Or perhaps I mean – “How intentional is “Ashes To Ashes”‘ rubbishness?”

It’s an odd show, to say the least, this Life On Mars sequel thing (they’re calling it a ‘follow-up’, but it’s a sequel). A retread, but a retread very keen to demonstrate how clever its retreading is. Spoilers below the cut if you haven’t seen it yet.

So Alex Drake wakes up in 1981 having read Sam Tyler’s case notes: she knows everything’s happening in her head, and we know it (or sort of know it, or quite possibly no longer care either way). This was probably the only way to play it and makes for some funny metabusiness. She’s essentially living in a Life On Mars fanfic – she is her own Mary Sue. Which means that the writers get to write an even more ridiculous Gene Hunt, over the top because it’s happening in the head of someone who already thinks Gene Hunt is over the top, trotting out his Gene Huntisms because that’s all Alex knows. The tone of the first series of Life On Mars (before the writers fully realised what a piggy bank Hunt was) was a mix of amusing pastiche, brutal period police show, boys’-own genre story and science fiction chiller. It played, very effectively, with its audience’s nostalgic sympathies “Ha ha it’s some flares” – “Weren’t the Seventies horrible” – “Hold on, the Seventies were kind of awesome” – “D00D THE TESTCARD CAME TO LIFE”.

Any ‘awesomeness’ of the 80s was sadly lacking in Ashes To Ashes episode one, which stuck firmly to look-a-yuppie territory and then lurched into chilliness with the Bowie clown* and evil Zippy (you knew they were coming; they still kind of worked). The tonal shift was very pronounced – there was no grit or brutality, no tension in the story and no temptation in the setting, just comedy and weirdness. Which again makes sense from the show’s conceit – the thing about LoM was that Sam Tyler wasn’t just sent back to 1973, he was sent back to a 1973 cop show. And here was an 80s show – Miami Vice and A-Team references (the bullets that miss everybody all the time, as much as the name).

But the grit worked well as a buffer between the comedy and the weirdness – here there’s nothing holding the two apart, which makes the show as a whole weirder (as in: what are they trying to do?) Oh, no, wait, there’s Alex’s story holding the two apart, but so far I’m not gripped: I’m more interested that they never found Sam’s body than in whether Molly gets her birthday cake. As, I guess, are most Life On Mars viewers. I’ll be back next week, but whether it’ll be grip or gawp I’m not sure.

*who went to my school! But they should have had it be the T Rex from 3D Monster Maze chasing her down the alley for real 1981 chillz.