Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Ashes To Ashes Episode 1.1: Is There Life Beyond Mars?

Last week we got the opportunity to find out whether the BBC could replicate the success of Life On Mars with Ashes To Ashes. The verdict is very much yes and no, at least according to the media. Critical reaction varied wildly, from AA Gill in the Sunday Times and Sam Wollaston in The Guardian who hated it, to Hermione Eyre in the Independent On Sunday and Gerard O’Donovan in the Telegraph who loved it. In between, the Independent’s Robert Hanks thought it moderately good and Helen Rumbelow in The Times said it showed promise, while in The Observer Kathryn Flett deemed it quite poor. Here in webland, the forumers of Digital Spy largely wailed and bemoaned the new show, while over at Television Without Pity it was received, almost without exception, rapturously.

But as we’ve seen, it was the press who built Gene Hunt up as the star of Life On Mars and often ignored the more cerebral sci-fi aspects of the show in favour of lionising the 1970s, so we can safely assume that literally none of those people have any idea what they’re talking about (Wollaston, you’re not even trying – see me after class). Meanwhile, it seems the web denizens who disliked it did so mainly because it was not Life On Mars, which makes you wonder why they didn’t just spend the evening with their lovely Simmful Mars DVDs instead. Many reactions, even positive ones, compared episode one of Ashes To Ashes unfavourably with the original series, which considering Mars had 16 episodes – and bearing in mind it took a good six or seven of those to really hit its stride – seems unfair, not to mention pointless. Ashes has set itself up as a different show from the start and the first episode was a cracking success, albeit with one or two missteps.

Within the first ten minutes DI Alex Drake was established as a working single mother and clever police psychologist who has made a close study of Sam Tyler’s case and subsequent suicide. She was also called to a hostage situation, terrified, captured, taken to an abandoned boat on the Thames and shot in the head. No messing around. She awoke on the same boat in 1981, wearing a fantastic outfit that all at once demonstrated she was deep undercover, showcased the garish fashions of the time and allowed Keeley Hawes to show off her ace pins.

She was taken hostage (again – d’oh!) only to be rescued by Hunt and his sidekicks, at which point she went a bit funny. Several reviews have commented on Drake’s supposedly unprofessional behaviour, fainting and shrieking and crawling over the bonnet of an Audi Quattro in an unseemly manner. Presumably when these reviewers were shot in the head and transported 27 years back in time, they weren’t disoriented at all! After the whirlwind beginning, the middle half-hour of the episode was non-stop delight, as Drake was forced to deal with the old-fashioned coppers while she came to terms with having the same fantasy as her study subject.

Although she quickly realised that the key to Hunt’s current case was the man who shot her in the “present” and used her modern analytical prowess to ensnare him, she hasn’t yet realised that – like Tyler – she has emerged from her trauma into a hugely significant period of her own “real” life. Whereas for Tyler it was the year his father left, for Drake it is several months before her parents died – an event mentioned by her captor in 2008. This is fine plotting. Not only did it give Drake a case to solve in episode 1.1, it gives the series a mystery arc that will no doubt be gradually revealed week by week.

The last 15 minutes were a bit wonky, unfortunately. The final showdown was set up by a transparently ludicrous scheme involving Chris Skelton and new cast member Shaz Granger (Montserrat Lombard from BBC1’s Love Soup), a ruse that might have been designed to get the young WPC abducted. During the gunfight that followed, I half expected Graham Chapman’s colonel character to wander on and order them to stop because it was getting far too silly.

And when Hunt, Skelton and Ray Carling turned up with machine guns on a BLOODY SPEEDBOAT to save the day (a day which in any case didn’t need much saving), the show surely tipped over into parody. But the resolution was nicely handled, particularly Drake’s understanding that she did not need simply to arrest her 2008 assailant just to get back home, prompted by Granger’s endearingly artless musings on death.

Despite the occasionally overdone 1981 touches – I think I could have done without the coppers singing Shaddup You Face to an Italian barman – the programme showed a sense for period detail as astute as that of Life On Mars; I especially enjoyed Drake’s white leather jacket, echoing Tyler’s ever-present coat in Mars. As for characters, WPC Granger (a nod to Harry Potter?) is already a decent addition – a sweet and down-to-earth figure similar to Mars’s Cartwright, but clearly meant as a love interest for Skelton – and I thought it was a nice touch to have the bluff Carling tell Drake about how Tyler had returned to them in 1973, which she couldn’t know because it was his death in 2006 that precipitated this. I was, however, a little disturbed by 1981-vintage Carling’s resemblance to Reed Rothchild.

He has other interests – he’s a magician! Dean Andrews handled this well. Philip Glenister was his usual larger-than-life self, although with a few reflective moments that suggest Hunt may have been through changes (or, as the programme would probably have it, ch-ch-ch-changes), and bounced nicely off Hawes, who was excellent in the main role. Some critics hammered her for all the shrieky stuff, seemingly forgetting that John Simm spent much of Life On Mars grabbing his head, talking near-gibberish and howling like a bereaved Noddy Holder. And for pity’s sake, she’s been shot in the head and sent back to 1981! Hawes did absolutely fine with everything the role threw at her, and even fleetingly displayed a hitherto unseen talent for comedy.

So episode 1.1 was by no means flawless, and at times it was trying a bit too hard to attract viewers, even for a pilot. Props to my girlfriend for pointing out that it also ignored its own internal logic by having scenes that did not feature Drake, which should be impossible if you accept that it’s her fantasy – unlike Life On Mars, which went out of its way to ensure Tyler appeared in every single scene. I suppose this might be due to the growing perception that Hunt is the real star (Glenister has also moved up to the top of the credits). But overall it was a great episode, both in itself and as a setup for the rest of the series, and I have every confidence that it can become as good as Mars did – and will possibly get there more quickly.

ETA: I feel I would be remiss if I did not mention Ashes’ replacement of Tyler’s test card girl with a clown, or strictly speaking a pierrot, from the eponymous David Bowie video. Although I don’t go along with the current coulrophobic consensus – seriously, it’s just a dude in a suit with some white slap on – I found this vision much more explicitly nightmarish than the little girl with the doll, especially when he took a run at Drake in the junkyard. I also liked that Drake was prepared to turn and face the pallid fiend, just one of the many subtle bits of character portrait that were scattered through the episode.

Hunt’s line of the week

Has to be his opening line, delivered to the sleaze who takes UndercoverDrake hostage:
Today, my friend, your diary entry will read, ‘Took a prossie hostage, and was shot by three armed bastards’!

Speaking of which…

Sleaze of the week

Life On Mars had a few memorable villains, notably Marc Warren in episode 2.1, but for me Ashes has already beaten them hands down by casting Adam James – last seen in the Extras Christmas special as slimy agent Tre – as a City boy/drug dealer. James almost smells of the 1980s; he could, and possibly does, teach a degree course in Advanced Sleaze at the University of Sleaze:


Most disturbing announcement by a one-handed childhood icon of the week

Zippy: Forget your mum, Molly. She’s never coming back.

Gorgeously cinematic/silly/genius/hilarious/unbearably pretentious shot of the week

Amusing 1981 reference of the week

Drake: There’s nothing on this hard drive but the time and date.
Hunt: Pong! I’ve got Pong.

Inappropriate Hunt moment of the week

It would be his pronouncement that an armed Drake in leather gave him “the horn”, had it not been for his reaction to Drake’s feeling of his heartbeat. Which was somewhat different from Cartwright’s when Tyler did the same to her in Life On Mars.

Speech we’d better get used to hearing over the opening credits every week of the week

My name is Alex Drake. I’ve just been shot and that bullet has sent me back to 1981. I may be one second away from life, or one second away from death. They say that as you die, your life flashes before you. All those memories and mistakes that form us. Well, bring it on. My life can flash away as much as it likes because I am not going to die. I’m coming back to you, Molly.

1 comment:

Toots McGee said...

This review gave me the horn.