Friday, August 4, 2006

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: Ultraviolet

I stumbled onto this British production purely by accident - compared to most of the other series on my summer list, it's rather low-profile. It's also quite short-lived: only six episodes were filmed, though this seems to be deliberate since the loose ends that remain aren't the type that require further closure.

Detective Michael Colefield's life gets turned upside-down when his best friend disappears, and reemerges as a blood-drinking fiend. Michael (played by the very attractive Jack Davenport) is then drafted into a covert organization that hunts these creatures, dubbed "Code Five" (the Roman numeral, of course, being V). Unofficially, they're simply called "leeches".

Well, it's vampires, obviously. But that specific term is never used by any character, at any point in the series. This indicates three qualities that, in my opinion, set "Ultraviolet" apart from its peers. First, it refuses to spell anything out. Michael only understands what happened to his friend by assembling clues, and the viewer must do the same - this is where "Supernatural" and "Charmed" would frequently go wrong, with the constant doses of exposition to explain the monster's M.O. and weaknesses. Second, the supernatural context is stripped away in favor of a largely scientific approach. Reactions to crosses and holy water, for example, are psychosomatic rather than instruments of divine will. It's a bit similar to Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend", which also demystified vampirism through modern technology. But in Matheson's story, there was never any question that these creatures were evil - and "Ultraviolet" makes no such concession. The third quality is that we're gradually called to question whether Michael's on the right side: is this a legitimate war or a modern re-enactment of the Inquisition? Are vampires really a threat, or has the Church found a new scapegoat? You're kept guessing until the very end.

Due to the obvious limitations, the main cast isn't explored at any great length, but that actually works out here: just as the conflict with the vampires is shrouded in mystery, so too are the people Michael works with. Angela and Vaughan have edited backstories that unravel towards the end, and Pearse is a complete enigma. We don't even know the size of the organization or who else works for it, but these are things we're not supposed to know anyway, since our point of view is attached to Michael's and he's the new guy.

What I find so appealing about "Ultraviolet" is its sophistication, the fact that it doesn't dumb anything down and doesn't shoot for a low common denominator. Granted, that's probably why it didn't last more than six episodes, but those six make for pretty good TV.