Keeley Hawes, Philip Glenister, Steven Moffat, Matt Smith - Remotely Interested: Ashes to Ashes, Doctor Who
Mark Grainger 03/05/2010
Television scheduling really is a fickle bitch. Not only does it often pit two high quality or interesting programs against one another but it also withholds programming to fit in with its quarterly “line-ups” (for example, the latest series of QI which has just finished its run on BBC1 was actually recorded a year ago but only began airing in the channel's winter line-up). Plus, if you're a sad TV-tanned recluse like myself then it also dictates which nights you can or cannot spend nervously sipping beer in the corner of a bar crowded with real people with blood and eyes and everything.
Terrestrial TV's seasonal schedules are basically like farmers fields; for six months of the year they yield a satisfying crop of unique, engaging, funny and, sometimes, amazing programming. The other six months, however, they are barren and dying, stripped of their recent glory and often with the faint but unmistakeable whiff of excrement in the air.
Winter is traditionally one of the more barren periods, especially on the BBC, with any half decent programming being exclusively shown over Christmas and New Year. After that it usually goes quiet until the Easter. Thankfully this Easter has seen a deluge of appointment viewing land in our collective digiboxes. We've already had the last A Touch of Frost, Jonathan Creek, Outnumbered and Have I Got News For You but who would have thought that two of the biggest and most hotly anticipated new series would have a time-travelling bent?
First up, Ashes To Ashes the sequel show to BBC1's critically acclaimed Life On Mars. Life On Mars told the story of Sam Tyler who, after a car crash, wakes-up in the seventies under the employment of whiskey sodden, nicotine stained DCI Gene Hunt, a copper who treads the line between heroism and villainy like a sheriff in the old west. Hunt and Tyler are made fully believable by razor sharp writing, dialogue and natural chemistry between the actors who did nothing short of inhabit the duo, John Simm (Tyler) and Philip Glenister (Hunt). LoM ended with Tyler awakening from a coma (the root of his seventies dreamscape) to be disillusioned with a real world that felt colder and lonelier than the one he'd left behind. Yearning to return to 1973 and the girl he'd left there, Sam jumps off a roof, killing himself but sending his consciousness back in time for his last moments of life, moments which his dying brain apparently managed to stretch out for seven years of life in his fantasy world.
A year later Ashes To Ashes picked up the story with Police psychoanalyst Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes) being shot and sent to the 1980's where she encounters Hunt and his men whom she knows from interviewing Sam Tyler before his death. The initial series of Ashes suffered from Alex's knowledge of the truth of her situation being clumsily translated into her being an insufferably smug cow, and far from sympathising with her plight, many watched on in hope she'd get shot again to finish the job. Essentially Ashes was like any sequel, trying desperately to replicate success of an original concept by attempting more of the same with extra baubles and a shiny make over trying to mask a lack of new ideas. Thankfully over the course of its second series the show and drake settled down into its new situation and started bringing back some of the mysteries that made LoM such a hit. The new, third series (BBC1 Fri, 9pm) has started strongly enough with some interesting plots which, whilst lacking in twists, suitably frame the overriding arc of the series, an internal investigation into Gene by the seemingly Affable Jim Keats, who has also prompted Alex to do some digging into Sam's disappearance. It's all cracking along at a fair pace, and the increasing connection with its predecessor seems to galvanise the show further but I can't escape the nagging feeling that there's always the chance they could ruin the legacy of both shows with a final twist as ridiculous as that of the U.S LoM (they were on a spaceship, look it up), especially now the supporting cast are having moments similar to Alex and Sam when they reconnect to the real world.
The biggest return of the Easter across all the major channels was arguably the BBC's sci-fi goliath, Doctor Who. Way back in 2005 Christopher Eccleston, the first of the new generation of Doctors, handed the keys to relative unknown David Tennant who, over the course of four years and a doomed romance with Billie Piper's character Rose Tyler, managed to cement his place as not only one of the best loved Doctor's but as a British television institution. Then however came the news that the public and web forums had been speculating on since tenant picked up his sonic screwdriver; the news that he was handing over his TARDIS keys to new boy Matt Smith, the youngest ever actor to fill the role.
Much was made about the new appointment but that's how Doctor Who always works, how it keeps fresh and how it's managed to survive for the better part of four decades. Far more important is the change of production and writing staff, with the potentially darker and scarier writing style of Steven Moffat replacing the spectacle and frivolity of Russell T. Davies. In reality though, very little has changed outside the aesthetics of the show and its new title sequence and cinematography. The Doctor still spends a lot of time running, the assistant is feisty and in awe of her new surroundings, they all get pally with famous people from history and the endgame of the series has already been hinted at with themes of mysterious memory loss and cracks in reality recurring already.
The third episode, Victory Of The Daleks, was the first not to be written by Moffat and marked the first dip in quality from the impressive heights of the first two episodes. The episode on a whole felt both rushed and cramped (nothing to do with the underground bunker setting) and managed to portray Winston Churchill less convincingly than the insurance mascot who bares his name. The episode has already caused controversy by reimagining the Doctor's deadliest enemy, the Dalek's through in retina-meltingly bright new paint job which sees any menace held in their famous modulated voices being swept away on a wave of primary colours which give the appearance that a unicorn has vomited all over them.
For his part Matt Smith is proving to be an excellent Doctor; engaging, shambolic and in possession of a disjointed quality (as emphasised by wearing the wardrobe of a fifties geography teacher despite having the youngest face in the series history) he looks set on becoming as much of a fixture on British T.V as his predecessor, just so long as the writing quality holds up.