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.