There are some television shows whose premise seems
ridiculous and others whose appear sane. Ones that demand reality and those
that dare to dream. For viewers, it is easy to follow either extreme; to get
locked in to truths or to go on otherworldly rides. Then there are television
shows who blend the two, often at their own expense, as one viewer struggles to
shake off the disbelief, and another wants to fantasise further. Therein lies
the balance, and you’d better get it right.
One such show hit British tv screens in 2008 following the success of another three years earlier. Life on Mars had been a rare triumph, receiving mass viewing figures and acclaim, as a sci-fi-cop-drama in which the lead character had been transported back to 1973. The fantastical time travel somehow worked alongside the seventies realism, and more of the same was demanded, and delivered, in Ashes to Ashes.
The premise scans. A police officer is shot in 2008 - as opposed to Life on Mars’ 2005 car crash - and the near fatality wakes them up, this time not in 1973, but ten years later in 1983. The reawakening lands besides the co-star of both shows, a character stinking of the seventies and quick to become a fictional national treasure, Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). So far so similar.
Ashes to Ashes is part sequel to Life on Mars and part spin off. The plots often align and intertwine, with heavy references to the over-riding mystery of how they all ended up here. But never is its predecessor put at the forefront, as Ashes to Ashes claims a personality and quality all of its own.
The major difference is that the time-travelling cop is no longer John Simm’s Sam Tyler, it is Keeley Hawes’ Alex Drake. That, and the immediately different era of the eighties, bring a fresh dynamic. The male-female play-off lends itself to Hunt’s questionable sexism, and Drake’s no-sh*t persona drives both the morality and the narrative in the right direction, full speed ahead.
There is a detail in the writing and production that not only unites the plot and lifts the script, it also makes for an indulgent nostalgia fest. Much of Life on Mars’ appeal was the fashion, fun and faux pas’ of its decade, and Ashes to Ashes too digs deep into its setting’s scene, from the politics to the music, all spearheaded by the perfectly selected soundtracks including the David Bowie title tracks.
The storyline spans over 3 seasons and 24 episodes, and packs plenty in. The science fiction fluctuates and confuses, cleverly and intentionally, between who’s really dead and alive, where, why, and in which year. The police plots delve into corruption and criminality, friendships and enemies, using the changing eras to pose moral questions of life and time, in a damn entertaining way. And the whole interlinks conflicting pieces marvellously into coherent holes in a manner that pleases both the realist and the fantasist.
Published on July 10th, 2019. Written by John Barran (July 2019) for Television Heaven.