After the end of the first series of Ashes to Ashes, I was left pondering -- why wasn't it as good? Was it because Keeley Hawes is not as talented as John Simm? What was different? And the answer quite simply is conflict.
The Alex Drake character is never placed under pressure or forced to make impossible choices.
Her motivation and purpose is to get back to her daughter, and she feels that if she can discover why her parents died, she can save herself. Sounds great, but the viewer does not see her being put under pressure and forced to make hard choices. Neither does the viewer see the longing for the world she has been forced into.
With Life on Mars, Sam Tyler develops a genuine affection for 1973, and begins to become part of the world. One never feels that Alex Drake is there and that she sliding down the same slippery slope that Sam faced.
Equally the explanation of why the car blew up is not very well foreshadowed. You do not see Alex remembering odd snippets. And things suddenly do not become clear in her head. Her father's actions therefore seem out of character. He is never fully developed. He never gets the chance to play the Shadow. As an aside, the writers were also confused on whether or not her parents were both barristers or her mother was a solictior. In the last episode they are called both called barristers, previously it had been made clear that the mother was a solicitor.
In other words, the conflict was weaker. And yet on the face of it, the need to return to see her daughter should make for a huge conflict. A woman trapped in a world who wants to get back to see her child. But that need to be with a child means that it overwhelms everything and she can not be genuinely conflicted. A conflict only happens when a character wants two separate things. If they choose one, they can not have the other. Alex Drake only has one choice -- she wants to see her daughter. She has a goal, not an over arching conflict. She does not have to choose between her daughter and life. Or her daughter and her parents. Or her daughter and saving the world. Or even her parents who she knows die and a new friend. And one never feels like she might have a chance to make it back. Or at least change her future and make sure that the bullet misses. Or suddenly realise that the man who has taken her daughter away is actually responsible for the death of her parents and the man she has trusted all her life is the true Shadow, and is manipulating her. And that she has to stop him before he can have her killed. But that if she does not return to her own present, she will be dead and her daughter in danger.
Sam Tyler had a genuine conflict that grew and changed through out Life on Mars, Alex Drake doesn't. And that is down to the writers not forcing the hard choices. they have been too kind to her. It was like they had a great idea and it did not go anywhere and so it devolves into a series of vignettes with no overarching plot.
It is also something that I need to remember in my work. The temptation sometimes is to have a lot of sound and fury but to shy away from the hard choices, the choices that reveal true character. It is also important to keep my eye on the spine of the story and to make sure things move forward. And that I do not keep too much hidden for too long.