Ashes to Ashes (TV, 2009)
A review of season one, from Death Ray 14. This is a review of the DVD release, in case you’re interested.
Writers: Ashley Pharaoh and Mathew Graham
Starring: Philip Glenister, Keeley Hawes, Marshall Lancaster, Dean Andrews
Life of Mars follow-up delivers the sparkly 80s goods.
Thank the lords of progress for home entertainment releases, because I get to have a crack at Ashes to Ashes again. You may recall that I was a bit iffy about the first episode, but I am glad to report, and even happier to have the opportunity to say, that my hopes and not my fears were borne out by the rest of the series.
The first episode is still a loud, showy bit of self-congratulatory grandstanding that puts the feet of the series on entirely the wrong road. But from episode two it takes a wiser path, with less outre comedy and a meatier mystery. From then on, it gets better and better. It’d be hard to follow up the chemistry between John Simm and Phillip Glenister under any circumstances, but Keeley Hawes proves a most suitable replacement for the frowning northerner. Hawes plays Alex perfectly, and it’s a credit to the screenwriters that they avoided the cheap thrills of romance between her and the Gene Genie, and instead created a far more complex father/ daughter dynamic – Alex is a little girl, flirting with the father figure she’s been missing so long. That her real paternal needs should be fulfilled by a man she initially hates, and not by her supposedly perfect father or godfather, is a fine twist. This theme is cleverly concealed by Alex’s relationship issues with her mother until the very end, and that is doubly smart. Applause there, we think, for an appropriately Freudian theme, topped off by a creepy clown and his shocking identity.
As for the rest, it cleaves to Life on Mars‘ mix of so-so police puzzles, tight banter and lightweight socio-political comment. This latter comes to the fore a little more than in the parent series – this is the Britain-quaking era of excess, after all – but not much.
The only weak episode besides the first, and for entirely different reasons, is four, with the entire cast wandering in and out of a supposedly top security military base, but it’s still fun.
As to whether it is ‘real’ or not, who cares? Though of central import to us SF buffs, it’s peripheral to the series and contradictorily handled in any case. Like Alex, you’ve got to simply enjoy the ride.
And here’s series two, from Death Ray #20. This was also a DVD review.
Show: FOUR STARS
Extras: TWO STARS
Directors: Catherine Morshead, Ben Bolt, Nicole Taylor, Philip John
Writers: Mathew Graham, Ashley Pharoah, Julie Rutterford, Jack Lothian, Mark Greig,
Starring: Philip Glenister, Keeley Hawes, Dean Andrews, Marshall Lancaster, Montserrat Lombard
SPOILER!!! Eighties cop time travel sequel show comes to an interesting end. Be warned, we detail just what that end is at the conclusion of this review.
Ashes to Ashes continues to show us how interesting the whole Life on Mars conceit can be, even if this rock solid idea was sorely shaken by the far less accomplished Life on Mars US. Thankfully back in Blighty there are no surprise spaceships or dodgy puns in season two of Ashes to Ashes, sequel show to the original LoM, but a taut police corruption arc, and a pair of surprising time travel twists. As always with our superior domestic product, all aspects are well served: procedural, temporal and interpersonal. Way to go BBC, I for one won’t complain about my license fee.
It was not always so. The initial run of Ashes lapsed far too frequently into outright pastiche, not only of the decade where shot-in-the-head cop Alex Drake found herself (the 1980s are an easy target if ever there was one) but also of Life on Mars. It rallied somewhat towards the end of series one, if only because Alex’s mystery through-plot delivered a literally explosive coup de grace. Lead Keeley Hawes came under some fire too, though not in these pages. We’ve always found her portrayal of Alex entirely convincing, both in terms of her character, and the interplay between her and Gene Hunt (Phillip Glenister), especially with the element of sexual frisson unsurprisingly absent from Hunt’s earlier relationship with Sam Tyler. This foundation is pleasingly built upon in series two. Although this outing’s time-travel mystery is not so powerful as that in the first, it nearly is, the addition of an ‘Evil Leaper’ style counterpart to Alex’s good girl cop intriguing. Although this being Ashes, naturally nothing is quite as it seems.
Throughout this second run, we see growing roles for the other coppers. Ray (Andrews), Shaz (Lombard) and Chris (Lancaster) have plenty to do. Both the other carry overs from Mars become far more rounded, with Ray proving to be surprisingly complex, and Chris surprisingly compromised. Indeed, there are several others in Hunt’s little band (being a DCI he naturally needs more than just the three lackeys). Viv (Geff Francis) moves more and more out of a supporting role, while some of the other faces get so much screen time they’ll have to give them names and a few lines at this rate. It’s an ensemble show in the making.
Including LoM we’re four series in, and the franchise could perhaps be showing signs of flagging. The ultimate twist of series two presenting Alex with a similar choice to that which Sam Tyler faced, with a side order of double-dealing mystery. So here’s the spoiler. Alex is back in the present because she’s in a coma in the past, getting flashes of that past. Yeah, sure, it’s all a bit ‘Ahaha!’, a reflexive cheat, its squaring of circles almost unsporting. Still, with this show, it’s almost a certainty they’ll do something delightful with it.
Extras: A 30 minute making of, and an ’80s quiz. Not much, really.