Every so often, I enjoy watching a movie about vampires and, even more rarely, a television series about them. The British miniseries ULTRAVIOLET (1998) was something I came across back in 2000 when I happened to turn on the TV one weekend day. The final episode was airing, which I watched most of, pleasantly fascinated. I filed it away in the back of my mind to someday watch the entire six episodes. Finally, I did just that this past week.
Set in modern day (or possibly near future) London, England, the show revolves around a handful of leading members of Section Five, a secret paramilitary task force funded by the UK government and the Vatican. This organization exists to research and eliminate vampires, a descriptor which is never uttered in the series. One character saltily refers to them as “leeches.” The formal term used is “Code Five,” derived from the Roman numeral V, which is the first letter of the word “vampire.”
The ensemble main cast and supporting players are superb, which I find to be generally the case with British movie and TV productions. The actors who I personally found the most compelling were Susannah Harker as Section Five’s lead scientist and physician, Dr. Angela Marsh, Philip Quast as Father Pearse Harman (leader of Section Five), and Idris Elba as Vaughan Rice, leader of Section Five’s security. These and a few other recurring characters have all been directly impacted by vampires/Code Fives in some way. The elegant, well-spoken Dr. Marsh is intriguing, erudite, and compassionate, yet also a gritty mix of determined and ruthless, having lost her husband and young daughter to Section Five assassins after the two had been captured and turned by vampires. Father Harman, eloquent and dark-humored, lost a son he had sired prior to becoming a priest. The killers? Why, Code Fives, of course. The handsome, battle-toughened Rice is the only survivor among a military squad turned by vampires.
The lead protagonist is Michael Colefield (a young Jack Davenport, who would go on to be in the first three PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies), a London police detective. He gets recruited into Section Five after Jack (a long-haired, rakishly handsome Stephen Moyer), his close friend and work partner, is turned into a vampire. Michael’s confronting of the “turned” Jack forever changes the course of his life. Colefield spends much of the series trying to navigate his new role as a top secret agent of sorts while remaining in contact with two women friends in the outside world.
Each episode revolves around Section Five investigating vampire related activity, often involving medical experimentation on innocent humans. The indoor sets of Section Five are state-of-the-art high tech, such as the room that houses the dusty remains of destroyed Code Fives, each placed in metal tubes fitted into small cryogenic freeze chambers. The Code Five interrogation room, with its two way mirrors and gas release outlets, is pretty interesting too. This is where the late Corin Redgrave’s smug and clever Code Five character goes head-to-head towards the end of the series with Father Harman. They discuss matters such as mortality and evil while Harman and Marsh try and get information out of him about the next large-scale moves by Code Fives against mortal humans.
The miniseries is a unique, fascinating mix of clinical, philosophical, supernatural, suspenseful, and action-oriented. Ethical quandaries are explored via challenges arising with Code Fives, such as how to go about helping a woman– so longing to become a mother– deceptively impregnated with vampire DNA infused sperm. The irony was not missed on me when Father Harman advises her to seek an abortion. Among Section Five members, Code Fives are viewed and discussed as the equivalent of deadly carriers of disease, as evil (namely by Harman but also, in a more crude way, by Rice), and, later in the series, as possible contributors to helpful scientific advancements for humanity. Regarding this last point and possibility, we viewers witness Dr. Marsh begin to contemplate with an open mind this ethically gray area about her sworn enemies, much to Father Harman’s dismay. We listen to a few vampires’ own personal testaments about the wonders of their strange existence, such as not seeing their own reflection anywhere, leaving only a person’s eyes before them to look into and, hence, allowing these “turned” creatures to more fully focus on the outside other. Vampires/Code Fives are humanized in a manner I have not quite seen in any other screenplays about these so frequently explored mythical beings. I’m impressed with how the creators of ULTRAVIOLET, including writer Joe Ahearne, gracefully, thoughtfully interweave science, myth, and religion into these small handfuls of screen dramas, all beautifully enlivened by excellent character development and acting. We get to know each player intimately, not so much by exposition of personal histories, but by frequent closeups of their expressive faces and emotionally layered interactions. Add to all of these elements of a well-crafted production composer Sue Hewitt’s haunting theme music and soundtrack and you get a darkly beautiful arc of aural and visual expression. Consequently, I found myself engrossed by ULTRAVIOLET, sometimes creeped out, often moved, and, surprisingly, eventually provoked to think more dynamically about the interplay of evil and good.