Eye For Film >> Movies >> Ashes To Ashes: Series One (2008) Film Review
Ashes To Ashes: Series One
Reviewed by: Stephen Carty
In an age where most shows stumble on for too long to become a shadow of what they once were (cough, Smallville), it was refreshing when acclaimed hit, Life On Mars chose to finish after two series. However, since creators Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan and Ashley Pharoah decided that they were done when the story was told, the announcement of spin-off, Ashes To Ashes, seemed a smidgeon hypocritical and was met with a mixture of apprehensiveness and curiosity.
The action moves on to 2008, when Detective Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes) is shot in the head and strangely awakens to find herself in 1981. Having been researching Sam Tyler’s notes (he found himself in 1973), psychologist Drake reasons that the same thing is happening to her when she meets Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) and his crew. Believing that if she can save her parents from death she can get home, Alex fights to keep them alive so she can get back to her daughter, Molly (Grace Vance).
While it is possibly wiser to approach Ashes To Ashes as a separate entity, considering the characters, plot and format, comparisons with Life on Mars are inevitable. Though completely changing a winning formula would have been foolish, Ashes To Ashes is often too content to simply tick familiar boxes from its predecessor and things don’t impact the way they did. Gene reversing quickly in his cool car (tick). Our hero meets and tries to save parents (tick). A spooky figure appears every now and then (tick, tick, tickety tick). Just contrast Alex meeting her instantly-dislikeable mother with when Sam met his mother or played footy with his father. Life On Mars emotional-wringer one, Ashes To Ashes we-don’t-care nil.
Crucially, the show lacks the four key elements (five if you count the great atmospheric score music, now missing) that made Life On Mars a success: a relatable hero in Sam, a great mystery we were dying to unravel, the iconic Gene Hunt and the Seventies.
Firstly, in place of the highly impressive everyman John Simm, British rising star Hawes is capable but much harder to identify with. As she roughly knows what is happening to her (she views her peers as “imaginary constructs” and everything as part of her psyche) Drake comes across as snobby, cold and arrogant. As for the revelations about Sam, they will – to borrow a line from Gene – “go down as well as a pork pie at a Jewish wedding”.
Secondly, in terms of the mystery, we now know (or think we do) what is going on. Unlike Life On Mars where we were trying to figure things out, here the tension is removed and things that were spooky – hearing voices and seeing flashes – feel formulaic. Though the opening of the pilot has me intrigued (a low-view camera looking up at buildings which could be Drake dying on a gurney) I just hope it’s not another nearly-dead cop about to wake up in Hull during 1992.
Thirdly, Gene Hunt has been unwisely redefined as an omnipotent super-cop ‘messiah’ figure (in the ironically-titled Nothing Changes he is even dressed as a cowboy). Though great to have him back, Hunt feels out of his time (he was ‘73) and his relocation seems contrived given that Manchester was ‘his city’. Where Glenister’s prehistoric Life On Mars policing made for the perfect ying to Sam's modern yang, here we have an ill-fitting attempt at Moonlighting sexual-tension and a neutered Gene Genie. Still, you can’t blame Glenister for wanting to snarl lines like “DI bolly knickers, you appear to be drunk in control of a handbag and dressed like a tart again”, again.
Lastly, in terms of generations, 1973 was just a lot more fun. In contrast, the 1981 overload offered – which makes sense given the excessive nature of the eighties – grates as dull, muted and a little naff (It’s interesting that a time with a much more obvious palette seems a lot less colourful). There is eye-candy like the De Lorian and a few good tunes, but nothing to match the inspired use of Camberwick Green and Seventies rock. Conversely, those looking forward to Eighties style (or lack thereof) will love the checklist of retro gear as the Ford Cortina, bright colours and funky tunes have been replaced by an Audi Quattro, pastels and new romantics. Out with The Sweeney, in with Miami Vice.
Overall, Ashes To Ashes isn’t terrible, it just pales in comparison and is a perfect example of ‘difficult second album syndrome’. While you co do a lot worse, the problem is that we’ve already done so much better with the excellent Life On Mars. Will the second series improve and bring things back to greatness? To borrow the words of the great Gene Hunt again, it’s looking as unlikely as getting Helen Keller to talk.Reviewed on: 12 Nov 2008