Fire up the Quatro! (Ashes to Ashes - A Retrospective Review) [contains spoilers]
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So, it’s over. And in all honesty, what an ending.
But first, a little background. In 2006 a fantastic series called Life On Mars began. It starred John Simm as a present-day policeman, who ends up in a coma and goes back to 1973, where he has to figure out what is happening, whilst dealing with classic 70s policeman DCI Gene Hunt. It was funny, witty, intelligent, and very entertaining. It made two series, and ended with a perfect ending.
Then, it was followed by spin-off series Ashes to Ashes, which featured another cop (this time a woman) going back to the 80s, and playing out a similar series of events. I’m going to start by saying that it wasn’t as good as Life on Mars. For starters, it suffered from the inevitable plague of “spin-off syndrome”. Namely, that most spin-offs are awful. Now, that wasn’t true here, it just wasn’t as good as its predecessor. Part of the problem was lead actress Keeley Hawes. She just didn’t have the same chemistry with Glenister that Simm did (which is a little odd when you think about it, actually…). But that’s not really her fault, since very few people have the kind of acting talent John Simm kicks around. I found her irritating though, and her moral stances reflected the same stubbornness that she chided Hunt for, the only difference being that it was her opinion that was unquestionably right, rather than his.
But for all I can criticise it, I have to praise it too. It was an absolutely beautiful concept (something which the US remakers failed to grasp), and Ashes to Ashes introduced another dose of philosophical uncertainty into the mix. The story was excellent, with the final season and the final episode standing out in particular, and the writers correctly deduced that the real star of Life on Mars had been old-fashioned copper Gene Hunt. Whilst LoM had been about Sam Tyler, AtA was very definitely about Gene.
Last night’s finale confused me. I mean, really confused me. All the way through, I had no idea how it was going to end (well, sort of; I called that they were all dead ages ago), and especially as the series has only ever been realistic police drama mixed in with a bit of psychology, the lurch to full-blown existential head**** could have been a little jarring, were it not so perfectly written.
The best ending to a series is when it is completely natural. I don’t know if the writers had this specific ending in mind when they started, but it fits so well with the rest of the series that there really couldn’t have been any more perfect ending. The police purgatory wasn’t the creation of Sam Tyler, or Alex Drake. It was, and had always been, the Gene Genie’s world. The whole thing was steeped in symbolism, from the duality of the Hunt-Keats relationship, to the death of the Quatro at the end (one of the most weirdly moving moments in television).
Part of the attraction of both series was, of course, the nostalgia factor. I wasn’t alive in either the 70s or the 80s, so that’s perhaps a bit wasted on me. But the historical context manifesting through background events, through the style, and through the soundtrack, meaning that for a lot of people it’s like looking back in time. Even not having been there, I appreciated a lot of it. The Falklands War, and Maggie Thatcher’s 1983 reelection in particular. And I think this is how the finale works its magic. The shows realism has grabbed the audience every bit as much as it has Alex, and that is one of the primary things that keeps everyone guessing.
So in conclusion, I suggest you watch this. You need to start with Life on Mars, obviously, but really it’s so good that it’s hardly a burden, and you really should have already seen it. The two series run together, and by the time you reach the end, it will all seem to have fallen into place. This is brilliant storytelling, coupled with great characterisation, and fantastic acting in particular from Phillip Glenister. Gene Hunt is the classic, outdated copper. Sexist, bullish, very politically incorrect. But I defy you not to love him, when it’s all over.
This is fantastic drama, and fantastic entertainment, and proves that the BBC can still make the very best television around. It makes you feel all proud to be British!
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