ASHES TO ASHES - Series 3: Episode One / Review


BBC1 - 2nd April 2010 - 9.00pm

“My name is Alex Drake. And, quite frankly, your guess is as good as mine.”

"Wakey, wakey, Drakey"

"We're a team. Bodie and Doyle. I'm the one in the SAS. You can be the one with the girl's hair. Get yer knickers on. We're leaving"

"Sometimes in life you can't help which way you fall"

"Please talk now, you mare"

Well, indeed. The opening titles and Alex's emergence from the coma within a coma certainly indicates all bets are off as to what exactly has happened to her in the present day and whether it is 1983 that's real or a subconscious retreat. The titles are a neat summary of the past two years, featuring landmark moments that tell any newcomers, and remind fans, of just where we've got to. The impression I have here is that Alex has been in a coma for three months since the end of the last series and the opening scenes in the electronics store and with the psychotherapist, allegedly in the present day, are in fact another construct. The myriad faces of her 1983 team replicated on the masses of television screens symbolically picks up where the last series rather perplexingly left us and here act as a subliminal message to her comatose self that it's time to return to the 1980s. They need her help. Especially, when it comes to choosing the right fruit to bring to the bedside ('Bit's of melon on the floor ma'am. D'you want me to clean it up?).

After a brief reverie ('and are you dreaming about him?') in which Alex fantasises about Gene blasting away like an errant sheriff in the Wild West at armed blaggers after a car chase set to Wagner's 'Ride of The Valkyries' her mission statement is clear. Right at the top of the episode she mentions Sam Tyler's similar experience (it seems Alex actually discussed this directly with Sam) and her own need to return to complete unfinished business. She conjectures that both she and Sam had a purpose in this 'other' place. Note here the background lighting as she talks to the psychotherapist - it shifts from darkness to light as Alex rationalises her experience. As the psychotherapist debunks her theories, she's plunged back into the darkness. She can even observe her own self still in a coma in the present day as a news report reveals to us the discovery of a buried body. This is obviously going to be important as is the recurring phantom of the disfigured policeman she encounters. And 9.06 is yet another clue we'll have to unravel too.

And just like the slap in the face that Gene delivers to Alex's kisser, we're back in 1983 and in the middle of a kidnap case. Immediately there's a real confidence about this series as the kidnap plot, not the most original thing that the series has done it has to be said, weaves in and out of the more interesting subplot of Gene's investigation by new character Jim Keats (a rather good Danny Mays), working for D and C ('That's a gynaecological procedure, isn't it?') who seems to know a awful lot more about Gene's past than the audience and Alex. Matthew Graham expertly sets up the premise for this final series, indicating we'll perhaps find out some of the answers to those questions: What did happen to Alex and Sam? Who is Gene Hunt?

And with a wonderful flourish, the Quattro is unveiled and we leap into the series proper with both characters 'fighting for the future'. Later, as Alex sits next to her television trying to fathom out why she's back in 1983, the Quattro is reviewed on Top Gear with its 'blood and thunder performance' clearly emphasising the car as emblematic of Gene's methodology. One of the odd things about the sequences involving the Quattro is it seems to be the only vehicle on the road and there's a great deal of implied symbolism as the car disappears into the same tunnel and emerges from it several times during the episode. Is there some suggestion that this is a kind of transition into the underworld or an alternate reality? Whatever it is, back at Fenchurch East, Ray has been promoted to DI ('It's not that incredible!') and Chris and Shaz, although no longer an item, seem to enjoy reading Doris Lessing books ('bloody lesbian poetry') but poor Shaz has been reduced to serving tea and biscuits. With a burst of Eddy Grant on the soundtrack, Gene quickly repositions himself in his old office, berates Ray for dressing like a maths teacher and it seems all has been returned to its rightful place. Except nothing is ever as it seems...

After Simon Bates 'Our Tune' on the radio establishes that Alex's daughter Molly is still out there waiting to be reunited with her mum, there's that rather strange conversation between Alex and Shaz as they discuss what is real, whether Alex is awake and where home is exactly and which further blurs the temporal realities of the series. Yet, in this 1983, we are reminded that huge changes are on the way for the police force with Kenneth Newman's appointment as Commissioner of the Met ushering in his major reforms that would change the fundamentals for policing for the first time in 150 years. Keats also mentions Operation Countryman, a major operation unearthing police corruption. The implication here, from Keats and in a later remark ('if you think you really know him, then you're in for a terrible shock') at Luigi's made by the kidnapped girl's stepmother, Marjorie, is that Gene has done some very questionable things in the past that are now about to come home to roost.

I like the developments here for Ray and Chris particularly. Graham seems intent on giving them some much needed further depth and Ray, in particular, has a sensitive side that Graham highlights in the script - from the grumpiness at Gene's return, his annoyance that Gene hasn't seen fit to praise him, to his reaction about the bungled sting on the kidnappers. Chris and Alex also seem to be developing a better chemistry with their warm partnership at the Dot Matrix factory and the investigation into William Carburton as well as the cracking of the bible code in the ransom note with Shaz's help. Chris declaring 'where do we find this Christ?' as he's told Carburton is now with Christ by the rather hunky ex-con is also very funny. Note that the semi-naked man is almost in a crucifixion pose too. There are also some nice visual witticisms too with Chris borrowing the clock from the police gym and setting it up to countdown the remaining hours of the ransom demand that suggests a lovely tongue in cheek dig at 24.

Hopefully, this re-strengthening of the working relationships between the characters will continue. It also gives the regular cast a chance to shine again, and they're all good here, but I would certainly pick out Dean Andrews for adding more sensitivity to the bluff Ray Carling. It's good to see Alex has some confidence in Ray to run operations and there's that great moment in Dot Matrix when he refers to her as 'ma'am' and then realises he's slipped up with a muttered 'shit' under his breath as she points the fact out. I also enjoyed Alex pointing out to Gene that whenever he demands they work together then it's usually only because of what he wants and not what the team is trying to achieve as a whole. Some good interplay between Glenister and Hawes that makes the series worth watching. There's also good support from Tanya Franks as Majorie who manages to keep us guessing about the kidnap for at least half the episode. The Majorie/David/Dorothy Blonde story could almost be seen as reference back to Alex's own past and the troubled relationship between her own parents and Evan White (whatever happened to him). Dorothy's videoed messages even visually suggest the test-card girl hallucinations from Life On Mars.

But it's the odd things that make this intriguing. Note that weird conversation between Shaz and Gene when Discipline And Complaints ring up and ask where he is. 'They want to know if you're here', asks Shaz. 'Well, I'm not!' yells Gene rather emphatically. Is he there, in 1983? And Keats is a real mystery where on the surface he appears to be a confident officer simply doing his duty but as the episode concludes there is that very dark scene in Gene's office where his true mission and hatred for Gene and all that he represents is revealed. Earlier, you'll note that strange moment when the door to Gene's office opens of its own accord as Keats leaves it and there is also an odd mirroring effect later when Keats goes back into the office to confront Gene as for a moment their two figures are held in the glass of the door.

Glenister and Mays are riveting and it's compelling to see the battlelines being drawn in the midst of a celebration. Is Keats the equivalent of Frank Morgan perhaps in his attempt to bring Gene Hunt down? There is also a lot of religious imagery - from the bible quotations, the flat where the bible studies are prepared covered in iconography, the crucifixion pose, and the disfigured patient clinging on to his rosary. It's something the series has done before so surely this isn't a coincidence? As Alex discovers Sam Tyler's file and Keats confronts Hunt the scene is set for the final series to unravel the mystery at the heart of the story. And, finally, is there anything in the '180' darts reference?

As ever, great use of music on the soundtrack with plenty of New Order, Queen & David Bowie and, most ironically of all, The Police to add that extra satisfying layer to the production and director David Drury ensures it all gets off to an impressive start with a keen visual sense in composition and lighting that gives the series a richer feel. 

More please!

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2 Responses to “ASHES TO ASHES - Series 3: Episode One / Review”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Frank, thank you for your carefully thought-out and attentive review, which I really enjoyed reading. I'm now ready for a re-watch to look out for the points you've made. Agree the visuals are always beautifully done. Looking forward to the next ep and review!


  2. Anonymous says:

    Elements of Total Recall here. Is it real, or is it fantasy? Of course, the escape route here is the same as it was for Total Recall, in the sense that it is nothing more than an enchanting fiction. Escape from the matrix conundrum is just as straightforward. However, I often wonder if the scriptwriters had been inspired by genuine paranormal phenomena.

    This was the case in the PJ Hammond series 'Sapphire & Steel', which also involved time as an unseen enemy. PJ Hammond was inspired by events in a haunted Scottish castle. He must have assumed the haunting to be like gateways, or cracks, to an earlier time.


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