Retrospective: Joe Ahearne's Ultraviolet

From The Hunger, The Lost Boys and Near Dark, through to modern action romps such as Underworld and Twilight to the novels of Anne Rice, Poppy Z Brite and Barbara Hambly the vampire myth has been a pervasive staple of sci-fi and fantasy since the genre’s beginnings. Most modern interpretations on the legend see the vamps shedding their Stoker-esque Transylvanian castles and coffins for New York studio apartments, tinted-windowed sports cars and other trappings of a decadent, contemporary (un)lifestyle.

However they appeared the undead traditionally remained in the domain of fantasy horror geeks and roleplayers. But in 1998 – just 18 months after Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered in the US – the then little known writer/director Joe Ahearne brought the genre into the UK mainstream.

More than a decade before vampire genre exploded across our entertainment culture like a trodden on blood-bag and True Blood and Twilight became the ratings winning talk of the water cooler, the deliciously dark Ultraviolet aired in the UK.

Subtle and understated, Ultraviolet was a cult brit-thriller starring Jack Davenport as Mike Colefield. Mike is a policeman who is reluctantly drawn into The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican agency sanctioned by the government to hunt down and destroy the “Code V” – pronounced “Code Five” –  or vampires to you and me.

The show’s six-episode run was a fiendishly slo-burner; dramatic, addictive and leaving the viewer wondering where exactly it was all going to end right up until the last few minutes. Imagine if True Blood and the BBC spy drama Spooks got drunk one night and hooked up in a Soho hotel. Ultraviolet would be the coolly intelligent result of their dirty little rendezvous!

In case you missed it twelve years ago, here’s the quick version…

When Mike’s best friend and police partner, Jack (Stephen Moyer, now of True Blood fame), goes missing after his stag night two Congregation officers, Vaughn and Angie (Idris Elba, and Susannah Harker),  turn up at Mike’s station claiming to be internal affairs investigating Jack for fraud.

Jack contacts Mike the next night and claims that the agents are trying to kill him and he doesn’t know why. He wants Mike to find out.

Mike’s own investigation soon reveals that they are not who they claim to be and he ultimately finds himself caught in the crossfire between agency soldiers and one of the undead. With the agency’s cover blown and their reasons for pursuing Jack now clear, Mike confronts Jack at their next meeting and discovers that he’s been turned. The ensuing fight results in Mike killing Jack and being offered a position in the Congregation.

The Congregation is lead by a catholic priest named Father Pearse J. Harman, who tells Mike that the vamps don’t want to wipe us out, they want to control us.

We’re their food source and as our capacity for self destruction has grown so has their need to step in and do something about it. Explaining to him that in fifty years his loved ones could end up in battery farms, Father Harman gives Mike the chilling warning “Believe me, our free range days are over.”

Throughout the series the vamps make mention of Robert Marsh, one of their number who has been neutralised and who just happens to be both a pre-eminent haematologist and Angie’s late husband – for some reason they want his remains back. Pearse suspects the Code V have a method for resurrecting the fallen, but he doesn’t know how it’s done.

Mike and the team uncover Code V experiments which point not to the domination of us as a food source but to the creation of alternative means of procreation and feeding. Artificial blood is discovered in one episode, and the team find a woman pregnant with a genetically engineered Code V foetus in another.

This can mean only one of two things – either the enemy are looking to make peace and leave us alone, or they’re looking to wipe us out and need to ensure they have a means of survival.

Eventually the group capture a Code V and bring him in for interrogation. The team figure out that he’s Paul Hoyle, a former nuclear physicist turned environmentalist for the EcoWatch group. He’s been operating out of Brazil for the last few years studying the rainforest fires and, slowly, the terrible truth dawns – the fires were started by the Code V, sending blankets of smoke in to the air as a dry run for a nuclear winter.

The vamps plan to blot out the sun for up to a year, take over and wipe us out! The enemy has their extermination programme; it’s time the Congregation continued with theirs!

Tools of the Trade

Despite being a secret branch of the old and tradition-steeped Catholic Church, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith does not rely on wooden stakes, silver daggers and garlic. These holy-rollers are tooled up!

Gas cannisters filled with concentrated allicin – the active ingredient which triggers the famed reaction to garlic – disorient the enemy by triggering their genetic allergy to it. While they’re shaking off the effects of the gas attack the Congregation foot soldiers use automatic pistols with carbon bullets to finish the job.
As the vampires don’t show up on video the weapons’ sights are fitted with digital displays allowing the wielder to distinguish the living from the undead.

Of course, the Code V are not without their gadgets too. They drive around in the daylight in cars with UV blocking windows. They have time-locked, hermetically sealed electronic caskets for inter-continental travel and voice encoders for speaking on the phone (their voices aren’t carried by telephones, just like they don’t show up on video.)

Moral Ambiguity

Ultraviolet never shouted about its subject matter. Watching the show it’s obvious what the Code V are supposed to be, and yet the word ‘vampire’ is never spoken in any of the six episodes. Vaughan, played by Idris Elba (The Wire), uses the slang term “leeches” a few times, but the predominant term is Code V.

Before his recruitment into the agency Mike visits a church where we see him focus on the Roman numeral “V” and we hear Vaughan’s voice in flashback saying “Code V neutralised.”

Perhaps the reason for this was that in 1998, before Bill Compton arrived all tortured and angsty in Bon Temps, and Edward Cullen got all loved up in Twilight, the term “vampire” evoked negative imagery. It suggested bad guys and Dracula and bitey, fangy evil.

Throughout Ultraviolet the viewer is kept guessing as to the Code V motivation. Are they really evil? Are they just trying to survive a centuries old witch-hunt? Don’t they deserve the right to survive like any other sentient creature? Even when we discover their plan to create a nuclear winter we’re left in doubt as to whether they’re truly evil. The war has been going on for centuries and this could just be their attempt at, as Pearse puts it, final peace.

True evil is a difficult concept for 21st century man to grasp, and is a concept dealt with in other versions of the vampire legend.

Lestat, the suave undead hero of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, explains his newly sired fledgling, Louis, that “evil is a point of view.” This is echoed in Ultraviolet by the captive Code V. Strapped to an operating table, weakened from lack of blood but otherwise fully conscious as he goes under the knife, he accuses Angie of being the one to lose her humanity.

He tells her that she accepts the terrible things God does because she believes He loves her; he points out that Angie’s husband loved her, and yet she renoun
ced him when he turned and had him executed – where’s the difference?

This moral ambiguity stretches us as viewers and challenges our black and white perception of good and evil. Mike himself expresses concern at the lack of compassion shown toward the “leeches” and soon establishes himself as the moral voice of the team – a surprising role one would expect their leader to adopt; he is a priest, after all.

The Man Behind the Camera

For the show’s creator Joe Ahearne this was only his fifth outing as a director and the third show he had worked on. While he was working on the pilot of Ultraviolet the production company, World, gave Joe some writing and directing work on This Life where he met his leading man, Jack Davenport.

Today’s sci-fi fan might know Joe from his work on Doctor Who. He directed Billie Piper and Christopher Eccleston in some of the series’most gripping and emotional first season episodes including Dalek, Father’s Day and Parting of the Ways. But the question on everyone’s lips when Joe’s work is discussed is “Why was there never anymore Ultraviolet?”

Joe hasn’t cited any one reason why the show was never renewed. He has stated that it was never his plan to write and direct the whole series, things just worked out that way. As a result of the production schedule he was tied to as writer/director Joe was left with very little time to write anymore beyond the original six episodes. World Productions did bring in other writers, but none of them worked out.

He has also gone on record as saying that the show was never really designed to run on and on. It was a high-concept show dealing with a very singular theme – a war between humans and vampires and, unlike Buffy which dealt with all things supernatural, Ultraviolet was very constrained within its own storyline.

Joe returned to the otherworldly for Apparitions, a supernatural drama for the BBC which aired in 2008. It is the tale of a priest, played by Martin Shaw, who works for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to investigate miracles attributed to candidates for sainthood. He is drawn into the world of exorcisms when a ten-year-old girl approaches him convinced that her father is possessed by a demon. It was ok, but not great; worth a look if you like your drama supernatural and religious in flavour.

It’s sad to realise that Ultraviolet will ever make a return to our screens. Thanks to Pirates of the Caribbean, Jack Davenport is a Hollywood star, Stephen Moyer is fang-banging his way across the states in True Blood, and Idris Elba, who plays Vaughan, shifted his career focus stateside with roles in The Wire, Law & Order and CSI: Miami.

That said, the show’s cult status benefits from fans being left aching for more. This was a fantastic show, full of drama, well written and well realised – whilst I would love to know if the Congreagation wins, or if the Code V end up putting us all in battery-farms, I do think that ultraviolet is now best left alone.



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