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Posts Tagged ‘Ultraviolet’

Just for the sake of completeness, and because I’d never got around to actually watching it before, let’s conclude our look at Ultraviolet with the unaired (and unsold) pilot episode for the American version of the show, which was made in 2000. There’s a sense in which a circle is being closed here, as one of the producers on the US version was Howard Gordon, who’d previously worked extensively on The X Files (and as we have previously discussed, it’s very unlikely the British version would have been made had The X Files not inaugurated the great mid-to-late 90s horror-fantasy boom). Gordon’s verdict on the American pilot was ‘we screwed it up and it just didn’t come out that well,’ which certainly inclines one to fear the worst with regard to it. The pilot was directed by Mark Piznarski and written by Chip Johannessen.

As the story opens we find ourselves at the stag party of former undercover cop Viggo (Spence Decker), who after a slightly chequered past is finally marrying the lovely, if slightly idiosyncratically named, Nealy (Madchen Amick). Keeping an eye on him is his former handler, NYPD lieutenant John Cahill (Eric Thal). (The IMDb listing for this show gets many of the character names wrong, usually defaulting to the UK equivalent – in this case, Jack, Kirsty and Mike, respectively.)

Anyway, the party seems to go reasonably well, but Viggo refuses Cahill’s offer of a lift home. Instead, on the way to his apartment he is approached by a mysterious stranger whom he clearly knows. As will not come as a surprise to anyone who’s been following along, Viggo does not make his wedding the next day, while evidence relating to an investigation into a prominent money-launderer he was involved in has been stolen. It does not look good for him, but Cahill refuses to believe his friend is as corrupt as he appears.

Viggo, meanwhile, is travelling through the city with the stranger, in a car with blacked-out windows. They get caught up in traffic and involved in a contretemps with a biker (slightly discombobulatingly, this is clearly derived from the opening sequence of episode two of the British show, almost on a shot-for-shot level). The car is attacked, sunlight pours through a crack in the window, the stranger partially combusts before pulling away in the vehicle.

Before Cahill becomes aware of this, though, he must contend with a new player: a mysterious federal agency has become involved, represented by taciturn hard-man Vaughan Shepherd (Idris Elba, basically reprising his performance as Vaughan Rice from the UK show) and CDC haematologist Lise Matthews (Joanna Going). Shepherd wears a rather prominent crucifix and Matthews is forever waving UV lamps about. Cahill’s investigation into what’s really going on is going nowhere – Viggo reappears and makes various vague claims of being in danger – until the biker, who was paralysed when the car hit him while departing, is now walking again and has checked himself out of hospital.

Cahill goes in pursuit of the man, and finds him indeed back on his feet. He flees into the New York subway system, occasioning a retread of a sequence from the first episode of the UK show: Cahill’s ability to track his quarry is severely hampered by the fact he doesn’t show up in mirrors or on video cameras. Someone who does show up is Shepherd, however, who promptly puts a bullet into the biker, causing him to explode into burning dust…

Apologies for slightly grainy screen-grab from this untransmitted piece of TV ephemera: that really is Idris Elba in the middle, by the way. Most of it is about as interesting as this to look at.

Well, Cahill tracks Shepherd and Matthews to their base, but remains sceptical about what they claim to be hunting even after watching an apparently paralysed man walk around and then explode. Matthews explains that, post-AIDS, the creatures they are pursuing have grown wary and are seeking to secure their food supply, which will require large amounts of cash (hence their involvement with the money-launderer). The question is one of whether Viggo is simply an ally, or has actually completely joined their cause…

As you can see, in a lot of ways this closely resembles the UK show in terms of its narrative. The first big difference is the absence of a character corresponding to Pearse in the US version; maybe he was being held back for subsequent episodes, or possibly the network were wary of including a priest (or ex-priest) in this kind of show. I wonder how much of the impact of Pearse is due to Philip Quast’s performance, though: he would certainly have been a tough act to follow.

The other big alteration is that Viggo is more of a central character than Jack in the British show, and doesn’t actually join the opposition until near to the climax of the episode (he survives to the end as well). He also gets a number of scenes interacting with his new friends – and here there seems to be a concerted effort to develop them and depict them as fully-rounded and even somewhat sympathetic individuals. The contrast with the UK version, where the undead are off-screen the vast majority of the time, and their agenda and motivation remains mysterious, is marked, and the main effect of this is to heighten the ambiguity in the way the hunters are depicted: we see Vaughan Shepherd blowing away an unarmed man, and they seem cold and hard and untroubled by softer feelings, whereas the creatures they are pursuing get big scenes talking about how much they love one another.

The result is that this really feels like less of a show in the mystery-investigation genre and more a kind of morality play, with much more parity between the two sides – it seems to be building up to be about that old question of whom the real monsters truly are. This isn’t a dreadful premise for a show, but it is a very different one from Joe Ahearne’s conception of the series. It’s equally understated, although in this case perhaps that isn’t completely a positive thing – British Ultraviolet did a good job of looking like any number of other TV shows made in the UK, but American Ultraviolet seems unusually grey and dour for an American TV show, especially a fantasy. It’s not the most inviting or engaging visual palette, and the plot is somehow less immediately gripping. Maybe this is just because the American networks never seem to have had the same kind of prejudice against fantasy and horror that UK ones have routinely shown. I can think of half a dozen American shows featuring vampirism that predated this pilot – in the UK, all the immediately springs to mind are various adaptations of Dracula.

I don’t think US Ultraviolet is quite a bad as Howard Gordon suggests it is – it’s not as immediately accomplished as its immediate progenitor, and the look of the thing could certainly do with improvement, while somehow none of the characters pop this time around. On the other other hand, there are signs of potential here – this could possibly, and I stress the adverb, possibly have turned into a very interesting, morally ambiguous show about not knowing who to trust, and the thin line between good and evil. But it would most likely have just been fairly dull and quickly been cancelled: on the basis of what we see here, it’s hard to feel terribly robbed by the fact that Ultraviolet US never went to a full series.

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After about eight months watching not-quite-all of The Avengers, it’s a shock to get through all of Ultraviolet in less than a week, but here we are: the final episode, Persona Non Grata. This follows on directly from the previous one – the inquisition is holding a member of the opposition prisoner, while Kirsty is being manipulated by the bad guys for reasons which as yet remain slightly obcure.

Pearse is refusing to take his medication until this case is resolved, and decides their priority is to identify their prisoner – as he can’t be photographed or even fingerprinted, this is a little bit tricky. Their only lead is a scar he has retained from his mortal days, suggesting cancer treatment in his past. Nevertheless Pearse puts Mike and Vaughan on the job, and Mike promptly ditches Vaughan on the grounds they can cover more ground individually – he’s intent on his own parallel investigation into Jacob, the recently-turned journalist the opposition are using to handle Kirsty. Almost at once he runs into Vaughan, though: it seems Jacob was also recently investigating hospital cancer wards.

Meanwhile, Philip Quast and Corin Redgrave are getting some cracking scenes together, as the former priest and the former human being debate morality and philosophy – it’s implied that the experience which brought Pearse to his faith was an encounter with the undead, which, their captive suggests, rather suggests they are instruments of the divine will, rather than the abominations Pearse’s general shoot-on-sight principles suggest he thinks they are. ‘We are the source of all religion. We are the afterlife,’ whispers Redgrave; a compellingly creepy performance.

Off in yet another plot thread, Kirsty is essentially being kept in protective custody by Jacob, and being sold a line about Mike being part of the same death squad that killed Jack in episode one (which is basically correct). Inevitably, she discovers the truth of exactly what Jacob has become, before too long, but is clearly susceptible enough to buy his line about how the opposition are victims of propaganda from the Church and other sections of the establishment.

The team is clearly on the point of falling apart: Angie is tormented by the possibility she made a terrible mistake in destroying her husband and daughter, Pearse appears to be very aware of his own mortality and is perhaps even contemplating switching sides (which Vaughan predictably responds to with great hostility), and the enemy are exploiting Mike’s own misgivings and his feelings for Kirsty: she will be released, but only as part of a trade. There is someone in the inquisition’s headquarters whom the opposition would like sprung, very badly.

This isn’t quite the epic conclusion one might be hoping for, but it raises the stakes (sorry) very effectively and includes a lot of things assiduous viewers have probably been hoping for: Frances finds out just what Mike does for a living, for instance. The opposition also get some proper screen-time too, for a change. I’ve seen it suggested that Joe Ahearne initially considered doing a show where some of the main characters were undead, but realised that the budget wouldn’t permit it to be made exclusively at night – hence the existing format, where in the first few episodes the bad guys are mostly off-screen. Here, they get some proper scenes and meaty dialogue, as I’ve suggested.

In the end it largely boils down to the arcs of the four main characters, though (five if you include Kirsty), and this is quite satisfyingly done, without feeling particularly contrived. The plots of the previous episodes are also revealed to be connected to an overall plan to seize control of the world by instigating a nuclear winter and blacking out the sun for months – at least, this is what Pearse surmises, based on what they eventually learn about Redgrave’s character. The actual climax of the series isn’t its strongest or most convincing moment, but it ties nearly everything up quite neatly – there is a loose thread, but it’s not an egregious one.

Which brings us to the question – should we celebrate Ultraviolet as a superbly-effected miniature, or complain about the fact they only made six episodes? (Seven if you count the US pilot, which is supposedly awful.) Given the series was relatively well-reviewed, how come they didn’t do any more?

I seem to recall that in interviews around the turn of the century, Joe Ahearne indicated that the problem was that Ultraviolet was a show with a mainstream budget but only a cult audience (the same old story, sadly). However, more recently he’s said that it was all to do with how the series came together – other people were initially supposed to be writing and directing episodes, but it ended up with him doing the whole series, almost as an auteur. This meant he was fully occupied with filming and editing episodes at the time when the early work on a second series would normally have been done. Ahearne has said he always assumed there would only be six, and that it was a relatively high-concept show that would have struggled to come up with new plots anyway; the production company apparently did invite pitches from other writers on how a continuation might possibly be done, but most of these were very radically different takes on the series (which isn’t to say that Ahearne was unimpressed by them).

It is kind of a shame, because my feeling is that it’s usually in the second season that a TV show really hits its creative peak, and the prospect of another set of Ultraviolet episodes even better than the first would have been a mouth-watering prospect. (Perhaps they might even have managed to turn Mike into a more engaging character: Jack Davenport was one of the show’s big names at the time, but he’s playing such a hopeless individual that he doesn’t get much to do – the other regulars are all much more interesting characters.) But then again, I suppose one really shouldn’t be greedy about these things. All of the episodes are good, at the very least; some of them are exceptional. Is this the best British horror series of all time? It’s such a tiny genre that the answer wouldn’t mean much either way, especially when you consider that most of these shows are anthologies. Let’s just say that this really is an overlooked gem that transcends its origins as a sort-of knock-off of The X Files and becomes a great show in its own right.

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The episodic nature which has characterised the first four instalments of Ultraviolet begins to disappear with Terra Incognita – although as there are only six programmes in total (this is a perfectly-formed miniature, really), it could really qualify as the first of a two-part series finale.

A man arrives at Heathrow on a flight from Brazil, but is stopped at immigration on medical grounds – he is bleeding from the ears. A full examination reveals an open bite wound on his neck, and suggests he is suffering from some form of haemorrhagic fever. More startlingly, the man’s sister, Maria (Ellen Thomas) indicates they have come here to get help from a doctor in London who is an expert on his condition, whom the man’s specialists in Brazil suggested could cure him – someone called Dr March…

All of this naturally raises an enormous red flag for the inquisition, and both siblings are brought in for examination and interview. Vaughan and Mike interview the crew of the flight they came in on, and discover it was carrying medical equipment – the cause of a last-minute flight delay. The equipment turns out to take the form of large, hermetically-sealed, time-locked casings, one of which Vaughan and Mike manage to secure.

It turns out the bleeding man has a history of sickle-cell anaemia, which appears to have mysteriously vanished – but an examination reveals that the opposition have been nibbling on him in a most peculiar way, almost as if they have been sampling his blood. Maria tells the team she has come here not to see Angie March, but her husband Robert – the man whom she staked years before – as apparently only he has the knowledge to save her brother. Angie realises it could make a certain kind of sense – the opposition could be trying to perfect synthetic blood, something which would free them from their dependence on human beings as a food source. Judging from the man’s condition, they’re not quite there yet – but Robert March was a brilliant haematologist who could conceivably crack the problem. Angie points out to Pearse that the breakthrough would not only remove the casus belli between the inquisition and their enemy, but also help in the treatment of conditions such as non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma.

However, their top priority is finding the other casings, as they assume each contains a member of the opposition – the time lock is set to open just after the sun sets. But the enemy has been cunning, and sold the team a dummy – and Vaughan is captured, knocked unconscious, and wakes up in a locked room with four of the casings, each set to open in only a few minutes…

There’s a slightly schlocky element to this, basically to enable its resolution – whichever Renfield has locked Vaughan in there has been gallant (or dumb) enough to leave him with his gun and pen-knife – but it’s still really the dramatic peak of the episode. Vaughan is difficult to read, as usual, but seems almost on the verge of terminal despair – we also get a glimpse of the man behind the tough-guy front, as he rings Angie with only moments to go. Idris Elba doesn’t get a great deal to do acting-wise in many of these episodes – he’s basically there as the team hard man – but he makes the most of this opportunity to do a little more with it, and it works well.

But apart from this, the episode doesn’t have same focus as the previous ones. The initial mystery sort of gets forgotten about in the aftermath of Vaughan’s ordeal, overtaken by other concerns – mainly the arrival in the team’s base of the occupant of the container they captured. It’s almost implied this is part of the opposition’s plan – insert one of their number into the heart of the inquisition’s operation, to sow dissent and misinformation. Emerging from the quasi-coffin is a quietly impressive individual played (as well as you might reasonably ask) by the actor Corin Redgrave. (Thirty years earlier Redgrave had turned in a fine performance as Jonathan Harker in an ITV adaptation of Bram Stoker’s most famous novel, although I’m not sure that’s enough for this to count as stunt casting.)

Corin Redgrave prepares to be interviewed.

Redgrave has the presence and technique to hold his own against the regular cast, and believably puts the team on the back foot, making Angie once again question their ethos and methods. The plotline is left unresolved, as events are clearly building towards some kind of climax: Mike has succumbed to his feelings for Kirsty and arranged to see her again, even if he does turn up armed and prepared to potentially put a wooden dum-dum in her chest if she turns out to have been turned by the opposition (the question of whether Kirsty is still human or not is left open, reasonably skilfully, until after she’s seen Mike getting ready to take her out – at which point there’s yet another homage to the Citizen Kane hall-of-mirrors shot, though here for a reason on this occasion).

This is an odd, all-over-the-place kind of episode, without the strong central plot of most of the others and containing a few convenient plot devices, and some odd digressions. At one point Vaughan and Maria have a discussion of Candombl√© (a syncretic Afro-Brazilian religion), which is sort of interesting but doesn’t really go anywhere except in that it links into the episode’s theme, which I think is faith (and the loss of faith). Maria is a believer, and has faith in Robert March’s ability to cure her brother (though this ultimately profits her little); Vaughan nearly loses all hope during his moment of crisis; Mike is clearly having severe doubts about having joined the inquisition; and so is Angie – though it’s been clear all along she’s never quite recovered from destroying her own husband and child.

In the end, though, it still works – it’s clearly doing things to set up the final episode, and there are lots of good individual set pieces, even if they don’t really link up with one another – Vaughan’s crisis with the coffins, Redgrave’s first appearance, and Mike’s confrontation with Kirsty. More than enough good stuff here for it to pass muster, anyway.

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Ultraviolet‘s fourth episode is entitled Mea Culpa, which would probably qualify as another fridge episode-name – were it not for the fact that there was a movie a few years ago entitled Mea Maxima Culpa, which it shares a few thematic elements with. The thing about this episode is that it really is trying very hard to be a proper serious drama for adults, rather than a campy bit of genre-based fun. This is always true of Ultraviolet, of course, but perhaps on this occasion they go over the top in the whole dour-and-gritty department.

The story opens at a school where a priest attempts to speak to a boy in his early teens named Gary (Robert Stuart). The lad is reluctant to speak to the older man, and when the priest refuses to take no for an answer, stabs him repeatedly with a craft knife. The priest dies of his injuries, Gary goes on the run. For some reason – and the episode really fudges this a bit too much – the inquisition are called in, as such a savage assault on a religious figure might be connected to the opposition’s activities. Even Mike is openly dubious of their getting involved in what looks like a job for the conventional police.

However, inquiries at the school reveal a suspicious degree of heliophobia amongst the boys, and Angie discovers they show a marked aversion to religious artifacts as well. Mike still thinks this might be symptomatic of something like meningitis, with the aversion to religion more closely linked to the dead man in particular. There’s also the question of how all the boys managed to pick up a Code Five infection given there’s no sign any of them have been bitten.

Meanwhile, Gary is in hiding in the local park, where he encounters a man named Colin (Rupert Procter). Here the episode starts heading into what seems to me to be quite dodgy territory: Colin is presented as pretty much the stereotype of the seedy gay man, cruising public lavatories, and so on. Anyway, Colin takes Gary back to his place, but before anything else can occur, Gary is attacked by Colin’s dog and badly injured. Colin dumps Gary at the local hospital and runs for it. Mike, on the other hand, who’s become rather appalled by the draconian measures employed by the team when there’s very little evidence of opposition involvement (all the children have been brought in for testing), has discovered evidence that the priest who was murdered was a paedophile.

(Round about this point, the A-plot is gently paused and we catch up on what’s going on with Kirsty and the journalist she has teamed up with – he has been digging a bit too deeply and got himself turned by the opposition – and Pearse and his mysterious ailment. Angie’s diagnosis is lymphoma, which is not good news for the team’s top man.)

Everything changes when it turns out that Gary indeed has a form of meningitis – but one which has been engineered to carry a version of Code Five infection, rendering the carrier heliophobic, hostile to religious symbols, and highly suggestible (by the opposition, anyway). This same virus is spreading through the school. The spectre of an epidemic of a disease which could render huge swathes of the population vulnerable to control by the opposition qualifies as a nightmare scenario for the team, but where has it come from?

Well, Vaughan and Mike track down Colin, and Vaughan – in a display of barely disguised homophobia – proceeds to beat the information they need out of him, while Mike looks on uncomfortably. Gary, Colin reveals, showed signs of having been groomed before, but not by the priest. All the evidence points to a man named Oliver – a recluse suffering from a genetic condition called xenoderma pigmentosum, which means he can never leave his home during daylight…

Vaughan Rice conducts an interrogation.

In many ways, this episode shares all the strengths of the rest of the series: it’s slick, well-played, and cleverly plotted with an inventive new take on the traditional lore (it turns out the opposition are indeed experimenting with producing mass infections without having to bite everyone individually, but one of their test subjects is refusing to socially distance himself). There are a couple of places where the plotting could be tighter, but this is only a minor concern. My issue with it is really that it just seems to be in rather dubious taste.

I’m not saying that paedophilia – even paedophilia involving the Catholic Church – is something that should be off-limits for drama. But if you’re going to use it as a plot element in a fantasy drama – and, when it comes down to it, Ultraviolet is ultimately a fantasy drama, an entertainment – you need to be justified in doing so. The problem is that the story doesn’t contain a metaphor for child abuse, or anything similar. It just seems to be there because including it makes the series look properly grown-up and dark.

I’m not sure this is enough, and there are other ways in which the episode doesn’t really distinguish itself in handling its subject matter: Colin, in particular, is a homophobic stereotype, and I don’t think the episode does anything like enough to clarify that not all gay men are paedophiles. The scene where Colin is beaten into helping the team is uncomfortable to watch – it really does add to the impression that the team are not terribly nice people. On the other hand, this may have been intentional: the suggestion seems to be that what they’ve all been through has left them damaged and callous. What new-recruit Mike’s excuse is, is another matter: Jack Davenport is always reasonably watchable, but Mike often comes across as glum and a bit moody. He certainly doesn’t seem to be enjoying the new job, referring to Pearse as the witchfinder-general and openly questioning his judgement. He’s even upset when he’s let off after accidentally shooting someone he thought was one of the opposition – Vaughan Rice, on the other hand, is more worried by the fact that Mike put two bullets into the guy and still managed to miss the heart.

As I said, this is a strong episode in lots of ways, sharing all the series’ usual virtues. But the nature of the story and the tone of it both leave me uneasy, despite all of that. It feels exploitative of real-world issues in a way that the previous episode wasn’t – and quite crassly exploitative, too. Worth watching, nevertheless, if only because the ongoing story elements do move on somewhat in the course of it – but I do think it’s problematic in many ways.

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The third episode of Ultraviolet is entitled Sub Judice, which is essentially a fridge title only serving to maintain the gimmick of Latin episode names: sometimes these sort-of allude to the plot, but this one doesn’t. I mention this at the start as it is one of the few complaints I can make about it.

It opens with a solicitor in her thirties (Emer Gillespie) entering an underground car park and being attacked by a couple of low-lives; not entirely surprisingly, she faints. Entirely surprisingly, though, her two assailants are set upon and brutally murdered – by an immensely strong and swift killer who somehow isn’t picked up by the car park’s CCTV system. Who you gonna call?

The inquisition are soon on the case (although not before Pearse can confide to Angie March that he’s not been feeling 100% recently, a plot point which the show will return to), with their objective being to discover the connection between the solicitor, Marion, and the opposition: why would they want to save her? Is she working on an important case they have an interest in? Nothing seems particularly significant. What about her background?

It seems that Marion’s husband committed suicide some years earlier, apparently unable to accept the fact the couple could not have children. A colleague who showed signs of romantic interest in her eighteen months later was killed in a hit-and-run, and the driver never found. It all seems rather sad, but not in any way sinister – until, at the end of an interview with Pearse (the fact he is implied to be a priest may be significant) she faints again. A search of her home and a medical exam reveals that she is pregnant – but the embryo does not register on the ultrasound scanner.

The ‘pregnancy’, if that’s what it is, is apparently the product of sperm which Marion’s husband had frozen before his death. The team check out the IVF clinic involved – no doubt wondering if the ‘V’ stands for something different on this occasion – and initially find nothing to raise the alarm. Examining the late husband’s frozen semen, however, reveals something very unusual: the sperm show up on video, indicating they are normal, but spontaneously combust when exposed to sunlight. No wonder Marion seems to be having such a difficult pregnancy: it appears that she’s carrying more than she bargained for (the technical term is dhampyr). Thus ensues a cracking scene where Pearse and Angie discuss their options, including the possibility of a termination (the irony of a Catholic priest ordering one is not lost on Angie). ‘It’s not human,’ Pearse says. ‘It’s half human,’ Angie replies. ‘I believe that’s what I said,’ comes the response. Philip Quast is consistently impressive in this series, bringing a kind of understated gravitas to what could have been just a stock part; the fact he gets most of the best lines helps, too.

That said, this episode is really Susannah Harker’s chance to shine, and she really grabs it. (A fun connection: one of her ancestors was a Joseph Harker, a friend of Bram Stoker, and thus presumably the person that Jonathan Harker is named after in that well-known novel by Stoker.) All the ongoing plot threads concerning Mike and his relationships with Kirsty and Frances are got out of the way nice and early on, with Mike himself sort of shoved into the background along with Vaughan: rather subtly, the episode focuses primarily on Angie and her history, and her relationship with Marion.

As noted, this is all done with tremendous, and very creditable subtlety: Harker underplays it very effectively. But the subtext is still there if you look for it: the episode is about motherhood, in all sorts of different ways – the fierce desire for a child which Marion feels, Angie’s own residual guilt for destroying one of her own children after she was turned by the opposition, but above all the conflict between Angie’s empathy for Marion and her duties as a member of the inquisition. This is only exacerbated by the lack of emotional intelligence shown by any of the male leads – Rice and Colefield are basically just crass young blokes and Pearse has his higher calling. Vaughan Rice seems very sure that the opposition are completely devoid of normal emotions and sympathies, and that the experiment in progress is a means to some further end – but the episode actually seems to suggest otherwise, with Marion’s late husband, when he finally appears, showing signs of genuine distress at her situation. I don’t remember the show giving many other hints that the inquisition’s insistence that the opposition is purely and simply malevolent is anything but justified, but they’re certainly present here.

This initially looks like another police procedural episode, but rapidly takes a sharp turn into the realms of obstetric horror: the big question in this genre always being, what’s cooking? There’s almost a touch of Rosemary’s Baby to Marion’s situation, with her clinic, her opposition-sponsored midwife, the inquisition, and a well-meaning abortion clinic volunteer all attempting to manipulate her, and Emer Gillespie does a fine job of making her sympathetic but not too passive – but as a guest character, she inevitably doesn’t have quite the same prominence as Angie. Nevertheless, the conclusion of the episode has a genuine touch of tragedy to it, and Gillespie plays a key part in creating that feel. As obstetric horror stories go, this one is admirably underplayed and lacking in both tackiness and schlock. It doesn’t seem to have a particular axe to grind – it would be weird for it to come down unequivocally on either side of the fence, given the subject matter – except to suggest that women should have the right to choose for themselves. It’s a slightly simplistic message, but put across well and subtly.

I was thinking about all the post-X Files genre TV shows which came along in the mid to late 90s, specifically the British ones (the American and Canadian lists are even more extensive): apart from Ultraviolet, I’ve already mentioned Invasion: Earth and The Last Train (though that’s really the product of a different tradition). I suppose you could also mention the ITV adaptation of Oktober and the serial The Uninvited, plus The Vanishing Man, too. Apart from most of The Last Train, I don’t honestly remember most of the others as being much cop – but this episode of Ultraviolet is a top-class piece of intelligent and effective horror, with a serious subtext to it. Better than I remembered, and I remembered it being really, really good.

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The line between episodic and serialised TV has become very blurred this century, but they used to be two quite distinct forms. It was in the late 90s that ongoing plot elements began to appear on a routine basis even in programmes which ostensibly did stories-of-the-week. Bearing all this in mind, the question of whether Ultraviolet is a serial or not becomes a somewhat moot one. It’s really in a sort of netherworld between the two – it does build towards a climax in the final episode, but on the other hand, the second episode (In Nomine Patris, written and directed like all the others by Joe Ahearne) feels very much like an exercise in establishing the format for an ongoing series.

It opens with a woman named Danni Ashford (Jane Slavin) visiting her mother, who is deeply in the grip of Alzheimers’, while an associate (Christopher Villiers) waits outside in an expensive car. It looks like she has a big decision to make, and her companion – a smooth, handsome type – makes a big deal about not pushing her into it. They drive off, and the heavily-tinted windows of the car give us a big clue as to what may be going on here. Sure enough, the car is involved in a road rage incident after the man nearly runs a couple of bikers off the road: furiously, one of them attacks the vehicle with a wrench, damaging the window and allowing sunlight into the interior. The man begins to combust as the sun’s rays strike him, and he desperately drives away, running over his attacker’s companion as he does so…

Meanwhile, Vaughan Rice has been completing Mike’s induction into the inquisition – Mike is less than amused when the computerised firing range presents an image of Kirsty as a possible target, but Vaughan makes the point that their enemies are ruthless when it comes to exploiting any weak spots or vulnerabilities. Mike is clearly conflicted about the idea of cutting all ties with her (perhaps a bit too obviously conflicted, this plot element is laid on with a trowel), but before they can resolve the issue they are off on a job: news of the driver of a blacked-out car spontaneously combusting is right up their street, after all.

The evidence suggests their quarry is Lester Hammond, playboy son of tycoon Gideon Hammond (Trevor Bowen). The senior Hammond has recently specialised in constructing unusual bits of architecture – bunkers and basements with no windows, ventilation or plumbing – which is also rather suggestive. Pearse’s directive is to follow the money and find out what the opposition is up to, and the trail leads to a clinic researching into various blood disorders (which it’s suggested the opposition view rather in the same way that humans regard things like fowl pest and foot-and-mouth disease: they contaminate the food supply).

As usual, the episode takes great pains to be downbeat and naturalistic – there’s a reasonable twist towards the end, about the real identity of the man they’re hunting, but most of it you could watch with the sound turned down and not suspect this was much more than a routine police procedural show. I really like the way Ultraviolet generally eschews the flashy and the camp, not least because it just gives extra oomph to those moments when they do arrive. The set-piece with Hammond beginning to burn up in the car is very neatly done, and there are a couple of other pleasingly grisly touches: Slavin’s character ends up with a nasty hand-shaped burn on her arm as a result of the same scene, while the crushed vertebrae of a paraplegic turned by the opposition are visible when they send her to take out Mike.

Almost in passing, lots of interesting and flavourful world-building is going on here: Mike’s friend Frances indicates the inquisition is officially operating as part of the anti-terrorism squad (which sort of makes sense, although it may be another cover). Pearse suggests the opposition were responsible for the Great Fire of London, apparently an attempt to stop the spread of the plague. It’s confirmed that the opposition don’t register on cameras or phones, which just leads me to wonder – what about motion sensors? Pressure pads? (Some interesting possibilities here.) One twist on the usual lore is that the opposition can’t regenerate damage or injuries leaving Hammond permanently disfigured and in constant agony. On the other hand, being turned restores a paralysed young woman’s ability to walk, which does suggest some kind of regenerative ability, and Angie has already indicated this is one of their powers (presumably it’s just UV exposure that does irreparable damage to them). It’s indicated again that the dissolution of one of the bad guys is basically like a small bomb going off (so get ready to run after staking one of them).

What one of the opposition looks like after forgetting his sun block.

Beyond all this, though, the episode does have a theme, and one which works well with the conceit of keeping the actual monsters off-screen and in the shadows most of the time. We see them more through their effect on the people around them – Gideon Hammond, though outwardly successful, has lived his whole life in the shadow of the thing which has dominated him, while Lester has clearly done a number of Danni Ashford. With (it’s implied) a family history of dementia, it’s entirely reasonable that she would look for a way to dodge the ageing process and its effects. Nevertheless, it’s made quite clear that there is nothing benevolent about the agenda or methods of the opposition – the question, of course, is whether this justifies the methods the inquisition adopt, or the cost to its members: they intimidate witnesses into silence, cover up mysterious deaths and other activity, and Rice indicates that none of them have any friends outside the unit – the risk to them is just too great. It’s a hard and cold life being a slayer, it would seem.

I think this is a strong episode, but I can see why Ultraviolet ended up as a cult gem rather than a mainstream hit: it’s mostly a detective thriller, but people who’d enjoyed something like Between the Lines would probably have issues with the whole concept of the show. On the other hand, its determination to keep things real and grounded may have meant it seemed rather dull to many members of the fantasy and horror fan tribe. It may be pitching to a small constituency, but it’s still a very effective piece of TV.

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I believe that at some point near the start of this rather unusual, unexpected year, I talked about getting to the point where I’d seen all the classic SF and fantasy TV series of the 20th century (this was on the occasion of finally viewing the whole of Sapphire and Steel). Well, if nothing else, 2020 has given me the opportunity to learn that – for instance – there were in fact many episodes of The Avengers I hadn’t actually watched, and remember that there were quite a few other shows, some of them relatively obscure, around as well (Star Cops obviously leaps to mind).

Star Cops usually gets cited as the last proper BBC science-fiction show of the 20th century (this overlooks Invasion: Earth, from 1998), with ITV’s last effort of the century probably 1999’s The Last Train – but by the mid 80s, there was a fourth channel in town, the sensibly-named Channel 4. For me, Channel 4 will always be the place where I first saw repeats of Danger Man, The Avengers and The Prisoner, but by 1998 it was making its own cult dramas, specifically in the form of Joe Ahearne’s Ultraviolet.

The first episode, Habeas Corpus, opens in central London, with a shabby, nervous man sitting on a bridge watching the sun go down. A car pulls up nearby, sinisterly (at least, as sinisterly as a piece of parking can be). Meanwhile, detective Mike Colefield (Jack Davenport) – a slightly infelicitous choice of name, surely, it always puts me in mind of the Tubular Bells dude – is busy at the stag night for his partner, Jack (Stephen Moyer). He starts getting phone calls from the nervous man, demanding to meet – it seems he is an informant of Jack’s – and eventually agrees, just to get the man to shut up.

The informant has taken cover in an amusement arcade, but just before Mike arrives a man who emerged from the sinister car at sunset shoots and kills him. Mike gives chase, but loses his quarry when he heads into a tube station – our first inkling that this may be more than just a conventional cop thriller comes when Mike is unable to locate the killer using the station’s CCTV system: he simply doesn’t register on the screen, having previously not shown up in a mirror…

The next day, Jack’s wedding is thrown into chaos when the groom fails to appear, and a full investigation into his appearance uncovers evidence that he was actually on the take. Mike initially refuses to believe it, but soon realises that something very odd is going on – the informant was shot and killed at point blank range, but once again the security cameras show nobody near him at the time. The involvement in the case of two detectives supposedly from CIB (the anti-corruption unit), Angela March (Susannah Harker) and Vaughan Rice (Idris Elba), also doesn’t ring true somehow. Mike launches his own personal investigation and discovers that March and Rice are not police – she is a former academic, he is ex-army – and their ruthless methods and secretiveness make him suspicious. Jack himself reappears, insisting they are members of a death squad looking to kill him, asking for Mike’s help in learning more about them.

After witnessing Rice and his men in action, Mike acquires some of their gear – guns with weird sights firing wooden bullets, and gas grenades loaded with a garlic-derivative – and discovers they are based out of a church and led by a priest named Pearse (Philip Quast). But what could a Vatican-led team be doing using wooden projectiles and garlic against killers who avoid the sunlight and don’t show up in mirrors…?

The team check out the ‘prison’ where dormant Code Fives are kept in storage.

It nearly goes without saying that Ultraviolet is a product of its era, part of the boom in ‘quality’ genre entertainment which followed the massive success of The X Files (the same as Invasion: Earth, really). A lot of these programmes really weren’t terribly good, and I was slightly worried about revisiting this one – I remember Ultraviolet as being brilliant, but then at the time my life-long affection for Hammer horror movies had been joined by a fascination with Vampire: The Masquerade and its associated games and I was a sucker (no pun intended) for anything in this particular vein (ditto).

Happily, Ultraviolet is very nearly as classy and enjoyable as I remember it being at the time – it doesn’t look quite as slick and cinematic as I recalled, but the only thing which feels a little dated about this opening episode is the incidental music, which is just a bit too on-the-nose. The great thing about it is that it’s in no hurry whatsoever to get to its genre elements, or overplay them when they appear, and it steers clear of most of the classic trappings of the genre. The v-word itself is carefully never used on-screen – the latter-day inquisition’s targets are referred to by the euphemism ‘Code 5’, or possibly ‘Code V’ for those with a classical education – and the show takes a reasonably sceptical attitude to some of the lore. We don’t get to see the effect that daylight has on them this week, but a length of wood through the heart results in a spectacular dissolution. As far as the efficacy of holy symbols against them goes, Angie March suggests this may be psychosomatic – but on the other hand, Jack (who has been turned by the opposition) suggests that there are some places they can’t easily infiltrate (the implication may be that he’s talking about holy ground), while Mike finds himself incapable of entering a church while suffering from the after-effects of being bitten.

These days, possibly the main point of interest in this show is that it features one of the first lead performances from Idris Elba – much more famous these days, of course, for advertising the seasonal output of satellite TV networks – while Jack Davenport (well-known at the time for This Life) has also gone on to have a pretty decent Hollywood career too. Odd to see them both looking so young here, but that’s the eerie preservative effect of archive TV, I suppose. It’s clear from the start that this is kind of a high-concept show – as the Exposition Man, Philip Quast gets most of the best dialogue – and everyone at this point is still suggesting character in small ways rather than actually getting much to work with. The slowest element of the episode concerns Mike’s relationship with Jack’s fiancee (Colette Brown), whom he clearly has a bit of a thing for: it skirts the borders of soap-opera melodrama, and doesn’t add much to the episode. However, it does set up some of the continuing threads that will run through the series, and isn’t in itself enough to spoil what’s a notably confident and effective introduction to the series.

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