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Life on Mars: Series 1

(BBC; US DVD: 28 Jul 2009)

The DVD release of Life On Mars: Series 1 means that American audiences will finally get to own the award-winning, original UK series upon which the ABC remake was based. It’s about time! For those who may not yet have seen either, and are forced to choose, see this one. While I personally enjoyed the Jason O’Mara / Harvey Keitel version quite a lot, the original is simply so much better on nearly every level.


While the US remake took some wild chances with the storylines, which were as likely to hit as miss, the BBC series is more direct with the stories, though, perhaps no less wild considering the subject matter, and it’s strong straight through its eight hour-long episodes. Additionally, while ABC cancelled the show, causing an ending episode wrap-up that comes out of the blue and bears little resemblance to the original story, the UK production developed over two series from a relatively complete and constant set of ideas. Of course, the initial premise is the same in the remake as in Life On Mars: Series 1: a present-day cop is hit by a car and wakes up in 1973.


With all of the fun things that time-travel potentially allows a show to do (finding your four-year-old self, meeting Marc Bolan), creators Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan and Ashley Pharoah wisely ground the more fantastical aspects in a good, old-fashioned, action-oriented police procedural. In the first episode of series one, modern-day Manchester Detective Chief Inspector, Sam Tyler (John Simms State of Play, Dr. Who), is pursuing a case involving the abduction of his girlfriend when he is struck down on the street exiting his Jeep as his iPod plays David Bowie’s “Life on Mars”.


When he comes to, he’s in an open lot, next to an old Rover 3500 sedan, from which the same song is playing—only this time Hunky Dory is on 8-track. Disoriented by the accident and bewildered by what he’s seeing, he heads for familiar ground. That he goes to the station in such a strange situation, tells you a fair bit about the character right out of the gate. When he gets there, he’s told that he’s the new transfer, that he’s only a Detective Inspector and that he reports to DCI Gene Hunt (Phillip Glenister, Cranford, Clocking Off).


Out of necessity and as a means of self-preservation, Sam very quickly falls in to the job in the first episodes, despite, or because of, his need to figure out what’s going on. Is he crazy? Is he in a coma? He tries to confide in WPC Annie Cartwright (Liz White, The Fixer), but this sometimes confuses things even more. Maybe he’s dreaming or maybe he’s dead. Until he knows for sure, he’s got to try and get with the program.


It’s this concept that makes up the bulk of the plot. Sam is a cop who is used to humane treatment of suspects, criminal databases, having immediate forensic results, and following the letter of the law. DCI Hunt treats innocents as suspects, suspects as criminals, has no time to wait two weeks for forensics and follows his gut-instinct. It’s a classic head versus heart scenario, and it is incredibly compelling here. All the characters and their conflicts are superbly written, but it’s these two actors who really make everything work.


Glenister inhabits DCI Hunt as if he really is the hard-drinking, gut-thinking, Guv. Despite Hunt’s aggressiveness, arrogance and chauvinism, Glenister imbues him with irresistible charisma. His physicality is beautifully imposing and his timing is crack-shot. He lends volumes of authenticity to the entire proceedings. However, it’s Simm’s ability to show you exactly what Sam is thinking, and feeling, at any given moment that is the key to the believability of the concept. All the costumes and Cortinas aren’t what make you accept that Sam’s a man out of time in 1973, it’s the absolute truth in Simm’s reactions, in his eyes.  His Sam Tyler takes all of the other masterful work done in Life on Mars and lifts it into orbit, making you not only willing to believe in a time-traveling copper, but wanting to.
 
A show of this caliber doesn’t necessarily need any DVD bonus features, but this set has great ones anyway. There are audio commentaries with the cast and crew for each of the eight episodes—often something of a rarity on series sets—and, naturally they are quite entertaining and informative. An hour-long documentary called, appropriately, Take a Look at the Lawman, is split across discs one and two, and features cast and crew comments on the story, setting, actors and characters in addition to conversations, complete with veiled hints about the direction series two would take, with the creators and series producer. 


The interviews with Dean Andrews and Marshall Lancaster, who play Ray Carling and Chris Skelton, respectively, are a particular treat. There’s a separate interview feature with first episode director Bharat Nalluri on disc one as well, in which he discusses the films that influenced the look of the series (and the gorgeous, cinematic style is surely a big part of the attraction to the show, whether viewers consciously realize it or not). On discs three and four, there is a fabulous music featurette with composer Ed Butt (the show’s theme song is brilliant), the cleverly titled, Get Sykes featurette (a reference to the 1971 classic, Get Carter) with production designer Brian Sykes, and, finally, an outtakes reel.


Life On Mars: Series 1 (as well as the series two, which has already been released outside the US) is both highly innovative and imminently re-watchable television. The show itself is a little like Sam Tyler, too. It’s something of an anomaly. It manages to be a credible period cop show, a futuristic science-fiction thriller and something of a current social commentary all rolled into a damn fine piece of entertainment.

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Christel Loar is a freelance writer and editor, a part-time music publicist, and a full-time music fan. She is often an overreactor and sometimes an overachiever. When not dodging raindrops or devising escape plans, Christel is usually found down front and slightly left of center stage reveling in a performance by yet another new favorite band.


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Much like Mad Men unapologetically represents the inequalities of its time period, Life on Mars revels in the lack of political correctness that is an ingrained part of contemporary (that is, 1973) society.
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Let's face it, when the content inside is less than meaningful, how better to market your particular movie than with plenty of digital packaging bells and whistles. Many of our 2009 choices reflect this strategy. Others are great all by themselves.
13 Dec 2009
Life on Mars: Series 2 is a prime example of how a TV series should be done. Every element, including the decision to end after 2 series, is meant to add to the show's overall brilliance.
9 Oct 2008
Harvey Keitel makes a great entrance in Life on Mars. You expect as much, of course, because he's Harvey Keitel. But it is truly great.
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