NOTE: Ashes To Ashes premieres stateside tonight at 8 pm EST on BBC America. I've avoided getting too spoiler-heavy about the first episode, but I did get a little into the end of the Life On Mars in the first couple paragraphs.
The ending of the final episode of the BBC Life On Mars is pretty much perfect. It manages to maintain the series' overall ambiguity about the nature of its hero's dilemma, while at the same time giving the viewer just enough information that they don't feel cheated; there's a fairly obvious interpretation of events, but it's not set in stone. As Sam Tyler rides into the sunset, you don't know if you should be happy or sad, and you're okay with that. Sometimes it's better not to know.
So it's jarring that Ashes To Ashes opens with a little girl flipping through Sam's police file; and it's enough more jarring when that girl's mom—our lead, DI Alex Drake—tells her daughter that Sam died last year. While this meshes perfectly well with what we saw in Mars, it's a deflating note to start on. Ashes has another a time-travelling hero who finds herself policing the past, trying to find a way back home, and dealing with the head-bustin', arm-twistin' force of nature that is Gene Hunt. It's got it's share of clever touches, and does its level best to distinguish itself, while at the same time capitalizing on fans' fondness for the previous series and its leads. The result is somewhat of a hodge-podge, entertaining over-all, but with some troubling indications of things to come.
Our time in the "present" with our lead is brief—we get a sense that Alex loves her kid, and that she's a single parent, and that she's probably good at her job. Although that last bit is maybe a leap of faith; when Alex gets called in to help handle a crazy man with a gun, she isn't able to control the situation very well, despite the fact that the gunman, Arthur, asked for her by name. After briefly threatening Alex's daughter, the guy escapes, only to break into the back of the DI's car and kidnap her. Arthur takes her to a shipping yard, says some vauge things about Alex's dead parents, and then shoots her; we don't see where the bullet hits, but Alex collapses, to suffer through a brief hallucination of a scary clown. When she wakes up, she's dressed like a hooker in a Duran Duran video and stuck on a boat full of Miami Vice rejects. Alex has had her own spell of time travel, but while Sam jumped to 1973 (the year his dad disappeared), Alex is in 1981—which just happens to be the year when her parents were killed.
By and large, Ashes seems to be following the standard sequel template—do what the original did, only just different enough that people can pretend what we're seeing is new. Mars was defined by it's early seventies cop show aesthetic, so Ashes has to slather on the eighties style, from the synthesizer backgrounds to the hilariously tacky fashions. (As well, the first episode deals with heroin and cocaine, which is very eighties.) Sam had his visions of a woman in red, so Alex has an early memory of her parents; and where Sam had his creepy-ass Telly Girl, Alex has her creepy-ass Harlequin. All of these elements are handled as well as they were in the original, but they can't entirely avoid the "been there, done that" feel.
There's an attempt to justify that feel in the premise—somehow Alex, having familiarized herself with Sam's file for reasons that aren't immediately apparent, has re-created Sam's original fantasy in a moment of extreme stress, only changing the time to make it more personally relevant. It's a decent enough explanation as to why nearly every major character of the original (excluding Annie) returns, but it also creates a curiously off-putting vibe of fan-wankery, most particularly with Gene Hunt. Hunt is one of the best parts of Mars; Philip Glenister nailed the sort of brutal charisma of a tyrant who really does put the best wishes of his people first, and the struggle between his method of policing, and Sam's more modern approach, gave the series its strongest through-line. Nice as it is to have him back, the three—count 'em, three—splashy entrances he makes here start off entertainingly absurd and wind up distractingly silly. Gene is most interesting when we see his strengths and his weaknesses. Here he's just another "I don't play by the rules, but I get RESULTS!" cop cliche.
It doesn't help that we're already seeing the groundwork being laid for a romance between Gene and Alex. Genre-wise, it's probably appropriate that an eighties style police drama with male and female leads would dive into the "will they/won't they" pool ("He's a near fascist with a heart of gold! She's a strong-willed woman who can give as good as she gets! How long before they fuck?"), but it creates a not-nearly-as-interesting dynamic. I'm curious to see where it goes, but right now, I can't help but feel that Alex is too quickly won over by Gene. And it's not like he can actually threaten her with anything, especially not after carrying her into the police station like a lost lamb.
The biggest problem with this first episode, though, isn't that relationship, or that the eighties setting isn't quite as much fun as the seventies was; the biggest problem is Alex herself. She's fine in her present, but once she wakes up in the past, her approach is to lay down endless lines of psychobabble, then yell a bit, then try and do what Sam did, then some more psychobabble. It's hard to pinpoint just why this is as irritating as it is to watch, but having her explain every potential metaphor really takes the piss out of things. Keeley Hawes does her best, but she isn't well-served by the writing, much of which seems distilled from a number of terrible woman-in-man's-world movies. A series like this needs a strong lead to hold it together, and apart from Glenister, we're just not getting that here.
Ashes To Ashes has potential; it all depends on how Alex learns to deal with her current surroundings. If I'm to be completely honest, I'd say my hopes aren't high, but at least the first episode ends before wearing out its welcome.
- Credit where it's due—the harlequin is really, really freaky. (Also, I've just been informed that it was taken from the David Bowie "Ashes To Ashes" music video. You can check it out here.)
- Alex convinces a guy to let her go through the Power of Psychology; and then that same guy uses Alex's comments to get himself out of jail. Not really buying either part of the scenario.