Ashes To Ashes: Deja Vu
Life On Mars was undoubtedly one of the best dramas the BBC has produced for years, and deservedly became a ratings hit and minor cultural phenomenon. Ashes To Ashes has a lot weighing on it - it arrives just a year after we saw John Simm leap off a car park and back into the 70s, and lead actor aside, all the important creative talent has returned. While every effort has been made to make this stylistically a very different beast, it still operates around the same central conceit - and as wonderful and bizarre as it is to see a television franchise based around a group of old-school coppers who exist only in the coma dreams of their modern day equivalents - it's a mystery which has been solved, and regardless of the quality of episode one, it's hard not to feel like you know exactly what's going to happen throughout.
Our new time-displaced officer is DI Alex Drake, played by Keeley Hawes, in a performance that veers between the genuinely touching and the irritatingly over the top. The writers do a decent job of making her desire to return to the future (a young daughter, and the fact that she's been quite literally shot in the head) affecting enough that it doesn't feel overly reminiscent of Sam Tylers car accident, and while those few early scenes set in the present in LoM felt a bit like an episode of The Bill, a wonderful moody title sequence here establishes a more cinematic tone. That said, you do spend the first ten minutes waiting for something awful to happen to Keeley Hawes, and a daft contrivance to implement it (a police cordon letting a hysterical eight year old girl through) feels quite out of place. This feeling that the production team are struggling for something which isn't quite as good a fit for them as LoM was (the charm of which, moreso in the first series, was frequently in its restraint, where this series is keen to wave it's dick in your face at the earliest opportunity) is hard to shake when events move to 1981 also - rather than taking its cues from gritty cop shows like The Sweeney, Ashes To Ashes has a little bit of Moonlighting, a little bit of Miami Vice - and as such, the conventions of cheesy 80s TV are well represented. There's a lengthy machine gun battle in which Chris Skelton appears to be able to dodge bullets which approaches self-parody.
Now that we're aware Gene Hunt and his pals exist only in the minds of the protagonist, there's very little point tethering them to a consistent and believable reality. Having read up on Sam Tylers casefile, it makes sense for Alex Drake to see them in a more caricatured vein, with Gene Hunt in particular seeming like some kind of mythical sheriff. At points, he even seems aware that he's simply an aspect of her subconscious - her rants about needing to "return to the present" are more or less ignored, and he straight up tells her she has to "stay" for a while. This second incarnation is much more at home in a 1980s constructed out of nostalgia and TV cliches than he would be in LoM, where we were asked to ponder the possibility of genuine time travel at the start of every episode, and as such the 1970s had to be the actual real 1970s to some extent.
While all these stylistical changes seem logical, they feel like less of a good fit for what is essentially still an (increasingly mental) twist on the police procedural. The "formula" common between LoM and Ashes to Ashes starts to wear thin - it's fun to see the test card girl replaced with a scary David Bowie clown, and for the puppets from Rainbow to address Alex Drake in her dreams, but it also feels a bit old hat and inconsequential. Gene Hunt eventually telling her "you did good, kid" or whatever should have been some kind of emotional moment but was basically predictable and arbitrary because we know that's how it works now. Similarly, I was getting pretty bored of the main character shouting "LET ME OUT LET ME GO BACK TO THE FUTURE WHAT THE HELLS GOING ON" waaaaaay back in series one of LoM. It doesn't help that Alex is going "LET ME OUT LE ME GO BACK TO THE FUTURE WHAT THE HELLS GOING ON THIS IS *EXACTLY THE SAME THING THAT HAPPENED TO JOHN SIMM* WAAA" etc.Fucking enjoy yourselves! You're running round the inside of your own mind! You've created your own childhood inside your own personal holodeck! Except you've got a gun, and you're mates with Philip Glenister! What could possibly be more fun?
The fact that Alex Drake is a psychologist appears to be her super-modern way of solving crimes that will irk Gene Hunt in much the same way Sam Tyler was a rulebook-fiend, but hopefully future episodes will see her dissecting her own mind from the unique perspective of being trapped in a particular corner of it. It may not follow those lines but ultimately Ashes To Ashes will have to do something a bit more different from LoM than it has so far - turning everything up to 11 made for an engaging first episode but I can't see myself going "speedboats!" "zippy!" and grinning for seven more weeks.
But as I'm reviewing just this one episode and not the rest of the series I say FOUR STARS.