Acorn Media // 2006 // 930 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // June 24th, 2010
"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. Now, maybe if I can work out the reason, I can get home."
It has become increasingly common for British television series to reappear across the pond, reimagined and recast for American audiences. The modern trend began with game shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and continued with comedies like The Office -- arguably the best of the Anglo imports. In 2008, ABC tried their hand at reinterpreting a quirky British sci-fi/cop drama called Life on Mars. They hoped it would scratch the same enigmatic itch as its megahit lead-in, Lost. It didn't. Despite big name cast members like Harvey Keitel and Michael Imperioli, the ABC version of Mars lasted only one season. There's a cautionary tale in this story about the danger of manufacturing mystery and the fickle nature of the American TV viewer, but my biggest take-away from the few episodes of ABC's Life on Mars I caught was that it made me really, really want to watch the original British series that inspired it. With Acorn Media's release of Life on Mars: The Complete Collection, I got that chance.
Detective Chief Inspector Sam Tyler (John Simm, Doctor Who) is one of Manchester's top lawmen -- a by-the-book copper who uses the latest in forensics and psychological profiling. During a particularly difficult search for a serial killer that puts his girlfriend in danger, Sam is struck by a car and knocked unconscious. When he wakes up, he finds himself in 1973 with no idea how he got there. He is told that he has just been transferred to the Manchester police force from a mysterious place called "Hyde." The '70s version of the precinct he ran in 2006 is a completely different place -- full of misogyny, racism, and police brutality. While Sam tries to make sense of his new surroundings, he butts heads with several of his colleagues, especially his new boss, DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister, State of Play), a hard-drinking, suspect-beating, copper who cares more about results than procedure. The raging testosterone is counter-balanced by Annie (Lix White, The Fixer), a policewoman who, though looked down on by her colleagues, tries to help Sam find his bearings. He needs all the help he can get when he starts seeing visions of creepy little girls with clown dolls, and hearing voices speaking to him out of radios and television sets -- offering the clues he'll need to find his way home.
Based on the few episodes I saw of the American version of Life on Mars, I expected the original series to focus on the mystery of how Sam got from 2006 to 1973. I was surprised to find that Mars is actually more police procedural than sci-fi series. Except for a few short scenes per episode, the time travel set-up is primarily there to contrast Tyler's modern methods of policing with the brute force techniques practiced by DCI Hunt and his men. The result is a surprisingly satisfying balance of action, mystery, and character drama. At times I wished they gave more screen time to Sam's search for answers, but mostly I was too caught up in the cases they were trying to solve to care.
Stripped down to the basics, the criminal mysteries in Life on Mars are fairly simple. Pay close enough attention to the characters being introduced throughout the episode and chances are you'll have it solved before Sam does. What makes this such a fun show to watch, however, is the filter through which they present those cases. Mars has enough style that it would have been fun even if it was just a cop show set in the '70s. Rather than the clean, polyester '70s of American television, Life on Mars is set in a gritty Manchester filled with crime bosses and cops on the take. Cars are fast, clothes are loud, and the city can barely be seen for the haze of cigarette smoke. The police force Sam Tyler stumbles into is populated by sexist brutes who do whatever it takes to get the job done, just as long as they have time to hit the pub afterwards. Leading the way is the commanding DCI Gene Hunt, played by Philip Glenister. In this age of political correctness, it's tough to make a character like Hunt sympathetic. By 2006 standards, he says and does all the wrong things. Heck, even by 1973 standards he's a big jerk. But Glenister balances Sam's sometimes detached logic with a passion for police work. Hunt cares for the law-abiding residents of the city he's sworn to protect. The tension between the two leading characters is what makes Life on Mars so much fun to watch. On the other hand, if it weren't for John Simm's Sam Tyler, there wouldn't be a Life on Mars to watch. Simm is -- by one director's count -- in every scene of the first series. And he's in all but a very few in the second. If we didn't care about Sam Tyler, Mars would just be a cop show with a gimmick. Simm guides the audience through Sam's emotional journey, selling both his developing relationships with Hunt and Annie and the craziest of Sam's hallucinations.
Although the bulk of the series comes down to Simm and Glenister, the supporting cast deserves a lot of credit, especially Liz White, who plays Annie. She has perhaps the hardest job of all -- acting not only as Sam's potential love interest and friend, but the bridge between old and modern cultural sensibilities. She brings the audience into Sam's world by giving him a sounding board to talk about his confusion, without ever feeling like a sidekick. She is a strong, charming, smart, and funny woman, played by an actress who appears to share those qualities. On the other side, Dean Andrews (Ashes to Ashes) plays Sgt. Ray Carling, Sam's biggest detractor. Ray is even more of a brute than Gene Hunt, but without the smarts to control himself. His pal, Chris, is more accepting of the modern methods Sam tries to bring to the group, but he lacks the confidence to really take a stand. In less capable hands, Chris could have been relegated to comic relief, but Marshall Lancaster (Coronation Street) gives him more nuance, and the way Chris develops over the course of the series is satisfying to watch.
The 1973 world of Life on Mars is recreated in great detail, from the clothes to the cars to the warm hues that dominate the series' cinematography. I had to occasionally remind myself that it wasn't actually shot in the '70s. Filmed in widescreen, Mars feels more like a movie than a TV show, with a nice-looking amount of film grain. The soundtrack, presented in both stereo and surround, is a combination of composer Ed Butt's score and '70s music. Lots of '70s music. It's not surprising, since they named the show after the classic David Bowie song. Bowie is joined on the soundtrack by artists like The Who, T-Rex, Elton John, Roxy Music, and Thin Lizzy. A lot of DVD sets replace expensive licensed music with cheap imitations. Hats off to Acorn Media for not doing that here.
Life on Mars: The Complete Collection combines the two single series sets that Acorn released in 2009. It has the same DVD art, menus, and extras. Nothing new was added to this set, but that's okay. It has an impressive collection of bonus features. Series one has audio commentaries for every episode, plus the 64-minute making-of featurette "Take a Look at the Lawman" (split into two parts across discs 1 and 2), an interview with director Bharat Nalluri, a profile of the series composer, a look at the styling of the show with production designer Brian Sykes, and a profanity-laden outtake reel. Sadly, series two doesn't have any audio commentaries, but it adds two more substantial making-of documentaries -- "The Return of Life on Mars" (45 minutes), and "The End of Life on Mars" (28 minutes) -- plus a collection of episode-specific behind the scenes footage and set tours. It's too bad the second series doesn't continue the commentaries -- at least for the key final episodes. Taken as a whole, though, there's enough in this set to keep Mars fans occupied long after they've finished watching the finale (which, incidentally, you should do before watching the spoiler-rich featurettes).
Quite a few of the episodes center on some kind of hot-button issue, like racism, sexism, prejudice, organized labor, and football hooliganism. They provide clear examples of the differences between the narrow-minded '70s as embodied by Gene Hunt and Sam Tyler's 21st-Century enlightenment. Because the point-of-view Sam argues for is so clearly the right one, it can come across as preachy. Also, for a show with such a strong sci-fi premise, it's more of a straight police procedural than I would have liked, especially considering it's only 16 episodes long.
Life on Mars is a perfectly mixed cocktail of action, suspense, mystery, science fiction, character, and period drama. I've never seen anything like it before and probably won't see it again. Yes, I know the series had a spin-off -- 2008's Ashes to Ashes -- but without the same group of characters, it's not the same. Heck, even the American version of Mars couldn't capture the magic of the UK series (perhaps that's why ABC decided to go for broke by coming up with a shocking new ending, which I won't spoil here). I'm just glad that anyone who missed Life on Mars now has the chance to buy the entire series in one set. Even better, the price for this 8-disc set is only fractionally more than the list price for the two series individually, so the only excuse not to buy it is if you're in a coma. Or time traveling. Or maybe something even crazier...
Right, guv. Off you go. Not guilty!
Review content copyright © 2010 Erich Asperschlager; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 930 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode Commentaries