Tuesday, 1 June 2010

'Life on Mars'/'Ashes to Ashes'

The week before last, the third and final series of 'Ashes to Ashes' came to an end.  This series had run since 2008.  The finale provided answers to some of the questions left at the end of the previous series 'Life on Mars' which ran 2007-8.  Both of these series featured UK police detectives.  In 'Life on Mars' it was Detective Chief Inspector Sam Tyler (played by John Simm) and in 'Ashes to Ashes' Detective Inspector Alex(andra) Drake (played by Keeley Hawes).  At the start of the two series these characters are injured in the line of duty: Tyler was hit by a car and Drake was shot. They find themselves, as a result, sent back in time.  Tyler turns up in 1973 Manchester and Drake in 1981 London.

In both cases the police team that they are assigned to, as detective inspectors, is headed by Detective Chief Inspector (Eu)Gene Hunt (played by Philip Glenister), assisted by Detective Sergeant/Inspector Ray Carling and Detective Constable Chris Skelton.  In 'Life on Mars' there is also Woman Police Constable (later Detective Constable) Annie Cartwright and in 'Ashes to Ashes' Woman Police Constable (later, very briefly, Detective Constable) Sharon 'Shaz' Granger.  In this second story Hunt's team have been relocated from Manchester to East London.  A US version of 'Life on Mars', starring Harvey Keitel has been produced but I have never seen it; in contrast I have seen every episode of the UK 'Life on Mars' and 'Ashes to Ashes'.

Basically the stories combine standard police procedural crime solving with a more mystical element.  Both Tyler and Drake receive communications from the time they left behind through ghosts or images and sounds on televisions, radios and other sources.  There is also interest in how different 2000s policing is compared to that of the early 1970s and early 1980s not only in terms of technology but also in terms of procedure.  The time-travelling characters also know a lot of what is going to happen which sometimes enables them to solve the crimes they face and reassure or bewilder the people around them about the future.  Both Tyler and Drake encounter their parents and see themselves as children.  Tyler also encounters the mother of his girlfriend back in 2006. In a couple of stories, especially in 'Life on Mars' it is implied that different actions there change the future; though later we realise it is all happening in a bubble universe based upon but only tendentially connected with our own.

Given the 'hauntings' by people and occurrences from the 2000s, both Tyler and especially Drake who worked as a police psychologist, question whether what they are in, in the past is 'real'.  Tyler ultimately leaves 1974 and returns to 2006, but finding it far duller commits suicide taking him back into the 1974 he has been living in.  At the end of 'Ashes to Ashes' it turns out that both Tyler and Drake were right when they first arrived, to see the setting as being a figment of the imagination.  The fact that they both came to feel it was 'real' is what allowed them to 'pass over' into the afterlife, in these series represented by 'The Railway Arms' pub run by a black Rastafarian Mancunian called Nelson.  (The pub name may refer to the fact that the final action we see Tyler involved with is an armed robbery on a train). However, it turns out not to be the figment of their own damaged minds but that of Gene Hunt, who it is revealed was a police constable shot dead in 1953.  In fact all of the police officers seen are dead and we seen the deaths of Carling, Skelton and Granger in different eras. 

There are obvious parallels to movies such as 'The Sixth Sense' (1999) and the UK television series, 'afterlife' [sic] starring Lesley Sharp and Andrew Lincoln which ran 2005-6 and featured a ghostly nurse doing much the same role as Hunt does.  There are lots of questions over whether Tyler ever comes back from his coma or is just seeing a false version of 2006.  At the end of the second series of 'Ashes to Ashes' Drake is accidentally shot by Hunt and ends up in a coma in 1982 which makes her think she is back in 2008 and it seemed she might be trapped in a false 2008 within the 1982, with messages from Hunt and others haunting her through televisions, etc.  She is able to get back to at least the 1982 and ultimately finish off her 'passing over'.  This conclusion for the dead police seems to be through them satisfactorily solving a variety of crimes, though if Carling and Skelton's time with Hunt is anything to go by (at least ten years) then for some it takes longer than others.  Similarly we find out that Tyler has only passed over in 1980, seven years after first arriving in Hunt's world. 

In the final series of 'Ashes to Ashes' we find that Hunt is not alone in trying to see dead police officers into the next world.  A very nasty character, Detective Chief Inspector Jim Keats (played incredibly annoyingly by Daniel Mays, his baby-faced appearance made him resemble appalling comic Joe Pasquale) who seems to be the Devil, trying to tempt the police spirits to some other realm.  He seeks to enlist Drake and others in his campaign to have Hunt dismissed.  Finding this out leads us to reflect on similar offers to go against Hunt, on grounds of corruption and inappropriate approaches to policing, that were made to Tyler as part of the M.A.R.S. initiative in 'Life on Mars'.

Given the focus on death, there is a bitter element to both stories. Tyler has left behind his girlfriend, Maya, who had just been abducted by a serial killer when he suffered his accident and, whereas, we initally think he had changed the future by his actions in 1973, we know now he was simply in a bubble, so presumably Maya has indeed been murdered by the killer.  Drake has left her young daughter behind in 2008 too and presumably she has to grow up without a mother given that Drake never recovers from being shot.  Drake also finds out that her father committed suicide in 1981 using a bomb, murdering her mother at the same time.

Both series have been incredibly successful and it is not surprising that a US television company wanted to make a version.  To a great extent a lot of this has to do with nostalgia.  Great efforts have been made to reproduce Manchester of the early 1970s and London of the early 1980s, with all the clothes, vehicles and even shop items and posters and occasional portrayals of real life people like Marc Bolan, appropriate to the era.   The musical soundtrack, featuring numerous hits from the specific year, is an integral part of the stories.  The importance of the music is noted on the wikipedia entries and of cours, both of the stories are named after David Bowie tracks released in the particular year.  [Back in the mid-2000s I acquired a weird phobia that if I was driving and an old Bowie track came on I was convinced I would have a car accident and would wake up in the past!  I do not what you would call that, Lifeonmarsphobia!]

Many of the episodes tap into current issues of the time such as racism, the appearance of football violence, and Irish-based terrorism in the 1970s to the development of Docklands, yuppie crime and the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s.  There are the occasional slip-ups, notably Sam Tyler's watch having a digital display, but there is also attention to detail such as the white dog faeces on streets in the 1970s and pink wafer biscuits.  This allows people who lived through the eras to be reminded of them and for others to effectively see a time travel story with elements somewhat reminiscent of 'Back to the Future' (1985) combining personal and broader history.  The police stories in themselves are interesting and as well written as a lot of police drama on television at the moment, typically with an effort to have an unexpected outcome.  Sometimes Hunt is right, sometimes Tyler/Drake are.

The character of Gene Hunt has particularly appealed to viewers and he is another reason for the series success.  Given that 'The Sweeney' (ran for 53 episodes in 4 series 1975-8; 2 movies 1977 & 1978; 9 novels in 1977), seen as the archetype, almost the stereotype of 1970s police shows in the UK is still aired regularly on UK television channels, it is not surprising that a hard drinking, hard smoking, misogynistic police officer who shouts a lot, of the kind shown in 'The Sweeney', is a portrayal that many viewers have affection for.  There were intentional visual references to 'The Sweeney' especially in the opening credits. Hunt is antidote to the more politically correct police officers we have seen portrayed in UK police series, especially in 'The Bill' (1984-2010).  Hunt himself draws on Western legends seeing himself as the sheriff cleaning up the town, often referencing, in particular, Gary Cooper's character in 'High Noon' (1952), which Hunt presumably would have seen shortly before he was killed. 

Though the world we see is in Hunt's mind it is clear he picks up contemporary references to periods after his death, but the occasional irregularities in these can be explained by the fact that this is not the 'real' world.  Notable in this respect is that the police get to tote guns far more regularly and with minimal control compared to what was in fact the procedure in the 1970s and 1980s.  Hunt himself uses a magnum revolver which certainly would not be permitted as a police firearm in the UK.   In addition, the world being created by Hunt's imagination, and presumably how he likes to see things, explains why when Drake first appears in 1981 she is dressed as a high-class prostitute rather than more conventionally as a police officer.

Hunt often beats up suspects, which seems to have been pretty common through the 1970s and 1980s for real, but is clearly at odds with official procedure in the 2000s.  In this way Hunt is like the Jack Regan character in 'The Sweeney' who uses violence but a blind eye is usually turned to it because he catches criminals.  Given current popularity, especially among the white English population of the UK for the less politically correct period of the 1970s and 1980s when violent white men were dominant in much of British society it is unsurprising that Hunt like Regan is popular.  However, this is to miss much of what Glenister brings to the character.  He is vane, loving his fast cars and his snakeskin boots as status symbols.  He is very loyal to his staff and often has a softer side that allows him to engage with people at risk and reassure them; in such circumstances the more procedural approach of the 2000s police officers is shown as getting in the way of a human connection with people the police are trying to protect.  In contrast, Hunt's prejudices especially about women, ethnic minorities and former criminals are often seen as getting in the way of an effective investigation.

Thus, it is unsurprising that a movie which pushes so many dramatic 'buttons' and encompasses ghost stories, time travel, police procedural and even, to a little extent, Westerns, and is embedded in nostalgia, should be so widely appealing.  It certainly bares re-watching especially when you have seen the end, well, each end, because stopping at the end of any of the 5 series in the set will give you a different impression of what has been going on.  I am glad that the BBC had these series produced and sustained them to the end.  I hope that we will see such engaging and also challenging dramas in the future, but I worry not.  Go out and buy the DVDs, they are well worth the investment, especially if anyone in your family has been connected with the police.

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