Continuing our series of shows you need to see, it’s BBC’s Life on Mars follow-up, Ashes to Ashes.
Many die-hard fans of Life on Mars (to which Ashes to Ashes is a sequel) were left disappointed by Ashes to Ashes. But for most of those disappointed viewers, it was a case of expecting more of the same; Ashes to Ashes surprised viewers by discarding many of the aspects of Life on Mars that fans had grown fond of. So it’s new city, new car, new characters, new decade and most importantly no more of John Simms’s Sam Tyler, who is replaced in Ashes to Ashes by DI Alex Drake, played by Keeley Hawes.
A shift into the 80s and a move from Manchester to London gives the series a very different feel from Life on Mars
Alex Drake is jolted into the 80s even more unpleasantly than Sam Tyler was into the 70s, and the relationship that develops between her and Philip Glenister’s Gene Hunt is wholly different to the almost brotherly bond that developed between Tyler and Hunt in Life on Mars. This is the change that really sculpts the character of the series, differentiates it from its predecessor and gives it its own unique appeal: a new interplay between the two central characters that’s almost too hard to accept for those who wanted more of the conflict and camaraderie that developed week on week in Life on Mars.
However, while the relationship changes, Alex has no less bite than Sam Tyler, and Keeley Hawes performs the part of Alex equally as well as John Simm portrayed Sam, keeping the viewer immersed right until the last gasps of series three’s epic climax. A shift into the 80s and a move from Manchester to London gives the series a very different feel, leaving behind red brick streets for skyscrapers and T. Rex for the likes of Duran Duran and The Human League, but the further development of recurring Life on Mars alum allows their characters to gradually become much more than they were in Life on Mars.
The supernatural element remains, but the story is left to focus more on the police element than Life on Mars ever did, leaving the supernatural worries on the backburner. Effectively, Alex’s concerns about ‘getting home’ continue to keep us in the same suspense that Sam’s did, but feel less laboured. This allows for more fantastic Gene Hunt moments (Philip Glenister’s consistently fantastic performance as the hard-nosed Mancunian lawman often steals the show) and makes the crime solving element of the programme more complex and intriguing.
Ashes to Ashes’s lasting appeal is that it manages to form bonds. You react to the ups and downs, genuinely worry for the characters
Even if you haven’t seen Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes is a thoroughly enjoyable watch – any references to the previous series are explained in enough detail that seeing the ‘prequel’ first isn’t necessary. For those of you that have seen Life on Mars, though, all those questions you had, all the queries and loose ends, are sorted out and satisfyingly tied up in Ashes to Ashes, especially given how many series struggle to find a satisfactory ending when they dabble in the supernatural (the damp, metaphor-laden squib that was the ending of Mad Dogs exemplifies this). Ashes to Ashes makes no such mistake, and ends with the same promise and general ‘oomph’ that it maintains throughout.
As much as anything, Ashes to Ashes’s lasting appeal is the fact that it manages to form bonds. You react to the ups and downs, genuinely worry for the characters, but it does so not just through drama, but with action, comedy, fantastic music and even a little romance, while managing the balance between its supernatural and police thriller elements. It’s a fantastically well-rounded series – despite criticism, it’s easy to argue that it equalled if not bettered Life on Mars.
Read more: It’s time you watched The Thick of It
All images: BBC