Monday, September 2, 2013

Life on Mars Reviewed!

Looking for a cop drama with a little bit of a sci-fi element? I just finished re-watching the British series Life on Mars and it was just as excellent the second time around.

Sam Tyler is a Detective Chief Inspector in Manchester in 2006 and is on a murder investigation when he is hit by a car and wakes up in 1973.

"My name is Sam Tyler, I had an accident and I woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever's happened, it's like I've landed on a different planet. Maybe if I can work out the reason, I can get home..."

Life on Mars not only holds up; it excels and stylistically Mad Men has nothing on this show. The plot masterfully captures both the overall series arc as well as weekly cases to solve. The costumes and street dressing transports the viewer back to the 1970’s.

Want to know 5 reasons to watch it? Join me under the cut for some more discussion.

1. Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) and Sam Tyler (John Simm)

It takes really strong lead actors to carry a show like this where the audience is supposed to relate and also to constantly question what they are seeing. Sam Tyler is supposed to be sympathetic but also occasionally allow the audience to doubt his reasoning or his sanity. Gene Hunt has to seem both like a fabrication and like a real, breathing human being in order to carry the overall plot. Both actors have enormous talent, endearing qualities and amazing chemistry. They carry a great support cast along with them, never showing them up and always allowing those minor characters to shine.

Part of me thinks that Philip Glenister would have made an excellent new cranky Doctor and I am pretty sure I would watch him in anything. John Simm made an appearance in Who, playing The Master and was fantastic (aside from some dodgy writing in the last story line). I had had the pleasure of already seeing him in Life on Mars and knew that he had a lot to offer. Without Simm and Glenister, Life on Mars simply would not work.

It will be interesting to see how Keeley Hawes holds up in the series sequel Ashes to Ashes, playing Sam Tyler’s equivalent, Alex Drake. I have never seen Ashes to Ashes and never wanted to because the ending of Life on Mars is so perfect. I got spoiled a little for it (my own fault for not watching it at the time) and now I am really keen to see how it all pans out. Needless to say, the chemistry will have to be as strong and nuanced for that series to work.

2. Friendship and Humour: The Heart of the Show

What Life on Mars does a lot better than most cop dramas that I have seen is create a layered and complex team and team dynamic. Friendship is at the core of this team and characters frequently damage fragile relationships or call on trust to make hard decisions. Each character forms their own unique connection with the other team members. Sam Tyler, of course, has strong and different connections with each of his team. His DCI Gene Hunt is both his trusted friend as the series continues and the bane of his existence; challenging everything he knows and believes. Hunt confides in Sam and also insults him. They make a great team despite all of this and for that relationship to work and be believable the audience needs to see all of the nuances of a true human connection.

Annie Cartwright, a policewoman working at the department, develops an incredible connection with Sam throughout the two seasons. Annie becomes Sam's love interest yes, but she is so much more than that. Her role is primarily as a friend and confidant to Sam and she often hears his version of truth (that he's in a coma and nothing in 1973 is real) when no one else does. She frequently talks him off the ledge (literally and figuratively) and often calls him out on bad behaviour. She doesn't roll over and support him unwaveringly when he is in the wrong but she also gives him chances to prove that he is learning and growing and coping with his situation. She is a wonderful character in her own right but her relationship with Sam keeps him sympathetic to the audience and grows organically, making the show have a more realistic budding friendship and romance than we see in something like Chuck or Castle (which have good qualities as well but their romances are somewhat forced).

Ray and Chris, another two police officers in the team, develop a friendship that also grows organically and is the source of a lot of the most light hearted humour in the show. Meanwhile Gene and Sam carry most of the brash humour.

Humour is absolutely critical to making the show successful and overdoing it could have resulted in disaster. Thankfully, Gene delivers some of the best lines (and some of the most sexist, racist and crude) with the kind of conviction that's required for the audience to understand the complexity of the humour. Complimented by an accurate non-prejudice reaction from Sam, the audience is always assured that our lead character does not condone this behaviour, but finds a way to make the situation work for the greater good.

3. The Overarching Plot Arc and Themes

The over-arching plot arc is fantastic. Yes this show absolutely has elements of the 'crime of the week' kind that most procedural cop shows have but the overarching themes are about a lot more: life, the meaning of being alive, reality and perception. Is Sam actually mad? Is he rational only to himself or is he having delusions? Is he mentally ill? Is this what people experience when they have acute depression or anxiety, when they have delusions? Is he actually in a coma? Is this a kind of reality that the mind creates to occupy itself while the body is unable? Is Sam actually somehow back in time? This does look and feel like 1973 and certainly many of the characters seem too complex for Sam to have merely imagined. Perhaps there is another solution; a made up reality. Maybe Sam actually is from 1973 and doesn't remember it? Maybe Sam actually died and this is his way of dealing with it? Or maybe Sam died and was reincarnated? Maybe Gene Hunt is actually representative of a tumour or cancer that Sam has, or an element of his subconscious that doesn't want him to wake up. There are a million possibilities and the show deftly keeps every option open while adding more information. Ultimately it asks questions about what it means to be alive and how people perceive being alive or dead, mentally ill or in a coma and how reality and perception are fundamentally linked to the individual.

4. The Music and The Style

How great is this soundtrack? Answer: Pretty damn great! As you can probably guess the Life on Mars title is taken from the David Bowie song of the same name, which is played at crucial moments of the series. Gene Hunt also often refers to himself as the Gene Genie, which is another David Bowie reference, and the sequel is named Ashes to Ashes. The soundtrack is packed with amazing songs of the 70's, used with the kind of skill that reminds me of the first season of Supernatural. Music adds to the characters’ development but also to the completely believable style of the show and makes the audience feel that Sam truly is in the 1970s. The clothes are unbelievably cool, the classic cars, the street dressing, the thematic colour scheme that dates the buildings, especially in contrast to the world we see in the 2000s. It's all done so convincingly and deftly that I don't understand why so many people bang on about the style of Mad Men. Sure, Mad Men has great style but that's more or less all it has and its style certainly doesn't have anything on Life on Mars (especially considering the budget that must be being thrown Mad Men's way). A show’s style should contribute to the story telling, not overwhelm it and become the central attraction. The style of Life on Mars is beautiful and integrates seamlessly with the storyline.

5. The Ending

The first time I saw Life on Mars the ending really struck me and quickly became one of my favourite series endings. When the sequel Ashes to Ashes was announced, I didn't want to watch it because the Life on Mars ending was so good and so inexplicable that I thought any new information would ruin it. It's been years now and perhaps I am ready. Regardless, the end of Life on Mars is solid, engaging and open; the way most endings should be I think.

Spoilers below. Only read on if you’ve seen the end of the show or like spoilers!

In the finale Sam Tyler discovers that Frank Morgan, acting DCI in the previous episode, is the voice from Hyde that has been calling him and talking to him. This is his surgeon from the real world. Frank tells Sam that Gene Hunt is a cancer that needs to be cut out and that is stopping him from getting home. This confirms Sam's core belief that he is in a coma somewhere trying to wake up and that the 1973 reality is in his mind; none of his friends are real and this is why he hadn’t fitted in. Sam collects information for Frank Morgan to prove Gene is corrupt and destroy his career, Sam all the while believing that this is what he has to do to wake up, to be strong and get rid of the cancer.

When Sam presents the information to Frank though, things take an interesting turn. Although it had initially seemed like Frank knew what Sam was talking about it now looks like he really doesn't. Frank explains to Sam that 1973 IS the real world and that Gene Hunt was a cancer of the police force. Sam was enlisted at Hyde, as an old friend and protégé of Frank's, to go under cover and bring Gene Hunt down. The accident he had, a car collision, caused him to forget his past at Hyde; this is all amnesia, nothing else, causing him to fill the blanks with his cover story. Frank explains that Sam's parents died a long time ago and he did something similar. Sam's actual last name is Williams. The name Tyler was adopted for his cover story from a family on nearby graves to those of his parents, bearing what he believes his real parents names are. He is shocked to see his own name on a gravestone near them. Looking back through his transfer papers he sees Frank Morgan's signature; confirming that he did know Frank and that there was an undercover operation called M.A.R.S.

Seeking guidance, Sam enters the local bar and asks the barman about the meaning of life. He is told that if you feel then you are alive, if you don't you are not. Sam firmly believes that what he is experiencing is a real need to get home and to complete his mission here.

Believing this now to be true, Sam admits to Annie, Ray and Chris that he has been undercover all along and sent to bring Gene Hunt to justice. He waivers in this mission however, as now he sees Gene as a real person whose life he is ruining instead of a mere figment of his imagination. He is accompanying the others on a sting operation set up by Gene to catch him in the act of illegal operations and negligence.

The sting of course goes horribly wrong, in no small part due to the fact that Sam's radio (given to him by Frank) goes off and gives them away. During the ensuing shoot out Sam promises Annie he will be back for them and takes off to find back up. Frank appears in a tunnel telling Sam that there was no better way to really seal Gene's fate than to have his officers killed during an illegal operation and that back up was never coming. Frank tells Sam that he should be happy because now he can go home. The team members run from the train where the shoot out is taking place and many are shot and injured. They are screaming at Sam for help while a white light appears and Frank Morgan fades into it telling Sam to come home.

Sam wakes up to blinding lights in the ICU where Frank Morgan tells him that he is Sam's surgeon. He tells Sam that they very nearly lost him and although the tumour cannot be completely removed it is benign; the reduced swelling has allowed Sam to wake up. Despite this seeming real, Frank pauses and gives Sam a strange knowing look. When Sam leaves the ward the audience sees that he was in Hyde ward and the number he was calling to talk to Frank Morgan was his ward number. So it seems that he made up elements of 1973 from elements he had picked up around him in his comatose state.

Sam returns to work in the same office (though the colour and dressing of the sets are drastically changed) and where his love of process and procedure abounded in 1973 he seems to reflect that this seems more like bureaucracy now and less like police work. Sam cuts his hand during a meeting and remarks that he did not feel it. This results in Sam going to the roof, as he had so many times in 1973 when trying to get back to 2006. Without Annie there to talk him down or tell him that he is important, loved or needed Sam surveys his surroundings and the expansive nothingness he feels is evident. He smiles and then runs for the ledge with exuberance.

Upon leaping off the roof he is confronted with his team mates being shot at again and screaming for his help. Without hesitation this time Sam does his job and saves them, telling Annie that he had promised not to leave them.

Back at the bar Sam allows himself to start becoming part of the team, something that wasn't possible before because he was always trying to get somewhere else. He leaves to find Annie and finally the two of them kiss and their relationship progresses to a new level. This is interrupted by Gene, pulling up and telling them to get into the car because there had been another crime to investigate. As the whole team pile in Sam hears Frank Morgan's voice on the radio telling him to come back to them, obviously in the ICU again and slipping away. This time Sam declares that he doesn't like the station and changes it until he hears Life on Mars come on; he smiles. As Gene speeds off we are left with him and Sam exchanging barbs and banter while the others hustle in around them.

It's a fantastic way to end a series; with questions and answers as to reality, where Sam actually is and whether or not it matters. The alleged suicide of Sam is completely represented as a joyful experience, as something he needs to do to be alive rather than dead. Sam isn't killing himself to end his life; he's ending his existence in one place to continue it in another. Perception is individual, as is happiness and to some extent life itself.

A really fantastic and engaging series... onwards to Ashes to Ashes now!


  1. What a great review, made me feel quite nostalgic (for Life on Mars, not the 70s!). I felt just the same about Ashes to Ashes - personally, I think the latter built to an ending that did both programmes justice.

    1. Thanks!

      And now I have bought the Ashes to Ashes boxset so hopefully I get the change to watch it soon and expand on the ending.