Ashes to Ashes: Season 1, Episode 1

It’s finally here:

Ashes to Ashes

After what seems like forever, the BCC aired the first episode of Ashes to Ashes this past Thursday. The show is the sequel (of sorts) to my all-time favorite TV show, Life On Mars.

As you might know, Life On Mars is about Detective Inspector Sam Tyler, a police officer in modern day Manchester, England. One day while on duty, Tyler gets hit by a car. When he wakes up, he’s still in Manchester, he’s still a cop… but the year is 1973. He’s found by some Manchester cops who think Sam’s just passed out. While trying to figure out who he is, they find his badge and some papers indicating that he was transferring from one Manchester precinct to another. When Sam wakes up, they helpfully take him to his new precinct. Sam, totally confused but feeling he has no other choice, begins working with the cops.

There’s his boss DCI Gene Hunt (pictured above, left), DS Ray Carling, DC Chris Skelton and WPC Annie Cartwright. And what a motley group they all are. Hunt, Carling and Skelton are racist, sexist, homophobic, and slightly corrupt. They solve crimes the old-fashioned way: by smacking people around until someone talks. Sam, needless to say, feels like a fish out of water. He’s used to a world with advanced forensics, mobile phones and laptop computers… to say nothing of more politically-correct attitudes. In a very real sense, much of Life On Mars is an ordinary cop show. It’s as if someone from one of the CSI shows somehow traveled back in time to wind up on Kojak.

But there’s more than that. Sam can hear voices. Sometimes they come from the radio. Sometimes they come from late night TV. Sometimes he can just hear them anywhere. The voices are those of people in his hospital room back in 2006. He can hear the voices of the nurses working on him. He can hear his Mom’s voice when she comes and visits him. Her can hear the doctor giving his mother Sam’s prognosis. But all is not, exactly, what it seems. Is Sam really a time traveler from 2006? Or is he just crazy and it really is 1973? If so, why does he have visions of a life in 2006? And why go back to 1973? Why that specific year? You’ll just have to watch the show to find out!

In any case, Ashes to Ashes picks up the story. Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes, from Spooks) is a hostage negotiator. She supposedly has the day off to celebrate her daughter’s birthday. But she gets an urgent call while driving her daughter to her birthday party: a street crazy with a gun has taken someone hostage, and has asked the police for Drake specifically. She has no other option but to attend to the matter.

While Alex is talking with the hostage taker, he suddenly starts singing “I’m happy, hope you’re happy too” (from David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes”). Alex’s daughter, who has ignored Alex’s order to stay in the car, becomes scared and rushes towards her mother. The hostage taker, seeing an advantage, releases his hostage and takes Alex’s daughter instead. In the confusion that ensues, the two disappear, and Alex almost loses it when a gunshot is heard. Tracking down the noise, she finds her daughter unhurt and the hostage taker gone. Alex calls her daughter’s godfather to take the child on to the party while she “cleans up this mess”.

After talking with the cops and “cleaning up the mess”, Alex gets back in her car to drive to the party, only to find the hostage taker in the back seat waiting for her. He takes her to a barge on the Thames where he shoots her. Alex later wakes up on the barge… only to find herself in the middle of a party fueled by cocaine and hookers. And oh yeah, it’s now 1981. The sounds of police sirens can be heard as Alex walks around the party trying to make sense of it all. The party is being raided by the cops, and the host apparently thinks that Alex is the one that’s called them. He tries to take Alex hostage, only to run smack dab into… Gene Hunt, Ray Carling and Chris Skelton. Hunt initially thinks that Alex is “just another prozzie” from the party… until he searches her and finds her badge.

Alex is even more freaked out by her time travel than Sam Tyler was. She’s a trained psychologist, you see, being a hostage negotiator and all. She tries to rationalize everything, to make sense out of her situation… until she mentions Tyler to Hunt, who reveals that Tyler only died the previous year, and that’s a big part of the reason why he and his crew moved to London. Unlike Life On Mars, where it wasn’t immediately clear why Sam was transported back to 1973, Drake thinks she knows exactly why she was sent to 1981. She’s convinced that the hostage taker (from 2006) is a drug lord (in 1981), and that by busting him, she can put him in prison and stop herself from getting shot in 2006. Just like on Life On Mars, though, it just isn’t that simple.

What, exactly, the future holds for Alex isn’t clear (hey, it’s only been one episode!). I’m glad that the show’s writers didn’t take the “easy way out” by simply making this Life On Mars 2. Sam Tyler’s character is firmly a part of this show, everything that happened in Mars affects Ashes. Alex uses her knowledge of Sam to make the transition from 2006 to 1981 somewhat easier. She knows, for instance, that Sam heard his voices mostly in radios and televisions, so she seeks out both to see if she can hear her doctors. No dice, apparently (at least so far). And just as Mars had its surreal moments, so too does Ashes. Instead of being haunted by Test Card F like Sam, Alex is haunted by a Pierrot clown (perhaps not coincidentally, David Bowie dresses up as a Pierrot clown in the “Ashes to Ashes” music video). And unlike Mars, where Test Card F could only originate from the TV, the clown can apparently show up anywhere, much to the distress of Alex.

All in all, it’s a great show so far. But then, it also has some massive shoes to fill. It would be hard to be “as good as” or “better than” Mars, especially since this is a follow-up. But everything’s good so far. Especially the soundtrack. While I liked Mars’ soundtrack, I’m really digging Ashes’ soundtrack. Episode 1 alone featured “I Fought The Law” by The Clash, “Vienna” by Ultravox, “Are Friends Electric” by Gary Numan, “No More Heroes” by The Stranglers, “I’m in Love with a German Film Star” by The Passions, “Careless Memories” by Duran Duran and “Same Old Scene” by Roxy Music.

That last song, in fact, is used at the very end of episode 1. Drake is alone in her apartment. She grabs a police radio and, hoping that anyone from 2006 will hear her, begins a short speech where she promises her daughter that she’ll come home. By the time the speech is over, Alex is in tears. Exhausted and resigned to her fate in to be in 1981 for now, she seeks out Gene and the rest of “the gang”. Alex heads back to an Italian restaurant that appeared earlier in the episode. She sits at the bar. Gene walks up, pours her as glass of wine, then walks away. She looks back at him, then stares off into space… as the song goes on:

Nothing lasts forever
Of that I’m sure
Now you’ve made an offer
I’ll take some more

Young loving may be
Oh so mean
Will I still survive
The same old scene?

Fucking perfect.

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