For the final series we were promised that the show would become darker and feature a radical change of direction. The series will apparently explain not only this show but its predecessor Life on Mars to the extent that the shows will ultimately join up. This explanation has been described by the cast as 'bonkers' and by the writers as being one they didn't originally have in mind but which occurred during the writing of this series. This suggests that whatever theorizing has been going on, based on what we've seen so far, will be invalid.
So episode 1 demonstrated this radical change of direction by being, well, exactly the same as the show has ever been. There was a central cop story that was so lame and predictable it'd have made viewers of The Bill groan 25 years ago. It had plenty of camaraderie between the central cast and there were a few weird bits that as always appeared at first glance to move the plot along massively but which in reality did absolutely nothing. But perhaps that's being a bit unfair. The show did provide one of its promised big changes. It was darker. A lot darker. Sadly the director interpreted the need to be darker as shoot everything darkly. I kept wondering if I'd sat on the remote and changed the contrast. Everyone had highly contrasted faces, sets were stark, and even those warehouses where the bad guys always hang out looked duller. Perhaps it was the HD filming, but whatever the reason it looked dark. Luckily everything else was the same.
The episode started with a great opening line that perfectly summed up why I like the franchise. The previous 2 years have featured Alex's lengthy explanation of the format over the title credits. This time all that's gone to be replaced with, 'My name is Alex Drake, and quite frankly your guess is as good as mine.' That is brilliant on every level. We then carry on from where we left off with Alex in the present day recovering from being shot in the head by dangling a forelock of her dark hair over her wound, wearing dark clothes, and talking soberly in dark rooms with the light off. Her daughter Molly, who presumably has grown another foot since the last season, has been sent to stay with her father, and Alex is finding real life as depressing as Sam Tyler did when he returned. Worse, Alex caught the recent Red Dwarf revival and so is seeing Gene on banks of tv screens and dvd covers. Sadly even a gloriously silly fantasy scene of Gene shooting up gun-toting baddies to the Ride of the Valkyries can't convince Alex that she's happy. So, after meeting this year's mysterious stranger of a ghostly disfigured man who is dead in the present day and who clearly has been picking up stalker tips from the clown from season 1 and Summers from season 2, she returns to the past. She meets a darkly moody Gene in a dark alley with the lights off and after finding that he's spent three miserable months on the Isle of Wight, they agree to see just how dark things have got.
There have been changes. Ray is the new and ineffective boss, Chris and Shaz have split up (although if you missed the line of dialogue you wouldn’t guess it), Viv is getting funny lines, Luigi is getting less lines, and one of the extras got a whole line. And we've got a new main character of Keats to fulfil the role Alex's mum had in season 1 and Mac had in season 2 of shaking things up. Apparently Keats is in charge of complaints and he deems that shooting up a fellow officer and hiding on the Isle of Wight is serious enough to kick Gene off the force. As Alex got kicked off the force twice in season 2 and got away with it Gene ignores him and carries on as normal as they now have a case to solve.
The case involves a kidnapped kid called Dorothy (ooh!) and even if you haven’t seen the episode yet, you could still easily write a review of the surprise twists and revelations for yourself. As always the rubbish central plot is not the point and the fun comes from the characters. Ray makes a mess of being in charge and shows he's not a leader. Gene is in full-on shouting mode. And he gets some good non-PC one-liners that only someone stuck in the 80s could deliver including a 'Billy the Thlid' line and a long and torturous one involving nuts and squirrels which I've had several goes at writing but it doesn’t scan well. Alex looks suitably ill and is so distressed she watches Top Gear, but messages from the future are drying up.
The rest don't get much to do as more time is spent on developing Keats, and this is time well spent as he looks as if he'll be interesting. The actor provides an odd performance that's different to anything anyone else is doing and is one that makes we wonder if he's a terrible actor or a brilliant one. He's creepy, shifty-eyed, unsure of himself, and everything he says and does is off-note and wrong. It reminds me that true evil is often banal. I look forward to seeing where he'll take things as he's convinced Gene did something bad in the past, possibly involving Sam Tyler's mysterious death, and he wants to expose him. As he kicked him off the force about five times during the episode and Gene ignored him every time that threat doesn't sound too worrying. The office may have a gym now, but where's the growly boss to do the kicking off the force properly when you need one?
Then there's the bigger picture and I'm struggling to say much there as again it only inches along in the usual style with something odd happening at the start and then again just before the final credits. We have a ghost. Alex trips over a file and Sam Tyler's picture falls out. And we have Keats being weird. The fact that there'll be a surprising reveal at the end means it's probably not worth discussing and it's best to just go along for the ride. For the record my opinion has always been that Sam Tyler was in a coma. Hovering between life and death his brain constructed a dying dream to keep him mentally active and to help him make sense of his existence before he passed on. So he went back to the time when as a kid his father left him and along the way he learned some lessons about life. But he didn't die and when he came back those lessons didn't help him move on and so he killed himself to continue the dream. Alex knew of this and so when she nearly died she constructed her own dying dream with the same characters to resolve her life, except with a daughter she has more reasons to live than Sam had. Based on what we've seen I think that's a reasonable explanation, but I assume if the final explanation is as suitably bonkers as promised, it'll be a different one entirely.
Next week things get even darker and scarier when Gene and Alex recreate the classic 80s video Uptown Girl. I'm getting ready to hide behind the sofa already.