“Ultraviolet” Review (and Torchwood comparison)

We are the source of all religion. We are the afterlife.

The X-Files meets This Life” was how Russell T. Davies described Torchwood to the media when it was first announced, back before the last series of Doctor Who began. But just under a decade ago, the show that actually was The X-Files meets This Life was shown on Channel 4, right down to casting This Life‘s Jack Davenport as one of the leads: Ultraviolet.

At the time, I only saw a couple of episodes (my flatmate, who had far better taste in television than me, was a fan). But almost every discussion of Torchwood suggests Ultraviolet is the show it should have been, although Ultraviolet itself only lasted one short, six episode run. So I picked up the DVD.

After The X-Files, any show about paranormal investigation risked unfavourable comparison. But a show that concerned an organisation more akin to the Area 51 Men-In-Black than the FBI could explore moral ambiguities that Mulder’s holier-than-thou quest could encompass. This was what I though TW would do (especially when, in The Christmas Invasion, Torchwood’s destruction of the retreating Sycorax ship attracted the Doctor’s disgust). Unfortunately, TW the series failed to deliver.

In Ultraviolet, by contrast, we are presented with an (unnamed) organisation, frequently described as a death squad, somtimes compared with Nazis. As in TW there is a team rather than a duo. A doctor, a soldier, a priest, they are also hard to like, but the characterisation is consistent and convincing. The tensions between them concern whether the ends justify the means rather than the mere tantrums of TW. A zeal verging on fundamentalism gives them their drive, inspired by an equally driven and infinitely resourceful enemy: its relevance is only heightened watching it post 9/11.

In the opening episode, a police officer encouters the covert organisation, and becomes curious about their credentials. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But in Ultraviolet there is a clear remit and the kind of backing that ensures heavily armed troops are available on call (where TW has… Ianto Jones). Rather than driving around in an SUV emblazoned with their secret identity, they use other government organisation’s cover, using the authority of CIB or Special Branch or whatever best suits their convenience.

On the This Life side of things, Michael, our police officer, doesn’t have a girlfriend to deceive. Instead, his equivalent to Rhys are the two girls in his life: he lies to Kirsty, who he fancies, and who is his best friend’s fiance; whilst his brittle ex Frances is an ex NCIS officer who understands the pressures of working on covert operations. Each of these relationships therefore have the scope to develop even over the relatively short run.

In Ultraviolet there is only one enemy to face. The mythology of vampires is well developed in popular fiction to the point where it could alienate the casual viewer, but the word vampire is not used once. It’s a multilayered approach; if you get the references you’ll appreciate them, but threat of the Code V infection doesn’t require any prior knowledge. TW too faced the burden of 43 years of Doctor Who mythology, and references wedged in to plots were frequently unnecessary, wouldn’t have made sense if you hadn’t seen DW and often didn’t even if you had.

Finally, Ultraviolet delivers with some acting muscle. The wonderful Susannah Harker is just outstanding, as is The Wire‘s Idris Elba. Davenport is always watchable, and Philip Quast carries an air of the sinister that gives his character an intriguing edginess.

Joe Ahearne, the writer and director of Ultraviolet, was born the day the first episode of Doctor Who aired, and has directed several episodes of the Christopher Eccleston series.

About Simon Wood

Lecturer in medical education, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See simonwood.info for more...

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