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Looking Back At ASHES TO ASHES

Tony’s in the Audi Quattro.
Life On Mars was a spectacular combination of ingredients that became a staggering success. The premise, that modern policeman Sam Tyler (played by John Simm) was knocked down by a car in 2006 and woke up in 1973, was both fun and mysterious, as coppers from both eras judged, grumbled, and reluctantly worked together. Central to the success of the show was the partnership between Tyler and his boss, Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt, played with a fabulous brusque nod to the British crime shows of the Seventies by Philip Glenister.

The central mystery of that series was, to quote the catch-up at the start of each episode, whether Sam Tyler was “dead, in a coma, or a time traveller,” in the hope that if he found out which of these states he was in, he might find a way home.

The show used sometimes baroque or disturbing elements to ask those questions – Sam would get phonecalls and hear voices from the “present” of 2006, from a hospital where presumably he was in a coma. He would have visitations from the Test Card Girl – a staple of British nostalgia for that era – and so on.

Without spoiling the end for you, by the time the show wound up, it had opened up deeply philosophical questions about where he’d been all that time, and whether what he had found there was actually better or worse than his life in 2006.

Ashes To Ashes was a direct sequel to Life On Mars.
It’s worth pointing that out, probably, because almost everything about the set-up of it is different, and only three main characters - Hunt, played by Glenister, and his back-up, Detective Sergeant Ray Carling, and Detective Constable Chris Skelton – survived from one show to another.

The thing about Ashes to Ashes AS a direct sequel is that when it starts out, it’s fairly forced in some of its expositional detours.

Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes), a police officer in London in 2008 – just two years after Sam Tyler had his run in with the car that kicked off Life On Mars – begins the pilot episode reading the reports of Tyler’s condition in hospital, and transcripts of interviews he gave when he finally got ‘home’ to the 21st century. She learns the details and characters of his adventures in ‘the Seventies,’ from our present, a little while after Sam was able to tell anyone about them.

When, almost inevitably, Alex is shot by the end of the episode, she finds herself not in Manchester in 1973, as Tyler did, but in London in 1981. The set-up is the same, but the era completely different. London in the early Eighties was a tense time to be a copper – race issues, freemasonry scandals, corrupt police, riots etc, the atmosphere was febrile. But when Alex wakes up there, she is met by DCI Gene Hunt, Ray Carling and Chris Skelton, all somehow transferred from Manchester to Fenchurch East CID, and waiting on the arrival of a new Detective Inspector. A DI Drake…

And so, in a sense, the whole thing starts again – displaced police officer from the 21st century, unsure what’s going on, working and clashing with Gene Hunt and his (to their eyes) old-fashioned methods.
On the one hand, it follows a similar theme and plotline to Life On Mars – there are musical cues, phonecalls from the ‘present,’ and a thematic figure who keeps appearing. For Alex, the Test Card Girl has become the clown in the David Bowie music video, Ashes To Ashes. An additional twist in Alex’s case is that she has a young daughter, Molly, who she’s desperate to get back home to see again. That motivates her to explore more. In addition, having been front-loaded with knowledge of the Sam Tyler case takes several of the guesswork steps out of her journey, because Tyler has already taken them ahead of her.

But there are plenty of new developments. A potentially corrupt member of the Fenchurch East CID team. The mystery of what has happened to Sam Tyler from the point of view of Hunt and Co. And the convoluted question of what happens if, say, you’re shot IN THE PAST of your encounter with Gene Hunt – where do you wake up THEN?!

Ashes To Ashes did its fair share of Life On Mars-style traditional cop drama, and Alex fitted into that well – there was, during the Eighties, the beginning of a now thankfully long tradition of crime and police dramas with strong female leads, of which Juliet Bravo with Stephanie Turner (and then Anna Carteret) and The Gentle Touch with Gill Gascoigne were probably the foremost. So just as Life On Mars parodied – and to some extent explained – the likes of The Sweeney, so Ashes To Ashes drew on this sort of material to make the bones of its Eighties storytelling (though with Drake and Hunt, reflections of Dempsey and Makepeace are unavoidable).

But it’s also far more esoteric than Life On Mars, because of what both Alex and we the audience know – or think we know – about Sam Tyler’s destiny, and the nature of these past worlds seemingly riddled with Gene Hunt.
As the series progressed, the storylines evolved from Alex trying to get back to 2008 and to Molly, to Eighties police drama with significant mythic underlining – who is Gene Hunt, is he trustworthy, whose side is he on and what has he done (potentially at least) with Sam Tyler? Is Gene Hunt God? Is he the Devil? What the hell is going on?

By the end of the third series of Ashes to Ashes, we finally get a purposefully mystical underpinning to not just Alex’s story with Hunt, but the story of the whole team, as it turns out she’s by no means as special as we might have thought she – and indeed, Sam Tyler – was.

Ashes To Ashes took more time to gel than Life On Mars, largely because it was a difficult journey to pull off twice, once you’d been on the ride once and knew – or thought you knew – how it went.

It’s helped significantly – as indeed, what isn’t? – by Philip Glenister. For Eighties Hunt, he’s significantly less shouty and aggressive, in keeping with the evolution of British cop shows from The Sweeney to The Gentle Touch. He’s still moderately objectionable, certainly, and his instinctive brawling bravado is still an important part of the character, but the relationship he has with Drake is very different to that which he had with Tyler.

The third series in particular ramped up the metaphysics and the mysticism of the premise, so people were very distinctly more than they appeared to be. Familiar squares on the board of Gene Hunt’s world began to take on new meanings, especially when he took people to the pub. To be fair, plenty of things take on new meanings when you go to the pub, but rarely with as many consequences as when you go there with Gene Hunt.

And without giving away any of the games being played on the same fundamental board, Alex Drake succeeds where Sam Tyler doesn’t – she works out what’s going on, and gets a confession out of Gene Hunt as to who and what he is, and what he’s doing there in her time-displaced coma/afterlife confusion.

While there’s an argument to be made that Ashes To Ashes loses some of the spontaneity and the what-the-hell-is-going-on freshness of Life On Mars by virtue of its status as a sequel, what can’t be argued is that Keeley Hawes brings a new energy and a new dynamic to the premise, and that her energy fits right in with the Eighties British cop shows referenced in the drama. While managing to turn some of the symbolism of Life On Mars into an actual philosophical underpinning to the show, Ashes To Ashes turned a big, vague mystery into a self-unfolding drama that actually, as the series rolled on, gave us some answers to the questions that had dogged us since the first episode of Life On Mars.

And just as Life On Mars ended with a phenomenal, if obscure, ending, the final words of Ashes To Ashes are practically perfect, a continuation of the reality of Gene Hunt’s life and career, even after both Alex Drake and we the audience have drawn a seemingly final veil over it.

Watch Ashes to Ashes today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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