Judge Jim Thomas believes if Sam had been listening to "Send in the Clowns," the series could've been real scary.
Our reviews of Life On Mars: Series 2 (published October 29th, 2009), Life on Mars: The Complete UK Collection (published June 24th, 2010), and Life on Mars: The Complete US Series (published September 29th, 2009) are also available.
"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."
In 2006, BBC1 and BBC America viewers were caught flatfooted by Life on Mars and its new twist on the familiar "fish out of water" premise. It gained critical and public acclaim throughout its two-series run, so much so that a sequel was created, Ashes to Ashes, reuniting much of the cast. ABC, bewitched by the scent of borrowed success, promptly adapted the series—and cancelled it after a single season.
Forget the ABC version; it's a pale imitation, a shadow on the wall of a cave, as Plato would say. Acorn Media brings us Life on Mars: Series 1, and it's the real deal, Guv.
Facts of the Case
Detective Chief Inspector Sam Tyler (John Simm, Doctor Who) heads a detective squad in Manchester. Sam's on the trail of a serial killer who has just abducted his partner and lover when he is hit by a car. He wakes to find things a bit different. He had been listening to David Bowie's "Life on Mars" on an mp3 player; as he picks himself up, he hears the familiar strains coming from a much older car—on with an 8-track tape player. Instead of a freeway interchange, there are a lot of buildings being torn down—next to a billboard announcing the building of a new freeway interchange. It's not 2006, but 1973. In a state of disbelief, he arrives at his Manchester squad room to discover that not only are the clothes, cars, and music a shock, but so are the police. He's no longer in charge; everyone thinks he's a new detective who has just transferred to Manchester. Running things is DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister, Calendar Girls), a towering brute who won't bother with evidence if he can just as easily beat a confession out of a suspect. He's also just as likely to beat a troublesome cop as a troublesome suspect, as Sam quickly discovers.
While Sam struggles to adjust to the new surroundings, he keeps having…well, visions. A little girl appears in his apartment, taunts him, and disappears. He suddenly finds himself in a dark hospital corridor, looking through a locked door at someone who appears to be on life support. He hears voices on radios, phones, and televisions, voices speaking about his medical condition. What the bloody hell is going on? Could he actually be in a coma after that accident?
While Sam tries to make sense if his newfound "reality," he's determined to do his job. In this case, that means doing what he can with '70s forensics. While he lacks the fancy tools, he still has the analytical skills. Most of his colleagues think he's crazy, but come to appreciate his insights. He is befriended by Annie Cartwright (Liz White, Vera Drake), a uniformed policewoman attached to the squad. Annie, like the others, thinks that Sam's suffering from a concussion suffered in the 1973 accident; Annie, however, is sympathetic to Sam's plight, and offers a friendly ear to Sam. The cast is rounded out by Dean Andrew and Marshal Lancaster as, respectively, Ray Carling and Chris Skelton, two other detectives in the squad. Carling is cut from the same cloth as Hunt, and is fairly antagonistic towards Sam. Skelton, the youngest of the group, is much more accepting of Tyler's ideas, and even looks to Sam for guidance.
The first series of Life on Mars features eight untitled episodes:
• Episode 1: Sam struggles with the aftermath of the accident, and is shocked to discover that the serial killer he was pursuing back in 2006 is active in 1973 as well.
• Episode 2: The squad catches a dangerous robbery suspect, but Sam insists that he be released due to lack of evidence. When an innocent woman is gravely injured in the aftermath, Sam has to capture the suspect to redeem himself in the eyes of his colleagues.
• Episode 3: A murder at a textile mill in the midst of union unrest sparks turmoil in both the community and the squad room. Hunt is convinced the union leader is guilty, but the forensic evidence leads Sam in a different direction.
• Episode 4: Sam investigates a local crime boss, and is stunned when he encounters his own mother—who's being harassed by one of the boss's henchmen. Her little boy, Sam, has a cold.
• Episode 5: The squad investigates the murder of a Manchester United fan. As usual, Sam manages to piss off Hunt by insisting that there's more to the case than soccer hooligans out of control.
• Episode 6: When Sam learns that his mother is going to take him off life support at 2 p.m., he starts to freak out. Then a gunman takes hostages at the Manchester Gazette, promising that he will start executing hostages—at 2 p.m.
• Episode 7: A suspect dies in a holding cell. Hunt wants to protect the squad, leaving Sam in the uncomfortable position of investigating his fellow detectives.
• Episode 8: A new gang has appeared in Manchester. During the investigation, the team encounters Vic Tyler—Sam's father, who abandoned the family in 1973. Sam convinces himself that if he can prevent his father's departure, he might return home himself.
A premise like Life on Mars is the television equivalent of a high wire act. One wrong move, one bad step, and you lose the audience. Not only does Life on Mars rarely if ever make a misstep, it offers up compelling stories that highlight Sam Tyler's predicament. From the first episode, where he struggles to solve the case that was he was working when he had the accident, to the last, in which Sam becomes so desperate to return to the present that he starts recklessly disregarding procedure and reason to prevent his father's departure, this series takes the police drama to a new level. The police procedural plots are solid in their own right, but when you overlay them with Sam's inner drama, the tension gets jacked up—Episodes 6 and 8 in particular are gut punches.
Let's start with the acting. I first encountered John Simm's freakish intensity through his turn as The Master on Doctor Who. He takes it to a new level here. The premise demands that he be in every scene, and despite his small stature, his presence commands attention. He has enough trouble just trying to adapt, but at times, his duties as a cop conflict with his quest to return home. The visions don't help matters, particularly when they happen in the middle of a meeting or conversation. Simm handles it all with consummate skill. His confusion, determination, terror, and hope all play across his face, and through the timbre of his voice. The brutish DCI Hunt could have easily turned into a caricature, but Philip Glenister gives him unexpected depth. Hunt has no time for Tyler's procedural nonsense, but the two slowly develop an odd but believable love/hate relationship. The third key character is Constable Annie Cartwright. Liz White doesn't play her as a feminist driven to break into the boys' club; instead, Annie does her best to get by in the sexist world of the '70s. There's an innate sweetness to Annie; she thinks Sam is mental, just like the others, but she can also see past the apparent psychosis to the decent man underneath. She has a degree in psychology, and Sam often gets her to use her education to analyze a suspect's motives, giving her a chance to prove her worth to the other detectives. Toss in Carling and Skelton, the other two detectives, and you have a set of dynamics complex enough that even small problems with an ongoing case can spin things out of control, particularly since Hunt and Carling don't quite trust Tyler. The inner tension reaches a peak in Episode 7, when Sam is forced to investigate his squad mates, even drawing Annie's ire in the process.
There's one other major player. The '70s, as an idea, is as much a character as any cop, perp, or bystander on the streets, and the verisimilitude is stunning. Not only are the obvious things like the clothing and hairstyles recreated, but they even go so far as to use camera angles favored in the '70s, particularly in their use of low mounted cameras during car chases. The atmosphere is totally immersive, and is a major reason the show sucks you in.
Video is pretty good. There's a little bit of grain, but it's not intrusive. If you like, you can tell yourself that the grain is just one more holdover from the '70s. Audio is quite clear, in both the 2.0 and 5.1 mixes. The 5.1 mix makes good use of ambient noise, including '70s music. For us colonials, the lack of hiss makes comprehending some of the thicker English accents a fairly simple matter.
Extras—Dear Lord. Not only do you get four different behind-the-scenes featurettes, not only do you get a decent gag reel, but you get commentary tracks for all eight episodes. Producers, creators, directors, writers…you get a nice mix with each episode. All the commentaries are chatty and fun.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you watch a lot of episodes at once, some of the details blur together, particularly if you're not familiar with English customs.
Life on Mars is a perfect storm of concept, writing, and performance. Acorn Media did right by the series, offering a first-rate package.
Not guilty. Now piss off…I'm off to the pub.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
• Episode Commentaries
Review content copyright © 2009 Jim Thomas; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.