In the late 90s, there was a little series from America called Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  It was fast-paced and action-packed, with lots of humour. Set in a town called Sunnydale, which was indeed a very sunny place (during the day, at least), with bright, clear skies at night.

In Britain, we do things a little differently.

Welcome to Ultraviolet.

Our main character is Michael Colefield.  At the start of the series, he’s a Detective Sergeant in the Metropolitan Police, out on a stag do for his best friend, Jack.  As they prepare to return to Mike’s flat, there is a call from one of their informants, who says that he is in danger from a counterfeiting ring that he has sent them information about.  Mike takes the call, unimpressed by the quality of the information so far – a series of photographs of empty streets.  Dropping Jack at the flat, Mike heads out to meet the informant, mostly just to prevent him from interrupting the wedding the next day.  But when he arrives, the informant has been killed.  Mike chases the assailant into a Tube station, but loses him, unable to see him in the mirror looking down the passageway – even though the man is standing just around the corner.  Surveillance footage is also useless, not even recording the man’s image when he stood next to the informant and shot him.  The killer then goes to meet Jack, and tells him that it’s time.

The next day, Jack has disappeared – there’s no trace of him at Mike’s flat, and he fails to arrive for his wedding to Kirsty.  A man and a woman, supposedly from CIB (the UK equivalent of Internal Affairs, for any Trans-Atlantic readers), begin to investigate, finding an offshore bank account in Jack’s name.  Mike is soon embroiled in the team’s investigations, a world of graphite bullets and smoke grenades filled with garlic, and the hunting of a breed of adversary only referred to as code V…

Ultraviolet ran for one series of six episodes. And it was great!

It started with a simple premise: If vampires existed in the world today, what would they be doing and who would be hunting them?’

Writer/director Joe Ahearne created a world that remains firmly based in reality.  The vampires are organised and using technology to reduce or work around their weaknesses.  Likewise, the hunters are led by a priest, but funded by the government and have cutting edge weapons to compensate for the vampires’ speed and strength.  Both sides are working towards specific goals, and are willing to do whatever they have to do to achieve them.

The series works really well, but there are three things that I’d like to mention in particular.

1) The vampires.  As noted before, the Code Vs are fast and strong and their bite can make you suggestible (though this is rarely used in the series).  More importantly they are intelligent, powerful and organised, and this makes them more frightening than almost any other portrayal of vampires I can think of from the last fifty years.  They are watching humanity and have seen our potential for self-destruction.  Because they depend on us for their own survival, they are making plans to ensure they can step in before we go too far – or else find an alternative way to live.  In either case, as Pearse puts it in the first episode: “Our free-range days are over.”

2) The cast.  Jack Davenport, Susannah Harker (apparently a descendant of the Jonathan Harker whose name was use by Bram Stoker), Idris Elba and Philip Quast are all terrific in the main roles, with the other regulars giving great support.  Guest roles are all well cast and particular mention has to go to Corin Redgrave whose performance in the last two episodes helps make them the fitting climax to the series.  One other recurring character also went on to another, longer-running series as a bloodsucker…  The reason that I single out the cast for praise here is that they are all absolutely committed to the setting.  There is none of the hamming it up that epitomised the Hammer films, and none of the jokey tongue-in-cheek playfulness of Buffy (which I do love, but Ultraviolet is a very different series).  Ahearne directs a group of accomplished actors to play every scene with conviction and as a result we believe in the characters, their conflicts and their dangers.

3) The atmosphere.  This is what truly sets it apart from Buffy.  This is not a clean, bright, sunny world with heroes who defeat a villain every week.  This is London, and where Dracula walked through the smoke and fog a hundred years before, the city is now just dirty, wet and grey.  The characters and situations reflect this, with neither side being able to claim absolute moral certainty.  Our heroes may be fighting for us all, but they do terrible things to protect us.  The vampires are likewise simply trying to ensure their own survival – and if we are about to kill ourselves and indeed the whole planet, are they so wrong to take steps to prevent us?  Ultraviolet is, in the end, firmly on the side of humanity, but is not slow to portray our own flaws – and isn’t part of the horror of the vampire, that they are us, with all of our weaknesses and sins, but with more power to exploit and corrupt?  At all times in the series, there is the question of whether the vampires will find a lever strong enough to sway a team member to join the other side.  This is a show that encourages you to think about the situations and not just go along for the ride.

The series is not without its flaws, of course.

The effects budget wasn’t huge, although Ahearne avoids including too many scenes that would require a large amount of work – the vampires’ deaths being the most frequent effect, and that usually only happens once per episode.  They did the best they could with the resources and worked around the shortcomings as well as they could.

Also, the episodes can feel a little slow to a viewer today – not to the point where the story drags, but I suspect that if it were made now, when an hour of commerical television includes a couple of minutes more adverts  than you got almost twenty years ago, you could use exactly the same scripts and just tighten up the editing without losing very much.  This is particularly noticeable in the first couple of episodes, but by parts five and six, the series has hit its stride and finishes with an excellent confrontation with one of the vampires and a revelation of what their schemes throughout the series have been building up to.

Sadly, Joe Ahearne was so tied up writing and directing the series that he didn’t have chance to work on a pitch for a second series and so these six episodes are all that we got.  Idris Elba went on to appear in a pilot for an American version, but that has never even been transmitted, and there’s practically no chance of a continuation now.  I’m not sure that a US version at the time would have worked – trying to get 20 episodes a year out of this would risk stretching the concept too far, I think.  But maybe a reboot today on the lines of HBO or Netflix formats of relatively short series run for three or four years could work…

Overall, I think that this is a fantastic addition to any vampire fan’s library.  I watched the series on its original transmission, then bought the VHS tapes and have now upgraded to DVD, and every time I watch it, I find a new appreciation for it.

Steve Harper

Steve works full-time for the NHS and tries not to spend too much of his day plotting out his series of vampire novels. Away from the office, he divides his time between playing games where he is a vampire, playing games where he hunts vampires, and playing with Lego (he has numerous Lego vampires).