Brit Picks: “Life On Mars”

Written by Sarah Townsend July 14, 2011

“Take a look at the lawman beating up the wrong guy…”-David Bowie’s Life On Mars

What happens when you throw a man from 2006 into 1973?  Culture clash!

Life On Mars is a BBC time travelling police drama that follows the journey of DCI (Detective Chief Inspector) Sam Tyler in present day (2006) Manchester.  At the beginning of the series Sam is hit by a speeding car during a chase and wakes up in 1973.  Now working as a transfer DI (Detective Inspector) from “Hyde” under the gruff leadership of DCI Gene Hunt, Sam searches for a way home as he attempts to determine whether he is mad, has time travelled, or is in a coma.

Life On Mars is a series that thrives on its characters.  Sam Tyler, portrayed by John Simm (Doctor Who) is the modern and practical inspector who is held in complete contrast to the Gene Genie.  Gene Hunt, as played by Philip Glenister (State of Play) is the brash, often insensitive and politically incorrect character. He is a product of his time and will do nearly anything to obtain a confession from a suspect.  Both men want the same results in their work, and as they slowly begin to see, there is merit to both the 2006 and 1973 methods of conducting legal investigations.

The series is like many police shows in that each episode deals with a different case and by the end of the hour the case must be solved.  What makes Life On Mars unique is the honesty to the period, but with a character voicing what a modern audience is thinking. The music in the show is fitting with the setting and yes, if you’re wondering, David Bowie’s Life On Mars does make an appearance.  The clash of cultures brings a fun nostalgia that eases the darker, tenser moments.

Many of the cases relate in some way to Sam’s life in the present day, whether it involves him encountering someone from his future or attempting to stop a crime that has not yet been committed, Sam may affect what actually happens in 1973 and by cause and effect, change his present.  Simultaneously, Sam and his co-workers doubt his sanity.  Annie Cartwright (Liz White) from the women’s department believes that Sam suffers from post traumatic stress and acts as a voice of reason for Sam.  He also confides in Nelson, the local barman whose advice seems benign enough, but the man clearly knows more than he lets on.  As if this wasn’t confusing enough, phone calls from 2006 doctors and heart monitor noises broadcast over radios and televisions that only Sam can hear and see seem quite odd don’t they?  Are those doctors and nurses we hear in the background?  As the mystery surrounding Sam’s appearance in 1973 or in his own twisted mind slowly unravels, and Sam’s desperation to survive grows, he, Gene, Annie and the gang form a formidable police force dependent on a trust that will be tried.

Annie and Sam on the job.

The dialogue is full of sharp, biting humour. The audience watches Sam for the story and the mysterybut watches Gene for the entertainment. Simm and Glenister are the show, so much so that they were offered the exact same roles in the failed American remake – they declined (duh).

Life on Mars is one of those series that you want to watch again to catch what you missed the first time.  The British (and original) series ran for 2 series in 2006 and 2007 with a total of 16 episodes. Both series are available on DVD in Canada either by series or in a boxed set.

by Sarah Townsend

My Rating: 10/10

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About Sarah Townsend

Sarah Townsend

Sarah Townsend: Senior Television Editor of We Eat Films and writer of the Brit Picks column. A fourth year English and History student at UWO, future plans include travelling with the Doctor in his TARDIS whenever he finds me. I'm still waiting...

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