Okay, so you know the drill by now: several weeks ago I made a list of ten British sci-fi shows you oughta watch and have been doing full write-ups of some of my favorites. So far, I’ve talked about The Prisoner, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Sapphire & Steel, and the Supermarionation work of Gerry Anderson. We good? All on the same page? Ok.
This week, I’m jumping forward in the future of television, to a show about going back in time to the 1970s. BBC One’s Life on Mars, which aired two series between January 2006 and April 2007 consisting of eight episodes each, is a series that combines everything British television fans like: police procedural, vague mystery, and culture clashes. It’s a character drama masquerading as a cop show with strange implications as to something otherworldly, or inner-brainially, going on with the lead character. But, if you think the central character is the one everybody ended up liking best, you’re entirely wrong.
Created by Matthew Graham, Ashley Pharoah, and Tony Jordan, Life on Mars concerned modern day policeman, Detective Chief Inspector Sam Tyler (John Simm) of the Greater Manchester Police who, while working a complicated case and dealing with a relationship on the rocks, gets hit by a car only to wake up in 1973, wearing proper attire, and having no idea what to do. He wanders into the police station, no operated by the GMP’s predecessor the Manchester and Salford Police, and has apparently been expected. He’s no longer a DCI, he’s been demoted to Detective Inspector and is the second-in-command to the racist, sexist, misogynist, and borderline psychopathic DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), known affectionately as “The Guv” and the self-proclaimed “Sheriff of Manchester.”
Right away, Sam tries to make sense of things, thinking he’s still in charge, and incurs a beating on the part of Hunt, though he’s essentially just expected to keep his trap shut and get on with things. Of course, he still doesn’t understand what’s going on and he certainly doesn’t agree with a lot of the tactics used by police of the past. The whole thing where the police can just beat anybody up they want to is a prime example. Sam also forms relationships with the various other police officers. There’s Detective Sergeant Ray Carling (Dean Andrews) who flatly doesn’t like Sam because he had expected to be the new DI. He’s also pretty much just a thug and is actively trying to sabotage Sam’s work. And then there’s Detective Constable Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster) who isn’t the brightest bulb and goes back and forth between respective Sam, who convinces him to become a better detective and not just a “copper,” and joining the other lads in making fun of Sam’s “sensitive” approach to policing. Yep, they call him a Poof.
The other person Sam meets, and with whom he has perhaps the most complex of the complex relationships, is Woman Police Constable (yes, that used to be a special distinction) and eventual Detective Constable Annie Cartwright (Liz White). She takes an immediate shine to Sam, who shows her a kindness all the braggarts in the station do not, and in turn he begins to feel like he can trust her. She is in fact the only person to whom he reveals that he’s actually from the future (or in a coma, or just out of his mind) and she reacts somewhat gingerly around the clearly somehow mentally disturbed. However, she increasingly becomes irritated by his continual assertion that she, everyone, and their whole lives aren’t real or that he doesn’t really belong there.
But what exactly is happening? The opening titles for the show gives the quandary that Sam doesn’t know if he’s crazy, in a coma, or back in time, but it becomes clear pretty quickly that it’s just a coma. He hears various beeps and boops of the machine keeping him alive, usually in the form of the television static in his tiny flat, and almost always late at night. And many of the cases Sam works on in 1973 are directly tied to cases he was working or had worked in the future. Like a serial killer whom he failed to catch might be stopped early by him in the ’70s. His personal history also comes into play quite a bit. He meets his mother, as well as his petty criminal father, at certain points, and comes across himself as a child as well. These add a bit more confusion as to if the coma has sent him back to the past or if the whole thing is just in his comatose mind.
Throughout the series, the most important character development comes between Sam and Gene. As previously stated, Gene is the least politically correct of of any cop ever on TV, but he does ultimately want to do right, even though he’s incredibly corrupt. Sam and Gene have a volatile working relationship and for a good period of time actually despise each other openly. Yes they start to work well and actually depend on each other, with Sam forcing Gene to go a bit more by the book and Gene convincing Sam to go off book once in a while. Gene became the breakout character in the series and his super awesome car became the coolest auto on TV.
Ultimately, Sam does get the opportunity to return to his own time, walking into a tunnel while his friends are under attack from a vicious gang, but whether or not he takes it and if, in fact, he wants to go back to the present becomes the crux of the series finale.
Life on Mars was a great and weird series that played with expectations at every turn. Though the story of Sam Tyler ends rather satisfactorily, fans wanted more from the premise and some of these characters. The very next year, the show went to the 1980s, got a new lead character, and added quite a bit more of the supernatural as an explanation for the time travel. Next week, I’ll talk about this follow-up series, Ashes to Ashes. For now, give Life on Mars a look; it’s on Hulu+.