This post will be chock-full of spoilers, and is meant as a discussion post, rather than a review. Suffice to say, if you like sci-fi, the metaphysical, and procedurals grounded in humanity, as well as brilliant characters and unbelievably strong actors, then give “Ashes to Ashes” a shot, but not before watching the original British series, “Life on Mars.” It’ll be infinitely frustrating at times, but it’s worth the payoff.
I’ve mentioned a few times on the site how disappointed I was in the British series, “Life on Mars.” It was a good procedural built with wonderful characters, with a particular nod to John Simm and, especially, Phillip Glenister, and I did like most of the episodes individually. But I thought the end was a complete cop-out. Essentially, the people behind the series created a complex mystery about why Sam Tyler was stuck in 1972 only, in the end, to give us the easiest and most obvious explanation: It was a coma dream. He’d created an entire 1972 world in his head and lived that life inside his head. That is, until he awoke from the coma and realized that he preferred to exist in that dreamworld, so he took his own life so he could return. I might not have minded that ending so much if it hadn’t been telegraphed from the outset, even if it was telegraphed purposely so. (On the other hand, Seth told me about the ending to the American version of “Life on Mars,” and dear holy God, that sounds heinous, like a caricature of an American version of a British series. so all things considered, it could’ve been much worse).
Despite my misgivings with “Life on Mars,” several ‘Jibers, most recently replica, suggested that the sequel series “Ashes to Ashes” would restore my faith, and resolve even “Life on Mars” to my satisfaction. I was skeptical, but the opportunity to spend another 24 hours with those characters, in addition to one of my now favorite British television actresses, Keeley Hawes (who was also exceptional in “MI-5”) proved a temptation too hard to resist.
There are three eight-episode seasons of “Ashes to Ashes,” and the first was something of a duplication of “Life on Mars,” only Hawes’ Alex Drake was swapped in for Sam Tyler. In the present day, Drake is shot in the head by someone from her past, and she wakes up in 1981, surrounded by the same police officers that Sam Tyler worked with. Drake is a copper with a emphasis on psychiatry, which I thought might shift the dynamics of the procedural aspect of the show. It didn’t much. She was still very much the by-the-books opposing force to DCI Gene Hunt, a retractable, stubborn, hunch-driven, beat-the-shit-out-of-scum police officer, and one of the most compelling characters I’ve ever seen on television. As an actor, Glenister is a fucking force on his own. Dean Andrews’ Ray Carling was the same boorish, misogynistic Id from the original, while Marshall Lancaster’s Chris Shelton was still the naive, order-following rookie type, little changed by the developments in “Life on Mars.” Montserrat Lombard’s Shaz Granger had also stepped in for Annie Cartwright, allowing the show to once again demonstrate how difficult female police officers still had it in 1981.
In addition to the procedural of the week story lines, which once again focused extensively on social issues — women’s rights and now even gay rights — the first season focused mostly on Drake’s attempts to prevent the murder of her parents back in 1981 via car bomb. Drake believed that, by preventing that murder, she’d be able to wake up again in the present time and be with her daughter, Molly. She solved who the murderer was, but unfortunately, she was neither able to prevent it, nor able to wake up from her coma.
It still made for a solid first season, and knowing now, from “Life on Mars,” where Alex Drake was — in a coma of some sort — allowed me to relax more and appreciate the show for the well-acted, brilliantly written 1981-set cop show that it was. Season two came along, and it was mostly more of the same, shifting the focus on not solving a season-long mystery, but on tempering Gene Hunt’s police brutality and helping evolve into more enlightened, mature police officers (without shifting the dynamics too much). Alex did wake up at the end of Season Two. Sort of. Or at least, we thought she woke up, but within ten minutes of season three, she was back, now in 1983, once again working with Gene Hunt and the gang to put away bad guys.
But there was something more to season three: A new direction; I don’t know if it was then that the showrunners decided how they’d end the show, or if it was planned all along. Alex rarely spoke of her daughter, or trying to get home, and instead, the focus shifted toward the death of Sam Tyler from the original series. Drake believed that if she could discover how and why Tyler died, she could unlock the secrets to the world she lived in. She was right.
I’ll admit that season three tested my patience a few times: It promised not to end the same way the original series had, but it doled out the hints a little too slowly for my impatience, which is probably why I managed to watch the final two seasons in four days (no, I didn’t sleep much). I needed to find out. Desperately. But the reward was worth the wait: I did finally get that satisfying resolution I was hoping for. It was a heartbreaker, too. You could sort of see where it was heading and, after “Lost,” you just hoped they didn’t bumble it. They didn’t, even if both shows ended in a similar thematic fashion. “Ashes to Ashes” managed to answer all the questions, in large part because there weren’t a lot of questions presented. Just one, really: Where were they? I thought I would feel robbed in knowing that all of “Life on Mars” and “Ashes to Ashes” ended up being a middle-world, between life and death, for coppers. But knowing that it wasn’t just Drake who was dead, but the rest of them, too, added such a huge wallop of pathos that I never felt cheated by a series finale that was nothing short of genius. And they didn’t sell out with a happy ending, either, one where Alex got to wake up again in the present day and live happily ever with her daughter. She, and everyone else but Hunt, passed on, leaving Hunt behind to continue working on those unresolved issues.
Anyway, what I really wanted to do was gauge the opinion of the others who have seen the entire series (both of them), basically to see where you came out on the ending. There was no shortage of opinions on “Lost,” but since “Ashes to Ashes” is a relatively unknown show in America, I had little place to turn but the good people that read this site.