“I sense a darkness in you Sam.”
— Nelson, Life on Mars
Series 2 of the award-winning original BBC series Life on Mars finds Sam Tyler (John Simm, State of Play, Dr. Who), a modern day Detective Chief Inspector still stuck in 1973 Manchester and trying to figure out not only how and why he’s there, but how he’s going to get home.
One of the first things you may notice about Life on Mars: Series 2 is that it’s even darker than the first series. Sam, though more acclimatized to his predicament, is also more desperate to find out exactly what it is. Is he actually in a coma in 2006? Or could it be something even more disturbing?
Despite its more sinister tone, the second series is also simultaneously funnier. That is to say, it has a few lighter, comic moments that the first series seemingly avoided. These comedy beats work largely because Sam and DCI Gene Hunt (Phillip Glenister, Cranford, Clocking Off), though still at odds in their respective policing styles, have settled into a working familiarity. Their partnership now more easily allows for each to accept the other man’s flaws so that they can get on with the job.
There’s a greater sense of loyalty on both parts, too, as Sam is finally seen as part of the team rather than a suspicious outsider, at least by Hunt. Of course, this acceptance and familiarity sets up the arc for this series as those loyalties are pushed to their very limits by Sam’s continuing quest.
But within the series arc, the episodes are still rooted in an old-fashioned, action-oriented police procedural. There are corrupt casino owners to be shut down, escaped prisoners to corral, bomb threats and racial tensions to diffuse, blackmailing kidnappers to catch and key-swapping murders to solve, heroin shipments to confiscate and crooked cops to investigate. All the while, Sam is still receiving messages and signs from the future that hint at his situation, and sometimes these details are directly related to his current cases, so he becomes ever more confused, even as he uncovers more clues.
John Simm conveys this confusion beautifully; all the nuances of Sam’s internal turmoil play out in Simm’s deft expressions. He’s truly spectacular to watch as he struggles with the discrepancies between what he thinks he knows with what he thinks he’s experiencing.
And despite his growing surety that all the things around him, including his feelings for Annie, are an illusion, Sam continues to try and instill order and modern sensibilities on the policing policies of 1973. Unfortunately, while Sam may be trying to bring the department into the future, by promoting Annie Cartwright (Liz White, Vera Drake) to full Detective Constable in the first episode, for instance, he is also becoming more firmly entrenched in the past as these episodes find him turning a blind eye to the increasingly brutal methods of the Guv and his team.
Midway through the series, Sam’s battle to balance his two worlds suddenly becomes much harder as he discovers his realities have begun to collide. It’s at this point, when the stakes are raised, that he realizes he’s not only fighting for his sanity, but he may be fighting for his life. Everything that Sam believes, indeed everything viewers thought they knew up to that point, is thrown into question. And the questioning continues until the very end, when the creators of Life on Mars wrap things up in a masterfully suspenseful, thoroughly unexpected and uniquely satisfying way.
Life on Mars: Series 2 includes several bonus features, among them a 45-minute documentary called The Return of Life on Mars, behind-the-scenes footage for three episodes (most notable the process used for the period style animation in one scene) and a featurette entitled The End of Life on Mars, which includes spoilers, so be sure to save it for last. The bonus material isn’t quite up to the quality of the features included with the set for Series 1, but it’s still good.
As a show, though, Life on Mars: Series 2 only improves on the brilliance of Series 1. Everything about it—the writing, the performances, the sets, the cinematography, the tone, the music, and yes, the decision to end it—is a prime example of how a series should be. It transcends television to become, simply, superb entertainment.