Saturday 17 April 2010

Ashes to Ashes, series 3, episode 3

This week's episode follows the same format as last week's in which one character, in this case hard man Ray, is showcased and we learn more about what makes this person tick. Sadly after finding the previous two episodes to be amongst the best the franchise has produced, this will be a grumpy review as the story failed to hold my attention.

My lack of interest is probably my fault as the story featured strong dialogue, good acting, and revolved around my favourite character. If I was writing objective reviews I'd find things to praise, but I write personal reviews detailing my likes and dislikes. And the overwhelming feeling I had is that if I wanted to watch this sort of drama I'd watch The Bill and not Ashes. It reminded me of the only Life on Mars episode I didn’t like featuring the inevitable bottle show hostage crisis that ticked all the right boxes for powerful, emotional, tense drama and which so failed to move me I miss that episode out when I re-watch. I reckon I'll do the same with this one.

The join-the-dots formula cop story was even dottier than usual involving a wave of politically motivated arson attacks on the eve of the general election designed to ensure that Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, doesn't get in, in, in for her disastrous second term. With the tv no longer talking to Alex this was illustrated by lots of uninteresting clips from real tv shows. The possibilities for political satire weren't taken up. Instead the story centred on the attempt to avoid working out who the mystery arsonist was until the end of the episode. In our house the previous record for solving an Ashes mystery was 1 second set in series 2. This week we bettered it by solving it in minus 5 minutes on spotting that the actor playing the heroic fireman who was putting out the fires also played Luke Hanson in New Tricks. What followed was painful and followed every cliché in the standard arson mystery plot in which firemen feature.

But as I often say Ashes isn’t a plot based drama. It's about characters. And this week the arson story gave Ray a chance to shine. Sadly he shone by doing one of the things I hate in episodic drama of suddenly developing a hitherto unmentioned crippling emotional trauma which links in with the story and which will never get mentioned again. Ray's trauma involved his relationship with his military-minded father, and although Ray did think about joining the army last series that didn't link in well with his problems this time. His crisis developed in the same manner as Shaz's did last week (possibly deliberately) in which everyone else acts uselessly and out of character forcing him to put his life in danger at which point he delivers an interminable monologue of the kind that only characters in tv dramas give. The actor who plays Ray is active and approachable on Internet sites, coming over as a decent bloke and so I kept thinking it was nice for him to finally get something meaty to do. But I also kept thinking I wish the episode would just end so I could go to bed.

The previous two episodes had a near-perfect tone of grit enlivened by crackling, fun dialogue that was so fast and clever I knew I'd have to watch them several times to pick up all the nuances. That was missing this time with a dreary tone, lengthy stilted scenes, uninvolving characters, and few one-liners. The only interesting asides were Gene Hunt getting in toy-stamping mood with an annoying brat and the stolen bikes he was storing in Keats' room to provoke him. As it turned out the one element of Ray's problem that did work for me was Keats. The creepy complaints guy is rapidly developing into the best thing about the final series. Last week I thought he wasn't being active enough in bringing down Hunt, but as he did the same things again this week I can now appreciate his sly technique. He hangs around on the sidelines, always creepy and smoking, speaking treachery into people's ears and undermining their confidence while pretending to be their friend. He is genuinely creepy in a way that Summers, the clown and the other creepy characters haven’t been because he's believable. He personifies the bureaucratic 'I was only following orders' evil that can lurk at the heart of any big organisation.

So as with Shaz he takes advantage of Ray's emotional crisis to encourage him to defy Gene and solve the crime using his own instincts. This dilemma would have had considerable tension if the crime hadn't have been so obvious even the ghost copper could have solved it during his half second appearance. In the end Ray does the same as Shaz did and he almost turns his back on Gene before deciding to follow Gene's orders, and that puts his life in danger. But he survives and so Keats loses and Gene wins again, and so Gene buys Ray a drink... and Ray has his Life on Mars moment.

I'd been dreading that happening since last week and now that it has I have mixed feelings as to whether or not I like it. I'll have to see where they take it but for now I'm not happy. Last week was eerily effective when out of nowhere the picture darkens and zooms in on Shaz, a few lines of Life on Mars are heard coming from far away, and a sample of Nelson the bartender plays. In fact I'd say it was the single best moment in the whole franchise and if left at that it'd have remained memorable, but with it happening again this week it's lost its impact for me. It suggests that every week a main character will have an emotional crisis, Keats will drip bile into their ear, they'll ignore him in favour of the Guv, and then they'll have their Life on Mars moment. Presumably by episode 8 the bloke at the back of the office with interesting facial hair will have his Life on Mars moment when he has an emotional crisis brought on by being in a series for 5 years and never getting a line of dialogue.

As regards the bigger picture, the only plot movement this week was the confirmation that Keats is the key to resolving the bigger picture. We learnt this because Alex told him that she solves crimes and he deals with the bigger picture. Ashes has always worked well with its self-referential, ironic, post-modern, fourth wall, meta-fiction or whatever the right term is for knowing asides to the viewers. But there's a thin line between being clever and being smug, and that line, along with several other recent nods to the fans, makes me pleased that the show is ending this year and the temptation to make a Hunt in the 90s series is being resisted.

As for the rest, the complete lack of movement was even more static than usual. The ghost copper appeared for his usual doing bog all spooky moment. Movement on the Sam Tyler investigation consisted of Alex locking the drawer that contains his coat and giving Shaz the key. At that pace it'll be 2010 in the past world before she works out why Sam's car was standing upside down in Manchester's shallowest river. And the unsettling idea of Alex finding a part of town that doesn't exist got the interesting addition that Shaz has seen it too. Shaz was so shocked she doodled a star, but then as this is a show that thrives on never moving forward, it was promptly forgotten about, just like Molly, Alex's treasured daughter.

Anyhow, sorry for my grumpy attitude, but I hope the show returns to the style of the first two episodes or I'll rapidly lose interest. Next week, I'm getting a new sister-in-law so I don’t know when or if a review will appear, but I'm guessing the story will involve Chris having his Life on Mars moment when he suffers emotional trauma about being a complete and utter twonk. I hope I'm wrong.


Jules said...

Grumpy maybe but brilliantly snarky and very true. More fun reading this than watching the first 45 mins of last night's episode!

Simon said...

Yes it was a weak episode. Though I have seen a recurrent theme this series of having the crime solved with 10 minutes to spare, allowing time for denouement scenes at Luigi's. I read your review with the hope that there might be some explanation as to why when Hunt said "Well done Ray", the background darkened and the Life on Mars song was heard together with some shouted dialogue that I could not make out. Labelling it a 'Life on Mars' moment is insufficient for me as I never watched all of that show.

I.J. Parnham said...

Thanks for the good point, Simon. The reason I couldn't provide an explanation for what the LOM moment means is that I don't know, and neither does anyone else at the moment. Although Ashes fans have plenty of diverse opinions, as always, involving numerology, Greek mythology, Jungian psychology, and an ability to read absolutely everything into absolutely anything.

What is sort of agreed though is that the LOM music was used sparingly in LOM but always played when the main character Sam faced something major. Presumably the hint is therefore that these moments are important in Ashes. The half-heard shouted comment is a soundbite from LOM of Nelson welcoming Sam. Nelson was LOM's version of Luigi except he was more mysterious and appeared to know Sam was from the future and he understood everything.

Some fans have taken this to mean that Sam is returning. Others reckon that this means every character is a time-traveller and that was the moment they realized it. So Shaz came back in time to avoid being killed by the nutter with a branding iron and Ray came back in time to avoid setting fire to himself. Others think that this is how they died in the real world and they have gone back in time to enjoy a full life. Others suggest it's less dramatic than that and that was the moment they got what they wanted. Shaz got promoted and Ray got Hunt's approval.

Of all theories the one that has the neatest ring to me is that there is a battle going on for the souls of the main characters. Gene and Keats are on opposing sides. Keats tries to turn them to the dark side while Hunt tries to turn them to the good side. The LOM moment comes when Hunt achieves his final victory over them and they join him in his kingdom, just like Sam did as LOM played when he first arrived in 1973. The ambiguity is that Keats claims that joining Hunt is bad because Sam died and they will too.

Only time will tell, although I'd hazard a guess it doesn't mean much at all other than another chance to play a great tune!