, you don’t have to wait – because it’s already out there, and it’s pretty damn good. Welcome to Ultraviolet, your new – well, old, really – vampire fix.
Made in 1998, Ultraviolet is a British TV drama by Joe Ahearne (who has since gone on to pen a number of Doctor Who episodes) that only lasted for one short series, but managed to cram an awful lot into 6 episodes. I remember enjoying it at the time as an original, striking drama – but this was before vampires became such a mainstay of the TV schedules. How does it stand up nearly 15 years later?
The answer is, actually pretty well. The show has an enormous amount going for it, not just a top-notch cast who’ve all gone on to greater things (alongside stalwart character actors such as Corin Redgrave). And, the horrendously jarring ‘what’s occurring?’ catchphrase of one of the main characters aside (did people ever really say that?), it remains surprisingly undated. Probably best described as ‘Spooks with Stakes’, (that’s the show MI-5 for US types) it’s the story of a mysterious organisation tasked with using all of the resources of a modern military to fight a war with the vampires that only they know exist. The problem is, it’s starting to look like the vampires are every bit as clever as humans in using technology to further their aims…
When Moyer’s character Jack goes missing on the eve of his wedding, his disappearance drags his policeman best friend Michael Colefield (Davenport) into a nightmarish, after-dark world, but the vampires are not simply fiends who simply hunt in the night – they employ bankers and scientists, and they may not really be the bad guys after all. Part police thriller, part supernatural mystery, perhaps the reason Ultraviolet only went one season is that it’s hard to pigeonhole, but to shy away from it is to miss out. Because as well as being taut, tense and occasionally thrilling, Ultraviolet is a clever, stylish show that isn’t afraid to be morally ambiguous. It doesn’t shy away from contentious issues, such as child abuse by the clergy – one episode, for instance, is set around trying to establish whether a murder was retaliation against a vampire, or a paedophile.
Ultraviolet plays with our ideas of good and evil, without making the mistake of portraying the vampires as so stylish and sexy that you’re on their side from the start just because they look better. Are they really the villains, here, or a misunderstood minority? If the vampire hunters are really funded by the church – which is hinted at but never confirmed – can we be sure they don’t have their own agenda? (As one of the vampires points out, the church doesn’t exactly have a great history when it comes to dealing with people who are ‘different’). Of course, in the post-True Blood/Vampire Diaries era, we aren’t working from quite the same presumption of guilt that was the case in 1998 – we no longer automatically think of the vamps as the bad guys – so there isn’t quite the same power in this reversal as there was when the programme was originally shown – but it remains a powerful question.
The vampires may just be acting in self-defence – they may be seeking to create artificial blood so that they can live beside humans, peacefully – or they may just be lying, attempting to create a synthetic substitute so they can be rid of their troublesome food source forever. Without knowing which, you’re never quite sure who to root for, and Ultraviolet plays with that uneasiness to great effect. Many of the ideas that seemed (relatively) groundbreaking back then of course have passed into popular lore now: the idea of treating vampirism as a blood-borne infection, science tackling the supernatural and synthetic blood, to name but a few, but this actually increases the pleasure of the show rather than diminishes it. True, it lacks the expensive special effects and overload of gore and sex that modern shows offer, but instead lures you into a murky, perilous world where shadows are full of menace, and the danger is subtle – and all the more frightening for that. It may not be full of hot Vikings and werewolves taking their shirts off, but if you’re a fan of smart supernatural drama, Ultraviolet could be your latest fix.
(Ultraviolet is available free for UK viewers on Channel 4 on Demand.)
For my own take on vampires, check out Dark Dates.