[1 December 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Last time around, we compared this brilliant BBC detective series (with sophisticated sci-fi overtones) to David Fincher’s equally excellent masterwork Zodiac - and the reasons still remain rather obvious. Both offered slightly unreal looks at standard police procedurals circa the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. Both were a magnificent combination of vision and performance. And both took their time to develop storylines and characters that served sometimes symbolic, always multilayered purposes. We also argued that, for all its entertainment value, the experience wouldn’t be 100% percent complete until the entire run of Life with Mars, Series 1 and 2, arrived on DVD. Well, said wait is over - and as we stated before, it was definitely well worth it.
Like the first eight installments, Life on Mars Series 2 represents another masterful example of this old school detecting vs. new world law enforcement ideal. 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. In the last eight episodes, Tyler also hopes to uncover the truth behind his current Billy Pilgrim-like situation.
Over the course of all 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. Series 2 gets more into 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), a true anomaly of physics, or just mad. 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 from Simm and Glenister (among others), smart scripting, and a truly moving finale, 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 first eight episodes offered, just like in the final run here, 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 interpretations of these wholly different men are 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 this new DVD set really eases the pain. Acorn Media offers the second (and final) half of this amazing production on four discs loaded with added content. There is an amazing documentary which discusses the Life on Mars phenomenon, a look at the end of the series (it did return - sort of - in the ‘80s inspired reinvention Ashes to Ashes), and a look behind the scenes of Episodes 3, 5, and 7. As always, there is clarity in many of these conversations and overviews, bits and pieces of plot and characterization that amplify our understanding of the show’s main narrative purpose.
If it seems like many of the sentiments in this review merely mimic the initial reaction to Life on Mars Series 1, you’d be right. Consistency is one of the British dramas strong points, a show like The Prisoner capable of delivering installment after installment of well honed, expertly crafted entertainment. Sure, there is a slip up here and now, and no singular story arc is ever going to provide universal appreciate amongst the devoted (there remains some minor controversy over the explanation of Sam’s ‘reality’). But like experiencing a magnificent movie, and then getting a chance to immediately dive into the sequel, Series 1 and 2 of Life on Mars provides.
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.