Implications of the world of Ashes to Ashes

I’ll not review the finale of Ashes to Ashes as an episode, I never really reviewed the finale of Life on Mars, nor have I been reviewing either series on an episode by episode basis. There’s no reason for me to start that now. That notwithstanding, I’ve faithfully watched both series from day one. I had more affinity for Life on Mars probably because my age my closely matches Sam Tyler’s and because the mystery of the series was more unique and pronounced than then post-Life on Mars finale world of Ashes to Ashes.

If you’ve not watched these series, be aware that no discussion of the end of either of these series could be considered spoiler-free. You have been warned. Really, if you haven’t watched Life on Mars and you ever think you might (and you should) don’t read this post. It will ruin the show for you.

Read more after the break…

If you’re still reading, I shouldn’t have to recap, but will just to be on the same page. I am exclusively talking about the UK version of Life on Mars, not the US version which ultimately bore no similarity to the UK version.

In Life on Mars, present-day Manchester copper DCI (Detective Chief Inspector) Sam Tyler is hit by a car and wakes up in 1973. He finds that he seems to have a life and identity as a DI (Detective Inspector) Sam Tyler at the 1973 version of the Manchester police force. Here he finds himself working for the prejudiced and violent DCI Gene Hunt and he struggles to understand what’s happened to him but he has to make do in his new reality. Throughout the series, it seems mostly obvious that Sam is in a fantasy world induced by his coma and yet, whenever he’s worked that out for certain, something comes along that makes it seem that perhaps he really has gone back in time. He struggles to find a purpose in his existence in 1973 that he hopes will return him to the present-day.

Sam Tyler does escape, but to do so he must abandon all his 1973 friends and colleagues to certain death. When he does, he awakes from his coma and goes back to his “normal” life. Not long after that Sam finds he can’t stand the sterile modern world and kills himself. We’re shown him returning to his fantasy world, saving his friends and driving off with them as the fantasy world is switched off.

My thoughts then and now are that this ending is fundamentally wrong. Sam Tyler fought against the fantasy world, always struggling to survive and escape – even when he was unsure if the world he was in really was real. When he did escape, that should have confirmed that the whole event was just in his mind. When Sam kills himself in the end, he rejects reality for fantasy. While I certainly understand that real people in the real world really do reject reality (all the time, in fact – just consider religion for a moment and you’ll see that’s true), scarce few do it to the extreme of killing themselves (suicide bombers aside.) What rang wrong for me was that Sam Tyler’s personality simply didn’t allow for this. At no point in the series did I ever get a hint that Sam preferred the fantasy world, even while learning to live his life there. If that had ever been conveyed, than perhaps I could have bought the ending. Even then, it seems likely that Sam would have realized that he’d need to go back into a coma, not die outright to return to his friends.

Brilliantly acted, produced and for the most part written, Life on Mars was a series that ended far too soon for the public and so was born Ashes to Ashes.

You’d think that when the only real character in a series is killed (along with all his fantasy friends in his head) at the end of a series, it wouldn’t be possible to do a follow-on series. Not so.

In Ashes to Ashes, DI Alex Drake, police psychiatrist in London has been the psychiatrist assigned to the case of Sam Tyler after he awoke from his coma. Shortly after Sam kills himself, Alex is taken hostage and shot in the head. She awakes, not in 1973 Manchester, but in 1981 London where she finds she also has a pre-existing identity as herself and is newly assigned to recently-moved-to-London DCI Gene Hunt and his team, Ray Carling and Chris Skelton (also both from Sam’s fantasy world.) In this world she learns that Sam Tyler returned and lived 7 more years before dying in a car accident (but his body was never found.) Does that mean time runs differently and that she’s seconds from death? Is this another fantasy construct in which she reconstructed Sam’s delusion after dealing with his case or is it somehow actually real?

I felt both series were stronger in their first year because, in both cases, Sam and Alex had to deal with something that happened in their past – at exactly the time they’ve arrived. In Sam’s case it was the mysterious abandonment by his father and in Alex’s case, the murder of her parents. In both series, they are able to resolve the mystery of what happened but are unable to change the course of events. (Or did they not resolve the mystery but actually just made up their own resolution in their minds? Or did they actually know what really happened and had repressed the traumatic memory their entire lives?)

In both series, they thought solving their mystery would get them out and in both series they were wrong. As the second (and third in the case of Ashes to Ashes) series came along, they have mostly settled into their lives and strange things keep happening to remind them of the world they left as they search for new ideas on how to escape back home.

In Ashes to Ashes, they throw more curves at us. In the second series, we’re introduced to another modern-day copper dying in the same hospital as Alex; a corrupt, cynical copper who tries to corrupt Alex and convince her his way is the way to escape. What complicates matters is that this man exists twice in Alex’s world. Once as the old man transported back in time as Alex is and once as himself, a young, honest constable. (In both Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, Sam and Alex exist as small children. Sam never actually meets himself, just his own family, while Alex does finally meet herself when it is revealed that Gene Hunt was the cop who rescued her during her parents murder.)

Surprising us a little further, the old version of the copper kills himself and frames Alex for the murder. What the heck was that all about? To this day I’m still not sure what to make of that. Was the older copper really from the future or a fantasy construct?

Rejecting the corruption ultimately leads Alex to be shot (by accident) by Gene Hunt and she finds herself back at home, only to be visited by the images of Gene Hunt urging her to return from TV screens (a common plot device used in Ashes to Ashes when she receives communication from the “real” world.)

Without killing herself, Alex finds herself suddenly back in the past, but now haunted by visions of a clock and the ghost of a dead policeman. Messages from the “real world” stop coming to her through the TV. Alex and the other members of Hunt’s team each begin to have visions of stars and a new character, Jim Keats, arrives and begins to sow the seeds of doubt about Gene Hunt. He is clearly trying to break up Hunt’s team. At his suggestion, Alex begins to investigate the disappearance of Sam Tyler, which evidence now suggests was some sort of coverup and the clues keep leading back to Gene Hunt.

More clues (and the help of Jim Keats) lead Alex to believe that the policeman that is haunting her was also murdered by Gene Hunt, and with Hunt hot in pursuit to stop her, Alex tracks down the shallow grave of the ghost. Hunt threatens to kill her if she digs it up, but he cannot. What she finds is not at all what she expected: The body in the grave is that of Gene Hunt.

Hunt, as Alex knows him, is a ghost, and they are in a purgatory for coppers.

Hunt was failed by his mentor, who was drunk at the time, leaving the reckless rookie to investigate a crime by himself. Killed because of his bravado and feeling betrayed by his mentor, Hunt forgets his life and becomes the mentor of other police ghosts, helping them on their way out of purgatory – as he did with Sam Tyler.

Chris, Ray and Shaz are also dead police, each having died a tragic death and forgetting their lives. Jim Keats reveals to them their own deaths in an effort to make them believe Gene Hunt has been keeping this a secret from them and keeping them in purgatory for his own selfish needs. He almost succeeds in getting them to transfer to “his division” but Alex still believes in Hunt and convinces them to help him solve one last case. From the audience’s standpoint, it’s now clear that Jim Keats works for Satan (or “Nick” as he’s called in the show) and that a transfer to his division – by way of a down elevator in the basement – is a transfer to hell. It’s not clear that Ray or Chris realize this, but Shaz leaves to help Hunt.

Hunt, Alex and Shaz take on the bad guys and Ray and Chris arrive just in time to save the day. Afterwards, Hunt takes them to the old pub from Life on Mars (now mysteriously in London) and they enter for the last time, forever leaving purgatory for the next world. Alex is the last to go in, now finally realizing that the clock was telling her the time of her death and that there is no chance she will ever return to her life and her daughter.

Hunt stays behind and has a confrontation with Keats and it’s clear the battle will go on for them forever.

Back at Hunt’s station, the next copper from the future arrives in exactly the same way Sam Tyler did. The cycle repeats itself. Forever?

The ending of Ashes to Ashes was quite sad. You must feel for Alex realizing that she’s left her daughter to grow up without her, and that Gene Hunt, restless spirit, will forever be blocked from entering the final afterlife by his need to compensate for the inadequacies of his own police mentor. It’s hardly an uplifting ending, but then, I can think of nothing more depressing than the very concept of an afterlife.

The question is, does the ending of Ashes to Ashes cheapen the ending of Life on Mars?

Yes, it does.

There’s no doubt, taking Life on Mars on its own, that Sam is in a fantasy world. It is not populated by ghosts in the metaphysical sense, but by ghosts of his own mind. The existence of his young self and members of his own (still alive) family prove it’s not populated (entirely) by spirits of the dead. Not only does Sam choose death to return to the fantasy world – which is one heck of a leap of faith (Was his suicide by jumping off a building metaphorical of a “leap of faith”?) but the audience is shown that world being “switched off” shortly after Sam returns – surely indicating his death and the end of the fantasy.

Ashes to Ashes, for a start, invalidates what we see and learned in Life on Mars, but at least during the first series, they plausibly (“plausibly?” Really? I actually used the world “plausibly”?) set up that Alex may be recreating Sam’s fantasy as a mechanism for her to continue to struggle to remain alive. She’s taken Sam’s recorded experiences, which she knows were successful for getting Sam out of his coma, and recreated them in her own head using his cast of characters. (The fact that they look alike is something that Alex could never know and the audience accepts because we all know the show exists to bring there people back on the screen.)

Slowly, over the three series, they break that illusion down, making it more and more obvious that what Sam experienced was in some way external to himself – in some way reality.

At the conclusion to Ashes to Ashes, we learn that this is, effectively, the inevitable conclusion for us all. Presumably for Sam, Alex, Chris, Ray and Shaz a better world.

It cheapens the end of Life on Mars because it shows that Sam was right to kill himself! There is no need to be sad for Sam, he really is in a better place. Stop crying, it was all a trick on your emotions. Life on Mars has been retconned.

Spoilers don’t normally bother me, but consider, from now on, if you go back and watch Life on Mars, you’ll be seeing the show with a completely different mindset. There is no mystery, there’s no tragedy coming at the end, there’s no ambiguity about what really happened to Sam Tyler. He’s just at a staging depot on the way to eternity.

Eternity – that great expanse of endless time that dwarfs into mathematical insignificance the span and the meaning of our lives. Eternity in an afterlife – sounds great at first blush – I mean, no sane person really wants to die* – but with just a few moments thought, one should realize that any form of eternity must be hell.

Really, if you believe otherwise, why haven’t you joined Sam Tyler already?


*OK, I’ll disclaim that, some people who aren’t insane have good reason to want to die. Horribly painful terminal illness for example are a good reasons to want to die. Why do we, as a culture, force people to endure such things when it should be their right to decide?

11 thoughts on “Implications of the world of Ashes to Ashes”

  1. Excellent critique of where the series has been consistent with an external world (whether the one we know, or another one) or with an internal fantasy.

    You won’t be surprised that I don’t agree entirely with your conclusion! Here’s what I think about a couple of points:

    – The old Summers really was in the same hospital as Alex, really entered police purgatory and really believed he could kill his young self. Young PC Summer is the one who wasn’t “real”. Not everyone in this place is a spirit of a dead policeman. (Also applies to young Alex, young Sam, parents of same etc. though clearly none of them were police either)

    – The ending was still sad. None of the characters wanted to die. And I’m still troubled by Sam committing suicide. But even when we were in ignorance of the true nature of the world of Life on Mars the decision Sam makes was portrayed in the show (it seemed to me) as a positive one. I don’t like the ending to Life on Mars and I didn’t before, but I don’t see that this makes it worse?

  2. Excellent critique of where the series has been consistent with an external world (whether the one we know, or another one) or with an internal fantasy.

    You won’t be surprised that I don’t agree entirely with your conclusion! Here’s what I think about a couple of points:

    – The old Summers really was in the same hospital as Alex, really entered police purgatory and really believed he could kill his young self. Young PC Summer is the one who wasn’t “real”. Not everyone in this place is a spirit of a dead policeman. (Also applies to young Alex, young Sam, parents of same etc. though clearly none of them were police either)

    – The ending was still sad. None of the characters wanted to die. And I’m still troubled by Sam committing suicide. But even when we were in ignorance of the true nature of the world of Life on Mars the decision Sam makes was portrayed in the show (it seemed to me) as a positive one. I don’t like the ending to Life on Mars and I didn’t before, but I don’t see that this makes it worse?

  3. OK, I’ll try to explain why I feel that way.

    When someone dies, it is a very difficult – indeed, I would say impossible – to conceive of what the “end of consciousness” is. You have to be able to divorce your thoughts of the idea of thinking and of the idea of time passing. It’s just like conceiving of what you were like before you were born. It’s simply not possible.

    This is why, when someone dies, it is a powerful lie to say something like, “They went to heaven.” It allows us to conceptualize something inconceivable. When trying to comfort someone like a child, even the most staunch disbelievers in metaphysical BS are tempted to give the child the easy answer. It is a lie that is able to blunt some of the sting of what can only honestly be considered a complete loss.

    In the same way the lie of an afterlife diminishes the pain of death for the survivors, the reveal that the afterlife is real in Life on Mars diminishes the sting of the tragedy that is Sam’s suicide.

    If the Life on Mars world was entirely in his head then this is a complete tragedy. He didn’t really go back and save his friends. He didn’t really get to go live a fun new world. He didn’t find love with Annie and he hurt everyone in his own life by killing himself. Total loss, total tragedy.

    If Alex’s reality proves that there really was an afterlife (and, upon reflection, it doesn’t really, it just proves that she believes it was real) and that Sam made it into the pub with Annie for a happy ever after (while being dead) then Sam’s suicide wasn’t a total loss.

    That’s why I say it cheapens the ending of Life on Mars.

    Life on Mars had a horrible ending and now they’ve come along, held our hand and said, “There, there. Don’t be sad. Sam’s OK. He’s happy with Annie in the pub. You’ll see him again someday.” The writers have cheated us and treated us like children.

  4. OK, I’ll try to explain why I feel that way.

    When someone dies, it is a very difficult – indeed, I would say impossible – to conceive of what the “end of consciousness” is. You have to be able to divorce your thoughts of the idea of thinking and of the idea of time passing. It’s just like conceiving of what you were like before you were born. It’s simply not possible.

    This is why, when someone dies, it is a powerful lie to say something like, “They went to heaven.” It allows us to conceptualize something inconceivable. When trying to comfort someone like a child, even the most staunch disbelievers in metaphysical BS are tempted to give the child the easy answer. It is a lie that is able to blunt some of the sting of what can only honestly be considered a complete loss.

    In the same way the lie of an afterlife diminishes the pain of death for the survivors, the reveal that the afterlife is real in Life on Mars diminishes the sting of the tragedy that is Sam’s suicide.

    If the Life on Mars world was entirely in his head then this is a complete tragedy. He didn’t really go back and save his friends. He didn’t really get to go live a fun new world. He didn’t find love with Annie and he hurt everyone in his own life by killing himself. Total loss, total tragedy.

    If Alex’s reality proves that there really was an afterlife (and, upon reflection, it doesn’t really, it just proves that she believes it was real) and that Sam made it into the pub with Annie for a happy ever after (while being dead) then Sam’s suicide wasn’t a total loss.

    That’s why I say it cheapens the ending of Life on Mars.

    Life on Mars had a horrible ending and now they’ve come along, held our hand and said, “There, there. Don’t be sad. Sam’s OK. He’s happy with Annie in the pub. You’ll see him again someday.” The writers have cheated us and treated us like children.

  5. But in Life on Mars we see Sam return to the fantasy world after he has jumped. It’s not the end of consciousness.

    Now, perhaps (if it had been all in his head) he returned to the fantasy world in his final moments as life slipped away, and time moves at a different speed there. He still experiences his “happy ending” in the same way before slipping across to heaven, or oblivion (and this really isn’t spelled out, I think) which already seemed to justify his choice. The effect was still the same on those (if there were any left) in his own life who cared for him.

    That’s what we might have assumed at the end of Life on Mars. Now we know there world he experienced was external to him. Yet his experiences before he passed over were exactly the same, we can assume they would have brought precisely the same amount of happiness, and of course the effect on those he left behind were still just as devastating. So it seems to me that it doesn’t really invite a different judgement on his actions.

    As to whether the conceit of having a purgatory and (arguably) a heaven is in some way infantilising, I don’t see it that way. There’s undoubtedly a bit of a genre clash, because we’ve got a heavy dose of sci-fi and cop show in there, but there’s always been a fantasy element. The concept can very effectively be used to explore some very adult themes, as in Alice Seabold’s The Lovely Bones, for example. Not that I’m arguing that Ashes to Ashes is either as good as that – or particularly adult for that matter!

  6. But in Life on Mars we see Sam return to the fantasy world after he has jumped. It’s not the end of consciousness.

    Now, perhaps (if it had been all in his head) he returned to the fantasy world in his final moments as life slipped away, and time moves at a different speed there. He still experiences his “happy ending” in the same way before slipping across to heaven, or oblivion (and this really isn’t spelled out, I think) which already seemed to justify his choice. The effect was still the same on those (if there were any left) in his own life who cared for him.

    That’s what we might have assumed at the end of Life on Mars. Now we know there world he experienced was external to him. Yet his experiences before he passed over were exactly the same, we can assume they would have brought precisely the same amount of happiness, and of course the effect on those he left behind were still just as devastating. So it seems to me that it doesn’t really invite a different judgement on his actions.

    As to whether the conceit of having a purgatory and (arguably) a heaven is in some way infantilising, I don’t see it that way. There’s undoubtedly a bit of a genre clash, because we’ve got a heavy dose of sci-fi and cop show in there, but there’s always been a fantasy element. The concept can very effectively be used to explore some very adult themes, as in Alice Seabold’s The Lovely Bones, for example. Not that I’m arguing that Ashes to Ashes is either as good as that – or particularly adult for that matter!

  7. My impression and, granted, that’s just what I took away from the final moments, was that the scenes after he jumped occurred in the moment of his death and little Death Girl turning off the TV at the end was just that: the end of Sam Tyler.

    Wasn’t there a heart monitor flat-lining sound at the same time as she turned the TV off?

  8. My impression and, granted, that’s just what I took away from the final moments, was that the scenes after he jumped occurred in the moment of his death and little Death Girl turning off the TV at the end was just that: the end of Sam Tyler.

    Wasn’t there a heart monitor flat-lining sound at the same time as she turned the TV off?

  9. It's ages since I actually watched the Life on Mars finale, but I was left with the impression that Sam's life carried on. That may just have been my inference, or maybe test card girl switching it off was the last we got to see of it? It's been ages…

  10. Charlie Brooker's column today amused the heck out of me. He's put his finger on the other problem with purgatory stories:

    But Lost isn't the only series coming to an end. Ashes To Ashes, Law & Order, 24, Heroes: it's almost as though populist TV drama itself is shutting down. Some shows, like Heroes, don't have an opportunity to plan for their own deaths, leaving the characters stuck in limbo. Others, like Lost and Ashes To Ashes, turn out to have been in limbo all along. Limbo's very much in vogue at the moment. In fact there's roughly a 50% chance that any serial you're following will turn out to be set there. All this publicity must be doing wonders for the Limbo tourist industry.

    Of course saying “aha, it was limbo all along” is just a marginally more profound way of saying “aha, it was a dream all along”, a trope which became a cliche through overuse. There's no room for any more limbo-based programming, so anything currently on air is going to have to find a different way of ending, which sadly means 24 (Sun, 9pm, Sky1) – which finishes for good in a fortnight – won't conclude with Jack Bauer kicking his way through Hell and kneeing Satan in the bollocks. Another twist is necessary. Here's hoping it transpires the whole thing took place in a paperback novel being read by Shaz from Ashes To Ashes, who was herself being daydreamt by Sawyer from Lost – while he was trying to think up a satisfying conclusion for Heroes. That or it pulls out to reveal it all took place in a cat's bum. A cat's bum doing a poo. I am 39 years old.

  11. “aha, it was limbo all along” is just a marginally more profound way of saying “aha, it was a dream all along”

    Than a dream, or a hallucination whilst comatose.

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