Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Plot Holes and Revelations and Big Finales

This article contains spoilers up to the penultimate episodes of both Lost and Ashes to Ashes.

For fans of genre TV, this weekend is a pretty big deal. On Friday the last-ever episode of Ashes to Ashes airs in the UK on BBC-1, ending a five-season storyline that began back in 2006 with the first season of Life on Mars and modern cop Sam Tyler finding himself in 1973 after suffering a traffic accident in the present. Then on Sunday in the USA, the final episode of Lost airs, concluding six seasons of convoluted, complex plotting that began back in 2004 with a commercial airliner crashing on a mysterious island in the South Pacific.

The cast of Ashes to Ashes in Season 2.

Unusually for genre shows, both of these series went on to become major mainstream hits. Mars and later Ashes frequently won their timeslot ratings against all-comers, whilst Lost pulled in more than 20 million viewers on several occasions. They have both also achieved some measure of critical acclaim. Certainly all of the UK TV magazines this week have been emblazoned with coverage of Ashes' final episode, whilst in the USA the equivalent mags are dotted with various Lost images. Conversely, the USA is barely aware of Ashes' existence (although the arrival of the series on BBC America has picked up some positive coverage in the last few weeks over there), whilst Lost jettisoned most of its UK audience when it moved from Channel 4 to the cable and satellite Sky service after its second season, and coverage of its finale (which airs next week in the UK) has been altogether more modest over here as a result.

The cast of Lost in their second season.

The two shows coming to an end marks an interesting moment for serialised, mystery-based TV shows. As mentioned in my Arc of Truth series of articles from last year, truly satisfying serialised shows have been somewhat few and far between, due to their lack of forward-planning and tendency to get cancelled halfway through, culminating in the highly divisive and flamewar-inducing finales to shows such as Battlestar Galactica and The X-Files. This is highlighted in those shows, like the two mentioned, which are based heavily around mysteries, secrets and dense mythologies. Shows which have more straightforward and linear story arcs, where any such mysteries are short-term and resolved in a season or two at the most, are notable for ending much more successfully, such as Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

With both shows having aired their penultimate episodes, it is interesting to see which way they go. Ashes to Ashes, for my money, has the greater potential to end successfully, simply because it's a much less dense show than Lost. It's more episodic, with the ongoing storylines relegated to subplots whilst a 'crime of the week' is pursued in the foreground. This approach has been somewhat inverted in the final season, but it means that the questions that need answering from three years of Ashes and two of Mars are nowhere near as numerous, and all seem to be tied into one central answer.

Sam Tyler, Gene Hunt and Annie Cartwright in Life on Mars.

, on the other hand, is far more sprawling and more epic, with more than twice as many episodes, a much larger cast and a much bigger storyline expanding across decades. There have already been many characters and storylines which have been abandoned or jettisoned, leaving unresolved plot threads dangling throughout the show's history. The potential for disappointment with Lost is considerably greater, although after the penultimate episode I am more hopeful that they can pull at least the major mysteries and plot threads together.

Gene Hunt and Jim Keats on Ashes to Ashes.

Both series have chosen to go down the 'dark and grand epic mythology' route for their conclusions. This route was more unexpected with Ashes, supposedly a chalk 'n' cheese crime drama about a modern policewoman having to work with a bunch of semi-sexist, emotionally retarded early 1980s coppers and clashing badly. Yet the latest season has played around strongly with the imagery of death, with Gene Hunt and new character Jim Keats both 'helping' dying people at the moment of their passing, or tugging other characters' loyalties between them like an angel and devil sitting on a person's shoulders whispering advice to them (or in Gene's case bellowing loudly). At the same time, other characters are seeing the world melt away around them, leaving only a cold, disturbing image of millions of stars behind before things snap back to normal (leading to some British viewers hyperventilating in panic that the producers are going down the same road as the patently ludicrous American version of Life on Mars). Certainly life, death, dreams and a battle between two powerful characters seem to have risen to the fore in Ashes, with perhaps the fate of the world that they inhabit at stake.

Jack and Locke, the final protagonist and antagonist of Lost.

Similarly, Lost's early seasons raised the prospect of it having a storyline involving the ruins of the DHARMA Initiative and a power struggle within the ranks of the native 'Other' inhabitants of the Island (between Ben Linus and Charles Widmore) with the survivors of Oceanic 815 caught up in the middle. Elements such as the disturbing smoke monster and visitations by dead people were more 'out there' but could perhaps have been given credible explanations. Instead, as this last season has developed we have discovered a complex set of 'rules' governing the behaviour of two antagonistic, long-lived beings, the (relatively) benign Jacob and the evil 'Man in Black' (the smoke monster in human form) who have manipulated events from the very start and indeed for two millennia before that to lead to an epic, mythological showdown between their avatars (now identified as Jack and Locke) with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

The smoke monster on Lost.

In both cases, the move to grand, epic themes has been well-handled, but it's a dangerous move which has the potential to backfire spectacularly. Battlestar Galactica started off as a tense, action-driven drama about the human race on the run for its life with some interesting subtexts about the War on Terror, political rights and civil rights in a time of war. Whilst it had some mystery elements (most notably the identity of the mysterious 'Head Six' that only Baltar could see and hear), the show was mostly based on the idea of a dynamic, forward-moving storyline. A few weeks into Season 3 it switched to asking deep questions about the nature of the 'Final Five' and the Cylon god, going on to bring in mythological concepts and elements (such as the 'Temple of Hopes' on the algae planet) and then brought a character back from the dead. Because the show had not been designed with this mythology in mind from the start, it handled it badly and dropped the ball in its final season and during the finale, leaving a good half or more of the fanbase severely disappointed.

Both Lost and Ashes have the advantage that their storylines have been preplanned, although to what extent remains contentious: the producers of Ashes have admitted that whilst they've known the ending since working on Mars, the character of Keats was created quite late in the day after writing on Season 3 had been underway for some time. The producers of Lost only mapped out the current story arc involving Jacob and the smoke monster in the middle of the third season. Still, in both cases this was far more than what BSG attempted, and should hopefully mean that the endings of both series track better.

This time next week, we'll know if either, both or neither of these shows joins the canon of truly satisfyingly ended genre shows, or if they fall at the last hurdle. Reviews of Season 3 of Ashes to Ashes and the final six episodes of Season 6 of Lost will follow next week.


Unknown said...

A bit OT, but do you need to watch any other Star Trek before Deep Space Nine? The premise sounds neat, as I like Babylon V, but I've never watched any other ST in my life. Thanks!

Adam Whitehead said...

Not really. Getting some background knowledge on the Klingons, Romulans and the Bajoran-Cardassian conflict is advisable (although finding out this info online without spoiling the end of DS9 is difficult), but mostly the show tells you what you need to know when it comes up.

Yosh said...

Ashes had a spectacular ending, if not wholly surprising. I suspect Lost's will be much less satisfying.