Life on Mars (UK Series 2)

| November 25, 2009

My review of the first series of Life on Mars is elsewhere on this site. All I can really say about the second series is that it takes off from the high point built to by the last episode of the first, and never lets go.
The basic set-up is simple. Detective Chief Inspector Sam Tyler botches up an investigation. His secret (because he works with her) girlfriend Maya possibly falls into the hands of a serial killer. During an inattentive moment, Sam is the victim of a car accident, and winds up transported in time from 2006 to 1973. Or maybe he’s in a coma in the future and imaging it all. Or maybe he’s always been in 1973, and is just insane. This central question is left unanswered in most of the second go-around, although as follow-on to the finale of the first series, Sam is suddenly meeting more people from his “present” in this past, and getting more definite messages from the future, beginning in the first episode, when he receives a phone call (Sam is constantly being contacted by the future through electronics) and, for the first time, the party on the other end of the line can hear him. This device becomes a runner for the second series, nowhere more harrowing than when he is contacted by his future girlfriend, Maya, simultaneously confirming that she survived the future killer and breaking up with him because he is a non-responsive coma patient. Never mind that, while this contact is going on, he is desperately trying to save a young woman who reminds him a lot of Maya from being caught up in a drugs case largely driven by the blatant anti-immigrant prejudice of the police force circa 1973 although, as with most of the cases in this series, first impressions are rarely correct.
This is nowhere more evident in the tour-de-force fifth episode, which opens with a brilliant recreation of a 70s British kids’ show, Camberwick Green – “Here is a box, a musical box, wound up and ready to play. But this box can hide a secret inside. Can you guess what is in it today?” That secret turns out to be a stop-motion puppet version of Sam Tyler (John Simm, ”State of Play”, who we learn has been out of commission for three days. Apparently, his doctors in our present have inadvertently given him an overdose of speed in an attempt to wake him from his coma, and he goes back to work hallucinating like crazy as his fellow cops are confronted by a blast from the past – someone has kidnapped an innocent man’s wife and daughter, demanding the release of a teenage criminal convicted of killing his girlfriend. Racing against the clock, Sam has to learn what he missed in the past three days, then convince his colleagues to pay attention to the details and look closer. His hallucinatory point of view provides a brilliant framework in which we see the same incidents via the points of view of different fellow-officers, each time with a different nuance, a different reality, a different possibility, and what seemed an absolute certainty at first – seventeen year-old Graham Bathurst (Adam Beresford, Looking for Eric) raped and murdered his fourteen year-old girlfriend – becomes less and less certain. It’s a marvel of acting and direction and, had this been an American series, would have been the clear Emmy contender among the bunch. A nice touch at the end is that, even as the ambiguity of who killed the young girl lessens, what’s happening to Sam becomes less certain. He may have been over-medicated by his doctors, or he may have been drugged by hippies during a recent bust when they saw the cops coming and stashed their acid in various drink bottles on the scene.
There really isn’t a bad episode in the bunch, and the tone remains letter perfect, a balance of the producers’ intended recreation of a good old 70s cop show a la “The Sweeney”, with a science fiction twist and a fish out of water story. The main ensemble continue to create believable, likeable characters – even when some of them (particularly DCI Gene Hunt (the wonderful Philip Glenister (“State of Play”) is doing very unlikable things. This time around, even the blithering Neanderthal Ray (Dean Andrews, Kandahar Break) is featured in an sympathetic storyline, and well-meaning but socially awkward Chris (Marshall Lancaster, ”Coronation Street”) begins to grow up, finally looking toward Sam as a mentor instead of a joke, finally earning a poignant hero moment of his own. Even Annie Cartwright (Liz White, Vera Drake) finally gets to turn in her plonk uniform, promoted at last by Sam to be one of the boys, even if she is a girl and the 1973 mentalities cannot get over that little detail. Still, she fully holds her own against them all, the kind of woman who defends against the as-of-yet undefined concept of sexual harassment by harassing back and getting over it. Her character may have the biggest balls of any of the five principals in the series.
Going into series 2, the producers knew that this would be the end – this was their intention, not wanting to stretch things out for too long – and so this second visit to Life on Mars has an incredible momentum, racing toward the solution to the mystery of what’s really going on with Sam while complicating and developing the relationships between the characters. By the time we get to the final episode, the stakes are sky-high, not letting up even as we get to the end, which is inevitable, fitting, logical and surprising. (And yes, by the end, the title of the series makes complete sense, and we figure out where Hyde is. Maybe.)
If you’re a fan of series 1, this is a must-see. If you’ve never experienced life on Mars, you will definitely want to grab both series and watch every episode, then go back and do it all again to see what you missed the first time. Like Patrick McGoohan’s 60s classic “The Prisoner”, Life on Mars creates a unique and enigmatic world, then mines it for everything it’s worth in sixteen breathtaking episodes.
Life on Mars series 2 is now available on DVD.

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