With Life on Mars – and the journey of time-travelling cop Sam Tyler – neatly wrapped up after two stellar seasons, the existence of sequel series Ashes to Ashes clearly owes to one thing and one thing only: Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt.
Philip Glenister's brutish, scene-stealing cop is back front and centre in Ashes to Ashes alongside Life on Mars sidekicks Ray Carling (Dean Andrews) and Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster), who have left Manchester to tackle the criminal scum of London. The trio are brought back to life when police psychologist Alex Drake (Spooks' Keeley Hawes) awakes in 1981 after being shot during the pursuit of a criminal in 2008. Like Tyler before her, Drake finds herself trapped in the past and working with Hunt and his team.
By the time Ashes to Ashes' first season wrapped up on ABC1 last week, it had more or less escaped the vast shadow of Life on Mars. The season's central arc, which saw Drake fighting to prevent the death of her parents in a car bombing, was engaging stuff, and her urge to return to her daughter in the present day meant Drake's even more determined to return to the present day than Tyler was.
Unfortunately, the show stumbles in overcoming the expectations attached to a sequel series. The transition from Life on Mars' gritty depiction of seventies Britain to the glitz and glamour of the 1980s in Ashes to Ashes is accompanied by a jarring tonal shift; at times, Ashes to Ashes borders on a parody of its predecessor. The ingredients are all there (the Ford Cortina is replaced by an Audi Quattro, the pub by an Italian restaurant and the Test Card girl by a very creepy clown) but there's an obvious sense of self-awareness to Ashes to Ashes that was lacking in the original series. While it may be befitting to Hawes' character, who, having read Sam Tyler's files, is convinced that her awakening in 1981 is all in her head, the jokier tone plays contrary Life on Mars' engaging conviction to its conceit.
(Curiously, the lighter Ashes to Ashes would probably have leant itself better to a US adaptation than Life on Mars did, particularly given the in-vogue setting of the 1980s. It also wouldn't have given US producers the ammunition they needed to make a God-awful literal twist in the final episode.)
Glenister still lends great gusto to Gene Hunt who is now aware that his old school policing methods are soon to be a thing of the past (it's ripe material only hinted at in series one – here's hoping it'll be further explored in future episodes). However, Hunt, like Skelton and Carling (sporting an ace perm), seem to be painted in far broader strokes than they were in Life on Mars – witness the bombastic introduction of Gene Hunt in episode one.
Hawes, meanwhile, eventually comes into her own as Ashes to Ashes ultimately does. Her constant (and occasionally annoying) narration in early episodes makes her a less endearing protagonist than John Simm's instantly likeable Tyler, but Drake's tetchy sparring with Hunt becomes a joy to behold. She also develops an intriguing relationship with Montserrat Lombard's Sharon Granger toward the season's end.
It's difficult to assess the first season of Ashes to Ashes as an independent entity (the show even takes its title from another David Bowie song, just one of dozens of funky '80s tunes to feature), and it was always going to struggle to recapture the brilliance and originality of Life on Mars. However, there's still life left in the show's fish-out-of-water premise and with that awkward transitional phase over, Ashes to Ashes should be well placed to develop an identity of its own as the second season begins tonight.