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Back to the past

Brit import Ashes to Ashes attempts to recapture the magic of Mars

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In the U.S., the American version of Life on Mars, the drama about a cop who gets in a car accident and find himself somehow transported back to 1973 (or does he?), is winding down its 17-episode run, having been cancelled prematurely by ABC (it would otherwise have had its story stretched out indefinitely to fit the American TV model). In the U.K., the original wrapped up in 2007 after two seasons of eight episodes each, and the Brits are already on to the show’s sequel. Ashes to Ashes (BBC America, Saturdays, 9 p.m.) aired in the U.K. last year, and begins its U.S. run this week. Like Mars, it follows a modern police detective who appears to be inexplicably sent to the past after a traumatic event. In this case, it’s Detective Inspector Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes), an experienced psychological profiler who trained with the CIA, and she finds herself in 1981 London after being kidnapped and shot by a mysterious man.

Mars main character Sam Tyler isn’t around anymore, but that show’s primary supporting cast has made the journey from 1973 to 1981, and from Manchester to London. Gruff Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) is as coarse and misogynistic as ever, as is his right-hand man, Ray Carling (Dean Andrews), but younger detective Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster) is doing his best to adjust to the more progressive, metropolitan life in London at the dawn of the 1980s.

The Details

Ashes to Ashes
Three stars
BBC: Ashes to Ashes

At its heart, Ashes follows the same formula as Mars, as Alex at first assumes she’s dreaming, dismissing her new surroundings and everyone in them as figments of her imagination, and then gradually assimilates herself while still trying to figure out how to get home. The gender reversal adds a few new twists: Rather than merely bearing witness to retrograde sexism, Alex experiences it firsthand, shining an even brighter light on the archaic attitudes of her 1980s colleagues. But the producers also saddle Alex and Gene with a tired will-they-or-won’t-they sexual dynamic, and fill their conversations with flirtatious banter. Gene’s status as a badass cop who’ll do anything, no matter how many rules it breaks, to catch a suspect is compromised a bit when he’s making moon-eyes at the hot female detective who claims to be from the future.

Other changes work better. Before getting catapulted back in time, Alex was investigating the Sam Tyler case, so she recognizes what’s going on as soon as she shows up in the past, and tries to use her knowledge to expedite her return to the present. It’s a bit like a horror sequel where the new protagonist knows all the villain’s moves, yet finds trying to counter them only gets her into deeper trouble. The change from the ’70s to the ’80s also means Alex isn’t the only person out of time; Gene is starting to look more and more like a relic from the past, as protests against police brutality and for women’s rights become more prominent.

Plot-wise, Alex benefits from strong motivation, wanting both to return to her daughter in the present and possibly prevent the murder of her parents in the past. All the same, Ashes is still just a slightly different take on a familiar formula, and it doesn’t break much new ground. The mix between police procedural and sci-fi mystery is often awkward, and never quite achieves the right balance. But unlike on American TV, at least we can expect it to wrap up efficiently and, if the end of the original Mars was any indication, satisfactorily as well.

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