Acorn Media // 2006 // 468 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // October 29th, 2009
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
-- Edgar Allan Poe
In the US, good shows tend to overstay their welcome. M*A*S*H lasted eleven years, almost three times as long as the Korean War. Buffy the Vampire Slayer might have been better off had she stayed dead the second time. And I'm seriously contemplating electro-shock therapy to eliminate all memory of Night Court's final season.
British shows, on the other hand, have a better feel for the ravages of time. Life on Mars had only two seasons. The network would have gladly continued the show, but the writers sensed the concept had played itself out. The result is a singular series, one that left a profound mark on the British television landscape. Acorn Media now brings us the final act of Sam Tyler's amazing journey: Life on Mars: Series 2.
"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."
At the end of the first series, Sam Tyler (John Simm, Doctor Who) accepted his somewhat unique circumstances -- in the twenty-first century, he's in a coma, and the 1973 in which he finds himself is a byproduct of the coma. He's less of an outsider now, having been grudgingly accepted by his boss, DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister, Ashes to Ashes), and his fellow detectives, including Annie Cartwright (Liz White, Vera Drake), whom Sam promotes to detective in the first episode.
As the season progresses, Sam's communications with his own reality become more consistent. He starts to get phone calls that only he can hear, with a voice reassuring Sam that he's doing well and that they think he will be able to return home soon. After tracing the number, he's even able to call the voice on occasion. Then, in the penultimate episode, with Hunt being investigated for murder, DCI Frank Morgan is brought in to lead the team -- and Sam realizes that Morgan's is the voice he has been hearing on the phone. As the episode ends, Morgan confides to Sam that it's time for him to complete his job...and go home.
It's always the simplest things that make a difference. In the first series, Sam struggled both to determine what the hell was happening to him and to reach some kind of modus vivendi with 1973 in general and Gene Hunt in particular; that struggle gave him an oftentimes manic disposition that tended to dominate the proceedings (i.e., people suspected he was a bloody lunatic). At the beginning of Series 2 he has -- or rather, he thinks he has -- a better grip on things, and consequently Sam is more subdued. He and Hunt spend the bulk of each episode at loggerheads, but now the arguments emerge from the grudging respect each has for the other, while last season, the arguments arose from mutual contempt. That one change creates more of an ensemble feeling to the cast. Annie's promotion to detective furthers that integration by bringing her directly into the plots, whereas in Series 1 she was fairly marginalized. Just as Sam's status as an outsider drove Series 1, it is his status as one of the group that drives Series 2 -- especially the shattering finale.
To effect that change, the cases in the middle are less intertwined with Sam's life in the present. The opening episode, bridging the two series, illustrates vividly why that change had to happen -- the more Sam tries to explain things, the more he sounds like a freaking lunatic. The same thing happens when he encounters his future mentor. So that aspect gets dialed back, forcing the writers to work in Sam's conditions in other ways, such as a savage bout with the flu that turns out to be the result of Sam being accidentally given the wrong medication in the hospital. It keeps Sam's condition at the forefront without undermining his credibility with the other characters.
Sam stepping back a bit also allows Gene Hunt to step up, and Philip Glenister makes the most of the opportunity. Glenister plays Hunt slightly larger than life, enough to mark him as a Harry Callahan archetype, a cop perfectly willing to beat confessions out of suspects, or to plant drugs on them. An early episode sets the tone for Hunt's character in the series. A highly visible case results in the squad getting some unasked for help from Detective Superintendent Harry Woolf, who was Hunt's mentor, and Glenn Fletcher, the department's first black detective, who will one day be Sam's mentor. The juxtaposition of what Woolf has become and what Sam claims Fletcher will become forces Hunt to confront that thin, fuzzy line between right and wrong. There are additional Hunt-centric episodes, and they further establish the respect and friendship that has grown between him and Sam. They rarely agree, but they no longer doubt each other's ability or motives. The best proof of this comes in the penultimate episode. Hunt awakens after a bender to discover a dead body -- killed by his gun. Instinctively, he calls Sam. In Series 1, he would have called DI Ray Carling (Dean Andrews, Ashes to Ashes) because Ray would have helped him cover it up. Now, he calls Sam, because he knows Sam will uncover the truth. Not only does this progression show the growth of the character, but it informs Sam's actions in the finale. I won't spoil the finale, but I would note that DCI Frank Morgan shares his name with the actor who played the Wizard of Oz. Make of it what you will.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Both Simm and Glenister attack their roles with a ferocity that drives plotlines forward. But for some reason, Liz White's turn as Annie Cartwright sticks in my head. White imbues Annie with a gentleness and sweetness that is the perfect tonic for Sam's troubled state. She sees and accepts Sam as he is, even when he's not making a lot of sense, and she does it without coming across as bubble-headed or condescending. The relationship is natural and unforced, a small patch of calm waters amidst a stormy sea.
Picture and sound quality are solid, as they were on the previous series. There is an image problem in the first episode; there is an outdoor scene that for some reason looks like absolutely no filters or enhancements of any sort were applied. It only lasts for a few seconds, but it's severe enough that you can't miss it.
There's a fair amount of quantity in the extras, but precious little quality. There are no commentary tracks, only some featurettes. Three behind-the-scenes featurettes each detail how a specific sequence was filmed -- a car explosion, a delightful animated sequence, etc. The one on the animation is the only one that's really interesting. There's a quick look at the CID set that lets you appreciate all the detail. Two "bookend" featurettes, "Return to Life on Mars" and "The End of Life on Mars," have the cast, as well as the writers and producers, talking about the beginning of Series 2 and the ending of the show itself. There's some good stuff in here, but both simply go on for far too long, with the producers in particular showing a marked penchant for beating a dead horse.
Life on Mars is one of those rare shows that catches you unaware, with strong, intelligent writing. The writers of Series 2 are commended both for their work, as well as their recognition that the concept probably could not support any additional seasons. Those writing for television should take heed of the lessons learned here, particularly the old adage that sometimes, less is indeed more.
Acorn Media has the court's thanks for bringing us this fine series, but we can't help but wish that the extras had been on a par with previous installment. Acorn is further advised to address that situation should they release the followup series, Ashes to Ashes.
Not Guilty. Now sod off.
Review content copyright © 2009 Jim Thomas; 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: 468 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site
* Wikipedia: Life on Mars (UK)