Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Ashes to Ashes - Season 2, Episode 1


Television these days presents an unremitting diet of reality shows, programs with celebrity in the title featuring people nobody has ever heard of, and 'talent' shows designed to encourage people to humiliate themselves in the name of improving Simon Cowell's bank balance. So when a program comes along that actually provides some intelligent, adult entertainment it should be celebrated. Therefore I'll attempt over the next 8 weeks to post timely reviews of season 2 of Ashes to Ashes. I'll also offer some speculation as it goes along as to where I think the series is heading (and I'll try to resist the temptation to go back and edit any thoughts that turn out to be completely wrong!)

Season 1 set up the scenario for the series. Alex Drake is a cop in 2008. She is called out to a hostage situation in which greasy odd-ball Layton shoots her in the head after making a mysterious phone-call to someone to say: "I have someone with me from your past." Alex collapses and when she awakes it's 1981. She's a female cop in a macho world ruled by her boss Gene Hunt. As Alex knows that Sam Tyler (from Life on Mars) also fell into a coma and invented a past world where his boss was Gene Hunt, she is convinced she's in a coma and that she has invented this world in her mind while she lies dying.

The series had mixed reactions. Some thought the light, fun approach was enjoyable. Others thought the approach didn't work as well as the darker earlier series. The makers listened to the criticism and before the series aired they claimed they'd attempt to address the issues that concerned viewers and that this time they'd make the series darker. On the evidence of the first show, they succeeded. The program is as dark as anything Life on Mars produced and could easily have fit into that series.

The first story delved into the murky world of police corruption. A body is found in a compromising position usually reserved for politicians in a seedy part of the red-light district. Hunt and co are amused but when new character Mackintosh, Gene's boss, tells everyone the dead man was a vice cop sent in to clean-up the area, it sheds a different light on the situation. Of course you don’t need to be an expert in tv detective work to know all is not as it seems…

This is a story that is grittier than anything in season 1. It is also filmed in a grittier style. In Life on Mars everything was dark, nicotine-stained and dirty. Season 1 turned away from that with a world that was bright, large and colourful. Now everything is claustrophobic again. The sets are the same, but now not all the lights are on, characters are not filmed in full brightness. Cameras are put in odd places such as filming from the floor up someone's leg and close-ups are uncomfortably close. The outside sequences too move away from the bright warehouses of season 1 to a sordid litter-strewn part of town. One shot where Hunt cradles a dying woman is beautifully composed and could have been Victorian London. This all creates an oppressive atmosphere, but the characters are grittier too.

Ray takes a bribe within the first five minutes turning his character back to way he was at the start of Life on Mars. Chris is still an idiot, but he makes the choice not to take the bribe. Hunt is back to the man we weren't sure about at the start too, shouting abuse at grieving widows and with hints he may be involved in the corruption. He does less one-liners than before (thankfully, as in season 1 nearly every line was a barked attempt to utter a classic line) and there's no shots of him just standing there looking heroic. And thankfully Alex has gone for a more sober hairstyle, and she's no longer made-up like a cosmetic model in a tv advert and is instead allowed to look her age.

So, I'll rate this is a great start and I hope it continues. Best moment for me, from a short list of several dozen classic moments, was Ray's 'fire up the photocopier' line and all the nostalgia that hideous copier generates. The short clip of next week's show even has a shot of what looks like Gene Hunt joining the masons so things continue to look promising. But where is the series going? As ever with the shows made by this writing team (and I did see Bonekickers!), you're never quite sure whether they are utter geniuses or people who had one good idea and are repeating it endlessly.

Hence Mackintosh, who presents a public face of being keen to clean up the police force, and yet appears to be behind all the corruption is strikingly similar to Harry Woolf from Life on Mars, who was Hunt's hero and confidant. As that man turned out to be corrupt, I don’t think they'll repeat the same trick, so I'll speculate that Mackintosh will turn out to be a good guy. The secret meetings he's conducting with Hunt are all about flushing out the real corrupt cops. Hunt will toy with the dark side, apparently, but it's all smoke and mirrors. Maybe even Mackintosh is using Hunt as the fall guy in the same way that Hunt used Sam Tyler as the fall guy when a prisoner died in a cell.

The other speculative area is what has been referred to as the bigger mystery. In Life on Mars the answer was that Sam was in a coma. Here we know Alex is in a coma, so what can the solution to the bigger mystery be? Speculation has veered into many areas, picking up on the Alice in Wonderland references, the hint that Hunt helped Alex as a child and is therefore real. Some viewers even reckon everything we see is Hunt's dream-world...

Well, nothing yet has changed my mind that the ultimate answer to the big mystery is… Alex is in a coma. I realize this is not an exciting solution, but so far based on what we've seen and know, any other solution would require a slight-of-hand by the writers. Concluding anything else would be akin to suddenly deciding that they're all astronauts in the 21st century playing a virtual reality game, or some equally bizarre idea.

This episode advances the mystery slightly by doing exactly what Life on Mars did in episode 1 season 2. It opens with a scene in a hospital room in the real world where two nurses are helping out a patient who may be important or a red-herring. I opt for the latter. Alex gets her first messages from the real world and all in odd ways, like Sam did, from minor characters and even a dog. She gets visions from the real world where she's been found and is in the care of medics, like Sam. And her tv is talking to her, like Sam. And she gets a psycho-killer seemingly from the real world torturing her in her dream world, like Sam.

None of this hints to me that there's any other solution than she's in a coma. When Sam was tortured by a man in the hospital, he fabricated a dream explanation for it. There's no reason to suppose what is happening here is any different. The psycho-killer is sending Alex roses and he kidnaps and tortures her, but this all happens while Alex in the real world is being treated by an ambulance crew. If everything she imagines is a construction to keep her brain active while the body is repaired, then it's likely she'd construct a traumatic imagined situation. She may have an antagonist who knows that Lady Di will die, but that means nothing.

The whole conceit I think the writers are trying to create here is to sell us the idea that the psycho-killer was the man in the hospital at the start. He has entered Alex's world and therefore the solution to the bigger mystery is not that she's in a coma. But as Alex is inventing everything she sees, she also knows Lady Di died. She could create an antagonist who knows that and that imagining is a stepping stone to let her return to the real world, in the same way that Sam created Frank Morgan to help him return.

So for now I'll stick with the theory that she's in a coma and this a dream. It may be a dream that people who are near to death have as Hunt did describe himself as being Saint Peter, but still it's not an alternate reality, time-travel, a virtual reality game, Sam's dream, Hunt's dream... She's in a coma. She'll wake up when she's ready and in the mean time she'll continue to imagine some great cop storylines, some great characters, some great music, and hopefully Gene Hunt shouting at members of the royal family again. Fire up episode 2!

13 comments:

cissy scouse said...

Excellent synopsis, thank you. However, if Alex is in a coma and imagining all this, it's too similar to LoM storyline. Writers will have to come up with a twist to make it different to Sam Tyler's story. My money's on Gene also being in coma, if not all the characters!

I.J. Parnham said...

On the other hand the biggest twist of all could be the one that nobody thinks of that there is no twist! I don't think it's essential for there to be a clever twist at the end that takes us all by surprise to make the whole series (and LOM) work. I'd been on IMDB and found out who the clown was after about 2 episodes and I still nearly fell off my chair at the big reveal in episode 8.

LOM had a downbeat ending when Sam thought his invented world was better than real life. Alex has already got her major life trauma resolved in finding repressed memories about what happened to her parents. If she can now get the rest of her problems resolved, she could return to real life a happier and positive person who wants to live and enjoy life. And that would be a different ending to LOM while still using the same solution to LOM's in a way that doesn't ruin what happened there.

Ray said...

I have to admit that after the first series of 'Ashes To Ashes' I hoped that the idea would be dropped. After 'Life On Mars' I thought that series one of 'Ashes' was the same old same old and typical Beeb who recycle stuff with a regularity that make bin men seem slow.
But while I was debating what to do next the programme started and it felt different and I was hooked. The only time it jarred for me was that effective scene with Gene Hunt cradling the dead stripper - it would have been effective had not this been seen just a couple of weeks ago when Danielle was killed in 'Eastenders' with it's lingering recycled 'West Side Story' like ending.
Despite that I'll stick with it because I want to see where it is going.

I.J. Parnham said...

Agreed. That scene was a bit cheesy - "You chase that armed gunman down that dark alley, Alex, while I sit down here and look all photogenic." just didn't feel like something Hunt would do. Then again she was from Hyde (cue oh-oh music) and Hunt had just said he was Saint Peter. Then again it might just have been cheesy!

ARCHAVIST said...

I watched one episode of season one - the first and hated it but I'm going onto IPLAYER now to check out this one. Your review has made me think I'll give it another try so I'll be back later.

ARCHAVIST said...

After watching the first episode I still have problems with the series. Gene Hunt was wonderful and there were some great comic moments but the time travel subplot no longer works for me and without John Simm the programe just doesn't hit the heights of Life on Mars. I'll watch the second episode to see what happens but I'm not really fussed with this one when Life on Mars was compulsive viewing.

I.J. Parnham said...

After reading a few other reviews, many picked up on the clue/red herring I missed as it was buried in the opening few seconds. But the near-to-death bloke in the hospital bed had an ipod placed in a prominent position, an ipod that was a bit like John Simm's.

Anonymous said...

what was the song when hunt was in the car looking for drake when she was on the doctors bed in the warehouse

I.J. Parnham said...

Sorry. I can't remember any specific song for that sequence, only atmospheric incidental music.

Edgar2010 said...

I´d like to know the song played at the begining of season 02 episode 01 while they are walking on the sewage system.

I.J. Parnham said...

From memory I think it was a Fun Boy Three song, The Lunatics Have Taken over the Asylum.

Edgar2010 said...

Thank you for answering my question. That’s the song. I watched Life on Mars and I really liked it. Now I’d like even better Ashes to Ashes.

Edgar2010 said...

I am not a writer, just a viewer of the show with some knowledge of film.
I agree about the scene with Gene Hunt and the prostitute dying on his arms. He feels compassion for her at the point of almost crying. That doesn’t match with his character.