Ultraviolet (nothing to with the film of the same name) was a six-part series for Channel 4 broadcast in 1998, the work of writer-director Joe Ahearne. It was ostensibly about vampires, but bore the same relation to True Blood, Buffy and Twilight that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does to In Like Flint. Superbly written, directed and acted (well, except in one key area, which we'll come to), this show demonstrated precisely how such a thing should be done. Every damn inch of it it was what Torchwood should have been.Ultraviolet took a schlocky premise - vampires exist, and always have, and there are people whose job is to hunt them - and played it absolutely straight, making the absurd plausible. It centres around a sinister, Catholic Church-backed police unit who track down vampires with Father Pearse Harman (Philip Quast) as its enigmatic, taciturn leader, haematologist Dr Angie Marsh (Susannah Harker) as its scientific brains, and Vaughn Rice, (the terrific Idris Elba) a gulf war veteran who had to kill his fellow soldiers after vampires got to them, as the muscle. Michael Colefield (Jack Davenport) is a police officer whose best friend Jack (Stephen Moyer, who went on to do True Blood, but trust me, this is better) has been turned. After Michael has staked him through the heart, Pearse offers him a job, which he must balance with fending off the attentions of Kirsty (Colette Brown), Jack's fiancé who wants to know where her husband-to-be is and what Michael isn't telling her, while all the time wondering if he's on the right side.
The show doesn't get bogged down in endless glorification of how macho and above everyone the organisation is. Instead, the four characters are presented as getting on with their job. The word 'vampire' is never used. The Code 5s (code V- geddit?) are 'neutralised' with carbon bullets or wood to the heart, and their ashes are placed in metal tubes and filed away. The Code Vs can't be seen in mirrors, pictures or videos, and their voices can't be heard on any audio equipment. The sound of a Code V speaking on a phone via a computer's speech software programme is frightening because it is both new and real, rather than a gothic cliche.
While Doctor Who and Torchwood go overboard with their attempts to persuade us this is really happening (tv news footage, reports from abroad, celebrity cameos and reactions from religious nuts, protesters or politicians), Ultraviolet relies on a few well-chosen words to create verisimilitude. Pearse's line "Our free-range days are over" and his talk of culling, asking Michael if he really thinks it's a coincidence that the fire of London happened after a plague, sell this concept in the same way that Doctor Who and Torchwood's respective use of clips of Paul O'Grady discussing the moving planets on his show and police refusing to charge people with attempted murder because people have stopped dying really don't sell theirs.The show preferred tension to special effects: the scene where Vaughn is trapped in a warehouse with four caskets on synchronised timelocks containing Code Vs is infinitely more exciting than anything in Torchwood or Battlestar Galactica. You also won't find in those shows a single moment of acting as good as Idris Elba's tour de force in this scene alone, conveying fear, rage, resignation and then determination so believably that you'll breathe a sigh of admiration as well as relief when it ends.
Pearse has non-hodgkins lymphoma: how brilliantly and subtly Philip Quast sells this, in comparison with the wishy-washy way Roslin's disappearing cancer is dealt with in Battlestar Galactica. The contrast between his ilness and the escape from mortality the Code Vs represent is beautifully underplayed. Susannah Harker is also exquisite as conveying so much through so little. Her husband and daughter were both turned, so Pearse 'neutralised' them. Watch the look on her face when she considers letting Michael revive the ashes, and consider what a hammy mess Torchwood's Eva Myles would have made of it.
Torchwood's idea of a good guest star was James Masters - Spike off of Buffy - because... well, hey, it's a SF show and everyone knows Buffy was an important SF Show, and the Buffy fans will be delighted, especially if we make his character resemble Spike. Ultraviolet's idea of a good guest star was Corin Redgrave, for the more eccentric (and nowadays abandoned) reasons that he's a fine actor and that this is a drama series which deserves actors good enough to increase the tension and add depth and shading to the concepts being examined. Redgrave's unforgettable appearance as Dr Paul Hoyle, the first Code V the team capture, in the last two episodes owes more to Patrick Stewart's appearance as the Russian spymaster Karla opposite Alec Guinness in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy than to Lucy Lawless turning up on Battlestar Galactica for an episode.The scenes of Angie and Pearse interrogating Hoyle are powered by the knowledge that Hoyle is a friend of Angie's neutralised husband - he argues that he and her daughter are still the same people despite their conversion - that he can tempt the ill Pearse with immortality and that he enjoys an existence free of Pearse's God or afterlife. Here are the pain, tension and ambiguity that we find in proper drama, as opposed to the "doing unimaginative, generic stuff with hunks, babes and robots but hinting every now and then that it's a bit like the 'War on Terror'" school of shlock-posing-as-drama that Battlestar Galactica fans mistake for the real thing. Wondering what Pearse says in the confessional when he takes sanctuary following the interrogation (was he tempted?) is so much more worthwhile than wondering who's a Cylon or if Starbuck will win her latest CGi battle, and these three marvellous actors achieve far more in handful of scenes than a full season of Adama and Tigh arguing ever does.
Much of the best tv SF is made by people setting out to make drama instead (and succeeding). The wonderful first five or so seasons of The X-Files - the strongest influence discernible on Ultraviolet - were a testament to his. The team behind them avoided cliche, cast interesting actors, directed, lit, edited and scored with subtlety, made every character an interesting human being, and above all made each monster-of-the-week very, very real. It too was a show in which special effects were beside the point: it was the scripts, acting and direction we were hooked on. This wasn't escapism, but decent tv. SF has become far more prominent in the current decade of television than the 1990s, but only thanks to infantilising itself (and when it's not infantile, it's adolescent). Ultraviolet feels adult in a way that Battlestar Galactica and Torchwood could never be. Consider the show's treatment of abortion and paedophilia. The scene in episode 3 where a woman pregnant with a Code v embryo goes in desperation to an abortion clinic, only to realise it's a dubious pro-life organisation that attempts to talk women out of it, would have been done very differently by Torchwood. The pro-life woman working in the clinic would have been overplayed with gusto, numerous sick jokes would have been made, and the character would be reduced to a caricature bigot, while the whole scene would have had a smug "religion is terrible" message. Here, although we share the woman's horror at the pro-lifer's sickly piousness and her feeling of entrapment, we feel that the pro-lifer is a person, and that these are two characters with different viewpoints, rather than one character with a viewpoint and another purely there to be despised.
The fourth episode similarly portrays paedophilia as an all-too-believable horror rather than a demonised one. A local paedophile and his routine are portrayed with the same matter-of-fact, unflinching efficiency we'd expect from a police procedural show, while the gruesome idea of a paedophile who has discovered that his victim, being a child-vampire, has no innocence and therefore cannot satisfy him (or be filmed) is played entirely straight. Compare this with the dreadful casting of Bill Pullman as Oswald Danes in Torchwood, in which he leeringly talks about how he loves it when his young victims run from him. This is salacious, cynical, adolescent television, which hasn't got a clue about how things like paedophilia or Alzheimers (I mention that because I'm thinking of an even worse episode of Torchwood in which Owen is depressed because his girlfriend is diagnosed with "early onset alzheimers", only for it to turn out to be an alien squid hiding in her brain) affect human beings. The difference is that Ultraviolet is for grownups.
It had one flaw, sadly: Jack Davenport's miscasting. He's inoffensive, but gives the same hangdog performance here he gives in This Life (which ironically would have fitted in on Torchwood) and Coupling. He is convincing neither as a police officer (in the scene where he has to ask a class of school children some questions following an incident, I found it hard not to notice that the PC who used to come and address my primary school had more gravitas), nor as the audience's identification figure (he's supposed to be a voice of reason between the fanaticism of the Code Vs and the scarcely preferable fanaticism of Pearse, but hIs performance seems modelled on Neil from The Young Ones and Harry Enfield's Kevin the teenager). Having three steely, no-nonsense and frankly terrific actors like Elba, Barker and Quast as his costars is tough on Davenport: every time Elba informs him where they're going next you keep expecting him to reply "like I'm bothered, man" and go up to his bedroom to paint his walls black and write in his journal that no-one really understands him.
People coming to Ultraviolet for the first time will have to deal with the sinking realisation that there's no more of it. When I showed it to my dad, he said plaintively during episode 5 "I can't believe they didn't make a second series of this!". However, does a masterpiece need a second series? It's beautifully structured, beginning and ending with Michael's friendship with Jack, and its carefully cultivated sense of ambiguity as to whether Pearse or the Code Vs are the more dubious side. All six episodes were written by Joe Aherne; had a second series gone ahead (bearing in mind that Ahearne was - and indeed is - also a busy working director) other writers might have been required, and we might have seen what Ultraviolet looked like with weak concepts, padding, predictability, repetitive plots or inconstant characterisation. In the first series, there's one writer, and he really knows what he's doing.So do get hold of a DVD of Ultraviolet (and again, remember there's an unrelated film of the same name to avoid) and relive the six weeks when British tv still made SF for grown-ups