Life on Mars (UK Series 1)
by Jon Bastian
This is not your father’s 70s cop show… or is it?
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I’m not a big fan of cop shows, probably because the long tradition of American cop shows deals in black and white reality – the heroes chase the villains, and defeat them by the end. Apparently, the creators of the BBC’s Life on Mars were not fans of cop shows either, as revealed in one of the bonus features on the Series One collection.
Basically, they were sent by the production company Kudos “to Blackpool with a bag of cash”, with the simple mission of coming up with five new series ideas over a three day weekend. Stuck in a “chintz” hotel, the writers quickly realized that the only thing the producers wanted was a cop show, and they had no interest in writing a cop show, unless it was an homage to 70s cop shows which they remembered fondly from their youth. So, they decided to pitch what was basically a remake of The Sweeney, a revolutionary British cop drama that ran for four seasons from 1975, and revolutionized the genre. Except, to throw a twist into it and not have to call it a remake, they came up with the idea of a modern cop who time travels into the past.
When they pitched the idea to Kudos, they were met with smiles that became quickly frozen and polite rejection. The same thing happened at the BBC several times. And then, eventually, they pitched the idea to a producer who had just finished working on the (as of then unaired) reboot of Doctor Who. The writers fully expected her to reject their pitch because she had just gone out on a limb to produce a time travel series. Instead, it got a very quick green-light, and the original eight episodes were written in about as many weeks, finally premiering on 9 January, 2006.
If the writing was rushed to get the series into production, it does not show, and the end result is an homage to 70s cop shows filtered through modern sensibilities with one hell of a compelling hook. In 2006, Detective Chief Inspector Sam Tyler has just made an arrest of a suspected serial killer, only to have the case fall to pieces when the suspect’s Social Worker (in attendance at the interview along with his Lawyer) points out that said suspect was at their drop-in center at the time of the murder – and all of the apparently iron-clad forensic evidence goes out the window. Sam is willing to give up on the suspect, but Maya – a fellow cop with whom he has a relationship – is not. She tails the released suspect, only to be snatched by the real killer, and Sam feels as if it’s his fault, even though it’s clearly not.
While pulled over next to the elevated motorway in Manchester listening to David Bowie via his iPod plugged into his car stereo, one misstep puts him in harm’s way in a spectacularly staged car accident, and the next thing Sam knows, he wakes up in Manchester 1973 – no motorway in sight, next to an abandoned industrial block, David Bowie still playing on the eight track in his ancient car. He learns that he’s not now a chief, but rather a detective who has just been transferred from Hyde to Manchester, and his new Chief, Gene Hunt, is somewhat lacking in knowledge of proper police procedure circa 2006.
It becomes a nice instant fish out of water story as Sam Tyler (John Simm, State of Play) immediately knocks up against Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister, who also played a DCI in State of Play). Hunt is a cop who would turn into a multi-million dollar lawsuit in a second in the modern era. But, in 1973, his rather… nasty ways are how business is done. Need to get a conviction? If beating the suspect silly or bribing potential witnesses don’t work, planting evidence is a sure-fire solution. Needless to say, these methods do not sit well with Tyler, who is concerned with pesky annoyances like actually getting evidence or using forensics to analyze a crime.
On top of this clash of cultures, Tyler isn’t quite sure whether he’s time traveled into the past, is just imaging everything during a coma in his (future) present or he’s just plain mad. In the first episode, he comes close to suiciding in order to get back to 2006, only talked out of it by WCS Annie Cartwright (Liz White, Vera Drake), a female police officer who is taken less than seriously by her male colleagues of the day. A telling scene occurs early on when Tyler asks Cartwright, who has a degree in psychology, to help him profile a serial killer. To Tyler, and our modern sensibilities, it’s a quite natural thing that he’s asked a fellow cop to assist. But to the men’s club of 1973, the idea that he’s asked a girl to offer her opinion on matters is completely risible, yet one of the many moments in this brilliant series when we realize how far we’ve come in such a short time. Life on Mars is full of these incredible, underplayed bits – such as when a policeman, after smoking in a hospital room next to a critical patient, casually grinds out his butt on the floor, or when a young pregnant woman being interviewed by the police asks for and is given a cigarette. Hunt’s open mocking of a deaf witness would have led to a major lawsuit in modern times. A running gag is Tyler instinctively reciting the modern version of an arrestee’s rights, to be reminded by cop and criminal alike, “Oi, that’s not how it goes…”
The center of the series is Tyler, and Simm, who was brilliant in State of Play, is even more brilliant here, bouncing from not sure whether anything is real to trying to make the best of it and back again, holding steadfast to his enlightened ways against the Neanderthal – but in 70s Manchester strangely effective – methods of Hunt. All the while, he is haunted by apparent messages from 2006 via radios and TVs, especially the Test Card Girl (Harriet Rogers, “Crusoe”), a spooky emanation from the after-hours BBC test pattern, accompanied by her stuffed clown and urging Tyler to sleep… forever.
As the series progresses, it gets to have it delightfully both ways, being on the one-hand a loving homage to 70s cop shows, on the other tossing off constant reminders that Sam really doesn’t belong here – or does, but hasn’t realized it yet. It pulls off a couple of very touching time travel paradoxes when Sam has occasion to interview his own mother in the guise of Officer Boylan, while his own four year-old self – who wants to be a cop – is upstairs, sleeping off the mumps. Sam later encounters that same four year-old self, albeit briefly, as the young boy hurries off with his dad, an enthusiastic supporter of Man United, after we have learned the poignant truth of why Sam gave up the idea of “once a red, always a red.”
Father-son relationships are a constant in the series, though not belabored. The relationship between Sam and DCI Hunt takes on an awkward father-son tone – although Hunt may not be chronologically much older than Sam’s 37, mentally, he is decades older, but still has much to learn from his younger detective, who has the advantage of 33 years of hindsight. A particularly effective episode involves a homicide that may not be, despite a confession from a father who is transparently trying to protect his son. And, in the same episode that Sam sees his younger self, he plays surrogate father to a teenage boy whose father’s murder – an apparent gang killing of a Man United fan by a City fan – provides the necessary MacGuffin.
In the wrong hands, this all could have been played too heavily handed, with a lot of wink-wink, nudge-nudge – but the writers have wisely chosen to use subtlety and trust the audience to follow on. Also, they have given us two very strong characters who are not portrayed by any actors. First, there is the wonderful, rotten, working class, decayed urban Manchester of 1973, a place that reeks of abandoned factories and loss of hope and rows of council flats that will be familiar to American audiences from the “Every Sperm Is Sacred” number from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life – even though that was actually supposed to be Yorkshire but, face it, one British slum is just like another. This is also the home, although dressed down by two decades, of the incredible British series Queer as Folk and, if what I’ve seen from the Beeb is any indication, then Manchester is the most interesting place in the UK, London and Liverpool be damned.
The other non-anthropomorphic character in the series is the amazing soundtrack, made up of era-appropriate tunes, beginning with Bowie’s Life on Mars and continuing through an amazing (and no doubt bloody expensive) catalog of early 70s glam, punk, hard rock and disco. When this show goes into a musical montage, though, the lyrics directly inform the story, and most episodes fade out on a 70s contemporary song which provides an eerie Greek chorus, probably the most effective moment being when Roger Whitaker performing “If Is an Illusion” wraps up so many threads from the episode that it’s just ridiculous, as if the writers began with the song and worked backwards.
The ensemble is perfect and their interactions and well-delineated characters make the show, with Simm and Glenister the standouts in a relationship that can best be described as masculine love/hate, one part macho, one part metro. You never know whether a scene between them will turn into a fist fight or a begrudging unspoken show of mutual respect — frequently it’s both — but it is a very complex relationship that develops through Series One.
Throughout, Life on Mars maintains a nice balance between 70s cop show vs. 21st Century attitudes, and the fantasy/science fiction elements of a man who may be in a coma, a time traveller, or just insane. In a dynamite first series finale, it dances toward a possible resolution as Sam meets his own long-missing father in the course of a bust, but that it does not resolve just opens up a bigger can of worms for Series Two, which comes out on DVD on November 24.
Where’s my time machine when I need it?
Life on Mars Series One is available on DVD July 28, 2009
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles. Watch for his upcoming play “Strange Fruit”, which he hopes will help him keep his two dogs rolling in kibble…
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