Vampire Detectives of the Small Screen

Where was I? Oh, yes, the angst and drama surrounding vampire/mortal relationships. As it turns out, TV has been a wonderful place for these to play out. sonetka alluded to some of that going on in Buffy, but I never watched Buffy regularly. Instead, I watched two amazingly similar shows about vampire detectives, separated in airtime by a little more than a decade.

The first series, Forever Knight, I first saw during my impressionable youth, watched regularly for a while, lost track of, never finished, and then rediscovered upon joining Netflix during the dark days of graduate school. It was a Canadian show that had made its way down to the US, to which I was introduced by my aunt and uncle from Chicago, who could always be counted upon to feed my interest in fantasy. It was an awesome show, in a really-bad-early-90s-special-effects kind of way. In the first season, for example, the transformation to vampire mode was signified by the screen darkening and a yellow rectangle of light appearing in a bar over the vampire’s eyes, because they hadn’t yet figured out how to change just the eye color. But these are minor issues, I assure you.

The show is pretty much entirely driven by the main character, Toronto police detective Nick Knight.* Nick has been a vampire for 800 years now, and for the last several hundred has been looking for a cure. As the opening credits narration so eloquently puts it (in the voice of Nick’s nemesis and master, no less): “He was brought across in 1228. Preyed on humans for their blood. Now he wants to be mortal again. To repay society for his sins. To emerge from his world of darkness. From his endless… Forever (K)night.” Can you see where all the tension between the pros and cons of vampirism and mortality might come in here?

Here are the dichotomies, as embodied by various major characters:

  • Nick Knight: vampire who wants to regain mortality, tries to hang out with mortal friends as much as possible (as long as they are on the night shift)
  • Lucien Lacroix: the vampire who turned Nick, 2000 years old, cannot understand why Nick would want to reverse the process, often appears to be trying to hamper Nick’s progress, also often appears to be toying with Nick’s mind just because he can, late night DJ for a local radio station
  • Janette: Nick’s vampire ex-girlfriend and Lacroix’s other protege, at one point married to Nick for 90 consecutive years, still an on-and-off love interest, runs a vampire bar in the city, often a source of information and help
  • Natalie Lambert: mortal, coroner, knows Nick’s a vampire, trying to use science to help him find a cure, dedicated to his becoming mortal, in love with him

It’s pretty much always a love story, either from the present or the past (or both!), that is used to illustrate the struggle between the delights of either immortality or mortality. Janette, as a vampire, desired Nick and had a lot to do with Lacroix deciding to turn Nick. (Bringing up, in turn, the recurring idea that mortals are sometimes portrayed as toys/playthings/food sources for vampires, not equals.) Natalie wants to be with Nick, and is both fascinated and repelled by his past as a vampire. Nick desires Natalie, but considers himself unworthy because of his past as a vampire. Later, it becomes clear that Nick is also scared to have a mortal lover because Lacroix has sworn to thwart any such relationship for Nick, as he blames Nick for ruining Lacroix’s own chance for true love with Nick’s mortal natural sister, waaaay back in the day. (Lacroix really knows how to hold onto a grudge.) Nick talked Lacroix out of turning his sister by arguing convincingly that what Lacroix loved about her so much was her air of innocence and purity, which would be ruined by turning her into a vampire. This in turn automatically seemed to mean that there was no future for them, because she would age while Lacroix wouldn’t, leading to a quickly, from Lacroix’s perspective, impossible situation.

At several points in the series, Nick must face the choice of turning someone. He is, of course, very opposed to this in the present-day episodes, because of his own desire to give up his vampirism. On the other hand, he’s been a vampire for 800 years, and he knows what kind of second chances living again can bring. From episodes featuring his past, though, we see that turning people is often a very risky endeavor, and by no means always turns out well, particularly if the goal was to create a discreet and reasonable vampire. The power is often too tempting, or in at least one case, they weren’t asking to be turned into a vampire at all and resent him for the rest of their very long lives.

(Another interesting reason brought up for turning people is not love, but vanity. In several episodes, either Nick or Janette are shown deciding whether or not to turn a woman who is afraid of aging and loosing the power associated with her looks. One of these women goes on to formulate an age-defying injection serum out of her own blood, resulting in a version of immortality without the stereotypical vampiric weaknesses. Unfortunately, it also tended to drive the recipients insane over time.)

Beyond the personal relationship ethical issues brought up by the series, because the show concentrates much more on the vampire as the detective, unlike the books I mentioned last time, it’s also easy to see how the desire to stop being a vampire is often at strong odds with the fact that he uses his supernatural abilities to solve crimes and stop evildoers all the time. Granted it is partly due to the nature of the show, but I don’t think there is a single episode where he solves any of his cases by simple, mortal, police detective work. Well, there may have been one where he tried, but it mostly was used to prove that Nick would break down in the end and fall back on his powers when in a tough situation.

In the third season, Janette, who has been gone for a while, comes back and appears to have found a cure for vampirism, in that she is now mortal. It’s not easy to do, and requires an amazing amount of true love (not lust or hunger) for a mortal. In the final episode, Nick has to face a choice between trying to become mortal with/for Natalie, or turning Natalie into a vampire. I won’t tell you how that turns out.

Forever Knight ended after just three seasons, and if anyone wants to discuss whether or not they thought the third season contained some overtones of “You canceled our show, network, so now we’ll make it so you can never bring it back later!,” let me know. Its clear descendant is CBS’s new show from this season, Moonlight. Pretty much all the same themes have come up so far. Mick St. John (coincidence with the first name?) is a private detective who hates being a vampire and is determined to find a cure. He has a burgeoning romantic relationship with a young mortal investigative reporter, Beth, who he’s been watching over ever since his insane vampire ex-wife kidnapped her as a child.

Already in the first season, Mick has been asked to turn Beth’s dying mortal boyfriend in order to save him. Mick refused. By contrast, in the first (possibly second) season of Forever Knight, Nick was asked to save Natalie’s brother, and he acquiesced. Mick, in many ways, has it easier than Nick, because he has only been a vampire for 50 years, and he has never accepted it. His issues are much more black and white. (And his flashbacks to earlier times are much more boring.) It appears that the character who is going to complicate matters and bring up much more interesting dilemmas will be his ex-wife, Coraline. She’s been a vampire for centuries and is very powerful. She is initially portrayed through his flashbacks as unequivocally evil and insane, but later in the season (unfortunately interrupted by the writers’ strike confusion) we find out that she is working on a cure for vampirism based on a short-acting formula her family has had in its possession all along.**

Despite the much better visual effects, I do consider Moonlight to be the weaker show. In part it’s because it seems so clearly a copy of Forever Knight’s concept, but also because the creators have chosen to completely redefine the vampire canon. In Forever Knight, vampires had bodies that were cold to the touch, smoked in indirect sunlight and would burst into dust in direct sunlight, were highly vulnerable to fire and stakes, and were definitely allergic to religious symbols. In Moonlight, vampires are sort of annoyed by sunlight, have bodies that run hot and have to sleep in freezers (this is never adequately explained, in my opinion), and are paralyzed by stakes but not killed. They are supposed to still be killed by fire, but Coraline’s superpowerful family appears to be a line of vampires somewhat immune to fire, as well. And as I said, Mick’s mere fifty years as a vampire lead to very uninspiring flashbacks, as compared to all the time periods the writers of Forever Knight had to work with, (much like Highlander in that way,) but, should the show continue, this is likely to remedied by Coraline and her flashbacks playing a more major role. The possibilities for tensions between vampire Coraline and mortal Beth as rival love interests remains high, of course.

*If that sounds familiar, let me just say that yet, Tanya Huff thanks the staff on that show for providing her with background knowledge and inspiration for the vampire TV show Tony works for in the Shadow books, mentioned in the last post. Oooh, the interconnections.

**For the history buffs, I’ll just throw out there that said family is supposedly that of Louis XIV. With Tanya Huff’s Henry Fitzroy being Henry VIII’s son, it appears European royalty is just riddled with vampires. Who knew?

-posted by Dana

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6 Responses to Vampire Detectives of the Small Screen

  1. TheGnat says:

    In WhiteWolf’s group of games, a staked vampire is also merely paralyzed until the stake is removed. In the Buffyverse, vampires are more vulnerable to fire, but not dusted by it (Spike spends several months in a wheelchair due to burns, although he’s faking the last couple). And then there are the Blade universe vampires…And that’s just touching the surface of *Western* vampires… Really, to say there’s even a loose canon of vampire powers and vulnerabilities is pointless.

    I’m kind of surprised you didn’t even attempt to talk about “Buffy” or “Angel”, both of which involve (more than one at times) vampire detectives, and romantic affairs between vampires and mortals.

    And Highlander brings up an interesting sideline: what about shows with immortals other than vampires? Immortals in Highlander have their own problems relating to mortal-immortal relations (not the least of which is that they could be challenged at any time).

  2. Dana says:

    Gnat,

    As I said at the beginning of the post, I never watched Buffy (or Angel, for that matter,) so I couldn’t really go into a lot of analysis about those shows.

    Good point that there’s a wide variety of interpretations of vampire strengths and weaknesses. I still think the nearly complete lack of issue with sunlight and the insistence that they need to sleep in freezers is weird.

    I’ve been thinking about the Highlander and other immortals thing too. I’ve been hoping they would actually start showing episodes of New Amsterdam on Fox, instead of continuing to say “Coming soon!” in all the ads, like they did way back this past summer and let it turn out to be a lie. I thought it was really interesting that they started originally advertising Moonlight and New Amsterdam at the same time, because it made it clear that immortality is making a comeback in the imagination of TV writers.

  3. matthewsayre says:

    I always found Forever Knight to be interesting for a few other reasons. Nick seemed often to have a love/hate relationship with his vampiric powers, and often seemed to want it both ways, the perks but not the drawbacks. He wants redemption and freedom from his guilt more than he wants humanity. In one episode his soul-crushing guilt is temporally supernatually removed and he rather loses interest in becoming fully human, saying that maybe this was enough. The series at times seemed to suggest that vampirism was an additction that could be overcome, as well as a supernatural transformation. He seemed to have his greatest successes in becoming more mortal when he recieved psychological counselling rather than supernatural cure-alls. After some time on 12-step he could eat food, had a healthier complexion, and generally didn’t feel like eating people. It went to Hell for plot reasons, of course, and I think tellingly, he didn’t go back to it. Janette’s success at becoming mortal when she actually made up her mind to be one, as oppossed to Nick’s equivocation showed a character caught behind what different aspects of his mind wanted, and captured an addictive personality without a solid treatment method.

    LaCroix was an entirely different kettle of fish, and I often feel a rather underappreciated character study in Vampirism, especially in the second and third seasons. He’s a creature who is entirely consistent, who has a very strict moral code, and does not violate it. Among his important attributes is he never lies. Not once in the entire series. Even when asked point blank by a suspicious policeman if he is a vampire, he talks his way right out of it without even the slightest fib. It’s never stated explicitly, but I always found it fascinating. LaCroix genuinly believes he serves the cause of truth, and not only tries to bring Nick back into his fold, but expose what he considers (sometimes correctly) Nick’s self-deception. When Nick finally chooses what he wants, and actually means it, LaCroix respects it, even when he disagrees with it. Didn’t mean he wasn’t an evil murderous blood-sucking creature of the night, but he wasn’t just a bwa ha ha monster he was a three dimensional character.

  4. Dana says:

    Matthew,

    I totally agree about Lacroix, though I actually thought he was presented rather two dimensionally, with only vague glimpses underneath, until the third season. All of the third season, actually, seemed dedicated to developing Lacroix’s character and backstory as fast as possible, to get it all in before the final episode. I thought it was very unfortunate that he got somewhat overshadowed by all the new characters introduced that season. In any case, all the development they rushed to fit in for him in the final season makes me wonder if they had always intended the show to gradually revolve more around him than Nick.

  5. […] to grant my wish, Fox has finally actually started airing episodes of New Amsterdam. As I said in a comment on my last post, I found it very interesting this summer when they started advertising both this […]

  6. Liz B says:

    I loved Forever Knight, especially how they ended the series. Great flashback theatre. And just because I”m that obsessed (tho I haven’t watched it on dvd yet), FK was originally a made for tv movie called Nick Knight with Rick Springfield as the vampire.

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