Philip Glenister (Gene Hunt), Keeley Hawes (Alex Drake), Dean Andrews (Ray Carling), Marshall Lancaster (Chris Skelton), Montserrat Lombard (Shaz Granger)
Summary: "My name is Alex Drake. I've just been shot and that bullet has sent me back to 1981. I may be one second away from life, or one second away from death. All I know is I have to keep fighting, fight to live, fight to see my daughter, fight to get home."
Arrh, mateys, thar be a ton of spoilers ahead!
Naturally I had to keep going, especially when the opening episode reveals that Sam Tyler lived on for another seven years. I wanted to know what happened with/to him and Annie. Alex Drake...not so much. Sure all the snide remarks about "hello, constructs" are quite funny, but I never felt for her in the first series. I have a theory as to why that's the case.
Fashion interlude! Here is definitive proof that 1983 was far, far cooler than either 1981 or 1982. A known truism.
Perhaps because Sam Tyler was very much like the Doctor in that his fashions changed minutely, or perhaps because I'm a woman looking at historic examples of women's fashions--fashions I would've worn in some variant or another during my youth--I was constantly distracted by Drake's clothes, jewelry, hair and make-up. Keeley Hawes must've had a ball, although I'm convinced the skin-tight trousers and jeans of 1982 were expressly designed to make women look as chunky as possible. Why, trends, why???
Enough girly fluff.
Season, The First: Alex Drake's driving issue is to save her parents from a car bomb. Naturally, as with Sam's quest to save his dad, she assumes that this is the puzzle she must solve in order to get home. Back in her 2008 life she's been shot and left for dead, which means that in both worlds she literally needs a hero.
Enter Gene Hunt.
He's rather a softy in the first season, especially compared to his initial interactions with Sam. He is Alex's shoulder to lean on, sometimes while she's wearing only a bra. She's as crazy as a bag of bees and needs his stability. And when she's a little girl who just lost her parents, Gene is the hand she holds. All of this is a reflection of her lonely, abandoned circumstances back in the real world, even though her actions in 1981 are flippant and nutty, always under the assumption that her stay will be temporary. Why take any of the ramifications seriously? I think that flippancy, as well as Alex's complete unwillingness to blend in or join forces with her teammates, made connecting with her difficult.
Season, The Second: Alex begins to forget things about her origins. She begins to...blend. She becomes a true member of the team, with Gene as her touchstone and partner. The sexual banter of the first season is almost entirely replaced by a strong trust and respect for one another. Why? Alex has been trapped in the past long enough to give up hope of a quick return. Even the cinematography creates more muted shades, creating a world where she doesn't stick out like a roman candle.
In addition, her body was discovered. She's alive and in need of immediate medical care. The Alex of 2008 needs teamwork, organization and professionalism if she's to survive. Thus her 1982 persona requires it too. She doesn't need a hand-holding hero in Gene Hunt, but a no-holds-barred stud who gets the job done and won't let her down. It's about trusting in a system and believing in goodness. The worst scenario would be to learn that the whole system is corrupt or inept. The ultimate failure of that system to prevent the inevitable is represented by Gene's accidental shooting. No one means for bad things to happen, but sometimes they just do. The system did its best...to no avail.
My favorite scenes dealt with the revelations about Chris's corruption. His confession made me well up. His shame was gut-wrenchingly palpable, and Gene's disappointment and anger radiated out through the screen. Mesmerizing acting on the parts of Lancaster and Glenister.
Season, The Third: Well...sorry, Alex. Here we have yet another cinematic change. There is continuity with the second season in that Alex blends with her teammates, but the cinematography is all "heavenly." The sky glows gold, never blue, which mirrors the golden glow on Sam and Annie's faces when they kiss during the finale. Gene is almost always backlit by a halo of light. I knew what I was looking for, but the effect was actually quite subtle. It simply looks...off.
All of the characters revert to type. Instead of being what Alex needs in order to get home, they are free to be who they really are--especially Gene. His personality is no longer defined by Alex and her desperation but by the circumstances of his demise. He's really a surly, immature 19-yo with a cowboy complex, which makes his popularity in current British culture so amusing...and vaguely disturbing. They're idolizing a foul-mouthed little kid. But at least we can better understand why Sam and Alex were always showing him the error of his sloppy attention to detail and quick hunches. After only a week on the beat, how much could he have known about police procedure?
In fact all of the cops in the CID need tutoring, perhaps an explanation as to why they'd been stuck so long. They needed Sam and Alex, more mature cops, to show them how to behave. Their steady growth is slow, slow, slow--but it's there, which endeared me to Ray, Chris and Shaz. Oh, and did you notice how Chris and Shaz avoided marriage, and how none of them ever had kids? Not even Sam and Annie married. If you get old skool and consider that marriage is a contract made between a man, a woman and God for the purpose of procreation, then there's no place for it in purgatory.
But the chemistry between Hawes and Glenister hits its high-point in season three. They are mature friends by this point, as much adversaries as colleagues, as much strangers as would-be lovers. Watching them come to their various realizations was actually painful, squeezing my heart, because neither could protect the other from the truth. All that was done had already been done, and they could only comfort one another so far. Brilliant acting, brilliant writing.
As far as the overall nitty-gritty of storytelling, "Ashes to Ashes" and "Life on Mars" have very little in common. LOM is a single arc of 16 episodes. It's told entirely from Sam's point of view, with no on-screen action taking place without his involvement and observation. The idea that it's "all in his head" is maintained faithfully. The "happy" ending is much easier to get on board with, because who can say what happens inside the brain during the final few seconds of life? If the show's idea had ended right there, that's the explanation that would've stuck. End of.
But A2A is told through multiple points of view. There are clues everywhere that the story is not entirely Alex's to tell, in that figments of Sam's imagination have lived on without him. Rather than one continuous arc, the three seasons are distinct in look, in theme and in how the characters interact. I didn't like how jarring that jump felt, especially when trains of thought and characters from season one just...disappeared (Alex's fixation in season one with control and being able to manipulate her surroundings; Arthur Layton). Also, to buy into Alex's "happy" ending, one must presuppose the existence of God, which added a mythic element I hadn't expected.
That said, I cried like a lonely little baby during 3/5 of the finale. To have come so far together...only to have to say goodbye? Ouch. But The Railway Arms is as good an idea of heaven as any biblical passage. Go for it.
When it's all said and done I much preferred LOM over A2A, but both are utterly brilliant television. I won't see their equal again for some time.