In my look back at Life on Mars, I posited that the show struggled to reconcile its desire to be a police procedural with its overriding instinct to keep referring back to the science fiction elements at the edges of its narrative, resulting in a terribly confused series that never overcame that crisis of identity. The sequel series, Ashes to Ashes, which aired three seasons of eight-hour episodes between 2008 and 2010, attempts to address this problem head on, while also shooting for a different tone and tenor than Life on Mars.
When police psychologist Alex Drake (BAFTA Award nominee Keeley Hawes; Spooks, The Casual Vacancy) is shot in the head by a man with a mysterious connection to her past, she finds herself stuck in the same world Sam Tyler was in Life on Mars. Unlike Tyler, she is stranded in the early 80s, eight odd years after the events of the prior series.
Tyler is nowhere to be seen this time around, though there are some familiar faces. Grizzled Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister; State of Play, Kingdom of Heaven) has made the move from Manchester to the mildly sunnier climes of London, along with his faithful helpers Ray Carling (Dean Andrews; Last Tango in Halifax, Life on Mars) and Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster; Life on Mars, Doctor Who). There they’ve found their old less-than-savory methods of police work hampered by an increasingly strict set of rules and regulations and the introduction of Alex to their midst, outranked only by Gene no less, is a shock to their still antiquated conceptions of women in the police force.
As Alex struggles to accept the reality of her situation, she desperately tries to find a way back to 2008 to reunite with her daughter Molly, but quickly comes to realise that the events of her shooting are strangely tied to the death of her parents, set to transpire just a few months after her arrival in the 80s. Like Sam Tyler, she finds herself haunted by hallucinations that hint at her fate in the future, as well as a few carrying deeper psychological meanings, like the continuing apparition of a frightening clown, bearing a striking resemblance to the one seen in the music video for David Bowie’s 80s hit Ashes to Ashes, from which the series takes its name.
While Life on Mars struggled to incorporate its more fantastical elements with its procedural story telling, Ashes to Ashes is immediately far more successful on that count. Each of the three seasons has an overarching story to it, one that continues from episode to episode and is laced through the case of the week mysteries the writers are so good at tackling. Of these, the third is probably the finest because of how it loops back around to the events of Life on Mars, and the result does a lot to alleviate the problems with the earlier show’s disappointing ending. It’s best to view Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes as one five season long programme rather than two distinct entities, as both shows are intricately connected in both themes and narrative.
The narrative tone of Ashes to Ashes is at once more comedic and more disturbing than the one displayed by Life on Mars and there are some elements of the story, particularly in the third season, that wouldn’t seem out of place in a horror series. This exploration of darker elements is extremely effective, culminating in a truly ambitious series finale that I really have to give the show credit for. It’s a bold choice to go in that direction and both Ashes to Ashes and Life on Mars are never more successful than those last four episodes of season three.
Aside from this increased confidence and skill in long form storytelling, Ashes to Ashes has another major benefit over its forebearer: its lead. Alex is a far more interesting character than Sam Tyler ever was and Keeley Hawes delivers a far more interesting performance (though to be fair to John Simm, she’s given much better material).
While Tyler was defined by his straight laced, thoroughly white bread demeanour and constant complaining about Hunt’s tactics, Alex takes her complaints and turns them into a thoroughly entertaining campaign of attrition against Hunt and the others. While Tyler was always an outsider, Alex quickly integrates herself into the team on a personal level as well as a professional one and her chemistry with Hunt in particular, defined by both sexual tension and a great deal of philosophical conflict, serves as the core of the series.
It takes a little time and effort for the show to get to this point, however. In the first few episodes, the writers script Alex as mildly unstable, taking full advantage of the fact that she thinks this is all a hallucination to behave in a fashion best described as manic. It’s a high energy interpretation of the character, and while I can understand the instinct from the writer’s perspective (it’s an interesting idea, certainly) and appreciate Keeley Hawes’ performance, the result verges on the irritating. A quick course correction to a more sober personality is implemented after a few episodes; however, from there it’s smooth sailing from there.
From a technical perspective, the show has a wonderful stylistic flourish in its cinematography and editing, and its use of music is brilliant. There’s a host of awesome 80s songs that underscore the series’ most important moments, among them The Clash’s I Fought the Law, Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure, The Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star, The Police’s Every Breath You Take and an anachronistic but nevertheless incredible use of Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl. As if to offset this brilliance, the series also includes a disturbing amount of perms and terrible outfits. If this was truly how people dressed in the 80s, I’m glad I missed it by a few years.
Ashes to Ashes improves upon its predecessor in every way, from characters to its use of music and editing to punctuate on screen action. The final hours of the series are incredibly ambitious, and the move to a more serialised form of storytelling, along with a use of surreal and disturbing themes and psychologically unsettling imagery, is wildly successful. As a sequel, it perfectly compliments Life on Mars. And as a show, it offers an offbeat and incredibly fascinating ride through a story unlike any other.