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Credit: BBC / Kudos Film and Television

‘Life on Mars’ Retrospective

Life on Mars took a while to hit the small screen. Initially conceived in 1998 by co-creators Matthew Graham (Childhood’s End, Doctor Who) and Ashley Pharoah (Case Histories, Under the Greenwood Tree), the idea for the programme was summarily rejected by the BBC and after a move to Channel 4, the show was once again passed on. It wasn’t until Julie Gardner, the recently appointed Head of Drama at BBC Wales, caught wind of the pitch that Life on Mars finally kicked into gear, helped along by the assistance of Kudos Film and Television, Graham, Pharoah and a third co-creator, Tony Jordan (Holby Blue, EastEnders) who had recently worked on a previous Kudos production known as Hustle. It’s not difficult to imagine why the show never gained traction earlier; as Graham himself said, “back then, broadcasters just weren’t comfortable with something like that, something that wasn’t set in the real world and that had a fantasy element to it”. It’s perhaps slightly ironic then that the focus on the genre elements are the weakest part of this fascinatingly unique police procedural.

Life on Mars follows Sam Tyler (two time BAFTA TV Award nominee John Simm; Doctor Who, Intruders), a detective in modern day Manchester who is struck by a car and wakes up in 1973. Utterly confused and convinced he’s either insane or hallucinating, Sam retreats to a place of familiarity: the police station. There, he discovers a landscape that is anything but familiar. Headlined by the formidable Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister; State of Play, Kingdom of Heaven), the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of 1970’s Manchester is rude, rough and oblivious to Sam’s modern ideas of police regulations. Accompanied by the buffoonish but well meaning Detective Constable Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster; Ashes to Ashes, Doctor Who) and the aggressive, mean spirited Detective Sergeant Ray Carling (Dean Andrews; Last Tango in Halifax, Ashes to Ashes), Hunt bashes heads, tortures suspects and plants evidence on those he thinks guilty.

Desperately trying to figure out how to escape from the archaic nightmare he finds himself in, Sam comes to philosophical blows with Hunt on a regular basis as he reluctantly accompanies him through a variety of criminal cases while he tries to sort out what’s happening to him. He finds a kindred spirit in one other, however: Woman Police Constable (a now defunct designation denoting the general sexism of the time period) Annie Cartwright (Liz White; The Woman in Black, Pride) with whom he quickly becomes friends.

As a general rule, I’m not a huge fan of police procedurals. The narrative structure is rarely one that holds my attention for an extended period of time and the fact that those shows generally refuse to change the status quo of their characters unless an actor up and leaves, never ceases to irritate and bore me. All that said, I was surprised by how much I appreciated the procedural aspects of Life on Mars, and began to resent the more serialised elements of the show.

To call Life on Mars at all serialised would be far too generous, however, and that’s perhaps it’s problem. The programme makes the odd hand wave to the general situation Sam finds himself in each episode, with hallucinations that televisions and radio equipment are talking directly to him being a continuous source of disquiet, but for the most part the show seems thoroughly uninterested in dealing with the mysterious time travel phenomena that anchors the series.

Instead, the programme is far more invested in presenting a truly unique cop show with a splash of vicious wit complimented by a relatively straightforward fish out of water scenario of culture shock. We don’t see police shows like this, at least not in the same way. These aren’t bad cops we’re seeing here, this isn’t a The Shield scenario. Instead it’s a reflection of a less refined period of law enforcement when investigations weren’t nearly as transparent as they are now.

The idea of a right to counsel is a vague one at best in Life on Mars, the guidelines for the questioning of suspects are ignored as often as Sam’s protests are and the general conduct of the police is abhorrent to the sensibilities of modern viewers, but Gene Hunt is not a bad man. He’s a guy that’s doing what he’s doing because that’s the most efficient way to keep the people of Manchester safe, at least in his view. He has a strict, if frequently hypocritical moral code, and he abides by it in all his dealings as the self styled ‘Sheriff of Manchester’.

The juxtaposition of Sam’s modern police training and the single minded but generally well meaning brutality of Hunt and the others is a point that the series likes to touch on frequently, but it does so in a way that becomes increasingly grating as the show wears on. Whenever Hunt goes to smack a suspect around in the interrogation room (a crowded cupboard which also houses the Lost and Found), Sam shouts out the same protest over and over. “You can’t do that!” Then Hunt does it anyway, Sam grits his teeth and the show gets back to the story at hand. It’s a necessary scene; as an audience surrogate Sam has to express our own personal distaste with the actions we’re witnessing lest the show itself become alienatingly mean spirited, but it’s the same scene in every episode and there’s only so many times that Sam can register his complaints before he sounds like a broken record.

This also leads into another of the show’s issues: Sam as a protagonist is not especially interesting. He’s very white bread, possessing virtually no character flaws to speak of and his reactions to every obstacle he encounters are distressingly predictable. He’s a straight man, a foil for the for more interesting figure of Gene Hunt and though John Simm does try to inject a personality into his performance (a feat at which he is especially adept when paired with Liz White) he simply can’t outrun the fact that the story is so painstakingly told from his perspective that every scene features him and it becomes hard not to grow weary of his general blandness.

Instead, Gene Hunt is the show’s best and most likeable character, thanks to both witty scripting and a truly fantastic performance from Philip Glenister. An abrasive, politically incorrect jerk, Hunt is the kind of character that an audience could so easily turn on if handled incorrectly, but Glenister and the writers walk the line with unerring confidence, lending the character a gruff charm and sarcastic wit that make it difficult not to side with him. He’s a extraordinarily successful character in that though he does immoral things on a fairly regular basis, he does so with enough panache and flavour that he’s never not entertaining to watch. Glenister is particularly effective in the series’ more overtly comedic scenes and it’s in these that the writers construct many of Hunt’s saving graces to offset his more roughly hewn edges.

Occasionally, the show will use some of Sam’s unique knowledge as a plot point. Having him use historical knowledge of 1973 to help with cases is an interesting idea, certainly the most interesting the show ever really does with the time travel concept, but, like all the other missed possibilities that could have been borne from the show’s more fantastical elements, it’s never explored properly. This is perhaps the most frustrating element of the science fiction borders that Life on Mars insists on retaining around it’s edges: there’s so much there that could have been really interesting if invested with a bit of time and care but it’s all glossed over. The time travel elements of the show are entirely extraneous and I can’t help but wish that the show had picked a lane: either lean into the idea properly or excise it entirely.

The cases themselves are often quite interesting, exploring different facets of 70’s culture through the lens of both a modern day perspective and that of the time period itself. The institutionalised racism and sexism of the time period is addressed head on and the IRA attacks at the time also provide a unique historical backdrop which the show uses to juxtapose Sam’s modern ideas with the more archaic views of his newfound compatriots. These examinations of culture are interesting, but the show seems concerned that we’ll never get it if forced to unpack these ideas by ourselves. All too often, this ends with the show simply stating it’s subtext, often with a proselytising extended monologue from Sam about the evils of sports fanaticism and the subjugation of minorities. These are extremely valid points but the show does a perfectly fine job of illustrating them in the stories themselves, so when Sam suddenly waxes lyrical about the injustices of 1973, to the audience as much as to other characters, it feels condescending and out of place.

Life on Mars‘ portrayal of 1973 is brilliant. You never doubt that the events you’re watching take place forty years ago, and series’ use of period music from the time is outstanding. The obvious standout is David Bowie’s 1973 classic Life on Mars from which the series takes its name. The track is a recurring one throughout the show, used in pivotal sequences in both the first and last episode and it works brilliantly to establish the general tone and timbre of the programme.

As is typical for British television productions, Life on Mars consisted of fairly short seasons, in this case eight hour long episodes per year. The show ran for two seasons (or series, as they’re referred to in the UK) before coming to a close with it’s sixteenth episode. According to co-creator Matthew Graham, the decision to end the programme so quickly was a creative one: “We decided that Sam’s journey should have a finite life span and a clear-cut ending and we feel that we have now reached that point after two series.” I’m not entirely sure I buy this explanation, given that a sequel series (which I should be covering in the very near future) debuted less than a year after the transmission of the Life on Mars finale, retaining the majority of it’s cast and creative team (with the notable exceptions of John Simm and Liz White). I also find it conspicuous because the final episode really doesn’t seem like it was intended to be one until very late in the game.

The conclusion to the story and the explanation of it’s mysteries are incredibly rushed, packed into a single episode and it isn’t especially satisfying either. Even in the final scenes, the writers seem like they’re trying to steer away from any sort of definitive finality, as if they weren’t sure whether they’d want to return at some point. It’s a hurried, poorly executed finale, containing some really counter-intuitive character behaviour and it honestly feels like an improvised conclusion constructed from necessity rather than desire.

Life on Mars was extremely successful, both critically and commercially at the time of it’s broadcast, spawning an American remake of the same name starring Jason O’Mara (Terra Nova, Justice League: Throne of Atlantis), Academy Award nominee Harvey Keitel (The Grand Budapest Hotel, From Dusk Till Dawn), Jonathan Murphy (October Road, Ready or Not), two time Golden Globe Award nominee Michal Imperioli (The Sopranos, The Lovely Bones) and Gretchen Moll (3:10 to Yuma, The Thirteenth Floor), which aired seventeen episodes on ABC before being cancelled, albeit with enough notice to cobble together an ending. The adaptation was criticised by Matthew Graham particularly, who hated the ending, noting that it “beggared belief”. The series also inspired a Spanish adaptation titled La Chica de Ayer (English: The Girl From Yesterday), and a Russian version titled Obratnaya storona Luny (English: Dark Side of the Moon) as well as a quartet of novels taking place between the series finale and the beginning of the sequel series.

Life on Mars is a show that often can’t seem to decide what it wants to be. Caught between two narrative instincts, the programme tries to have it’s cake and eat it too, an attempt that is entirely to the show’s detriment. It’s excellent writing and a powerhouse performance from Philip Glenister make up for many of the missed opportunities left in the programme’s wake and the ambitious goals of the setting and themes offset some of the more troubling issues, but it’s a deeply confused series, one that could have been much better with a more focused objective.

About Lawson Kiehne

Lawson Kiehne
Lawson Kiehne is an aspiring Australian writer who is fascinated by everything involving stories. In his spare time he enjoys reading, playing video games and watching films and television and hopes to one day be a published novelist.