Hey, did you know Idris Elba was in a vampire drama?
Long before he became international heartthrob and the internet’s casting choice for absolutely everything, Elba starred in a little-seen British crime drama that blended gritty procedural with undead intrigue. Ultraviolet, which aired on Channel 4 in 1998 for a short run of six episodes, is an oft-overlooked gem of genre television, but it's seriously worth your time if you love genre-bending television or vampire stories.
Ultraviolet is the story of a secret government and Vatican-supported paramilitary organization dedicated to hunting down and exterminating vampires across the UK. The group (which stars Elba as well as Pirates of the Caribbean's Commodore Norrington, Jack Davenport), soon uncovers a mysterious plan that could put humanity at risk of becoming the permanent food source for the undead.
And no, it doesn’t have anything to do with that Milla Jovovich movie.
Every generation gets its own array of vampire stories that reflect contemporary concerns and show the era's entertainment preferences. The Victorians had Dracula, with its interrogation of xenophobia and fear of uncontrolled sexuality; the 1980s got Anne Rice's lush queerness in The Vampire Chronicles, as well as the panic of disease as portrayed in The Hunger; even the 2000s and its rise of a newly empowered generation of adolescents got the sparkly melodrama of the Twilight Saga. Vampirism is a brilliant means to explore the world through fiction, because it’s a wildly flexible metaphor that can be used to fit whatever the storyteller desires. Look at the history of vampire fiction and you’ll see stories about everything from sex, death, and infection to racism, religion, and capitalism. It’s one of the reasons vampire fiction always returns to the pop culture mainstream even after cycles of oversaturation in the media.
One of the most striking things about Ultraviolet is the way it uses vampirism to dig into a wide array of complex and tough-to-discuss issues. Across six hours of TV, the series took on themes of racism, abortion, child abuse, terrorism, immigration, and justifiable homicide. In this world, vampires can be killed by sunlight, but they differ from our expectations of the creatures in various ways: Wooden stakes won’t do the job, but carbon bullets will; garlic is ineffective but concentrated doses of allicin -- the compound obtained from it -- will have them running. The team, a sophisticated group that’s Van Helsing by way of the Marines, can neutralize the vampires and turn them to dust, but they remain alive in the ashes, and nobody knows how to rid the world of them for good.
This is a story about vampires where you’ll never hear the word “vampire” said once, and the creatures themselves are stripped of any allure or seductive appeal that’s been present in genre fiction for decades. Here Ultraviolet imagines vampires as terrorists. One scene features a vampire under surveillance by the group who goes on the undead equivalent of a hunger strike, smearing his food across the double-sided glass to taunt his captors, in imagery that’s eerily evocative of news footage covering the political prisoners of the IRA from the era.
Ultraviolet wasn’t afraid to get bleak or to toe the line of controversy by using hot-button issues of the time in a genre context. There’s the episode with a woman who has been impregnated with a hybrid human-vampire fetus who must make the difficult decision whether to abort, and her hugely discomfiting confrontation with a pro-life activist disguised as a crisis center worker. In another episode, the team discover vampires have infiltrated a local Catholic school, and the parallels between them and the ongoing revelations of abuse in the church are evident. Another episode centers on an African immigrant with sickle cell anemia who has been experimented on by vampires. If vampires are the metaphor through which we can explore our contemporary unease, then Ultraviolet is one of the most striking and deftly handled dramas in the medium.
Of course, we know what you want to hear about most: How is Idris? Obviously, he’s great, and it’s fun as a fan to return to the early years of his career before The Wire and Luther. As a stoic former soldier who saw his entire unit wiped out by vampires, he commands the screen every time he appears, and gets one particularly grueling stand-out moment to himself that will have you on edge. The rest of the cast are equally strong, particularly the emotionally torn and sullen Davenport, who finds his loyalties torn between fighting for the greater good and his overwhelming feelings for the woman of his dreams (whose vampire ex-boyfriend is played by a pre-True Blood Stephen Moyer). Each of the core ensemble get deftly complex character arcs that reveal the extent of the trauma inflicted on their lives by the vampires – extra points go to Susannah Harker as the scientist who still struggles to come to terms with the loss of her husband and child after he became a vampire.
That’s another thing that makes the show so exciting: It takes itself 100% totally seriously, with nary a wink or a nod to the show’s genre fixings. Nobody tries to lighten the mood with cheap vampire jokes, there's no knowing glance to the camera or acknowledgment that yes, if you think about this for too long then it probably is quite silly. Ultraviolet commits to the concept, and that makes the viewing experience one with real stakes and mysteries. It also means that the show is consistently kind of a bummer. There’s no levity or comedic side characters to bring levity to the situation, and for six hours, Ultraviolet is utterly bleak. That may not be everyone’s idea of a good-time viewing experience, but even today, it’s rare to see genre TV completely commit to a tone of endless darkness and pull it off with such flair.
Sadly, the show only lasted one season, and in typical fashion, it ended on one hell of a cliffhanger that hinted at an even bleaker Season 2 we’ll never get to see. Still, Ultraviolet is a rare treat that reimagines the world of vampires as a covert political scheme, combining science and economics to world dominating forces. The show is quite hard to track down these days, but for any true vampire lover, it's definitely worth your time and would make a great binge-watch on these cold, dark nights.
And, of course, Idris Elba.