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British Sci-Fi TV Summer Rundown: ASHES TO ASHES

For the past several weeks, I’ve been writing about different British science fiction television programs that I’d recommend, based on them having fewer than 50 episodes, generally. Also, I’ll say it right now, I’ve never seen Blake’s 7 (one day I will) and I don’t like Red Dwarf. Sorry, seemingly everyone in the world. The shows I’ve written about have been The Prisoner, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Sapphire & Steel, the work of Gerry Anderson, and Life on Mars.

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Which means! This week, I’ll be looking at the follow-up to Life on Mars. That show, about a modern Manchester cop who gets hit by a car and wakes up, inexplicably, in 1973, only lasted two series, but fans didn’t have to wait long for a follow-up. In fact, it was only the next year when the continuation/sequel/spinoff of Life on Mars hit the air, but about a cop going back to the 1980s this time… Strangely, a lot of the same characters show up, even though they don’t appear any older. Curiouser and curiouser. What exactly “the past” is in both series and what exactly became of DI Sam Tyler is very much at the heart of this new show, also named for a David Bowie song — Ashes to Ashes.

As the above suggests, Detective Inspector Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes) is a modern London policewoman with a daughter who is shot in the line of duty by an ex-criminal mastermind named Arthur Layton and wakes up in 1981 (initially; each series is a year further). She immediately think she’s lost her mind because she’s been reading up on Sam Tyler’s case and his assertions that he ended up in 1973 when he was in his coma and about the various people he met whilst he was there. Alex wakes up wearing…uhh…suggestive clothing and when she’s saved by Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), Ray Carling (Dean Andrews), and Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster), it clicks that she must be having an hallucination. But is she? Or isn’t she?

She’s dressed as a prostitute, we quickly find out, because she’s undercover and is Gene’s “new” DI, much the same way Sam had been in the ’70s. She finds that Arthur Layton is operating heavily in 1981 and Alex needs Gene’s help in taking him down, which she thinks will enable her to return to 2008. It doesn’t, however.

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Throughout the series, Alex is living through events that she was, in fact, alive for but as a child. Much like in Life on Mars, she meets her parents and deals with cases similar to or directly pertaining to her work in 2008. And, much like the earlier series, Alex’s style butts heads with Gene’s brash and brutal old-school style of policing. Ray and Chris fulfill roughly their same roles, however they’re a bit softer toward Alex than they were toward Sam. Hugely sexist, of course. The role of the female police officer, which was touched upon during Life on Mars, gets talked about a lot in Ashes to Ashes.

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The biggest addition to the show with its move to 1980s, besides having a new lead character (but Gene Hunt is pretty much the main character, and Philip Glenister gets top billing), is the addition of Sharon ‘Shaz’ Granger played by Montserrat Lombard. She’s young and spunky and very much of the ’80s, but through the series she begins to want more than her current position in the CID (Criminal Investigation Department), not leastwise through her friendship with Alex Drake. Shaz dates Chris Skelton but thinks he should do more with his life as well and eventually the two split. By the third series, after wanting to leave the department and an undercover assignment where she’s almost killed, Gene Hunt promises her that she’ll be a proper member of the CID by Christmas. She has the biggest arc of any of the characters, Alex included.

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The mystery and otherworldly nature of where the characters are are also much more in the forefront of this series than it was in Life on Mars. It was always localized in the earlier show inside Sam’s brain. At the end of that series (SPOILERS) Sam, having woken up from his coma, throws himself off a rooftop to end up back in the 1970s with his new friends. That was a great end to that show, but it put Ashes to Ashes in a precarious position; the audience already knows the past and the characters were inside someone’s brain, so whether or not Alex Drake is, indeed, back in time seems sort of nil. We often see that Alex is in a coma, and her love for her daughter makes her want to wake up. She does wake up at the end of the second series, but her brain begins to hemorrhage and she ends up back in 1983 for the final series.

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The strangeness of the world comes into play a lot more as well. For example, why have Gene, Ray, and Chris seemingly not aged at all from the early-70s to the early-80s? Why are they in London now and not Manchester (it’s explained that they transferred, but come on), and Alex is never satisfied with Gene’s explanation about what happened to Sam Tyler from his point of view. In the third series, a character named DCI Jim Keats (Daniel Mays) whose job it is to keep an eye on Hunt, is introduced. He’s a narc within the police so nobody likes him, but he seems to be especially hateful toward Hunt and always wants Alex to turn on him (Gene did shoot her, so she’s not without anger) to get him thrown out of the force. As the series progresses, though, it’s clear he’s much more evil than he appears, eventually being revealed to possibly be the devil himself.

Yes, that’s right — the big surprise is that “the ’80s,” and probably “the ’70s” as well, are a purgatory for police officers who have died in the field. All of them, Alex, Gene, Ray, Chris, and Shaz, have all been dead the whole time, waiting until it’s their time to go to “The Railway Arms,” the pub which is in actuality the doorway to the actual afterlife. Gene Hunt reveals that he has chosen to remain as the kind of ferryman for all the new coppers who show up thinking it’s the future.

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The sharp turn toward the supernatural, along with more interesting stories and a lead character I enjoy a lot more, are all why I like Ashes to Ashes more than Life on Mars. Sure, you can’t have one without the other, and both shows are great and have faults of their own, but I think Ashes to Ashes has a much clearer idea of what it is and what it’s trying to say and is less a fish-out-of-water homage to 1970’s cop dramas like The Sweeney.

Next week, we finish up this series with the most recent series on my list: the assholes-with-super-powers comedy/drama/horror/sci-fi program Misfits. All sorts of swearing next week!

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10 comments

  • Seriously?  You’re trying to recommend LoM and Ashes to people while completely spoilering both shows for them?  You should at least provide your readers w/a spoiler warning. 

  • Having watched both Ashes and LOM in regards to storytelling and character development I would say LOM was superior. You didn’t need 3 whole series of Ashes to see that it was some kind of purgatory that sam was in at the end of the show. The guy committed bloody suicide! And in the very 1st episode of Ashes it has suicide written in Sam’s file. You don’t need to be a genius to figure it out.
    Ashes started off very well because it recognized the past while also focusing on new stories that allow a new audience to follow but the writers overcomplicated the writing which led to a lot of dropped storylines and plot holes especially at the end of series 2 where Alex covering up a murder despite having left so much physical evidence behind; her breakdown relationship with Gene which was like watching a bad bitter break up without them ever having sex and then Gene coming back to the role of DCI without any real consequences except for hey the devil has come to town. And don’t even get me started on how bad Keats was, a one dimensional cartoonish stereotype that lacked credibility from the first episode. Seriously who, after 5 years of seeing Gene literally hate on cop killers, will then suddenly believe that Gene is a murderer, particularly of his best friend and fellow cop and member of his team?
    The characters were not properly fleshed out, particularly Gene, Shaz, Chris and Ray, their stories came out randomly without any proper build up. No coherency between each series, it was like watching 3 separate shows. Alex was regulated as a plot device and the writer’s attempt to show her journey was either copied from life on mars or weakly executed. Compare that to Sam where you felt you were on a genuine journey with. We got to meet his girlfriend’s mother, his mentor, his arch enemy, the lady who use to look after him, hell even the football was made out to be something very personal to Sam’s childhood. We got hardly any of that with Alex, it was like she was locked up in a tower for 20 years or so. The whole thing, particularly series 3 was LOM in drag.
    Life on mars was close to perfection because it gives you the answers without banging it over your head like a sledgehammer and the fleshing out of characters and the pacing was well done. Ashes was a total rushed job that was let down by the writer’s failure to reconcile and link together the stories of Ashes’ three series together. Sorry as much as I love the performances and some of the stuff done in Ashes it was mediocre and amateurish in regards to storytelling and character writing which also trivializes the journey of Sam and Alex and tarnishes the greatness and boldness of LOM.

  • Loved Life on Mars, even the half witted attempt of the american remake… but I couldn’t get through Ashes to Ashes, but maybe now I will… and Misfits! As the Hulu ad states, that show is crazy addictive!

  • Really, not even going to touch on Star Cops? And nary a mention of Primeval? I am severely disappointed. (Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes barely register as speculative fiction and weren’t all that good. I wouldn’t recommend them.)

  • My mind is a little bit blown. I watched all of Life on Mars, then season 1 of Ashes to Ashes. But I could never find the rest of the series, and assumed it had been cancelled. (And season 1 of AtoA ends on a cliffhanger!) I had no idea about the door to the afterlife. Now I must see the rest of the series!