The “Life On Ashes” Universe

WARNING: This article contains open spoilers about the British TV shows Life On Mars and Ashes to Ashes.

So… a couple of weeks have passed since the Ashes to Ashes finale, and, as promised, I’m writing a couple of in-depth articles about that show, as well as its predecessor, Life On Mars. In the first article, I’ll discuss the main storylines of the shows, as well as the “real world consequences” of the storylines. And in the second article, I will discuss specific issues about both series, including the most obvious question: Is Gene Hunt God?

Life On Mars is the story of Sam Tyler, a Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) in the Manchester (England) Police in the year 2006. Sam has been chasing a thug named Colin Raimes for years, a man Sam knows to be a killer. Sadly, proof slips between his fingers on legal technicalities time and again. It seems that Raimes is coated in teflon.

One day, shortly after the suspect is released yet again, Sam’s girlfriend, Maya Roy (who is also a cop), gets a tip about the killer and leaves the station in a hurry. Soon, she calls Sam back to say that the tip might have been a trap, and it appears that she is being kidnapped. Sam leaves the office in a panic and begins driving wildly around Manchester looking for her. When it becomes obvious to Sam that he has no idea where Maya might be, his adrenaline glands calm down, and he pulls to the side of the road to think. But he doesn’t have much time to think: mere seconds after getting out of his car, he’s hit by another and left unconscious in the middle of the road.

Sam wakes up after what appears to be a few seconds. He’s still in Manchester. He’s still a cop. Only it’s now 1973. He’s dressed in the fashion of the time. His car has transformed from a Jeep Cherokee to a 1970-something Ford. The freeway he had parked near in 2006 doesn’t exist yet, so he’s in the middle of an abandoned lot. And the David Bowie song “Life On Mars” is still playing on his car stereo (although in 2006 the song was playing on an iPod and in 1973 it’s coming off an 8-track tape).

Some of Sam’s fellow (1973) cops have found him, and the next thing Sam knows, a cop is pulling him to his feet and asking him if he’s OK. This leads to a hilarious conversation that goes something like this (this is strictly from memory here):

Sam: I need my mobile!
Cop: Your mobile, what sir?
Sam: What? Nothing. Look, this isn’t even my car!
Cop: Not your car, sir?
Sam: No, I drive a Jeep.
Cop: You were driving a military vehicle, sir?

The cop finds some paperwork that indicates that Sam was transferring from Hyde (a quiet suburb of Manchester) to the Manchester and Salford Police CID. The 1973 cop shuffles Sam along to his new police station, so Sam never really gets the chance to “freak out”. He has to play along, even though he’s massively confused and under an extreme amount of stress.

At the station, he meets the cast of characters that now surround him: Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Gene Hunt (Sam’s new boss), Detective Sargeant (DS) Ray Carling and Detective Constable (DC) Chris Skelton. There’s also Woman Police Constable (WPC) Annie Cartwright, a character that initially fetches coffee and cleans out jail cells, but who rapidly comes to be important to Sam and is promoted to Woman Detective Constable (WDC).

At its heart, Life On Mars is a “cop show”, but with one important twist: although Sam now exists in 1973, all of his knowledge comes from 2006. He’s been trained in “modern” policing, with its reliance on mobile phones, laptops, huge computer databases, and advanced forensic tests that didn’t exist in 1973. Sam has also been trained in a more “enlightened” (politically correct) age. He is repulsed by his co-workers, who are chain-smoking, alcoholic, racist, homophobic, sexist, xenophobic frat-boy types. They’re far more likely to round up some “darkies” when a robbery happens, and they get their clues from slapping the “darkies” around until someone confesses something. “Poofters’ (male homosexuals) are sick perverts, out to “give the gay” to anyone they can, especially the sweet children of Manchester. And female police constables are good for nothing more than cleaning up after them, fetching their coffee, or taking a slap on the ass from her “superiors”.

The very core of the show, then, is Sam’s conflict with his 1973 co-workers. He’s completely reliant on them, yet they repulse him. As the show progresses, he begins to gain a grudging respect for them, though. Even if Sam disapproves of their methods, Gene Hunt and company get results nevertheless. And although Sam and Gene clash frequently, Gene is smart enough to know when Sam’s on to a good thing, even if everyone in 1973 considers Sam a bit nutty.

If they only knew! Whenever Sam is “less than fully conscious” – when he daydreams, “zones out”, and especially when he sleeps at night) he can often hear mechanical sounds and voices… the sound of his hospital room in 2006. Sam can hear the sound of the EKG machine beeping away. He can hear the nurses and doctors talking to him. He even hears his mother and Maya when they visit him. He can hear the voices at any time, especially “through” the TV and radio. This leads Sam to think that he’s in a coma in 2006 and that his brain “sent him back” to 1973 for some reason. If he can figure out the reason, he’ll be able “to find his way home” (back to 2006).

At first, Sam thinks the reason is Colin Raimes, the man he’s been pursuing all this time. If he can go back in time and have Raimes locked up, he’ll change Raimes’ future. After all, Raimes can’t kill anyone if he’s in prison, right? In his spare time, Sam starts putting information together about Raimes, and the series works up to a point where… Sam finds out that it wasn’t Colin Raimes that committed the murder at all, but a neighbor. So it’s back to the drawing board for Sam.

But Sam isn’t entirely alone in his 1973 world. Do you remember “test cards”? Back in the “olden days” TV stations used to run “test cards” when they’d go offline (in the U.S., stations typically played the Star Spangled Banner, ran the test card for a couple of minutes and then go offline). Anyway, the BBC used the following “test card” for years, and it became a British cultural icon:

Testcard F

Sam usually falls asleep with his TV on, and during the night he sometimes wakes up and looks directly at the TV. The girl is missing from the test card. Sam rubs his eyes to take a second look, and she’ll be standing next to Sam’s bed. She’ll give him clues as to what he needs to do to “get home”. Sam also gets hints from a lecturer from Open University (a British “remote learning” school like University of Phoenix, but using television instead of the Internet). There’s also Nelson, the Jamaican bartender at the pub where the boys hang out. It is initially suspected that Nelson is a Magic Negro that knows about Sam’s time travel; come to find out though, he’s just a “Zen stoner” kind of guy that just happens to be amazingly accurate with his advice to Sam.

Towards the end of the series, Sam hears a new voice in his 2006 hospital room. It’s a doctor that says that they’ve found a clogged blood vessel in his head, and that’s what’s keeping him in a coma. If they can remove the tumor, Sam will be able to come home. A few hours later, Sam is introduced to DCI Frank Morgan, his old boss from Hyde. Morgan (who has the same voice as the “new” doctor), tells Sam that he’s supposed to be working undercover, and that their plan all along has been to “take down Gene Hunt”. He tells Sam that they need hard evidence on Hunt to “remove this cancer from the police department”. The comparison between the “tumor in his head” and the “tumor on the force” is unmistakable.

Sam goes about collecting evidence of Hunt’s worst offenses. In the final episode, Hunt finds out about a planned train robbery, and comes up with an illegal counter-attack plan. Hunt doesn’t want to arrest the robbers, he wants to flat out kill them. Sam gets this information to Morgan… who then drops a bombshell: Sam really is from 1973. He takes Sam to a cemetery, where he sees the tombstones of his alias and his family. Morgan tells Sam that he was in a bus accident when he was 12 (which 2006 Sam remembers) and that the bus accident had caused far more profound mental damage that Sam thought. Sam had amnesia for some time after the accident, and Morgan feels that Sam somehow convinced himself that he was the “character” he was supposed to play. Morgan also gives Sam a radio and tells Sam to radio him for armed backup the second he needs help at the train robbery site.

Sam plays along with Gene’s plan, but it all goes to hell when Morgan’s radio falls out of Sam’s coat (Sam, like the rest of the cops, is disguised as a railroad employee). The robbers see the radio and open fire on the police. A massive gun fight breaks out. The radio won’t work inside the train, so Sam sneaks out of the boxcar to radio Morgan for help. He walks into a tunnel… only to be surrounded by white light. He wakes up in his hospital room in 2006. At his side? Doctor Frank Morgan, who successfully removed the tumor and brought Sam back.

All is not well with Sam, however. We see him being released from the hospital a few days later, and Sam quickly goes back to work. And Sam feels hollow and empty inside. He has no friends, and there’s no joy whatsoever to be had in 2006. During a meeting, Sam doesn’t even notice that he’s cut himself on a notebook. Sam can’t feel. And so he thinks that he’s actually more dead in 2006 than he was 1973. He goes to the roof of the police station and flings himself off the roof to the tune of “Life On Mars”.

Sam wakes up again, back in 1973 at the exact moment he left. He brings his friends to safety, then makes up with them at the local pub. They get an emergency call, and all pile in to Gene’s car to investigate a crime. On the radio, Sam hears the medical staff working on him back in 2006. He tells everyone that he “hates that station”, and changes it to something else. Gene’s car drives off into the sunset.


Ashes to Ashes is about a female police psychologist named Alex Drake. Alex wears many hats working for London’s Metropolitan Police Department, but one of the main ones is as hostage negotiator. One day – Alex was supposed to have teh day off because it’s her daughter Molly’s birthday – Alex gets an emergency call. A street person named Arthur Layton has taken someone hostage on the bank of the Thames, and has asked for Alex specifically. Alex has no choice but to respond. She calls Evan White, Molly’s godfather, and asks him to pick up Molly and take her to her birthday party, and that she’ll follow along soon.

It doesn’t quite work out that way, however. Alex told Molly to stay in the car, but Molly became curious and joined the spectators watching Alex talk to Layton. Molly becomes scared and rushes towards her mother. Arthur sees the opportunity and pushes away his hostage, taking Molly instead. When Alex turns her back to tell the cops not to shoot, Alex walks down some nearby steps to the bank of the Thames. A shot rings out. Alex, fearing the worst, runs down the stairs… to find Layton gone and Molly perfectly safe. Alex sends Molly on with Evan and sticks around for a while to files reports and do whatever it is cops do that takes so long at a crime scene.

Alex goes back to her car to go to Molly’s birthday party… only to find Arthur Layton in the back seat of her car. He forces her to drive to an abandoned barge. He gets his mobile phone and calls someone. He tells the person on the phone that “he has Tim and Caroline Price’s daughter” and that she’s about to find out why he’s brought her here. But then Arthur pulls the trigger, and Alex is shot in the head.

She wakes up on the barge in the year 1981. The old, rickety barge is now a glamorous party boat. Girls that could be supermodels and London yuppies down both champagne and cocaine in quantity. But soon, sirens are heard. As Alex stumbles around the party in a daze, the boat begins to be raided. The host of the party, thinks that Alex was a prostitute that “busted’ the party, so he grabs her and threatens to cut her throat. But just then, a red Audio Quattro pulls up… and Gene Hunt, Ray Carling and Chris Skelton get out of the car, fully armed.

I actually won’t spend a lot of time discussing Ashes to Ashes in this article. You can find exhaustive write-ups of each episode by clicking the Ashes to Ashes category on the right.

The main themes that formed Life On Mars are present in Ashes to Ashes. There’s incredible tension between Hunt (“a dinosaur”) and Alex Drake (a modern, feminist police officer). Just as Hunt’s racism, sexism, and homophobia created tension between Hunt and Sam Tyler, so it does between Hunt and Drake. The two initially hate each other, although just as in Life On Mars, Alex will come to respect and admire Gene all the same.

Alex, like Sam, believes that she was sent back in time for a reason, and as soon as she finds that “reason”, she too can “go home”. At first, Alex goes after Arthur Layton, thinking that if he’s in prison in 2008 he won’t be able to shoot her. When that doesn’t work, she begins to think that she’s supposed to save her parents, who were killed in a car bombing on October 10, 1981. She puts together an elaborate plan to keep her parents from being in their car on that particular date, but she finds out that she cannot change history: her father actually killed himself and his wife after she’d had an affair with Evan White (the same person that ends up as Molly’s godfather). Instead of saving her parents, poor Alex gets to watch them being blown to bits… all over again.

And that’s where series 1 of Ashes to Ashes ends.

In the next few days I hope to write “part 2” of this series of posts. In it, I will discuss all matters up for debate about the two shows. Are they really dead? Are they really traveling back in time? Are they simply crazy? Do Gene, Ray and Chris actually exist? Why did Sam and Alex both “find” Gene and company in their comas? Is Gene Hunt God? Is the time travel purgatory? Why did Alex’s memory change in the series 1 finale of Ashes to Ashes? These and other topics will be discussed. I hope to see you there!

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