Friday, 21 May 2010

Ashes to Ashes: Starry Night


'Thus we reach the end, the beginning and the end.'

The ending of Ashes to Ashes depicted the arrival of a new police officer from modern times. “Where’s my office?” he bellows, staring wildly around the room as the inhabitants of CID cast him sideways glances. The last scene is one of arrival, the whole cycle starting again. It is clear there won’t be a third series, no “Jump They Say.” Another series would be superfluous, for by this point the nature of Gene Hunt’s world is clear. No more explanations are necessary.

I thought it was appropriate to begin this review of the final episode of Ashes to Ashes with a quote from a song from the eighties. In this case, the song is “The Beginning and the End” by OMD. As much as it has been weird, unorthodox and spiritual, Ashes has been a nostalgia trip.

Many casual viewers watch the show for the fashions and the soundtrack, and the bra-strap revealing tops and Phil Collins hits remain intact despite the building madness of the narrative.

I loved the songs and the costumes, but I also invested time, effort and thought in considering the mysteries Ashes to Ashes and Life on Mars presented. What were the strange dreams that afflicted DIs Sam Tyler and Alex Drake? Why would coma-situations send them back to periods they know from their childhoods? Who was Gene Hunt?


This episode offered answers to those questions and the multitude of others that have been considered by fans throughout the series. It begins with a dream where Alex sees her daughter Molly for the first time in the series. She and Hunt appear as grotesque caricatures in an “It’s a Knockout” sequence where Alex navigates a series of obstacles, only to fall and clamber out of her frozen faced, bloated shell. The dream ends as Hunt looms over Alex, a frightening, heightened presence. Molly wears a scarf in this scene that is identical to one the sinister DCI Keats gives to Alex at the end of the episode. Keats gives this to Alex in an effort to tempt her to him, indulging her newly-returned desire to return to Molly. This temptation - like the dream that opens the episode - is baseless. Alex is dead and will never see her daughter again.

Alex isn’t alone. The friends she has accumulated in the Gene-verse discover exactly what they have been trying to forget in personalized Betamax tapes. Ray hanged himself in despair. Chris was shot after being ordered to run forward by the blow of a whistle. Shaz was stabbed with a screwdriver. Their deaths – and more pertinently, these characters’ repression of them – have been referenced throughout this series. In episode two, Shaz flung a screwdriver away from her with a scream. Episode three followed Ray as he was haunted by his failure to live up to his father’s expectations of him. The penultimate episode had Chris getting jittery at the echo of the police whistle that signalled his death.


Their world literally unravels around them in the wake of their realizations of their deaths. The harsh, untimely deaths they were initially able to forget in Gene’s world are thrust into their faces, and Keats crows in delight as he capitalizes on their disillusionment. He transforms from a staid, petty pen-pusher into a hysterical, cackling madman, jumping on a desk and whooping in triumph as the chequered roof of CID is replaced by a vast, starry abyss.

If Keat’s malevolence wasn’t clear from his actions at the end of the sixth episode (where he goggled, gleeful, as Viv died in his arms), it was made obvious in the scene where he beat a deflated Gene to a bloody pulp. During the beating, the hardened, pock-faced Gene Hunt so familiar from five television series is replaced by his past self. A young, smooth-skinned PC is shown instead of the gruff, middle-aged cynic the viewer has become familiar with, for they are the same person. The older Gene Hunt is the product of a murdered PC’s fantasy of a DCI, an imaginary figure influenced by the morality of Hollywood westerns and the self-righteous, do-goodery of 1950s police-procedurals such as Dixon of Dock Green.


I teared up at the end of the episode, for after the credits a prediction I made last week came true. One of the show’s creator’s indicated that the series would end in black and white and the last shot would show the word ‘Police.’ The final seconds of Ashes to Ashes feature Jack Warner as PC George Dixon, smiling reassuringly at the viewer before the camera tilts up shakily to display the proverbial blue lamp.

I think I cried both from a sense of egotistical pride and the knowledge that it’s all come to an end. I have invested three years in this series, theorizing about its clues and analyzing its characters. I got 99% of it wrong, but the 1% I got right made all that effort feel worthwhile.

Ashes to Ashes ends with a sense of harmony. The characters we have come to know and care for – Alex, Ray, Chris and Shaz – receive the reward of progress, for none of them are condemned to remain in Gene’s petrified fantasy world, an environment that can only help them to a certain point before it must be left behind. Gene himself remains, and is – as the final song of the series proclaims – a “hero” for he continues to help others even after he realizes that he, as the audience knows him, is a fantasy.

This series has proven what television is capable of. Ashes was a slow-burn mystery, one that truly engaged its audience. We won't see anything like it again for a long, long time, and when we do it will truly be worth savouring.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Ashes to Ashes: Episode Seven


And I'm back! I hope to catch up with reviews of the rest of the series in the coming week.

The penultimate episode of Ashes to Ashes begins with stars. There’s something touchingly home-made about this effect, a shot that would have been executed with cold, fine-edged precision on an American prime-time drama here looks like it was made using black sugar paper and a tube of glitter. It doesn’t take away anything from the impact, and somehow remains of the strange, heightened visuals in Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain.

An air of intimacy was attached to the latest episode of Ashes to Ashes – episode seven – like a fog. The episode was written by series co-creator Ashley Pharoah, a boon in that he has an excellent grasp of his characters’ needs, fears and desires.
This skill is best embodied in the scenes between Gene and Alex that are scattered throughout the story. This season has been criticized by some for the supposed lack of interaction between Gene and Alex, something that has never really struck me but has clearly frustrated others. In several senses, this episode both resolved and reinforced these complaints. Gene and Alex – who have one of the most memorable will-they-won’t-they relationships on television – danced together. There were small, tentative kisses from the oh-he’s-a-sweetheart-really Gene. There was musical accompaniment from Spandau Ballet. There was a knock on the door.


Simultaneously, several hundred fan-girls threw fits. Personally, I was too busy telling my housemates to shut up as they were badly impersonating my excitement (imagine a burly German man putting his hands to the sides of face, raising the pitch of his voice and intoning ‘oh my gawd they were gonna kees!’)

But that’s enough about me.

The episode began with the death of P.C. Viv James, killed at the end of the last episode in a police riot. There was something endearingly awkward about watching Chris and Ray snigger like schoolboys in the pews as Gene aggressively tried to close the curtains around his colleague’s coffin. The final countdown has been the theme-tune of this series according to the beeb, so the imagery of the final curtain is remarkably appropriate.

The main story of this week concerned an ANC drinking den, and the body of an undercover police officer that is unearthed there. One of the main figures in this story-the-week was Tobias, a political protestor struggling to bring down Apartheid in South Africa. Chris helps him escape from custody, and meets with him on the same bench by the Thames Alex and Shaz shared in episode two. Just as those two characters shared a profound, meaningful conversation, Chris and Tobias talk about issues that matter. Earlier in the story, Alex mentioned about Nelson Mandela’s eventual release. Tobias asks Chris how Alex knew this, and when dear, clumsy Chris responds “she knows all sorts of things does Alex Drake” the man who had been sitting beside him vanishes.


There is a sense here that all of the characters have the potential to help one another resolve their grievances, and find peace. While Shaz and Ray had ‘Life on Mars moments’ (where the screen turns black, and bars of Life on Mars play quietly in the background) after receiving praise from Gene, Chris has his after Shaz tells him she’s proud of him. These characters are only able to progress through their interactions with others. Gene’s world is steadily becoming stranger, more unstable and unreliable: change is needed if these characters are to ever find what it is they lack, or need to move on from.

Keats a malignant, underlying presence throughout, who effectively established himself as the Ashes to Ashes equivalent of the anti-Christ by interrupting Gene and Alex’s ‘moment’ with a knock on Alex’s door. Although he is unpleasantly oily, he seems convinced that he is, in his own way, helping through his attempts to undermine Gene. It’s as if he’s convinced only he is the solution to these characters’ problems, when there are other routes open.

Next week is the end, and the final countdown starts now.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Laura, won't you give me a dime?


I promised I'll be back reviewing in May. Currently, I am in desperate need of discipline (cough: university :cough) so simply have to get my priorities straightened out. I'll be back soon, and in the meantime, enjoy Laura. The most sinister pop song I've ever heard.

Align Centre

Friday, 9 April 2010

Ashes to Ashes: From Here to Eternity


Spoilers abound. Be warned.

I am happy to say that tonight’s episode of Ashes to Ashes was probably the finest hour of television I’ve seen this year. To be even more breathlessly hyperbolic, I’ll go further and say it’s my favourite episode of Ashes to Ashes so far. This episode deserves hyperbole.

The opening minutes are marvellously surreal, and it’s clear from the get-go that there’s something plastic about Gene Hunt’s Billy Joel impression. As he mimes ‘Uptown Girl’ and prances around a garage, you quickly get an impression of just how weird the episode is going to be.

And weird it is. The photography in this episode is startlingly beautiful, and of particular note are some subtle fades from pitch darkness to stars that surround the characters. I was struck by a exhilarating sense of scope, and both fascinated and frustrated by the sense that there are things going on that are, as of yet, are impossible for me to understand.

However, the strangeness of it all isn’t off-putting. The surreal moments occupied the fringes of the narrative, which dealt with a lonely-hearts killer with a gruesome calling card: branding his victims with a crescent moon.

In this episode, Ashes achieved what it has often failed to do in the past – it successfully meshed the over-arching story with the crime-of-the-week. When Alex digs up a file on a dead young girl in her search for a pattern to the crimes, Gene bluntly tells her he was the officer in charge of the case and that he failed to find the killer. Clearly remorseful, he attended the girl’s funeral. The whole moment was handled so deftly there wasn’t any expression that this display of sympathy was out of character. Gene Hunt, famous for being an alpha-male, does have a soft side.

(Coincidentally, the murdered girl reminded me of Laura Palmer. Probably the pasty skin. But I won’t go into that right now.)

This was, in a sense, Shaz’s episode. The focus was her anxieties about her position in the police force, and her growing conviction that it wasn’t the right place for her to be. However, the further along the episode went the more I got the sense that Shaz’s wavering convictions were being used to test Gene’s reaction to the threat of her departure. She was a sort of cipher, a means of displaying an aspect of Gene’s role in ‘his Kingdom’ that was previously unseen.

After escaping from a life-endangering situation at the climax of the episode, Shaz runs instantly to Gene. He puts his arm around her, holding her and seeming curiously paternal. In the end scene at the Ashes to Ashes staple-set - Luigi’s bar - Shaz is smiling and dancing. Only a few hours before, she was close to becoming the next victim of a serial killer. There is something sinister about the effect Gene had on Shaz, as if by persuading her to withdraw her resignation he is manipulating rather than encouraging her.


The focus on Gene’s relationship with Shaz was echoed in his interactions with Alex. Just as Shaz was dissenting by displaying wavering faith in the police force and her role in it, Alex is dissenting by probing into the case of Sam Tyler. This doubling was evoked in the episode’s oddly sinister imagery. Darkness closed around Shaz’s face immediately after Gene persuaded her not to resign. The same effect was used on Alex after Gene warned her to stop investigating Tyler’s death, the crucial difference being that – in Alex’s case - the darkness quickly vanished in a flare of light. I got the sense that Shaz is beyond saving, I only wish I knew what she needed to be saved from.

Although I talk obsessively about the mysteries and character-dynamics that appeared in this episode, there was a lighter side. The scenes involving the Crescent Moon dating agency provided plenty of laughs (especially when Alex spontaneously invented speed-dating), and Gene Hunt had plenty of the excellent one-liners he is famous for (“maid in the living room, cook in the kitchen, whore in the bedroom”).

However, the main interest here (for me at least) was the layers that are being added to the story. Gene Hunt did sometimes have the tendency to seem somewhat 2D, a caricature of chauvinism and prejudice with no depth to him beyond his witticisms. This episode questioned that assumption, namely by juxtaposing Alex’s dream-version of Gene (as a camp, wholly artificial Billy Joel stand-in) with the real-Gene, sitting in his office and sifting reluctantly through a mound of paperwork.

There was a strong sense here that the mysteries of both Ashes and Life on Mars are starting to come together, and I can’t wait to watch as the jigsaw is assembled.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Doctor Who: Waiting for the Man


It's been too long since we last had proper Doctor Who. I don't mean to dismiss the specials that were broadcast sporadically over 2009, it's just that real Doctor Who belongs in the Saturday tea-time slot, and should appear in that slot punctually for thirteen weeks in a row. When that rule is broken, it's never quite the same.

The Doctor is back with a new body, this time that of Matt Smith, a young actor wittily referred to as a 'Time Lad' by the press. Smith is brilliant, and has blown away all the fears I had upon learning of his casting. He's quirky in a dazed, muddled sort of way loping around and gazing at his surroundings as if he's seeing the world for the first time.

All his senses are new to him again, something particularly well illustrated when young Amelia Pond obediently fetches him a variety of foodstuffs - from apples to baked beans - only for him to spit out the half-chewed food in disgust. It would seem the new Doctor is somewhat picky when it comes to his meals.

Amelia Pond is the first character we see, a little girl with flaming hair and a Scottish accent who is praying that Santa Clause (at Easter, by the way) will repair the crack in her wall. You see, Amy's would very much like the voices that can be heard through her wall to stop.

The Doctor, her knight-in-blue box, promptly arrives in her garden and gets on the case, sealing the crack before rushing back to his time machine. He tells Amy he will be back for her in five minutes, before climbing back into the TARDIS and disappearing. Amy races off and packs a suitcase, pulling on a coat and a hat before returning to the spot where she last saw the Doctor. She sits on her suitcase, waiting for a saviour who never comes.

Fast-forward twelve years, and the TARDIS appears again in exactly the same spot. The problem with time-travel is that its generally quite disorientating for everyone involved. When the Doctor comes face-to-face with Amelia Pond in the form of a leggy strippogram, he is understandably confused.

The central plot of this story - The Eleventh Hour - is quite slim and is undermined by some poorly realized special effects. The CGI has a watery look to it, and the central monster of the episode is a giant eye that travels by snowflake. The main strengths here are Steven Moffat's breezy, hysterically funny script and the acting from Smith, Gillan and Caitlin Blackwood, who plays Amy Pond as a young girl. All three are nothing less than fantastic, embodying their characters eccentricities and frustrations to a tea.

There is a wonderful fairy-tale atmosphere throughout. The run-down garden the TARDIS materializes in at the start of the episode looks like it might harbour a legion of fairies, and the quintessentially English village of Leadworth that forms the setting for the episode makes a refreshing change from London. There is heavy stereotyping going on (quaint post-office, thatch cottages, everyone knowing everyone else) but stereotypes do exist for a reason and although my experiences as a country-dweller differ, I can allow Mr. Moffat a measure of creative license.

The episode ends with Amy's joining the Doctor, entering the TARDIS as the episode reaches a crescendo of joy and excitement. The last shot is a slow pan over Amy's room. It starts off by showing Amy's childish drawings of her and the 'Raggedy Doctor' she had adventures with in her imagination, before the camera tilts up to reveal a wedding dress. If it wasn't excessively lazy to recycle titles, 'The Runaway Bride' would make a great title for episode two.

Bring on next week, and the true start of Amy's adventures.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Ashes to Ashes: I'll Be Watching You

Ashes to Ashes has a brilliant new opening line - 'I'm Alex Drake, and frankly your guess is as good as mine."

Before it was broadcast, this episode had the uber-fans who inhabit the safe-house of The Railway Arms chewing their nails in fear. A clip had been released of everyone's favourite neanderthal, Gene Hunt, restoring our comatose heroine, Alex, to consciousness with a hard slap to the face. Understandably, this provoked wide-spread horror. Thankfully, all the fears proved to be unfounded; Gene apoligzed for shooting Alex in his gruff, couldn't-care-less manner, and looked heartwarmingly pensieve at several points when her name was mentioned. Be-still my Gene/Alex shipping heart.

The previous series left viewers on a collosal cliff-hanger, after being shot in her (potential) dream world of 1982, Alex Drake was sent into a coma within a coma which saw her 'waking up' in what appeared to be 2008, her 'present'. This series - the third and final of the run - picks up exactly where the last left off, with Alex discussing her 'dreams' of the 1980s to a psychiatrist. This is somewhat ironic considering that Alex is a police psychiatrist, and is hold-no-bars when it comes to reminding others of her superior psychological training. Things get really confusing if you consider that the whole exchange with the psychiatrist is the invention of Alex's mind, for the conversation suddenly becomes a dialogue between Alex and Alex.

But let's not go into that for now.

The whole opening sequence is dizzying, mainly due to the way it was shot. The very first sight the viewer sees is an extreme low angle view of some dark, glass plated skyscrapers, which mirrors a similar shot that appeared at the start of the series. For the most part the psychiatrist's voice is disembodied, the camera lingering persistently on Alex's face. The backgrounds are kept in soft focus, and the start of the scene with the psychiatrist features Alex isolated in the midst of a pitch black backdrop that gradually gains some swathes of colour.


Alex is eventually jolted back to reality by that not-very-tender ministration of Gene Hunt. He drops a set of clothes he brought her on her stomach, ignoring the fact that was precisely where he shot her. A few very awkward dialogue scenes later, and they're back in CID looking into the case of Dorothy Blonde, a young girl who has been kidnapped for ransom. As tends to be the case with Ashes, the 'story-of-the-week' isn't particularly engaging, and borders on the forumlaic: the step-mother is deceitful, and a religious nut is swiftly proven to be the kidnapper. Ashes is best when it is focused on its characters and over-arching mysteries, and thankfully both of these strengths are displayed well here. Little Dorothy - who even wore a gingham dress - is mainly of interest on account of her name and appearance. The only missing ingredient was a pet dog called Toto.

Things have changed in CID since the previous series. DS Ray Carling is now a DI, who despite his best efforts cannot make Gene take him seriously ('if you come in my office again dressed like a maths teacher, I'll paint your balls the colour of hazelnuts and tell the squirrels winter is coming.') Chris has split up with a increasingly frustrated and resentful Shaz, who was returned to tea-duty in the wake of Alex's shooting ('you made things better then you left us ... now I'm back making bloody tea and biscuits.')


There is also a new addition to the team, in the decidedly unpleasant form of Jim Keats. Early on in the episode, he is astonishingly likable. He has large, sad eyes and Buddy Holly glasses, and looks like he was designed to be a target for school-yard bullies. He speaks in a nasally voice and makes strained attempts to be friendly, passing a bottle of wine to the cops in CID as if they have rabies. However all of this is undermined by his brief appearance to Alex as she lies comatose in her hospital bed in the first stretch of the episode. His face hovers uncomfortably close to the camera, as he addresses her urgently ('look at what he's done to you ... He did this to you and I don't want history to repeat itself.') He acts like a cross between a cryptic prophet and a stalker, and puts his sinister side on full show in a nasty confrontation with Gene at the climax of the episode.

As is to expected with Ashes, nostalgia abounds. There are references to Tandys, primitive computers, video tape and a hit-parade soundtrack that features the likes of The Eurythmics and David Bowie. The final song in the soundtrack is The Police's stalker-ballad 'Every Breath You Take,' which plays as Keats sidles up Alex while Gene looks on.

The series' creators - Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoh - have promised that this series will wrap everything up, even those mysteries left open by Life On Mars. This episode ends with Alex discovering a file on a certain Sam Tyler, and all the pieces have now been laid for a stonking series.

Next Friday, be sure I'll be watching.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Wakey, Wakey, Drakey!


Ashes to Ashes returns to our screens tomorrow on BBC1 at 9 p.m.