By Russel D McLean
Please, if you have not seen all of Life on Mars (UK) or Ashes to Ashes, prepare for possibly very deep spoilers to both shows.
I admit that last Thursday’s finale to the Life on Mars sequel/spin-off Ashes to Ashes was possibly the best episode they did for the entire run. Everyone at the top of their game, and some interesting stuff going on. But it suffered, as the whole series has, from a sense of being quite superfluous to requirements. No amount of dramatic handwaving or metaphysical revelations could distract from the fact that, as an extension of Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes was unnecessary.
Unless, of course, you wanted all the answers.
One of the things that I adored about Life on Mars – aside from the fact that it turned out to be one of the best British cop shows in years – was the fact that it drip fed you its metaphysical meanderings. And, in the end, it left you wondering what really happened, whether you saw what you thought you did and if so, what did it all mean? I can remember the excited discsussions at work and at home. With friends.
All of us disagreeing, pointing to plot threads and images that backed up our arguments. All of our opinions were valid, and in the end, that emotional connection really made the show.
I can also, honestly, say I’ve never wept quite like I did at the end of Life on Mars. Sam’s “leap of faith,” while I contended it not to necessarily have been suicide, was heartbreaking especially as, for a split second, you did not know what was coming. You still asked the questions:
Was he mad?
In a coma?
Back in time?
You didn’t know for sure.
But you had your suspicions.
It stayed with me for a long time, that ending, and even watching the show back this year, I choked up as Sam was forced to choose between 2006 and 1973 even though I knew what was coming and even though I knew by this time that Ashes to Ashes had stated, categorically, that Sam Tyler committed suicide.
In fact, that was one of the things that annoyed me intensely in year one of Ashes to Ashes (aside from the eighties setting; sorry, but the seventies were much cooler, in fashion, music and cop shows). With DI Drake’s insistence that she was in a coma and everything was a figment of her imagination, the drama was sucked out of the situation. The stakes were lesser. And even if they did give Drake a daughter to go back to (Sam had a girlfriend, but no real connections in 2006), I’ll say that quite honestly, I didn’t care whether she made it back to Molly or not. That dramatic impetus, that tension, was sucked out of the show, because everyone seemed so confident about the facts.
There was also another twist that I realised upon a viewing of Life on Mars a couple of years later. In the original show, we never left Tyler’s point of view. Every scene was either inclusive of Sam or a flashback as Sam was being told what happened by another character. In Ashes to Ashes, and this become more prevalent as the series continued its run, we would leave Drake’s point of view to join other characters outside of her knowledge. Of course this led the viewer to believe in the reality of the other characters, but again robbed the series of ambiguity and interpretation. Of course, in the end, we discovered that what we’d really been watching all along was The Gene Hunt Show, but then that always seemed to be the intention behind Ashes to Ashes, moving a brilliant supporting character up to lead and perhaps taking away some of what made him quite so compelling in the first place.
Where Life on Mars had been about mystery, about questioning the nature of the show, Ashes to Ashes tended to take the viewer by the hand – perhaps, again, a nod to eighties television and storytelling. The series was all about answering the very questions that had made Life on Mars so addictive, and while I’m sure many viewers wanted that, I was quite happy to have an open-endedness to the show; a sense that the answers were to be found if we wanted them to be found.
What we got with Life on Mars was emotional closure.
Ashes to Ashes provided a mythological closure. But I didn’t even come close to tears this time around. And I wanted to. I had been watching for three years, enjoying most of what I saw but never feeling the same urgency and excitement I had felt with the original show.
For my money, I’ll take the emotional closure over the mythological one. The honest, raw and even upsetting ideas bandied about in the final moments of Life on Mars affected me more than the revelation of an Afterlife, which we could have extrapolated from clues in the earlier series. Throw in an insane performance from a character who was clearly signposted as The Devil, and you realise that the show is Grandstanding big-time, making sure that everyone understands what’s going on, leaving no one in doubt as to anything.
There were no phone-calls, emails, disagreements following the end of Ashes to Ashes.
But there was much to enjoy through the run of Ashes to Ashes, despite its feeling of being quite superfluous. Gene Hunt was always worth watching, even if they softened him up for the second series (he was often genuinely terrifying in Life on Mars, his bigotry entrenched and less cartoon-like than in the second show) and foolishly tried to make him a romantic lead of sorts (sorry, but I never bought the Hunt/Drake thwarted romance line). In fact, the main cast were usually engaging (I never had a problem with Keeley Hawes as Alex Drake, even though early criticisms of the show seemed to point to her) and never put in less than their all. I even rather liked the character of Jim Keats who came into season trhee as a “discipline and complaints” officer, but I was rather upset to see his portrayal disintegrate in the final episode as his evil machinations came to light. Pull it down a notch, he would have been terrifying. But all that hissing, laughing and talking in tongues (not to mention the Hell Express elevator which anyone in their right mind would have walked away from) took away any terror from the character’s revelations and intentions, relegating him to cliché of the week, something that stunted Life on Mars through all three seasons (again, I could put this down to its eighties pop culture roots).
By overtly stating everything that Life on Mars implied, the series ultimately lost me. I like to figure things out. Maybe I’m a rare viewer in that sense, but I like to let my TV shows make me do a bit of work. Not necessarily all the work all the time, but I like to be able to figure stuff out rather than have all the dramatic points handed to me on a plate.
All the same, its strange to think we’ll not be seeing Gene Hunt on our screens again. With his performance throughout both series, Philip Glenister certainly created an original, often inspired and eminently quotable character.
And certainly, his last insult of the series (thrown at a Dutch drug dealer whose gang had just shot up Gene’s beloved Audi Quattro) did give me cause for a grin: “You murdered my car, you dyke-digging tosspot!”
No matter what else, the Gene Genie never lost his way with words…