Remade in America two years after its 16-episode run on BBC concluded in 2006, the original British Life on Mars was a smart police procedural with a dash of sci-fi speculation thrown in to spice up its already sharp mystery plots. Co-creators/core writers/executive producers Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan, and Ashley Pharaoh constantly infused their show with a ubiquitous sense of generic perspective. They made Life on Mars a sharp and self-aware answer to the schematic and heartless Law & Order and CSI-type procedurals that foreground lousy and mostly forgettable mystery plots and shelve their cipher investigators’ personalities. Life on Mars not only had memorable meat-and-potatoes cases in every episode, but it showcased a cast of characters you wanted to hang around with. It was a cop drama about cops, not crime, one with enough wit and bite to make every episode memorable.
Life on Mars‘s pilot kicks off with a breezy putdown of the way investigators on CSI have a wealth of evidence at their fingertips just waiting to be analyzed. Sam Tyler (John Simm), a police officer in modern-day Manchester, confronts a murder suspect first with secondhand testimony, then with a computer-generated composite sketch that matches the suspect’s appearance and, finally, with an entry from the suspect’s diary: “‘I killed her. She’s been killed. I’m a killer, an ace killer.’ That particular entry’s not awash with ambiguity.” He later chews out Maya (Archie Panjabi), his girlfriend and co-worker, for doggedly following a hunch, accusing her of not being beholden enough to the evidence and procedure: “Look around you. What use are feelings in this room?”
Shortly after he says this, Sam gets into a car accident and wakes up in Manchester…1973. As Sam tells us during the show’s title credit sequence, he’s not sure whether he’s crazy, in a coma, or if he’s really gone back in time. Sam suffers a breakdown in nearly every episode trying to answer that central question because he’s the polar opposite of the police officers he works with. He thinks they’re insane for being sexist and racist, not to mention for conducting all-around brutal investigations, while they think he’s nuts for talking about procedure that won’t be institutionalized for years to come and for shouting to himself about being from the future and not belonging in the ‘70s. While Sam is staunchly politically correct and pursues investigations “strictly by the book,” his colleagues and commanding officer, Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), have no such compunctions. Hunt and his men chain-smoke indoors, talk smack about women in their presence, and frame and beat up suspects during interrogations conducted in the station’s supply room.
Sam similarly finds solving crimes in this era difficult, to say the least. It’s a time when recording interrogations on tape recorders is a novel idea, before investigations were determined by blood spatter, fingerprint analysis, or the kind of instantaneous lab results that probably only exist on CSI. To a man like Sam, who comes from the cozy, paint-by-numbers land of Dick Wolf and Jerry Bruckheimer, Gene’s world looks like the Wild West.
Just as the show’s creators are directly calling attention to their show’s nature as a throwback to dated cop shows like The Sweeney and Starsky & Hutch, the meta-reflexive elements of Life on Mars that draw attention to its nature as a serialized drama are simultaneously its most entertaining and frustrating aspects. There is a set formula for episodes and the show’s writers clearly want viewers to know this. Every episode of Life on Mars revolves around Sam and Gene’s fractious relationship: One minute Gene’s throttling Sam and the other Sam is complaining about the barbarity of his newfound home. They feud with one another, make up by episode’s end, and then start all over again in the next episode.
This makes enforcing the consequences of any given episode an especially tricky task for the show’s writer. The fallout of preceding episodes is sometimes alluded to but rarely heeded beyond a cursory reference. The writers call attention to this in the way that inspector Ray Carling (Dean Andrews) is demoted for a year’s time after having committed an ultimately fatal act of negligence. Carling’s rank is, however, fully reinstated two episodes later during the second season’s premiere after only a few weeks have passed within the series. Incidentally, after the pilot, the second season’s premiere is probably also the show’s most self-referential. In it, Gene becomes obsessed with conducting his investigation “by the book” and Sam resorts to framing a casino owner because he knows what the gangster will become 30 years down the line. Just in case viewers missed Sam and Gene’s pivotal but temporary swap of investigative policies, the writers have Sam remind us by adopting Gene’s catchphrase of “You’re nicked” when he finally gets his man.
The wobbliest aspect of Life on Mars is the way it ties its normally impeccable crime du jour plots to Sam’s need to find a way back home. The writers avoid analyzing their characters for the most part, and with good reason. Many times when Sam’s sanity is called into question by messages from the near future, it usually looks pretty ridiculous. In episode three, he’s told that he needs to contest Gene’s conclusions at every turn because, as a mysterious woman’s voice on his squad car radio tells him, “You have to fight.” He’s reminded of this soundbite-worthy quote when a colleague tells him that the suspect has “no fight” in him.
This leads Sam down one of many blind alleys in his search for a way home, a quest typified by some of the cheapest and most inexplicable dream-sequence clichés in the book. The worst of these nightmare images is the little girl that used to appear on British televisions in lieu of color bars whenever a channel went off-air for the night. She emerges from Sam’s TV set into his living room a la The Ring, naturally. Watching Sam pick up stray radio signals nobody else can hear or receive phone calls from the future is silly enough, but the creepy TV girl is just flat-out dumb. All she does is look spooky without reflecting anything of Sam’s fears beyond an illogical but understandable innate suspicion of little children. Creepy TV Girl is nothing but a red herring, something to keep fans busy while the show’s creators draw out the resolution to the time travel overplot.
The lack of depth to the show’s characters obviously cuts both ways, but within the self-imposed narrow confines of the genre that its creators are working in, Life on Mars is pretty captivating. Glenister leads a stacked cast of talented and genuinely likeable character actors through a series of investigations that actually feel like they have consequences beyond an episode-to-episode basis. They don’t, but that’s the fun of the show. Graham, Jordan, and Pharaoh aren’t reinventing their genre’s wheel, just making it squeak a lot less.
As this new set is just a repackaging of Acorn Media's last release of the series, there remains a noticeably heavier tint to many of the show's already murky colors. The images also look a bit stretched even though the show is presented in a 16:9 widescreen format. It doesn't help that many of the camera shots naturally cut off the characters' heads either. The quality of the show's stereo sound complements the show's rollicking glam-rock soundtrack and will make you want to buy all of the Sweet's catalogue.
Though both seasons of the show feature a lot of extra features, none of them are worth watching. There are a lot of dull behind-the-scenes featurettes like the hour-long "Take a Look at the Lawman," a general look at how the show was greenlit and what it's about, and "Get Sykes," an interview with production designer Brian Sykes. All of these really should be shorter than they are as none of them are that entertaining or enlightening. Viewers are treated to interviews with a gaggle of producers, writers, directors, cast members, and others talking in real-time about their inspirations and about what they were trying to do with Life on Mars. Which is pretty tortuous when the artists being interviewed don't really have much to say. Even the six-minute outtakes reel on the fourth disc of season one of Life on Mars is sluggish and padded.
A very sharp and self-aware police procedural, Life on Mars is a must-see for fans of "quality" TV drama.