Last night saw the debut on Ashes To Ashes, a TV drama spin-off from the smash hit series Life On Mars. This time a female police detective gets transported back to the recent, with 1981 her apparent destination. Unlike her 1973-bound predecessor, this character knows she hasn't really travelled back in time or gone mad. She's trapped in a fantasy created by her own psyche at the moment of death.
Can she survive long enough to get back home to 2008? And how will she cope with the screaming misanthropy of DCI Gene Hunt, let alone New Romantics, Thatcher's bloody Britain and the Royal Wedding? A significant part of Life on Mars' appeal was the mystery about how Sam Tyler had gone back to 1973, certainly in the first series. By the second series it was obvious Sam was trapped inside some coma-induced fantasy.
For the spin-off, the production team have admitted defeat and given their time traveller full knowledge of the show's central conceit, since the audience already has that knowledge. Fine, well and good. But the opener episode struggled to establish a clear tone, with John Simm's internalised angst replaced by a more extroverted female character. Hopefully that will settle down in subsequent episodes.
The 1981 trappings were a lot of fun and [alas] I'm old enough to remember all the music from the first time round. I'm In Love With a German Film Star by The Passions, what a great song. And I'd forgotten how much I liked early Duran Duran. Hard to believe, but they were hip for about five minutes. The early 80s fashions, gadgets and look were all spot on, the stuff of nostalgia for me.
Setting aside the central conceit's transparency and the new setting, there's another significant difference between Ashes To Ashes and its progenitor. Life On Mars was told almost entirely from Sam's point of view. He was in almost every scene, his perspective provided the audience's perspective. Like the televisual equivalent of a first person narrative in a novel, it created instant empathy with the character.
Ashes To Ashes has abandoned that. I can understand why, as it makes for easier storytelling and puts less strain on the time travelling protagonist. Dinosaur copper Gene Hunt is as much the star of the new show as displaced protagonist Alex. Opting for a third person narrative approach makes Alex a much less empathic character. The audience is now on the outside, observing her plight, rather than sharing it with her.