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Afterlife on Mars: "Ashes to Ashes"

If there's been one series that I've been dying to see since I first heard about it, it would be the BBC's Ashes to Ashes, a spin-off from its groundbreaking drama Life on Mars, which launched last week to about 7 million viewers in the UK.

Sadly, it's going to be a long time until US audiences can catch the further story of DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), here partnered with tough 21st century profiler Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes), as BBC America, home to Life on Mars in the States, has yet to acquire Ashes to Ashes and has no air date for it.

But television waits for no man and, fortunately for this TV devotee, I was able to get my hands on the superlative premiere episode of Ashes to Ashes just days after its UK premiere. So was the wait worth it to find out just what happened to Life on Mars' Sam Tyler (John Simm)? And just what is this series about? Let's discuss.

Ashes to Ashes not only lives up to its pre-launch hype and the promise of Life on Mars, it turns that series on its ear, injecting more humor, sexual tension, and dread into its period drama than the former. Single mum and forensic psychologist DI Alex Drake has found herself in an even more precarious situation than Sam Tyler; while Tyler was in a comatose state during his stay in 1973, surrounded by carers in a hospital, Alex is clinging to life after being shot by her deranged kidnapper. She is alone, underground, she is dying... and she has woken up, dressed as a prostitute in 1981. (In a nifty bit of dread, she writes notes about her current hallucinatory state on a dry-erase board and inadvertently writes the word DEAD when asked what this means about her current state.)

It's not long before she encounters DCI Gene Hunt, now reassigned to London, along with DS Ray Carling (Dean Andrews) and DC Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster). While Sam was confused about whether he had gone mad, was in a coma, or had traveled back to 1973, Alex is more self-aware. For one, she worked with Sam during his "return" to 2006 prior to his suicide (yes, you read that correctly) and had read his case files; Alex knows that this world is somehow a construct of her subconscious. Yet somehow it's also connected to her past. While Sam returned to 1973 Manchester (the time and place of his father's disappearance from his childhood), Alex has turned up in 1981 London, just prior to her parents' death by car bomb. In both cases, Gene Hunt is a central figure and both Sam and Alex have been "transferred" to his department.

So who is Gene Hunt? Is he real or an imaginary figure? I'm not quite sure yet but the man is definitely back this time and age hasn't changed him one bit or mellowed his gruff sensibility. This time 'round, there's a nice bit of sexual tension between him and Alex. I am not sure why he figures so prominently into Sam and Alex's psychic escape route but Alex correctly surmises that this is her subconscious giving her a puzzle to solve so everything--including Gene--is essential to solving this inner riddle.

Also essential are the memories, regrets, and bizarre hallucinations that Alex experiences: everything from the memory of her parents' death to television characters Zippy and George... and the terrifying visage of the Pierrot clown (which echoes David Bowie in his "Ashes to Ashes" video). The clown is far scarier than Life on Mars' Test Card Girl and outright chilling as he runs at full-speed down an alley at a screaming Alex.... or speaks to her with her daughter's voice.

As for the final fate of Life on Mars' Sam Tyler, there's a definitive answer about his status in the past as well as a further mystery. Alex learns that Sam did return to 1973 (following his suicide in 2006), he did save the gang from those gunmen (as seen in the series finale), and remained there for seven years. He was killed in 1980 when he drove his car into the river during a car chase... but a body was never recovered. As for the fate of Annie Cartwright (Liz White), it's unclear what happened to her after Sam's death but I do hope that an encounter between Alex and Annie isn't impossible.

Ashes to Ashes definitely lured me in from its opening moments and had me hooked during its entire one-hour duration. Hawes (Spooks, aka MI-5) is a fantastic lead and exudes both gutsy confidence and psychic vulnerability. Like Sam, her Alex is determined, methodical, and at her wits' end. But she's also psychologically aware, not only of the world she has perhaps created, but also her proximity to death. And when she records a message for her daughter in the future, you are struck with the palpable sense that she will figure out a way to wake herself up in 2008 and survive her attack.

Glenister again nearly steals every scene he's in as Gene; his introduction in Ashes to Ashes is a thing of beauty as he and his gang drive up in a blood-red Audi Quatro and he steps out and removes his sunglasses like a thuggish rock star. It's a sight to behold, as is that of Gene, Chris, and Ray speeding down the Thames in a boat and clicking their firearms in place. (Miami Vice, eat your heart out.)

It's good to have these guys back on television and while it seems as though their characters haven't grown or changed in the "seven years" since we last saw them, it's clear that some things have changed. Sam's influence and his affect are clearly felt: Gene keeps newspaper clippings about Sam's death on his office building board. Chris, while still cautious, has learned from Sam and acts with a newly gained confidence, even flirting openly with the team's sole female member, Shazza (Love Soup's Montserrat Lombard). And Ray... he's still just as pigheaded, thick, and misogynistic as he ever was.

As for me, I am hopelessly head over heels in love with Ashes to Ashes. And while I wish I had more promising news about when this smart, slick, stylish drama will make it to these shores, all I can say is (to echo the words of the great Bowie himself): I'm happy, hope you're happy too. You will be whenever Ashes to Ashes finally makes it to air over here.


Anonymous said…
So jealous! I am dying to see this and am very upset that they don't yet have any plans to show it in the US. Life on Mars is one of my favorite shows and I'm so happy to hear that Ashes to Ashes is following in its brilliant footsteps. Now if only we could see it!!!
Anonymous said…
Had a baby 12 days ago and so have only just managed to fit in watching this first episode before the second airs tonight and, wow, it was brilliant. Not that anyone would think otherwise after reading Jace's excellent coverage, but just in case fans of Life on Mars were in any doubt, I think you will love this. Although a lot of effort typically goes into the pilot episode, this series already seems to have matured and have greater depth than its predecessor. Favourite part was at the very end in the Italian restaurant when Gene comes over and fills up her glass to the rim with some very dodgy looking Chianti - that little moment seemed so quintessentially eighties. And the music rocks.
Absolutely brilliant. Loved Life on Mars and was so upset when it ended but Ashes to Ashes has made me a happy girl once again. I just can't wait for more!
Anonymous said…
The music rocks, the cast rocks, Alex's wardrobe rocks, and the sexual tension between Alex and Gene Hunt rocks. Could this show be any more fabulous?

No. It could not.
Anonymous said…
Erm...Does no one see the real similarities between this show and ITVs AFTERLIFE...Which i preferred to be quite was done more tastefully and in a realistic style and setting.
Anonymous said…
Love this series. I loved LoM and was worried that this couldn't live up to the hype but the first two eps were great. Now if it only had a US airdate.

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