Life on Mars: Just in The Nick of Time

Take a modern day Englishman, a police officer from 2006 with his new man acuity and his clean-cut, by-the-book demeanour, and dump him unceremoniously amongst a bunch of coppers from 1973. Is this time travel, insanity, a coma, or simply the best thing on television? In Life on Mars, the retro-cop show produced by Kudos for the BBC, Detective Sam Tyler’s dilemma is to try and figure out why he has woken up in our recent past. And as the second and final series draws to a close, we wonder ourselves if we can escape this time-gap between a shifting and complex present and a not-so-distant normative, yet seemingly simpler, past. It is precisely within this time-gap that the parody that is Life on Mars is born.

In 2006 Tyler is in his mid-30s, driven by his career and unable to comprehend why his relationship with Maya, a fellow detective, is failing. Maya has a hunch about a case they are working on, but sitting in front of his computer screen at the police station Tyler tells her “Look around you, what good are feelings in this room?” His clinical approach to policing has denied him access to gut instinct and by extension emotions in general. Stood down from the case, Maya decides to go it alone and, inevitably, ends up kidnapped by the killer. A tearful Tyler stops his car and gets out to gather his thoughts, Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’ soundtracks his distress. We know what he’s going through: Why couldn’t I talk to her . . . the last time I saw her we were arguing . . . if I find her alive I’ll never let her down again, etc. So far so cliché.

Suddenly a car runs him down and as he slowly regains consciousness, his Manchester of 2006 has turned into Manchester of 1973, his jeep into a Ford Granada, his iPod into an eight track, but the ‘Life on Mars’ song is still playing, ensuring a sense of continuity. The collision between the two worlds comes into focus when Tyler returns to what will be his office. There he meets his nemesis, a 1973 manifestation of his other, a man whose sense of retribution is driven by instinct: DCI Gene Hunt. Hunt, as his name might suggest, is to the id what Tyler is to the ego. He states right at the beginning of Tyler’s time travel experience: “You don’t ever waltz into my kingdom acting the king of the jungle.”

Taking us back just 30 years, a very short period of time, allows for a sense of familiarity. These are not the good old days of a distant past; this is simply the time that existed before Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher, two Prime Ministers seemingly in power for eternity. The programme offers us the chance to reminisce. But how must we understand our sense of nostalgia?


Much of the world within which Tyler finds himself is borrowed from the set of The Sweeney, the original ’70s hardman police drama broadcast on ITV between 1975 and 1978. If Tyler himself represents the show’s demographic, then much of the audience would have been a bit too young to watch The Sweeney first time around. But because Life on Mars is only quoting from the average viewer’s childhood, this does not deny access to the pastiche framework within which the show functions.

For the show to work, then, the audience must recognise the allusions, which makes obvious imitation and quotation necessary. Let there be no mistake, however, this is no carbon copy of The Sweeney, re-made with actors that a younger audience may be more familiar with, or actors that look more contemporary. The fact that we experience this world through the eyes of our contemporary, Sam Tyler, makes Life on Mars more than mere pastiche. This is parody exploited to the full, i.e., parody as the postmodern endgame.

Let us dispel one idea: parody is not about mockery. Rather, it requires a necessary appreciation and technical understanding of the work being imitated. The writers (Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan and Ashley Pharoah) obviously have a firm grasp of the hardman cop genre. But just as a parodic film such as Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead

demonstrates, the recycling act offers us a distance within which humour can manifest itself. Graham believes that “The fun is in seeing how policing and life in general has changed.”

The parody works thanks to the distance the timeframe provides, the change that has occurred within this ‘nick of time’. Graham adds:

The seventies finally feels like history to us all now. And yet at the same time it’s still so fresh in peoples’ memories. The shock comes from realising just how much has changed.

Of course, the ’70s are only contemporary history, and in part the shock one might experience while viewing this show might come down to how little has changed since then. It is true that the technological aspect of policing and society at large has evolved. Even then, however, there are clever transpositions which ironically undermine any sense of progress. There are allusions to communications breakdown, for example, but it’s not due to poor reception on mobile phones, but poor reception on radio transceivers.

Through the presence of Sam Tyler, this is us looking back at people looking forward to us. This awareness constructs a sense of dramatic irony, but rather than it being aimed at those on the screen it is aimed at ourselves; it is a self-reflexive act. We are thus casting a critical gaze back at those old ways, and at the same time looking cynically at our own times. Indeed, parody is often seen as something which casts a discriminating eye back on the original, on that which is being imitated, but the subversive quality can also be aimed at the context within which the original was produced. In fact, and this is perhaps what interests us the most here, there is also the possibility that the analytical eye is observing the contemporary world which gave birth to the parody. This is the parodic double dialectic.


In essence, however, the critical drive of Life on Mars is, like all parodies, fuelled by humour. Inevitably, these comic moments tend to occur when Tyler’s slick, shiny-black-leather-jacket style of policing rubs up against Gene Hunt’s camel-coat-football-manager methods. The humour then manifests itself through the audience recognition of un-politically correct sayings and doings acted out, more often than not, by Tyler’s boss. These go from getting your priorities right (a murder case gets put on hold because it is “beer o’clock”), to some cultural protectionism (“Do you know, I once hit a bloke for speaking French”), to playing by the rules (Sam: “I’m not sure that’s ethical’ Hunt: “It’s not, it’s vodka”, “You know, if I was as worried as you, I’d never fart for fear of shitting myself.”), and finally to gender-defined roles (Sam: “He needs counselling, he needs someone to talk to”, Hunt: “He’s a policeman, not a fairy”, Sam: “It’s called surveillance”, Hunt: “It doesn’t sound very manly”, “This is why birds and CID don’t mix. You give a bloke a gun, it’s a dream come true. You give a girl one, she moans it doesn’t go with her dress. Start behaving like a detective and show some balls”).

The year 1973 in Manchester in Life on Mars is a very masculine world. No, I’ll borrow from Hunt, it is a “manly” world. This world predates attempts at defining sexual identities as social constructs. This is a world inhabited by men equipped with gruff voices, porn-sized moustaches, and a cock –of-the-walk swagger. This is the uniform of a man doing a man’s job such as beating confessions out of suspects. This means thatwomen, ethnic minorities, the disabled, anyone who doesn’t belong to the white male hegemony is fair game for mockery. So should we be laughing at all?

In parody, the re-actualisation of the original rehabilitates the original. This is the homage function of parody. The question, of course, is what is being rehabilitated, here? The genre of the ’70s cop show? The policing of that era? Or the way men behaved?

Our displacement through Sam Tyler appears to construct a yearning for a time when to be a ‘bloke’ was seemingly non-prescriptive. A time when men were men, or if you prefer, when being a man was being a man’s man. Of course, this level of referentiality is extremely prescriptive, as Tyler realises. The rules are just different, but the distance that we have makes them seem easier to comprehend. Policemen worked on gut feeling and brute force, they were representatives of essentialism, they let their ‘genes’ do the being.

The immediacy of the characters and their accessibility could be seen as something quite worrying. After all, one could argue that it reflects what we may think is a need for identity codes and roles that are more stable than they appear to us today. Tyler finds himself in a quandary: he is both at odds with this world and yet belongs to it. He fits neatly yet uncomfortably into it. This is a world where manliness is lived with a passion, precisely the feeling he had obliterated in his own world.

Jane Featherstone, executive producer of Life on Mars, says:

Life on Mars is a fantastic idea which takes the cop show genre and gives it a unique, humorous and irresistible twist. By taking a character of our time and throwing him headfirst into our recent past, it gives us a chance to explore what makes us who we are today.

The problem is, what if we don’t like who we are today?

No matter the intent, parody must ensure entertainment through its comic performance only to better feed its audience with its critical interpretation. In effect, parody is no joke. Though there is homage to the ’70s cop show, here, ultimately what is being criticised is both the society of the ’70s and of our own era. Have we really moved on that far?


Let us not forget that the imitative aspect of parody means that the parody itself belongs to the genre it is parodying. Life on Mars is then part of its own critical loop. Parody is both constructive and deconstructive criticism and in this sense becomes a postmodern endgame. Unfortunately, this will not help Sam Tyler escape from his own endgame. Tyler is a foreign body, a parasite keeping this seemingly artificial world, the world of a “fantasist”, alive to keep himself alive. As the show draws to the end of its two-year lifespan, the question of the final resolution looms large.

Indeed, it is difficult to see how this tale will resolve itself satisfactorily. If this is time travel then we shall feel duped, the implausible science fiction element superimposing itself upon our own ability to mind travel. We are the ones time travelling through our (often borrowed) memories, we don’t want someone else actually living that experience, even if it is fiction. If this version of 1973 is just a figment of Sam Tyler’s because he is insane or in a coma, then what happens when modern medicine brings him ‘back to earth’? Whether he wakes up from his coma or is shocked back to our version of reality thanks to neuroleptics, the inhabitants of the 1973 world will disappear back to the darkest recesses of Tyler’s mind. It was all a dream!? Most unsatisfactory.

There is also a third way. This is where Tyler would wake up from whatever medical condition he is suffering, only to encounter his 1973 colleagues as their older selves. This would conflate all possibilities and leave us scratching our heads and talking about the programme for months to come.

George Eliot believed conclusions to be the failing point of most authors because a conclusion is by its very nature a negation. One of the problems of creating successful characters is that the audience doesn’t want the characters to leave them. This to some extent explains the joys audiences have had with instalment writing from Dickens to soap operas like Eastenders. But because Life on Mars has been the best thing on television for the past two years, you want it to end way before it whimpers.

Of course, there is always the choice of the open ending, perhaps leaving Sam Tyler suspended between now and 1973, perpetually living in that nick of time, a metaphor perhaps for our current fin de siècle condition. The final shot would be of Tyler as the camera slowly retreats to the sound of Bowie singing “Wonder if he’ll ever know / He’s in the best selling show”. Or, indeed, any other semi-relevant line from one of the ’70s hits that punctuate each episode.

The makers have apparently filmed two endings. Even though they will choose one to end the series on, the other one will probably appear on the DVD box set. This will be great for academics to ponder over, but ultimately it remains a ‘cop’ out. I don’t want the possibility of choosing my own ending for this character. I didn’t sign up for that kind of responsibility. My role is to engage with the allusive nature of the programme, whether it be along critical or humorous lines. My role is not to resolve the situation, but to ponder it.