Strung Out on Heaven’s High: Ashes to Ashes Finale

Ashes to Ashes, the follow up show to 2006’s Life On Mars, ended on a high note, finishing out the series and presumably the entire franchise, answering some questions lingering from Sam Tyler’s experiences in 1973. At the same time, Ashes to Ashes has continued an interesting story, pushing the stories to the extremes of the medium, and providing a genuinely surreal experience for the viewer.

In 2006, Sam Tyler, a Manchester DCI, was hit by a car and awoke in 1973. Discovering the reasons for his abrupt time travel, he returned to the present, only to commit suicide and return to the land of Gene Hunt and his band of lawmen. Ashes to Ashes picked up the pieces shortly after Tyler’s death, with police officer Alex Drake receiving a bullet in the head, propelling her back to 1981, where she navigates the past once again to try and figure out just what is going on.

The show had a lot to live up to: Life on Mars, likewise named for a David Bowie song, provided one of the more interesting, exciting and thought-provoking show to hit the airwaves. A gripping look at changing values in a country that has changed dramatically, the show did exactly what good science fiction should do: present a story in different contexts. In this instance, it does it quite literally, but the original show introduced an element of surrealism to the storyline, something that Ashes to Ashes has continued.

A sense of the surreal has been a larger part of Alex Drake’s storyline. A police psychologist, she was an investigating officer when it came to Sam Tyler’s case, and throughout the show, recognizes that her surroundings aren’t real, whereas in the prior show, there was an element of uncertainty to Sam’s predicament, right to the very end. Life On Mar’s finale revealed that Sam had been killed, and Ashes to Ashes does a fantastic job carrying the momentum forward, delving further into the franchise’s mythology, characters and story.

One of the best points about the show was the return of Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), Ray Carling (Dean Andrews) and Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster), and newcomers Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes) and Shaz Granger (Montserrat Lombard) who brought back a fantastic performance and new direction for the storyline. Rather than repeating the successes of its predecessor, which mainly focused on procedural elements (as well as Sam trying to return home), much more of the back story to the cast is brought in, and it’s clear that Gene Hunt has remained at the forefront of the action, metaphorically and literally.

While I’m not convinced that Ashes to Ashes had a better ending than Life on Mars, it was a good one, wrapping up where Life On Mars left off, and making it clear that Life On Mars was just one story in a much larger one. Gene is revealed to be something of a main figure in a purgatory for deceased police officers, helping them settles the major problems that they all faced before releasing them from that existence. The world of Gene Hunt is one of the restless dead, and he is their shepherd, acting out all of his own flaws and insecurities in the meantime.

In the run up to the finale, the surrealistic elements really come to their proper form, as Chris, Ray and Shaz begin to realize that their lives aren’t what they seem, and the points where they watch their own deaths is an interesting one, revealing much that’s been build up around the characters over the past three seasons.

I’m rather sad to see the show go away, and with the reveal at the end, it’s pretty clear that this franchise is largely at an end, something that I both applaud and lament. On one hand, it feels as though this sort of storyline really could have used a third series to better build up the suspense and tell some interesting stories. I would have loved to have seen a series set in the 1990s (which is coming up on the 20 year mark soonish), but at the same point, the BBC has had the foresight to really end the show before running it into the ground, something that American channels do only inadvertently when they can’t figure out how to market a television show to an audience. Life On Mars is a particularly hard one to sell, and here in the U.S., it failed to garner a second season, although they did do a decent job adapting the story – until the end.

The main problem with the Ashes to Ashes ending was that we already really knew what had happened to Sam: he’d died, and returned to the sort of dream world, and the revelation that Gene Hunt was a specter of coppers deceased really isn’t the surprise that it should have been, all things considered.

With that in mind, the final episode was far more intriguing than anything that I’ve really come across in U.S. mass media, and very rarely can something as interesting and surreal (Twin Peaks, Pushing Daisies, and LOST) as Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes come onto our television screens. It’s a real shame, but at the same time, it’s good to treasure those shows as they do come across.

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