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Life on Mars (UK) vs Ashes to Ashes

May 7, 2013

Ashes to Ashes was in trouble the moment the title was first conceived. Like Life on Mars (the UK version), Ashes to Ashes takes its name from a David Bowie song released in the exact year that the series is set and provides the backdrop for that time period.

I don’t know that David Bowie was still such a strong influence in the 80s that one of his songs had to be used again, but this choice is indicative of everything that follows in Ashes to Ashes; whereas Life on Mars made sense in context as the title for a police drama about a detective of the 21st century inexplicably sent back in time to 1973 following a near fatal accident (“It’s like I’ve landed on a different planet”), Ashes to Ashes does not relate to any of this, despite being the exact same story all over again in 1981 with the same cast of hard-hitting, change averse detectives fightin’ crime, retro style.

This main difference is that this time, we know that our main character has not physically travelled back in time and is not insane (though in this particular person’s case, that’s up for debate) but in a coma, suspended between life and death, with occasional breakthroughs between the real world and the imagined one. So, the Ashes to Ashes title relates to the theme of death, but it seems like more of an excuse to use Bowie again. Wasn’t Boy George an icon then? They could have called the whole thing Dogging with Strangers and it wouldn’t have detracted much from it. They are police officers, after all. They must encounter it sometimes.

Ashes to Ashes is full of of cheesy rip-offs from popular films and shows from the 80s. Unlike the clever cameos and rib-digs of LoM, AtA watches like someone wanted an excuse to “do the 80s”. Admittedly, LoM played out a lot like Back to the Future in that our beloved Sam made exactly the same kind of cumbersome errors that Marty McFly did, by mentioning CCTV and Chunky Kit Kats rather than John F Kennedy and TaB.

I always wondered how, if one came to the 70s from the Tweens, one could possibly be behind everyone else; I had to conclude that Sam was a bit of an idiot whenever he wasn’t busting out overly complex theories for criminal motivation. Incidentally, TaB (the doomed soft drink that went out in the 80s) makes an appearance in AtA – I think someone in the creative team has a bit of an obsessive crush on Back to the Future, seeing as here in Britain, TaB was never hugely popular so it isn’t really a relevant cultural reference.

LoM redeemed itself for whatever small parts of pop culture it ripped off by having genuine sparkle and true grit, seamlessly interwoven. The top dog of 1973’s detective division was the tough, blunt, determined Gene Hunt and he was a joy because he was the kind of anti-hero your average younger viewer hadn’t seen before. We couldn’t get enough of him; Hunt was rude but effective, smart but without airs and graces. I don’t know if he is the trend setter for the current fashion for other identical anti-heroes (now two-a-penny) or if he was just one of the first few in a rapidly growing number, but nonetheless he was one of the most effective and likable of the bunch, with his pure motivations in juxtaposition against his questionable policing methods.

You can tell that this character creation was a hit, because his return to AtA is marked with a few faintly ridiculous refrains of inappropriately epic music, as if God himself has turned up to save the day. Hunt may have had a bit of a Messiah complex, so let’s hope the bright sparks who gave that music the go-ahead were having a laugh with themselves. It felt more like they were saying: “Here he is, ladies and gentlemen: the one you’ve all been waiting for.” Yes, we were waiting for him. Fans of the old series might have found it very challenging to envision a sequel to their beloved LoM without The Gov. It would have been a brave move not to include him, but as it is, I felt as though we were expected to applaud them for managing to snare Philip Glenister for a third season. Steady, gentleman. An actor can only be as good as his script, so let’s not celebrate too soon.

What of the script? Well, it hasn’t charmed me the way LoM did, but then again, that would be a tall order. I like that there has been some, if not a huge amount, of character development; male chauvinist Ray has toned it down since working alongside women for eight years (though not nearly as much as you’d expect), goofy Chris is more confident yet still next-to-useless and Hunt has had the wind taken out his sails a bit since the 1973 version of Sam “died”. He’s calmer, more world-weary and while not completely up-to-date on the political correctness front, increasingly sees the value in different types of people on his small but dedicated team. I liked the way Gene seemed to have aged, not physically but mentally.

At the same time, The Gov was always the one who brought the most energy to the team. This has been saturated, as instead of charging in with just his balls of steel for company, he charges in with a machine gun worthy of a contemporary American conspiracy thriller. Yes, I know it was a joke – a weak hit on The A-Team or Miami Vice, I don’t care which. I didn’t appreciate it. What have they done to my Gov? It used to be that he was serious when he needed to be serious, flippant when he didn’t. Now he’s flippant when he needs to be serious and serious when his crude jokes would be most welcome, if only to take away the bitter taste of Alex Drake, our new Sam Tyler.

And oh, what an annoying person you are, Alex Drake. When Ray said, in his charming way, that nobody who gets periods should be a detective, I was rather hoping you would prove him wrong. It doesn’t take a neurosurgeon to confuse Ray – a laser pointer would probably do it. Instead, Alex more or less backs up this assertion, ranting and raving at the least provocation, flying into rages and roaring about being out of her time, generally coming across as nutty as a fruitcake.

I always wondered how Sam got away with that behaviour without being instantly clapped into a straight jacket, but by comparison, Sam was calm and level-headed about his situation; when a case came up, he tried to crack it – not only because it might be parallel to what was happening in the real world and it might help him to wake up, but because he was an experienced Detective and enjoyed cracking cases. Alex Drake takes three steps, throws a hissy fit, takes another three steps, has another hissy fit and continues in this manner until she exhausts her rage and falls over. I’m not exaggerating – Alex fainted twice in one episode.

How many women have you met that actually faint when they’re upset? It doesn’t happen. I can’t make sense of it – the writers and director for AtA are the same as for its predecessor; all men, but nonetheless not poor at writing women – one of LoM’s major characters was a detective called Annie who wasn’t at all soft in the head. Gentle, yes, but not soft. Alex is the opposite – outwardly harsh but composed largely of jelly. It’s doesn’t really evoke much empathy.

I suppose you can understand why Alex’s marbles are spilling out all over the floor; her daughter has been left in the 2000s and it’s her birthday. Alex wants to get back to celebrate her birthday. That’s all well and good, but for a person who thoroughly studied Sam Tyler’s purported time travel, she doesn’t understand much or cope with it well. Not only that but, quite frankly, I don’t care much for her personal problems. It’s always the way with police procedural dramas; they try and muscle in some personal stuff but it ends up overshadowing the criminal stuff, which is the real meat of the drama.

The reason I could accept Sam Tyler’s personal plights was because they were tackled later in the series, when we were more familiar with Sam’s character. We got to explore how his lack of interaction with his own time period was damaging his personal relationships and the affect his isolation was having on his psyche and wellbeing. I mean, the man committed suicide the moment he regained consciousness. That’s heavy stuff. Clearly something was festering in there for too long.

I have limited sympathy for Alex’s daughter, the brainless child who ran out into a hostage situation and risked her life because she was worried for Mummy. Listen love: your mother is a trained professional negotiator and top detective with experience in psychology. She knows what she’s doing and you don’t. Stay the hell away. This kid messed everything up and now we the viewers have to hear her voice (presumably, a projection of Alex’s subconscious) goading her mother about not being able to make it back for her birthday. Well, great. Because I’m not emotionally attached to this girl, all I can think is: “Piss off, you ungrateful little brat!”

The subconscious projections bring me neatly onto another comparison worth noting. If you watched LoM, you’ll remember that the little girl with the clown toy from the television in Sam’s room used to come alive and scare the living shit out of him. Why was she so scary? Because there was nothing inherently sinister about her – and yet she was sinister. She was a little girl who popped up out of nowhere and spoke out loud Sam’s most intimate doubts and fears. She did this with the coldest, calmest passive aggression I’ve ever heard. I think if I was in Sam’s position I’d promptly soil myself. It also highlighted how Sam was becoming increasingly less able to tell fantasy from reality.

There is a problem with AtA in this respect. We already know that Alex is in a coma, or something similar. We found out about all that at the end of LoM. Therefore, that element of “Is he mad, in a coma or back in time?” is taken out. That means it needs to be replaced with something else that is equally powerful. I won’t lie, some interesting themes are dealt with – I like the idea that the whole “in the past” reality is a half-way house for dying or dead coppers who were caught up in violent crimes or complicated circumstances. It’s an intriguing idea, but that’s it. Since you don’t find this out until the very end, you don’t get much value for money out of it.

The rest of it is filler. I was merely confused to see a man dressed as some sort of clown puppet (another gratuitous 80s reference; it’s a Bowie creation again) stalking Alex and making her scream at every opportunity before disappearing and leaving behind one very startled cat having a Jimmy Riddle against some bins. Additions like that make AtA less like a sci-fi-esque police drama and more like a psychological thriller – and you know what I think about those. If suffers from typical sequel syndrome, where a creative team wants to revitalise love for the old franchise without fully understanding what it was about the old franchise that made it loved.

What with the flashing lights and experimental camera angles pointing to the glaring black-and-white bold square ceiling panels of the police headquarters, I won’t call Ashes to Ashes self-indulgent tosh; I’ll call it comparatively self -indulgent tosh. Would it look better if I had never seen Life on Mars? Probably. Would I like it? Not really.

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