Ashes To Ashes: saluting a terrific sequel

Despite its teething problems, Life On Mars sequel Ashes To Ashes went on to surpass even the heights of its original show...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Sequels are hard to get right. Go too far in a new direction and you run the risk of betraying the original, hew too closely to an established formula and you’ll be accused of repetition. Television spin-offs arguably have an easier time of it as they can essentially recreate themselves in the image of whatever aspect of the original show they’re putting front and centre, but the tricky balancing act of creating something new while giving people what they want remains.

Ashes To Ashes is a television rarity; while it is often referred to as a Life On Mars spin-off, it’s actually a direct sequel, the second part to a bigger story. Rather than simply make Gene Hunt the protagonist and focus predominantly on him, it gives us a new audience surrogate in the form of Alex Drake, continues narrative and character arcs left over from the previous series, provides closure to unanswered questions and ultimately builds towards a finale that firmly closes the book on both preceding shows. Watching either Life On Mars or Ashes To Ashes in isolation means missing out of crucial parts of the overall story.

All of this might seem to suggest that Ashes To Ashes is essentially just its parent show by another name, but that isn’t true either. What is so masterful and surprising about Ashes To Ashes is that while feeling like a natural culmination and continuation of an instant classic, it very much forges its own path in terms of tone, character development and the way in which it tells its story. In retrospect, its remarkable just how much Ashes To Ashes got right. Even if that didn’t initially seem to be the case.

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Life On Mars was one of those rare TV shows that was instantly iconic. Between a great cast, brilliant concept, clever appeal to nostalgia before that was an ubiquitous thing and an all-time great breakout character in DCI Gene Hunt, its perfect ending after only two seasons was a bittersweet moment. While it crafted one of the all-time great TV show conclusions, it also left just about everyone wanting more. A sequel seemed like the logical next step, and with John Simm’s departure being the main reason for the show ending prematurely in the first place, a new instalment with a new character in a different decade would have looked like a great opportunity.

Early reviews of Ashes To Ashes were fairly tepid however, and re-watching the first series it’s not hard to see why. Gene Hunt’s famous one liners don’t seem nearly as sharp and, separated from the rougher, sleazier world of the early seventies he already seems like a man out of time. One aspect that the reviews rightly jumped upon was the attempt to remake him as a kind of eighties action hero, complete with his own swelling orchestral theme song and various scenes of slow motion badassery. Compared to the way that Life On Mars, while relishing his behaviour, hardly glorified it, it felt a little tonally off and seemed to wear away some of his nuance and believability. Furthermore, the early characterisation of Alex Drake is very easy to be irritated by; while the series avoids repetition by having her be aware of Tyler’s case, it also makes her seem loud, arrogant and smug in a way that causes the character to verge on unlikeable.

But these very quickly became clear as teething problems, and for its flaws the first series of Ashes To Ashes began establishing the elements that would soon cause the show to surpass its predecessor. And yeah, I’m going to call it now; Ashes To Ashes is better than Life On Mars.

This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with Life On Mars; it’s a brilliant TV show in its own right and the very things that differentiate the two are the things that make each great. Life On Mars, despite an attention-grabbing premise and occasional flashes of creepy weirdness, is at its heart a very simple, charming police procedural built on characters that are easy to like but never develop much beyond their initial introductions. Ashes To Ashes, on the other hand, shifts the focus from the central odd couple double act to more of a team dynamic, allowing each of the characters to be explored in far greater depth than the previous show. Ray turns from a boorish antagonist to someone worth rooting for, Chris’ innocent naivete has terrible consequences in one of the show’s most heartbreaking and difficult to watch moments and Gene Hunt himself reveals unexpected new depths as the things he values and believes in start falling apart around him in a new decade he doesn’t understand.

Much of the character development is achieved through something that Life On Mars never really dabbled in; serialisation. While there were plot elements that were set up and paid off over both series of Life On Mars, Ashes To Ashes gives each run a clear overall arc that keeps developing in the background of all the police procedural stuff, and sometimes directly because of it. And each is an unqualified success. Alex’s attempts to solve the mystery of her parents’ death in series one culminates in the kind of twist that has you screaming at your TV, the investigation into police corruption that characterises series two is heart-in-mouth stuff and in its drive to wrap up the deeper mysteries of both shows, series three goes beyond anything we’d seen from the series before, delivering a near perfect run of episodes that managed to be by turns haunting, beautiful, terrifying, heartbreaking and life affirming.

It’s impossible to talk at length about Ashes To Ashes without discussing its ending. Does it have the iconic power of the way Life On Mars wrapped up? No, but damned if it isn’t one of the most satisfying, perfect conclusions in television history, paying off five years worth of story in a way that not only made sense, but enriched everything that came before with a mythic, melancholic majesty. And while so many of us saw it coming or worked it out after endless hours dissecting the show on message boards, none of that robbed the moment of truth of any of its punch. Like the best twists, it didn’t hit hard because it was unexpected, it hit hard due to a masterful marriage of acting, writing and direction. No matter at what point you worked out the identity of the ghostly young policeman haunting Alex, that scene in the derelict old house still had so much power to it as Gene Hunt, after everything, was finally brought low, finally revealed to be exactly what he is; a kid taken too soon, living out his dream of being the law, the very dream that got him killed.

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There is an inherent tragedy to Hunt; while everyone else comes to terms with their demons and moves on, he remains where he is, forgetting the pain of the past until the next time he has to usher someone along to the next life. Could he go himself if he chose? Very possibly. But he won’t because that would mean letting go of being Gene Hunt, the legend. And so he is doomed to an eternity of doing exactly what he always wanted.

While the series had often flirted with the supernatural (for example, in its very premise), it wasn’t until that final season that the cosmic scope of what was going on became clear. We were watching a story of heaven and hell and purgatory, of lost souls finding what they had lacked in life and escaping the clutches on a literal devil in the form of DCI Jim Keats. It’s big, lofty stuff but part of the brilliance of Ashes To Ashes is that it never felt overblown. These are characters who never seemed to dwell too much on bigger questions, not when there was a job to do, and even the finale had a ‘case of the week’ of sorts that still had to be dealt with among all the dark revelations.

Ashes To Ashes may have introduced more complexity to the world of Life On Mars, but the same values remained at its heart; doing the right thing and taking pride and satisfaction in a job well done. In the end, that seemed somehow more important than the huge cosmic struggle that the series took place in the middle of and while the heavy implication was that the battle between Gene Hunt and Jim Keats would rage on, we said goodbye as the characters we had gotten to know and love moved through the door of the Railway Arms to whatever lay beyond, a moment that found beauty in how very mundane it was. At the end of a hard day’s work, it’s time to go to the pub. In that way, Ashes To Ashes could not have been more true to its predecessor.

None of this is to suggest that the series was flippant in how it dealt with questions of mortality and the afterlife. In fact, series three is rife with haunting imagery and spine tingling moments, from the regular appearances of young Gene’s ghostly figure to the flashes of the farmhouse where he died to the glimpses of a great starry beyond that greeted each of our characters as they reached their personal catharsis. And then of course there was Ray and Shaz’s rendition of Danny Boy in the fifth episode of series three (arguably the best episode of both shows), a scene that started funny, became sweet then turned haunting as the line “if I am dead, as dead I well may be” is sung over the faces of all the policemen watching. For me personally this was the moment the penny dropped and, incidentally, is almost a perfect encapsulation of all the things that made Ashes To Ashes special. Big things might have been happening around them, but Ashes To Ashes never lost sight of its characters and who they were, and it’s because of this that re-watching the show today has that very distinct yet melancholic feeling of revisiting old friends.

Perhaps it’s unfair to say that Ashes To Ashes is superior to Life On Mars. What it really did was build on an already strong foundation to create something darker, richer and more ultimately satisfying, albeit something that could not have existed without what came before it. The fact is that the two shows are incomplete without each other. Taken together they form one of the absolute greats of British television and, for my money, television in general. Would I say no to more Gene Hunt somewhere down the line? Probably not. Any chance to revisit that world would be pretty marvellous. But Ashes To Ashes bowed out at the very top of its considerable game and in the process ensured its legacy for years to come. You can’t ask much more from any show than that.