Ashes to Ashes was born out of the nightmare of TV producers everywhere, the unexpected commission. Probably the most famous example of that is the fourth series of Blakes 7, where the production team had believed that the third series was to be the last, blown up the Liberator, tied up loose ends, and the production office had closed. The first most of them knew about a fourth series was when the continuity voice-over over the closing credits announced that the series would return the next year. Other examples include the rushed conclusion of season four and slow pace of season five of Babylon 5 as a result of a very late renewal for the fifth season. The key problem in all those situations is that the writers and producers generally aren’t prepared, or at least their plans tend to have to be changed at short notice – more often than not the result is regarded as not nearly so good – Blakes 7 built new sets, new props and a slightly changed concept, and was axed after only another season. Babylon 5 always was going to end after season five, but the final season is regarded by many as a disappointment.
With Ashes to Ashes, during the closing weeks of production on Life on Mars, after the news that John Simm wanted to stop, and with the final story written and in production, the BBC requested that the producers find some way to reuse the characters. At a late stage the scene in the final Life on Mars where Sam produces a report of his experiences was inserted, and the idea of having another police officer end up in a similar world was created.
Certainly, it is fair to say that I wasn’t keen on the idea – whilst the final episode of Life on Mars, which although I thought was left fairly open clearly pointed to it being something related to Sam, I really couldn’t see how you could drop another person in to that. If the characters were to be the same people that Sam had met you were starting to stray into more sci-fi territory.
Having said that, the situation was largely as a result of trying to find a vehicle for the characters, and the unwillingness of people like John Simm to continue. Whilst the linking of the series might be a bit of a problem, I certainly was still going to watch Ashes to Ashes.
So at the end of last week, we sat down to watch Ashes to Ashes. I have to say that my comment that it is nothing more than a rehash of Life on Mars is pretty well spot on. There may be a bit of a changed dynamic in having a woman in the Sam role, and some changes in that she knows about Sam’s experiences and strongly believes she is in a coma, essentially this is the same basic plot, even down to having links between present day events and the era in which Alex Drake arrives.
However, don’t conclude that because it’s a clone, it’s not any good. Even though you can draw clear parallels with Life on Mars, it was still a fairly entertaining watch. True it doesn’t have the originality, and not the same level of mystery as to what is going on that you had before, but with the much loved trio of Gene Hunt, Ray Carling and Chris Skelton, and a different selection of nostalgic pop culture references, you felt right at home.
It certainly goes to show that you don’t necessarily need originality to produce entertaining TV – it just remains to see if stripped of the originality and the mystery elements of the original series there will be enough to keep the interest of the audience longer term, and take it beyond being a shadowy clone of Life on Mars.