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[OPINION] What Makes Life on Mars & Ashes to Ashes Classic TV

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"My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident and I woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever's happened, it's like I've landed on a different planet. Now, maybe if I can work out the reason, I can get home."

How’s that for an introduction?

There are shows set in the 80s, and then there’s Ashes to Ashes. Or more accurately, there are shows set in the 70s and 80s, and then there’s Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, a near-perfect duology of series from the BBC that aired in the 2000s, spanned five seasons between each show and triggered a national phenomenon hitting just before the age of peak TV, with Ashes to Ashes wrapping up its last episode in 2010. With Life on Mars described as “Back to the Future meets The Sweeney” by John Simm, who played the lead protagonist Sam Tyler in the first series, Life on Mars, both shows revolve around two police officers being sent back in time, Sam Tyler to the 1970s and Alex Drake (played by Keeley Hawes, who fans will recognise from Bodyguard) to the 1980s. Both are partnered up with Gene Hunt, an old-school 70s-style Detective who is very much a man of his time, and have to content with his worldview. In the present day, policing is a nightmare, filled with plenty of paperwork, desk duties and endless boardroom meetings - but the past is altogether a different ballgame, where Alex and Sam both soon learn that there is hardly any red tape, and the police can do as they want. The title of course was inspired by the classic Bowie song, which plays as Sam first undergoes his accident that leaves him to waking up in the 1970s, with the lyrics, “Take a look at the law man, beating up the wrong guy,” opting for a criticism of the policing of the period. And of course the soundtrack absolutely bangs.

Both shows are more than just a nostalgia outing for the 70s and 80s, although you can expect a lot of era appropriate music (Cream! Bowie! The Who! Roxy Music!). Both shows offer an insight into the culture and the ugly side of both eras away from the glitz and glamour that some shows revel in, with Life on Mars seeing Sam having to deal with an uncomfortable environment of his workplace; openly sexist, racist and homophobic behaviour from his fellow officers, creating conflict there. There is also plenty of in-jokes about the future too; poking fun often at Hunt’s expense – for example, in Ashes to Ashes, we find out that the beloved Blue Peter Garden was vandalised by none other than Hunt himself. Ashes to Ashes sees the group reacting to the events of the Falklands War on television, also dealing with characters affected by the fallout and the rise of Thatcherism in the UK. It’s gripping stuff, and helps provide plenty of context for the era that Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes takes place in.

But both shows make it clear that the past has its downsides – the lack of technology and policing methods are very different to what Alex and Sam are used to, and the nostalgia isn’t without its caveats – we often see people living in poverty or experiencing far from the ideal life. Whilst Stranger Things can feel like a love affair for the 80s at times; Ashes to Ashes does more than just blanket nostalgia. Yes, the music is good (because of course it is), but it’s made clear that staying in the past is not always a good idea. If Life on Mars doesn’t always touch on that as heavily; Ashes to Ashes expands on that idea: Alex has someone to get home to, her daughter Molly, in the present day, whilst there’s no real connection for Sam. Alex also has greater urgency in the 80s: she believes that in order to get back home to the present day, she has to stop the car bomb that kills both her parents.

There’s a constant grip that Alex and Sam are questioning throughout the series – have they really travelled back in time or are they just in a coma? There are hints of hospital wards, hints of people from the present day asking them to wake up, placed over the course of the series, but both always leave you guessing right up until Ashes to Ashes’ final hour. The ending of Life on Mars is as ambiguous as they come, but it sets up Ashes to Ashes perfectly. The answers do come slowly but surely and they are completely satisfying: Ashes to Ashes has one of my favourite TV finales of all-time, becoming a cultural phenomenon in the process in the UK. It’s a real mystery box of a narrative, but unlike a J.J. Abrams’ mystery box, the duology will actually give you satisfying answers. The series still remains very much in the zeitgeist of the British public even in it has been off the air for a decade. A recent viewing party for the first episode of Life on Mars saw it trend on Twitter, and for equivalent examples of phenomenons in the US, this is the UK's Lost, or the Breaking Bad to Line of Duty's The Wire. Okay, maybe not - but it should be regarded in as such high regard. It's a shame that Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes never really broke it out in the US - they deserved to.

Due to return for a third series (billed as the final chapter in the saga) after the pandemic ends, Life on Mars is perfectly bingeable and there couldn’t be a better time to catch up on the show and its sequel. Each episode opts for a case of the week drama that pays tribute to the police dramas of the era, but the sci-fi trappings throughout keep audiences watching. You learn everything that the characters learn, and the more time you spend with the characters the more you want them to succeed. Sam and Alex both act as the audience’s insert into the world of the 70s and the 80s, a world where Philip Glenister's Gene Hunt is the constant. There’s a will-they-won’t they dynamic between Alex and Gene over the course of the series as both Hawes and Glenister have impeccable chemistry between them. It doesn’t take you long to realise that Gene Hunt was the role Glenister was born to play; he’s an instantly iconic TV detective, rivalling the likes of Columbo, John Luther or Sherlock Holmes.

Columbo would have taken a whole hour to solve a case that Hunt believes he’s wrapped up in the first few minutes of the episode. Yes, Hunt is pragmatic in his worldview, but Alex and Sam do their best to drag him kicking and screaming into the modern age. There’s an amusing scene early on where Sam is still adjusting to the 70’s era policing tactics – he hauls a witness into the police station to point out a criminal in front of a line-up, but there is no protection that grants anonymity to the witness. Nothing that will keep the witness safe at all. Comedy is played to perfection and there plenty of laugh out loud moments in both shows; the humour never feels out of place. The shows have time for touching moments as well; the bonding between Hunt and Tyler and later Hunt and Drake is iconic. Both Simm and Hawes deliver their best performances of their career to date.

Billed as a rating success in the UK, Life on Mars achieved an average audience figure of 6.8 million viewers despite high competition for its first season. The show has spawned multiple spinoffs from different countries; the USA has had its own spinoff (infamously missing the point with its changed ending), it made it to South Korea in 2018 and Russia with The Dark Side of the Moon in 2012. There was even time for a Spanish adaption in 2009. All had different endings to the UK original.

Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes are set apart from other cop shows and are a touch above everything else. Even the most mundane case of the week episodes are consistently entertaining and the shows have a consistent quality that really caters towards binge-watching. Like Cinemax’s The Knick, both shows offer a different twist on a well-trodden genre. And like all best science fiction shows, they’re about heroes that question what’s happening to them and why whilst exploring an alien world that’s completely unknown to them. But the alien world of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes is not a planet with two suns or indeed; Mars itself: it's the past.

WATCH IF YOU LIKE/WATCH THESE NEXT: Columbo, Line of Duty, The Sweeney, Back to the Future, Stranger Things, I Am Not Okay With This, The Americans, Broadchurch, Doctor Who, Torchwood, Continuum, Timeless, Legends of Tomorrow, The Ministry of Time, 12 Monkeys


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