I don't watch a lot of telly, but now and then something catches my attention and I make a good effort to see what it's all about. Slightly less often, I get hooked so much that I have to see it through to the end, and rarer still is the situation in which I find myself wanting the DVD box set on my shelf.
Series 3 of Ashes to Ashes is the best eight hours of television I've seen in a long time. It has drama, conflict, action, emotion and light relief all playing about a backbone of perfect comic timing and slick dialogue accompanied by a brilliant soundtrack. There's a catch, though.
Here it is: If you're going to get out of these eight hours the entertainment and enjoyment I have, you've got to see series 1 and 2 first. But more than that, you really need to kick it off with Life on Mars. That's no chore, though- all four of those series are brilliant, and I'm choosing the final series because it really is the high that more television drama should aspire to end on. Here is, without spoilers, what you're missing:
Life on Mars, series 1
It's 2006 and Detective Chief Inspector Sam Tyler is investigating the kidnapping of his colleague and girlfriend and, in the process, is hit by a car and knocked unconscious.
He wakes up to find he's swapped his sharp suit for a leather jacket, loud shirt and cuban heels. Storming into CID, he finds that, somehow, it's 1973, he's now a Detective Inspector working under loud-mouthed, sharp-tongued, uncouth, consistently drunk and violent DCI Gene Hunt, and alongside Hunt's team, primarily consisting of DC Chris Skelton, DS Ray Carling and WPC Annie Cartwright. Sam's methods are as alien to the team as theirs are to him, and he works hard to gain their trust whilst hearing snippets from the future on TV and radio sets.
The series deals with the relationship between Sam and Gene, with each learning from the other's wildly different style of policing. They develop a grudging respect for one another as Sam tries to answer the question "am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?" Accompanied by a cracking soundtrack of contemporary popular music, he fights to find a way back to his own time and uncovers a dark secret from his own past.
Life on Mars, series 2
Sam's still in '73, still wearing the cuban heels. and still strutting along to a fab soundtrack trying to find his way home. Gene's still quick-talking, speedy with a punch to the gut and driving too fast. Solving crimes, beating up nonces and fighting with each other as much as the criminals they're trying to catch, Sam and Gene, along with Chris, Ray and Annie, head towards an emotional climax that threatens to tear Hunt's team apart. This is the price for getting Sam home.
Still hearing voices through TV sets and radios, Sam find things out that turn his world upside down and leave him questioning if his memories are real. The ending to this series was excellent- totally unexpected, with some of our questions being answered, some being left hanging, and a truckload more being dumped in front of us.
Ashes to Ashes, series 1
It's now 2008, and Alex Drake, who has been studying Sam Tyler's report of his experiences in 1973*, is called to an incident. She's shot in the head and wakes up in 1981, quickly finding herself in the company of Ray Carling, Chris Skelton and Gene Hunt, who have been transferred from Manchester to London. Having similar experiences to Sam, Alex hears messages from the future and her fight to get home is even more desperate than Sam's as she needs to make it home for the sake of her daughter, Molly. WPC Shaz Granger is introduced as part of the team, a young woman doing her best in the overtly sexist 80s environment.
In parallel to Sam's story (there are many), Alex's journey intertwines with her own past, answering questions that she had forgotten needed answering.
Ashes to Ashes, series 2
1982 (that's the year I was born!) and the gloriously retro 80s soundtrack continues unabashed, as does Alex and Gene's love-hate relationship. Is Gene there to help Alex, or to hinder her? Should she work with him or against him? This series explores issues of police corruption as well as digging deeper into the murky depths regarding the nature of the place that Alex finds herself in, and that Sam Tyler inhabited a couple of years before.
We see the characters of Chris, Ray and Shaz developing further, with another series ender that needs to be seen to be believed: Alex goes home! Or does she?
Ashes to Ashes, series 3
It's now 1983, and here's the meat and two veg of the entire franchise. Five series of Gene Hunt come to a head with slimy bastard Jim Keats mixing things up for the team. Allegiances are brought into question, friendships are tested to their limits. Things really hot-up towards the end of the series as all of our questions are answered, and Chris, Ray and Shaz learn as much about themselves as we do. The finale is an explosion of emotions as we, along with Alex, find out, once and for all, what's really been going on for the last five series.
Forty hours of television, all watchable stories in their own right, but working together to make one of the most original and compelling tales that I've ever found myself drawn into. It's one of those series that has you hooked from the start, enjoying the episodes and trying to second-guess the writers' intentions with regards to the overarching themes - but failing. Once it's over you'll feel a sense of loss but also of completion - they did a brave thing, finishing before it got stale. The revelations will be running through your mind for days, and you'll eventually go back and re-watch it, and spot all the clues you missed the first time around.
And then, if you've got any manners, you'll come back here and thank me.
* This really isn't as much of a spoiler as it sounds. You'll have to watch Life on Mars to find out why.