– Summary –
Director : Various
Cast : John Simm, Philip Glenister, Liz White, Dean Andrews, Marshall Lancaster.
Year of Release: 2006
Length : 8 Episodes @ 60 Minutes Approx each
Synopsis: A modern day cop is thrown back in time to 1973, after being hit by a car. When he awakes, he is confronted with a policing system that doesn’t understand him, is outdated and antiquated, and he is constantly at odds with his immediate superior officer.
Review : Brilliantly conceived crime/time travel drama, with John Simm in fine form, and a staggeringly good turn from Phil Glenister as his boss, the garrulous, racist, sexist, violent, alcoholic, DCI Gene Hunt, who uses old-fashioned tactics to achieve results. Series 1 is a direct hit to the entertainment center of your brain. Intelligent, humorous, mysterious, and thrilling, Life On Mars is a winner in every sense.
You know, there’s something to be said about American TV series, where they tend to flog an idea until it doesn’t rate and eventually, nobody watches, so they “axe” it (Prison Break). Take Lost, for example. Those poor people, stranded on an unknown island, have lasted several years of monsters, riots and other exceptionally action-packed adventures for an island that is supposedly deserted. After a few years, though, the numbers went down, as people began to turn off. The idea was cold, the premise now stretched far beyond credibility into the realms of stupidity. Surely they’d have figured out that if they have a set timeframe for the show, and eventually have the stranded humans eventually become “found”, then that would ensure the legacy of the show was one of high quality writing and acting, rather than the now badly-hamfisted storylines we have to endure now. Or, as in the case of Cast Away, simply tell your story in a three hour film. Another thing you can do, too, is take an idea from another country, such as Life On Mars, or our very own Kath & Kim, and remake it to suit your own audience, thus rendering the original version somewhat irrelevant for those wishing to explore it. Regardless, of course, of whether or not the show you’re copying is impossible to translate to your own culture.
Life On Mars is yet another example of how to do a TV show properly. The British TV series model, in which they don’t flog an idea to death, is one of the better ways of creating lasting, brilliant TV. A great, unique idea, well written and cast with top notch talent, with decent production values, that lasts a very simple, elegant 8 episodes.
Sam Tyler (John Simm), a modern day British cop (working in the city of Manchester), is struck by a car and wakes up in 1973. Simple, easy to understand, low-concept premise. He finds he’s been “transferred” to Manchester’s A Division, working under a gruff, bullish, DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), who leads his team of coppers around the city, busting heads and stomping crime. Or is it the other way around? The major through-line of the show is the massive differences between policing in the 70’s (where things like DNA, CCT, computers and mobile phones are non-existent) and now. This, of course, leads to a number of humorous, frustrating encounters for Tyler, who believes he’s in a coma in hospital, and all that happens to him in this 70’s throwback is simply a dream, hallucination, or figment of his imagination. Or is it? For as the series progresses, we start to think that perhaps Sam has indeed gone back through time, somehow, since his actions in the past seem to have consequences in the future.
We begin with the haunting refrain of Bowie’s titular song, Life On Mars, which plays as Sam is struck down by a speeding car, and wakes up in the past. His shock, which he initially takes to be some sort of dream or hallucination, is manifested as a nightmare when he encounters DCI Hunt and his team, the smoke filled department office of Manchester’s finest detectives, and the amazing arrogance, sexism, racism and intolerance for procedures. The science of why Sam has arrived in the past is quickly glossed over by the inhabitants of the precinct, although Sam soon feels he can confide in token female officer (referred to as a “plod” by Gene, and generally discriminated against by all the males on the force) Annie, who comes to realise that she would like Sam, and perhaps like him a lot if only he wasn’t so weird.
Each episode involves some sort of crime, be it murder, bashings or robbery: usually also involving questioning of suspects in ways that today, might seem a little….. well, forceful. The tension between Hunt and Tyler, which is developed by a difference of opinion on how crime should be tackled, is genuinely entertaining, as both seem to bring different procedures to the table, resulting in success each time. Tyler’s insistence on more modern approaches doesn’t always work, which works in the series’ favour, since you aren’t always sure how the crime in question will be solved. Often, the mix of brutal tactics from Hunt and the more cerebral (modern) ways Tyler is accustomed to work in tandem, the best of both worlds, if you will.
As with any TV series, there are strong episodes as well as weaker ones, although, to be honest, with Life On Mars, almost every episode is uniformly excellent. However, as far as the best episodes of this series go, I’d have to mention Episode 5 & 6 (none of the episodes are individually titled). Episode 5 revolves around the murder of a soccer (football) fan in a back alley, with all evidence pointing to fans of the opposing local team, as some sort of revenge attack. A subtle hint towards Sam’s past is given in this episode, a poignant indictment on the thuggery and hooliganism that is spoiling the world game even in 1973. Sam & Gene, as well as other members of the unit, go undercover working in a local pub to obtain information on the killing, and some humour is derived from Gene’s lack of tact and subtlety in getting what’s required. It’s powerful stuff, and a genuinely moving episode. But for me, the cream episode of this series is Episode 6, involving a hostage drama where Sam & Gene, as well as Annie, find themselves under guard by a man on the edge. The tactics of 70’s police to negotiate with a hostage taker is a far cry from the more psychological methods employed today, however, the fact remains that no matter what tact you try, often, the hostage taker isn’t really going to do what you think. Gene’s bully-boy methods seem to incite the man even further, and Sam tries desperately to calm the situation: the episode is a careful, slow burn to a moment of pure terror, and the series high point arrives in this episode. Damn fine television, that’s what it is.
Perhaps the largest let-down of the series is the finale, a wrapping-up of the tidbits of narrative outlayed in all the previous episodes: mainly revolving around Sam’s father (well, a younger version of him) becoming involved in seedy, underworld crime. The flashbacks Sam has throughout the series, a kind of blurry, jump-cut horror-film-esque montage of feet, red dresses and gunfire, all come to a head in Episode 8, which, truth be told, is perhaps the weakest of the whole series. It’s disappointingly anticlimactic, a bravura ending to the show would have been more appropriate, however the way the show’s premise is “wrapped up” is, honestly, a little sloppy. A little overly wrought emotional tripe, bereft of real thrills or actual weight, which negates the series impact overall.
Still, if that’s the only thing wrong with the whole show, then it’s no too bad at all. If you ever get the chance to watch this original, brilliantly conceived piece of television, do so at your earliest opportunity. It’s superbly done, the casting and production values are first class: and, if I may be so disparaging, a far cry from the utterly inferior US version, which, if American TV executives had any morals or class, should never have been made.