When David Fincher released his post-modern masterpiece Zodiac in 2007, audiences were expecting another Se7en like slide into dark, depraved inhumanity. The story of the fabled Northern California serial killer did seem like perfect subject matter for the auteur Instead, what viewers got was a wickedly insightful illustration of the differences between police procedure circa the late ‘60s, and how we view such investigations within our current CSI driven mentality. It was a stunning twist on the topic, a chance to feel the frustration of the characters while seeing how, sometimes, luck was as necessary as knowledge in solving a crime.
Another masterful example of this old school detecting vs. new world law enforcement ideal comes in the form of the BBC’s brash, bold, and thoroughly brilliant Life on Mars. Centering on the surreal adventures of millennial cop Sam Tyler (John Simm) suddenly transported back to 1973, it’s time travel taken to sly, sophisticated heights. Arriving around the time of David Bowie’s hit song (thus the title), the Detective Chief Inspector takes up with the Criminal Investigation Department of Manchester under the auspices of Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). There, he works with the rest of the force to solve crimes while dealing with the differences between his time, and the past.
Over the course of sixteen sensational episodes (eight for each season), the series shows Sam’s difficulty in coping, his by-the-book approach clashing significantly with the ‘70s ‘anything for a confession’ conceit. It also explores the situation itself, suggesting that our hero may be medically incapacitated in the future (he is hit by a car at the beginning of the storyline, hinting that he is now in a coma), or truly insane. There are elements of the supernatural and suspense, as well as halting humor and the kind of fish out of water formulas that never seem to fail. When meshed with amazing acting, smart scripting, and a truly moving finale (you have to wait until Series 2 for that - sorry), we wind up with something very special indeed.
There’s just something about the British when it comes to television drama. They can take a standard storyline - say a police psychologist who uses his cunning and insight to ‘crack’ cases - and turn it into the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy (right, Robbie “Eddie Fitzgerald” Coltraine?). It’s the same with Life on Mars. Each episode uses Sam’s dilemma as a backdrop for what is, otherwise, a sometimes straightforward exploration of crime and punishment. There are individual cases to be solved, the backdrop of messages from the future, and a strange little spectral girl adding elements of intrigue to the whodunit.
It’s easy to see why this material failed when translated over to America (the ABC version ran for one season in 2008). The storylines contained in the eight episodes offered as part of the first series require concentration and a continued investment. You can’t just tune in, pick up a red herring or random clue, and feel vindicated when the bad guy is caught. No, Life on Mars is meant to be culture shock as social commentary, an attempt by creators Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan, and Ashley Pharoah to expand on the typical police plotlines with elements both human and out of this world.
The UK has always had a fondness for science fiction, with shows like Doctor Who, Torchwood, and Primeval garnering huge ratings within a contemporary reality TV dynamic. Life on Mars is different - a hybrid of sorts between grim reality (England in 1973 was no picnic) and fanciful wish fulfillment. One of the main themes that runs throughout the series is Tyler’s desire to return back to the 21st Century. Of course, there’s a complication, and her name is Annie Cartwright (Liz White). Thrust into the middle of the ‘70s concept of gender inequality, the character instantly earns Sam’s attention. Over the course of the series, she also gains something far more personal.
It’s this kind of investment - emotionally, intellectually - that makes Life on Mars so resonant. The show never excuses the era, illustrating obvious flaws like sexism and racism while celebrating the police’s ability to solve crimes under seemingly backward conditions. We see the usual suspects - armed robbers, gangsters, drug dealers - interwoven with darker, more diabolical crimes. As Sam struggles to make sense of his life, the rest of the Manchester force must confront the kind of calm, controlled detecting he brings to their male machismo methodology. The acting is uniformly excellent, with Simm and Glenister simply great as the differing DCIs.
Of course, the biggest problem with any series like this is how immersive and involving it is. Just as we get to Episode 8, and some questions appear to be answered, we are thrown back into the mix and left wanting more. That’s where DVD can really ease the pain. Acorn Media offers the first part of this amazing production on four discs loaded with added content. There are commentaries, interviews, and production featurettes, each one offering more Life on Mars goodness. Even better, there is clarity in many of these conversations, bits and pieces of plot and characterization that amplify our understanding of the show’s main narrative purpose.
Still, the wait for Series 2 will be interminable, especially for anyone without access to cable stations like BBC America (which frequently reruns these shows are part of their schedule). Unlike American dramas, which can drag out a character arc in a mad attempt to milk all the possible profit out of a project, Life on Mars works within its ever-present end game. Here, the creators determined that Sam would have two eight episode plotlines, and that’s all. So the experience of watching Life on Mars at home is a lot like seeing the first part of a movie in the theaters. There’s the satisfaction of seeing something so wonderful that you can’t wait for it to continue. There’s also the horrifying reality that you’ll have to sit tight for as long as necessary as the sequel is being prepared.
As consolation, Life on Mars Series 2 will definitely be worth the wait. While some may see the core concept as a bit “out there” and the desire to tie time and place together a little too obvious for our far more sophisticated mindset, there is no denying the whole “the more things change, the more they stay the same” subtext of the series. In Fincher’s film, we got the distinct impression that if forensic science and inter-department communication had been ever so slightly more advanced, the Zodiac killer would right now be rotting in a jail cell somewhere. Instead, the limits of the past flummoxed even the most loyal law enforcement official. Life on Mars is another example of police procedural as filtered through a far less sophisticated time. Everything else about the show, however, is thoroughly modern - and marvelous.