In the UK: Thursdays, 9pm, BBC1
In the US: Not yet acquired
1981! Brilliant! Much better than 1973.
I loved 1981. I may only have been eight at the time but it seems to have left a lasting impression on my musical tastes among other things. So what could be better than Life on Mars in 1973?
How about a sequel, Ashes to Ashes, set in 1981? That's got to be great hasn't it?
Or has it?
Plot (a flashback to the BBC web site)
It's 1981 and DCI Gene Hunt is back and he's swapped his Ford Cortina for an Audi Quattro, but is the 'The Manc Lion' we met in Life on Mars turning soft?
Gene turns his attentions to taking on the “southern nancy” criminal scum and flanked by his faithful sidekicks DS Ray Carling and DC Chris Skelton, he transfers down South to the London Met.
But Gene gets a surprise when he is thrown together with a sexy, ambitious and intelligent officer in the shape of single mother DI Alex Drake.
Alex has risen rapidly through the ranks of the Met and in the modern world of 2008 is renowned for using her skills as a psychological profiler to capture suspects.
But Alex is ripped from her current world of equality and respect when she and her daughter are kidnapped. She is shot while making a bid for freedom and wakes up in a brothel in 1981, surrounded by men who look like something out of Miami Vice and is confused, to say the least.
Here Alex comes face to face with some familiar characters, not just from her own life-time, but also from the reports logged by none other than Sam Tyler, which Alex has spent months pouring over.
In Eighties London, with a soundtrack of Bucks Fizz and The Human League ringing in her ears, Alex finds herself working with the brash and politically incorrect Gene Hunt and his Stone-Age opinions on women.
Frustrated by each other's stubbornness, the friction builds and it soon becomes clear there is more than just a professional relationship blossoming.
Is it any good?
Life on Mars ended with Sam Tyler returning to real life, after discovering that he'd been in a coma after his car crash. No time travel, no madness, just a coma dream. Then he chucks himself off a building so he can return to the magical world of Gene Hunt and 1973.
How to do a sequel then? The producers hit on the nifty idea of having a police psychologist, Alex, listen to Sam Tyler's dream report and then having her thrown into a coma. So now we have Life on Mars in London, 1981, but with more or less the same cast of characters and ideas. Even the plot of the first episode is pretty much the plot of the first episode of Life on Mars.
So Gene. Chris and Ray are all there, but driving an Audi Quatro and wearing 80s' fashions. There's an Italian restauranteur to replace the 'Jamaican' pub owner. There's Zippy and George from Rainbow (re-voiced by Roy Skelton, no less!) to replace the voices from the TV and there's a scary clown (from David Bowie's Ashes to Ashes video, youngsters) to replace the testcard girl. There's even a sub-conscious mystery to be solved - Alex's car-bombed parents substitute for Sam's dad.
But since we now know it's not a time-travel show, a lot of the discipline seems to have been thrown to one side. While Life on Mars was at pains to make it plausible that Sam had actually gone back in time, making Gene and co realistic characters, Ashes to Ashes is dreamlike. People move from place to place in the blink of an eye. They can evade sustained machine gun without problems. They no longer seem like real people, just characters in a dream who are in no real danger. Fashions and decor seem to have come from all over the 80s rather than specifically 1981. Even Alex, the real person, seems dreamlike - way too posh for the police and since when did the CIA rather than the FBI train up police psychologists on secondment?
And as Gene and co are second-hand delusions, they seem to have inherited their dialogue from Sam's memoirs. Rather than Ashes to Ashes being a show in its own right, it's like a riff on Life on Mars, revisiting all those things you loved about the original show – in particular, Gene Hunt. Like 'armed bastards'? Here, have it again. There'll probably be a T-shirt soon.
There are differences. Keeley Hawes' Alex is far more of an entertaining character than the buttoned-down Sam. The fact that it is all a dream means it can be scarier, with the clown popping up in all sorts of unexpected places if you look closely enough.
We also have a few hints that maybe - just maybe - it's not all a dream and Alex is really dead. The fact that Ray (or was it Chris?) knows that Sam came back to help his friends in their hour of need - which, of course, was during his suicide jump and therefore wasn't in Sam's report - suggests that maybe we are dealing with some kind of afterlife. As does the fact that Gene Hunt and co look exactly like they did in Sam's dream. Just good description from a trained witness, the requirements of TV or something more? But I suspect we'll have two series to find that out.
All in all, a bit of a mess. But then so was the first episode of Life on Mars. We'll just have to wait to see how the rest of the series develops to see if it's a 'me, too' show, milking the concept and Gene Hunt for all they're worth, or whether it can carve itself something original. At the very least, if it's non-stop music from 1981, I won't be minding at all. Gary Numan! Yey!
- February 16, 2008: Questions and realisations from television last month
Some realisations and questions raised by the last month's television