Life on Mars: Series One

The show simultaneously manages to be a credible period cop show, a futuristic science-fiction thriller and something of a current social commentary.

Life on Mars

Distributor: Acorn Media
Cast: John Simm, Philip Glenister
Network: BBC
US Release Date: 2009-07-28

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.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Multi-tasking on your smart phone consumes too many resources, including memory, and can cause the system to "choke". Imagine what it does to your brain.

In the simplest of terms, Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen's The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World is a book about technology and the distractions that often accompany it. This may not sound like anything earth shattering. A lot of people have written about this subject. Still, this book feels a little different. It's a unique combination of research, data, and observation. Equally important, it doesn't just talk about the problem—it suggests solutions.

Keep reading... Show less

The husband and wife duo DEGA center their latest slick synthpop soundscape around the concept of love in all of its stages.

Kalen and Aslyn Nash are an indie pop super-couple if there ever were such a thing. Before becoming as a musical duo themselves, the husband and wife duo put their best feet forward with other projects that saw them acclaim. Kalen previously provided his chops as a singer-songwriter to the Georgia Americana band, Ponderosa. Meanwhile, Aslyn was signed as a solo artist to Capitol while also providing background vocals for Ke$ha. Now, they're blending all of those individual experiences together in their latest project, DEGA.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.