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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!