05 October 2018

Ultraviolet (1998)

Uneven Ultraviolet Remains Unique and Watchable.
by Kristin Battestella

Writer and director Joe Ahearne (Apparitions) helms six episodes of the 1998 British miniseries Ultraviolet. Despite some unevenness and unrealized potential, unique vampire nuggets keep the series intriguing as Detective Michael Colefield (Jack Davenport) is recruited by hematologist Angela Marsh (Susannah Harker) and ex-soldier Vaughn Rice (Idris Elba) to join an elite vampire hunting unit when his partner Jack (Stephen Moyer) disappears. Father Pearse Harman's (Philip Quast) team uses the latest gear and scientific advancements to defend the unaware public as vampires experiment on humans as part of their global domination plans.

Sunset bridges and photo negatives with no one showing up on them open Habeas Corpus” before mall chases and underground terminals with security mirrors and circuit cameras that can't see the perpetrator either. Dead informants and stakeouts lead to a jilted bride, internal affairs, garlic gas grenades, and shootouts with unusually sophisticated bullets. Ultraviolet is an interesting mix of procedural drama and subtle supernatural with the eponymous scanners looking for blood and bite marks. The back and forth cryptic does take longer than it should – we're all watching because we know this is about vampires. However, whispers of Vatican sanctioned defenders against creatures who insist they aren't really evil are intriguing amid talk of trading the Middle Ages and old church ways for new technology. The effectiveness of crosses and holy water, after all, is a question of faith. Dusty piles of vampire remains are collected in sealed canisters, halting regeneration of viable subjects as laser procedures stave off infections for those bitten. Break the blacked out windows of a luxury car and the driver gets a little crispy in “In Nomine Patris.” Fortunately, the wealthy and reclusive want to keep their immortal grandfather and son switches quiet as our unique team follows the money trail to vampires building safe houses with secure basements and no windows. Leftover funds go to medical charities and blood banks, of course. Red dust piles on the front seat and testing which witnesses are vampires by flashing a little daylight are more fun than some of the case of the week unevenness. Ultraviolet resorts to episodic encounters rather than fully embracing its unique arc of V Roman Numerals and Stockholm Syndrome decoys who insist no organization has the right to exterminate a superior species. By “Sub Judice,” vampires are studying radiation contamination in their human food supply, and our team each has a moment amid miscarriages, nosebleeds, exhumed coffins, suspicious ultrasounds, and a potential hybrid embryo with immunity to daylight. Ultraviolet provides sophisticated science and a whiff of body horror without shock film making, placing the multi-level moral complications and monstrous drama above the in your face editing and crescendos that often overtake today's horror television. Patients question if our secret agency is right or wrong in telling people what to do – weighing the psychological, medical, and religious toll alongside the provocative horrors. This hour may be heavy handed today, but it's also a creepy parable using real world and fictitious frights. 

School bells and altar boys bring shocking violence and blood in “Mea Culpa.” Nobody wants this to be a V case, but the team opens the classroom blinds to see which students recoil. Reporters snoop like private investigators amid meningitis cover ups, crosses, and abuses while testing for infected youths and skin cancer cures mix with vampire patient zeroes and human carriers, blurring who is being good or bad when evil happens right under the church's nose. Ultraviolet again addresses real world issues within fantastic perimeters, however the balance between radical science and vampires feels uneven, more like a SVU weekly meandering between personal, topical, and high tech horror when Ultraviolet needed more focus in its short lifespan. “Terra Incognita” better ties the personal and global together with transfusions, sickle cell cures, and bleeding patients foolishly believing the vampires want peace. Sure, they want to help people when such healing is for their own gain. Medical supply crates are cold and empty when scanned before helicopter surveillance, truck raids, and decoys. Team members are captured, trapped with sunset imminent, and debates rage on which prayers and which gods to call on or what you would do if these vampires could save your loved one. Ultraviolet embraces its vampirism meets realism here – escalating with shocking casket reveals and explosive results. There are a lot of juicy but under cooked details dropped in “Persona Non Grata,” with the reasons behind the vampire experiments, nuclear fallout to blot out the sun, and misfiring standoffs taking a backseat to lesser plots before male on male back alley neck bites, parking with blood around the lips, and whispers of infections add homoerotic layers. Vampires protest how one can't tell the difference between them and humans just by looking at them and object to the food chain structure because they want to save the ecosystem – or so they say. Keeping an open mind on the vampire possibilities is dangerous thanks to regeneration risks, immortality versus cancer diagnosis, and living forever but apart from god debates. The vampires corner our team with silvered tongued speeches and church confrontations as trading vampire dust specimens crosses the line between friend and foe.

Jack Davenport's (Pirates of the Caribbean) Detective Sergeant Michael Colefield just doesn't know who to trust or believe, striking out on his own investigation to find out what happened to his partner when he's not good at covering his tracks. He resigns from regular police work yet disagrees with how this specialized team operates – remaining unsure if he's cut out for this new line of work and sitting on the opposite side of the table to question the team. While viewers enter this world with Michael, Ultraviolet doesn't stay with his point of view and he's never the primary investigator on a case. Davenport is supposed to be the star, but his angry cop brooding and squinting ironically make him look like a vampire. Michael isn't always forthcoming with his information – forcing the team to arrive to the same conclusion separately and thus hampering the case. He becomes more jerky stressed by the final episode, doing some really stupid crap when other events are more interesting than his conflicted characterization and Ultraviolet doesn't have the time. We learn about Susannah Harker's (Chancer) stern hematologist Angela Marsh by Michael asking Vaughn about her late husband and child, for she keeps her guard up by dispensing the scientific details. Angela at times makes victims feel like they are the ones being investigated, but she needs their answers in getting to the bottom of the vampire connection. She insists she is a doctor trying to help people and isn't without compassion, but Angela reserves her emotions unless certain cases cut too close to home. Her house with its sharp, pointy fence is seen briefly, and Angela doesn't mind being called an anti-social parent because she won't let her surviving pre-teen daughter play basketball after dark. The vampire messengers twist her past, using revelations about her husband against her, and Angela seems more like Ultraviolet's star character when we spend more time with her science and situation. Vaughn Rice is also always one step ahead of Michael, and Idris Elba's (Prometheus) ex-army man has all the cool action gear. While said to loose his temper and have PTSD, Vaughn is the team's muscle with no problem roughing up creeps. He doesn't answer to cops and won't quit until he gets the information he needs. Vaughn knows how to not look in a vampire's eyes – shooting first and asking questions later saves Michael several times, too. He gladly shares all the vampire details, calling them leeches and pleased that anesthetics don't work on them and injuries leave them in permanent agony. Although we only learn about Vaughn's military past rather than seeing him at home like everyone else, we know he doesn't believe or use crosses in his arsenal. He's not asking to be saved and just wants one who is dead to stay dead. He likes Michael and wants him to use his potential and stay alive so they can be friends, as outsiders can be used against them and can't know or understand what they do. His bond with Angela, however, is special. They know the traumas that brought them to this organization, and he remains unrequited and protective of her. While the tug and pull of a trio can make for interesting angst, Ultraviolet may have bee more taut with just Angela and Vaughn as a complex duo.

Philip Quast's (Sons and Daughters) Father Pearse Harman likewise keeps his feelings close to the vest. Unfortunately, he's not in best of health but acts unfettered by night sweats, fatigue, and his secret cancer diagnosis. While a warm mentoring figure to Angela in private, he's tough on Michael, forcing him to think beyond basic cop deductions before he himself balks at the idea of vampires evolving into something more than just a predator. Sadly, we don't spend enough time with him – a minister who doesn't seem very devout and fights dirty on a case but refuses to hear anything bad said about the church. We don't know how he came to this unit, so hearing a vampire ask if he got religion because of them rather than having faith first is an interesting tangent from a great one on one that happens too late. Maybe he didn't have to be an uber priestly vampire hunter with an old fashioned kit, but the religious undercurrents in Ultraviolet could have been used more to strengthen characters. Does a man of god who knows about immortality doubt once he has a terminal condition? Guest Corin Redgrave (Excalibur) appears as a vampire ambassador in the last two episodes, and this kind of immediate, known foe should have brought a face to the vampire element much sooner. Ultraviolet wastes time on unnecessary side characters when this shrewd emissary better twists the good versus evil cause. Stephen Moyer (True Blood) is a jerky ladies man who's supposed to be getting married, but it's obvious Jack was corrupt, shady, and blindsiding his partner Michael. Several characters say it is time to move on from Jack's mistakes, yet rather than being the starting plot that opens Michael's eyes, Ultraviolet is still talking about Jack when there are global vampire domination attempts at work. It's small minded to keep tying the story to him, and why is Colette Brown's (Holby City) nice teacher Kirsty going to marry Jack anyway? She tells Michael she deserves to know what's happening, but does she really? Her typical storyline gets old fast, trapping the vampire science and frightening implications in pedestrian paces. Fiona Dolman (Midsomer Murders) as Michael's ex Frances helps him occasionally – her covert skills make one wonder why she wasn't the one recruited – but she's merely here as a go between used by Michael to contact his other girl. ¯\_()_/¯

Naturally, there are dated arcades, payphones, and pop music to start Ultraviolet. However, the organs and eerie scoring invoke a gothic mood for the contemporary setting alongside well lit nights, effective red lighting, and the titular purple hues. VHS, pausing and rewinding evidence on big old televisions, fax machines, cassettes, floppy disks, and “the 'net” – it's pleasing to see people use answering machines and corded phones at a desk rather than smartphones everywhere. Those old ass computer programs and poor facial recognition printouts, unfortunately, don't really help the investigation, leaving officials to use white boards and cluttered paperwork instead of high tech abstract ease. Beautiful churches contrast the carbon based bullets and guns with video screens to indicate who is an unseen target – a medieval meets technology mix that brings vampire defense into the twentieth century rather than trying to create something unrealistically futuristic. Vampire spinal taps and sophisticated travel via sunset time-release coffins accent the ultraviolet filming, mirrors, and reflections depending on who's on which side of the glass. Editing matches the intense action late, but we should know more about this unit, such as it's true name or a headquarters facade. Viewers remain in the dark as our team walks around telling people they aren't the police or the government. There is no face to their organization, and it leaves Ultraviolet with a short sighted miniseries tone indeed – as if an overwhelmed writer/director burned himself out before mapping out the balance between story arcs and personal focus that would give the series its legs. Fortunately, there are some cool concepts here with contemporary issues and doctor dilemmas wrapped in unique vampire spins. Ultraviolet will be old hat to some, a blend of police drama and vampire science not intended for everyone. Thankfully, it's pleasing to revisit vampires before the action horror of Underworld and the sappy love of Twilight. Ultraviolet's medieval meets millennial macabre has enough entertainment, cerebral horror, and high concepts to carry its mini marathon.

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