Ultraviolet

UK Channel Four

Written and directed by Joe Ahearne


My first impressions of Channel Four's new drama series were pleasant surprise mixed with frustration. It starts off rather earnest and serious. Very little is explained, with only a few hints dropped, such as the villains not showing up on video or photographs. Soon, though, it develops into an engaging series, well acted, with strong characterisation. Throughout, no-one mentions the v-word. The vampirology as such is explained entirely in scientific terms, with no reliance on supernatural elements. Even the vampires' reluctance to touch religious artefacts is explained as a psychosomatic reaction.

Initially the lack of obvious exposition left me floundering. I was confused by the main character's relationships, but as the six-episode series progressed, things became somewhat clearer. In his outsider's role, Jack Davenport is moody and sullen. After the disappearance of his best friend at the latter's stag night he is approached by members of a covert investigative organisation -- similar in flavour to 'Majestic' of Dark Skies.

The three characters he falls in with are solid and believable. Philip Quast, as their leader, is an implacable commander -- an ex-cleric who becomes preoccupied with his own mortality. Susannah Harker is at first a cool, determined doctor and scientist (in the Dana Scully mould) whose vulnerabilities only surface toward the end. Idris Elba is world-weary and ruthless, with a personal mission to eliminate the enemy. Derivative it may be, but Ultraviolet, written and directed by Joe Ahearne, is several bites above the usual TV horror fare.

Victims turn up with classic vampire symptoms: loss of blood, and bite-marks. Perpetrators don't show up on video, audio or any other electronic media -- the only way they can use telephones, for instance, is by voice-synthesis. And most spectacularly, their body-tissue vaporises on exposure to UV.

It seems the 'leeches' -- to use the pejorative slang -- have a purpose: to procreate, and protect their food supply. As one character puts it, the future of the human race on Earth could be little more than a global battery farm.

The penultimate episode of Ultraviolet has an almost clichéd tension-builder, even to a digital display counting down to the inevitable climax, but the thrust of this sequence is done well enough to be a model of the technique -- it's edge-of-the-seat stuff. The appearance of Corin Redgrave as one of the senior vampires tops off this episode with impressive gravitas.

The ambivalence of the series also sets it apart from run- of-the-mill vampire horror. Throughout, the protagonists are never completely sure they're on the side of the angels. Corin Redgrave's character argues that he means no-one any harm, and all he wants is to be left in peace. His offer of immortality is likely to prove irresistible, even to the priest.

The only real problem with the series is that it falls across accepted genre boundaries of thriller, vampire horror and science fiction, lacking the visceral unpleasantness of the un-dead, and not standing up to any reasonable science-fictional analysis. It's tempting to say -- giving it the benefit of the doubt -- that it works on its own terms. But it's never clear what those terms are. That it's even capable of being sensibly discussed on this level is, however, a credit to its production. Despite the flaws, we should be thankful to have such an intelligent piece of speculative drama on British TV.

Ultraviolet is densely written, even cryptic in places. I'm sure I missed many of the finer points, and I would hope and expect the series to be repeated soon. And the final episode is open-ended enough to permit further development. The writing, the production quality and the fine cast have given Ultraviolet the makings of a cult hit.

Copyright © 1998 Paul S. Jenkins

Note: This review originally appeared in the Usenet Newsgroup rec.arts.sf.reviews.


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