Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Ashes to Ashes - Season 2, Episode 6

Ashes to Ashes thrives on presenting episodes in which the main plot appears to take giant leaps forward and yet in reality it only advances by several millimetres. This week reversed the format by presenting what was seemingly a filler episode, but which in reality advanced the main story considerably.

Alex was shot in the head in the first ten minutes of episode 1, season 1. For the whole of season 1 she lay undiscovered. During the first 5 episodes of this season she was found and then taken to hospital. Now finally she has been operated upon and the operation was a success. The medical procedure didn't have a medical term involving a rose, so that's yet to come presumably, but this is a massive change from the snail's pace of plot development we've seen so far.

The progress of her operation was monitored through the episode and thankfully it was presented in fairly straight ways. I enjoy the show's nostalgic elements, but I had started to tire of the way every medical update is presented by Morph, Orville the Duck and other icons of the 80s. Curiously, for I think the first time, Alex viewed the operation in what was effectively an out-of-body experience. The usual format is for Alex to view reality on a tv screen, but seeing her real self be operated upon creates the impression that she's getting closer to her real body.

Her operation also clearly defined the relationship between the state of her real body and her experiences in her fantasy world. In Life on Mars Sam's progress in hospital often affected his fantasy, with his near death making lights go out and drugs changing his perceptions. This doesn't happen so often to Alex, but when her bullet is removed, it makes her euphoric and she becomes relaxed about her fantasy. This revelation is accompanied by the music that was playing when the bullet went in and creates a real feeling of progress, at last.

These significant advances were welcome as the mysterious Martin Summers merely marked time. After MacKintosh's ominous warning two episodes ago that Operation Rose is coming, last week Martin told her that Operation Rose is even closer. This week he told her that Operation Rose is now even closer still, and he sent her some dead roses to prove it. This is frustratingly slow plot development and frankly it's not good enough. Either move the plot forward or ignore it, but don’t keep repeating the same thing or the viewers will get bored.

More pleasingly the main movement on the Martin Summers story came with a clever throwaway line during a blink and you'll miss it scene. Alex is listening to her doctor report on the success of her operation when the doctor is called away to help his other coma patient who has had a seizure. The implication must be that the patient is the man in the hospital in episode 1, who might also be Martin Summers. For the first time this links Alex and the other coma patient in the real world, perhaps hinting that the connection between them in the fantasy world isn’t anything to do with them, but their doctor. This matches the way that surgeon Frank Morgan in Life on Mars intruded upon Sam's world.

This means that Alex now has a strong reason to hope she isn’t trapped in her fantasy and that she will return home soon. That hope is so great she even makes arrangements to leave by giving everyone letters in which she provides much-unneeded improvement advice. Amusingly everyone but Gene immediately read their letters.

All this is intriguing and makes up for the routine central plot, which is presented as a filler story that could have been shown at any stage in the series as it has no links with the ongoing plots. There's no hint of the corruption story arc or of most of the previous episode's character development. Instead, we have a story involving a murder hunt that goes nowhere original. There's a dodgy loan shark, a man who is so violent and arrogant he just has to be innocent. There's a grieving widow, who is so obviously innocent we all expect her to be guilty, except she isn't. And there's the minor character who has nothing to do with the story and appears on screen only for about two minutes, so he has to be guilty.

This story struggles to generate any interest, but thankfully the plot is just a vehicle to let the characters interact. And they chat amongst themselves so disarmingly that this week the show effectively becomes a tale about relationships. So far this season the plot-heavy stories and the often frantic pace has ensured that the characters' interaction has been carried out quickly while everyone hurtles from one place to the next. I didn’t mind this style, but it was also nice to take a breather and let the characters talk to each other.

So Chris and Shaz got to develop their bickering double act as they argue continually about their forthcoming wedding. Gene and Alex got plenty of time together to chat about nothing much in an entertaining manner. And their soulful looking into each others' eyes sequences didn't irritate me as much as they usually do, and neither did I mind the hurt and comfort set-piece. With Alex thinking she is leaving, there was some point to her now wondering about how she views Gene.

Best of all Ray again got plenty of airtime as, to quote from Life on Mars, he didn’t just get to play the good cop to Gene's bad cop, he got to be the positively gorgeous cop. He tried to be sensitive, solved the crime, bonded with Alex, and embraced psychoanalytical techniques. I'm tempted to say this carried on the theme of Ray's character changing every episode, but it felt a believable development from last week in which Alex helped him and he decided not to leave the force.

The concentration on relationships therefore made explicit the main point of this week's episode, which was summed up when Alex quizzed Luigi in his capacity as a barman who knows more than he lets on. She asked if the world carries on when you're no longer there. This was one of the central philosophical questions in Life on Mars, and one that ultimately led to Sam's triumph, or downfall depending on your view of the ending.

Sam worried that the world he had invented would end when he left it, so he returned to it. Alex has never worried about that as she knew from the start it was a fantasy. Now she's not so sure and with the characters interacting so much, as if they are real people with real lives, this episode suggested the answer is that this world will continue without her. This conclusion is reinforced by the clever manipulation of a production convention that has run throughout the franchise.

Life on Mars took the bold step of presenting the series entirely from Sam Tyler's point of view. In novels this is quite common, but it's rarely used in films and tv series as the constraint is demanding and perhaps too intense. But in LOM the convention of Sam appearing in every scene worked because that format made it clear that Sam had created the past world. So scenes would start when he entered the room and end when he left, and we weren't aware of anything that he didn't witness.

From the start, Ashes to Ashes loosened this convention. Sometimes scenes started before Alex arrived and continued after she'd left. Other small scenes would play out while she was elsewhere. This might have been a production decision that gave the makers more freedom to tell stories. But it might also have a reason within the story. Perhaps Sam was someone who only had dreams involving himself. Alex may have less of an ego and be more familiar with the psychological world so she can fantasise scenes that don’t include her. Also she knows she's recreated Sam's world, so she's content to let the characters interact without her.

But this season the convention has been played with and I think it is now saying something important. As the season has progressed, scenes in which Alex hasn’t been involved have grown, both in length and in significance. This trend culminated in an episode in which Alex's operation is a success, Alex's doctor mentioned the man in a coma who may also be in this world, and Alex questioned whether the world will continue without her. The fact that so many scenes didn't include Alex now suggest that maybe it will.

Next week a young PC arrives and he has an intriguing name.


Olive Tree Guitar Ensemble said...

Hi, it's a very great blog.
I could tell how much efforts you've taken on it.
keep doing!

I.J. Parnham said...

Thank you, Olive Tree.


I was in late last night so I've yet to see this ep - will catch it later on Iplayer and be back to comment.

Anonymous said...

I've just stumbled across this blog.

This has to be the wittiest and insightful critique of this series. I shall cease making any effort to review A2A myself and direct my fellow appreciants to your excellent blog.

Many thanks for all the work, I wish I had found this sooner.


I.J. Parnham said...

Thank you, Ian.