Ashes to Ashes (2008-2010) is the sequel series to Life on Mars. There are three seasons, totaling 24 episodes. Like Life on Mars, it’s created by Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah, and stars Philip Glenister, but John Simm has been replaced by Keeley Hawes for the lead. While you don’t technically have to have seen Life on Mars, it does help, as one of the mysteries is finding out what happened to Sam Tyler (John Simm) between series.
Unlike Life on Mars, which is out on DVD in both region 1 and region 2, Ashes to Ashes is only available in region 2/PAL. If you don’t have a region-free DVD player, you can watch all 24 episodes with a subscription to Hulu Plus. It’s on the UK iTunes, 24 episodes for 16.99 GBP.
[Contains spoilers for Life on Mars] After time-traveling coma patient (or whatever) Sam Tyler woke up from his 1972 hallucination, he spent a short time back in 2007 before jumping off a roof and returning to the 70s. What you didn’t see was Sam’s sessions with a police psychiatrist, Alex Drake, during that intermission in the modern world. He told her everything: How 70s Manchester was run by a bunch of corrupt policemen, and at the center of it all, DCI Gene Hunt; how he fell in love with a police officer named Annie; how it turns out that Hunt’s caveman ways aren’t so bad after all and they actually wound up being almost friends. Imagine Alex’s surprise when she’s shot and wakes up in 1981 to find that Gene Hunt and his team are running a London precinct. Is this world a fabrication, influenced by obsessively studying Sam’s psych files? Or is she actually back in time?
Where Life on Mars was all yellows and browns, Alex Drake lands in the 80s wearing a bright red hooker dress. The ceilings are black and white checkers. Gene’s tawny Cortina has been replaced with a sexy, little, red Quattro. The 80s is bright, bold, loud, and there’s a Bowie-esque white-painted clown running around while Alex is distractedly trying to prevent the 1981 death of her parents. Season 2 leaves all of this behind: the brightness, the clown, the parents plot. We go deep into the world of corrupt cops as Superintendent Mackintosh unpeels his darkest layers. Meanwhile Alex is stalked by another cop from the future, Martin Summers. It’s all charcoals and thick mist in this season.
Season 3 is one of the best bits of British telly there is, partly because they finally find balance between those bold 80s tones of S1 and shadowy, twisted dramas of S2; but partly because of the introduction to Jim Keats, played by Daniel Mays. All our baddies so far have been cops–Super Mac, Frank Morgan, Harry Woolf, and even DCI Litton to some extent–and Keats is no different. He’s from the Dept. of Discipline & Complaints, and he’s come to inspect Gene Hunt and his team, with full intent to catch him in something incriminating, to rid his precious London of the old-style, barbaric policing Gene represents. But is that what Keats is really up to?
Like JJ Abram’s Lost, which was airing on TV ’round about the same time as Ashes, we don’t know what genre this is supposed to be. Is it science fiction? Psychological? Fantasy? Spiritual? Whatever Keats is up to, it transcends the banality of police procedure. To Keats, Hunt is not a threat to just the department or to the force or to London or even the world. Hunt is unwittingly disturbing the fabric of reality with his gravitational heroism. So maybe it’s a good thing Keats is here, maybe Hunt is the bad guy. This isn’t too far fetched considering Frank Morgan convinced Sam Tyler (and the viewers) that Hunt was a tumor in his brain, preventing him from coming out of his coma. The way Keats speaks to Alex, you want to believe him, and a lot of this is credited to Danny Mays for playing a character who can be peering through the blinds of a dark office, confessing his hatred for the sweet Chris and Shaz one moment, and the next win you over by just talking. You may suspect he’s probably a bad person, but the sincerity that he plays to Alex is devilishly convincing.
In the season finale, all your questions are answered: What happened to Sam Tyler? Where are they? Is this place real? Who is Gene Hunt? Who is Jim Keats? Will Alex be rescued from the bullet in her brain? But for that, you’ll have to watch the show.
The season 3 finale of Ashes to Ashes is in my top 3 favorite moments of British television. I cried. I know some people have beef with the resolution, after waiting 5 years, but I thought it was brilliant. There are elements designed to be guessable and elements you never saw coming. It all the more solidifies Gene Hunt as being one of the best characters on TV. As far as the performers, Philip Glenister doesn’t waver in the genius that he uses to play Hunt, Keeley Hawes holds her own in the legacy cuban heels John Simm left for her to fill, Montserrat Lombard is a brilliant, fiery addition to the cast, and it’s so wonderful to see Marshall Lancaster and Dean Andrews explore Chris and Ray in deeper, darker ways. Finally, this was my introduction to Daniel Mays, and he blew me away.