Blightyvision: “Life on Mars”

We see you, M6620, but the virgins don’t.

Created by Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan, and Ashley Pharaoh
Starring John Simm and Philip Glenister

Sam Tyler was in an accident and woke up in 1973. Is he mad, in a coma, or back in time? As it turns out, he’s in the year 2035, stuck in a glitchy VR program while in stasis on the first manned space mission to Mars.

Now that I’ve wrecked the end of the American version for you, let’s talk about the real thing.

“Life on Mars” first aired in 2006, made up of equal parts 70s cop show, modern crime drama, and brainscrew mind-trip. The entire series is told from the point of view of DCI Sam Tyler (played by John Simm prior to him gaining fame among Whovians as Harold Saxon), a by-the-book Manchester cop from the present day. After losing his girlfriend to the criminal he is hunting down, Sam is hit by a car and finds himself assimilated immediately into his local department circa 1973, as a new DI transferred from Hyde. Retroactively replacing him as the department’s DCI is Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister in his now-iconic role), the ultimate “loose-cannon cop” with snakeskin boots and a deep-seated love of American Westerns.

The show operates on two levels.  First is the more straightforward: it’s a weekly crime drama that subverts the “buddy cop” genre pretty much as far as possible.  Gene is of the old school of policing: if you haven’t bashed down a door or kicked in a nonce today, you’re not doing your job.  Fighting against that, Sam attempts to bring his futuristic know-how to what he considers to be a backwards department — radical ideas like going undercover and not moving bodies.  Together, they fight crime.  And learn from each other, of course, no matter how much the two of them hate to admit it.

At the same time, the audience is taunted with the show’s Big Questions: Where is Sam?  Why is he there?  How can he get home — assuming that’s even possible?  Throughout each episode are strung surreal sequences, showing us what’s going on in Sam’s mind … if, in fact, it’s only in his mind.  Of the two seasons, the first focuses mostly on his childhood and his peripheral interactions therewith, while the second becomes devoted almost entirely to his attempts to break free of wherever he is.  While the answers are all there for someone who has watched the entirety of this and its sequel series, a first-time viewer has no way of catching the obvious clues, giving the show a “replay value” on par with Super Robot Wars.

This is, without a doubt, a character-driven show, and the actors are more than up to the challenge, delivering multifaceted performances that change depending on whether you’re on your first or (as I was this week) second viewing.  In Sam Tyler, Simm has created a character whose situation could be easily interpreted as any one of the possibilities we’re presented with … including the real one.   Yet, while playing a man on the edge, he never becomes a self-parody unless he makes an active move to in a bout of frustrated sarcasm with his surroundings.  Meanwhile, Glenister as Gene Hunt is both a perfect foil to Sam and a force to be reckoned with in his own right.  He delivers his abrasive yet oddly glib dialogue with a level of solidity that makes him somehow immediately likable, tempering his rough behavior with unexpected kindness — even warmth — when confronted with nervous innocent witnesses, parents suffering the loss of a child, or small kids.  Well, sometimes he’s nice to small kids.

The secondary cast, consisting of the misogynistic Ray Carling (Dean Andrews), the awkward Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster), and the put-upon lady-cop Annie Cartwright (Liz White), suffer a bit from the limited third-person narrative style, but still make themselves very real to the viewer.  There’s negligible character growth from Ray and Chris — but this is, after all, Sam’s story, and they provide fine support and background for the story.  Also worth mentioning is Tony Marshall as the omnipresent Jamaican bartender Nelson, who does his part to add to the conspiracy theorist fans’ head-scratching.

One proviso should be in place, though, and it may be the reason for the ill-fated American remake: many of Sam’s nightmares and visions rely heavily on the Nostalgia Factor, twisting shows familiar to British children of the 1970s into disturbing imagery.  Such things as “Camberwick Green” and the creepy late-night test pattern girl may well escape the understanding of Colonial viewers, but while the effect of said sequences may not ring as true, the foreignness of them doesn’t detract from the show as a whole.  If anything, take it as an incentive to troll YouTube for a bit of culture.

Actually, I lied.  Two provisos should be in place, and the second is this: many questions will be raised, and only one will be even remotely answered.  The show has a solid ending that is satisfactory enough, but you will come away with nearly as many questions as you started with.  Fortunately, fans have the opportunity to learn the whole truth about the world of “Life on Mars” in its follow-up series, “Ashes to Ashes.”  But that’s another review for another time.  Until then, “Life on Mars” comes highly recommended to anyone in need of a good crime drama, lovers of mindscrew mysteries, or anyone who’d just like to hear the classics of the 70s played over a Ford Cortina crashing into cardboard boxes.

Life on Mars” is available on DVD, with a combined box set of both seasons coming out in July. Make sure you watch the original UK version, or Gene Hunt will come over to your house and stamp on all your toys.

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments via RSS

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kara Dennison and Jefferson Institute, Geeking Out About. Geeking Out About said: Blightyvision: “Life on Mars” […]

  2. Written by Arkonbey
    on 2010-06-17 at 15:33

    I don't know. I think that Life on Mars was the first time I preferred anything about an American re-make of a foreign show/film.

    Yup. I preferred the American ending.

  3. Written by Ricksiebig
    on 2010-06-21 at 13:40

    Life on Mars and its follow up Ashes to Ashes were far superior to the US version. Nice review of a great show. Glenister is the one and only Gene Hunt!

Subscribe to comments via RSS