Ashes to Ashes:1.01
2008

The spin-off from the acclaimed (if sometimes excruciating) Life on Mars is self-consciously extreme, with both the drama and dark humor ratcheted up to the appropriate 80s excess.  This year’s timetraveller-slash-madman is DI Alex Drake, a police psychiatrist and single mother who has been investigating the suicide of Sam Tyler.  Familiar with Sam’s fantasy world and characters that suddenly surround her after being shot in the face by druglord-cum-vagrant Arthur Layton, she believes she’s having an elaborate hallucination in the seconds before she dies, but still fights to wake up from it and return to her demanding, impulsive daughter.

Ray Carling, who BBC informs us is now “The Bear,” tells her with regret that her acquaintance Sam Tyler died with the 70s a year earlier, crashing his car into a river after leaving Gene behind on a police chase.  His body was never found, allowing speculation on his Schrödingeresque state to rampage on.  He tells Alex that they key to surviving is to stay with Gene, not only expressing his own philosophy of life but possibly offering a key to why the two officers have been drawn back into the past.

The pilot was a conscious retread of the Life on Mars pilot.  Set-up of current life in the present, spotlighting the few personal connections?  Check.  Introductory Make Ass Of Self scene?  Check.  Enigmatic flashbacks in old-film filter?  Check.  Parent issues centring around that year?  Check.  There’s even similar avatars of hostile knowledge in the form of different childhood icons (which, lacking a UK childhood, had no more significance to me than ‘sort of like Sesame Street’ and ‘some freaky Euro-clown’).  The subject is partly aware of this reality—or only thinks she is—and seeks out the missing signifiers from Sam’s reports.  Unfortunately, phones, radios, and tvs give her nothing; her only communications come in dreams and visions.

Most of the direct communication from the hostile avatars in fact goes over her head, couched in subtle visuals only the viewers see—such as the clown’s head on a shelf in Layton’s junk store, or its reflection looming over her shoulder in a shiny interview table.  While Life on Mars followed Sam’s point of view, DI Drake of more an active object of the mystery than an identification figure.  The audience has more pieces of the puzzle.

Alex thus far seems to be a less sympathetic character than Sam, but a more confident timetraveler-slash-madman, hopefully less likely to likely to commit the forehead-smackingly boneheaded moves that Tyler’s run included at least once per episode.  Instead of acting generally unhinged in a manner that would leave most professionals escorted by security carrying a box of personal belongings, Alex calmly treats the others as both people and figments in turn and with equal sangfroid expects to be treated with respect while stuck wearing uncomfortably revealing clothes.  She also gains a few points by getting drunk with the team and groping Gene on her very first night in the past, thus ensuring they’ll overlook a greater proportion of weird behaviour than if she’d remained in the remote and dismissive pose Sam initially chose.

This spinoff so far seems to retain the parent show’s flaws, particularly in the imbalanced drama/comedy tone.  Particularly, scenes and setups still misfire as often as they catch.  The “A-Team”’s emergence in the gunfight via speedboat with machine guns, while a good visual gag, destroys the delicate dream vs time-travel question.  That could only be a modern person’s fantasy moment.  When scenes catch, though, they really really catch.  When Ray tells of Sam’s death, he is a man more comfortable with his place in life than the resentful demoted DI of the earlier decade.  Gene’s frustration while on the phone to his superior shows a big man who’s time has passed, and knows it.  And entire shows could take place in their new hangout, a wine bar where a long-suffering Magical Italian possibly takes Nelson’s place as the wise bartender.

There is one unbearable bit, though.  I don’t know how I’ll get through a season of an entire cast in those terrible pleated trousers and white jeans.  For the love of Oxford Street, let no lazy designers take those on as this fall’s new look!

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