“Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?” It’s hilarious, it’s puzzling, it is high-concept yet character-driven, it has great music, the colour palette is warm, and it’s set in 2006/2007 and 1973. People, welcome to Mars: Life on Mars British version – the original and best.
Sam Tyler is a talented detective in 21st century Manchester (post-industrial city in north-west England). He relies on experience, evidence gathered from technology and scientific technique, and believes in prisoners’ rights, transparency, and not getting too emotionally involved.
Gene Hunt is a talented detective in 1970s Manchester (or a coma-dream version of 1970s Manchester). He relies on gut instinct, the gut helped with lashings of fried food and alcohol, evidence gathered from shouting at people until they confess and planting something incriminating on them, and believes that women are only good for making tea, and rules get in his way.
In a brilliant boy-meets-boy scenario, these two meet and form one of the most delightful crime-solving TV double-acts of the past ten years. Policeman Sam is trying to track down a serial killer in 2006 when he is hit by a car, waking up in what appears to be 1973. However, he is no time refugee, because he has been provided with an identity and a life in this weird place, and a job in his own office, 30 or so years ahead of himself. For 16 episodes, we follow him struggle to carry on his police work in a world without the forensic, recording and data storage technology he is used to, but with plenty of racism, sexism and corruption to compensate. Additionally, Sam has to resolve two arcs – one involving a mystery from his childhood, and a grander arc of Where Is He And Can He Get Home. As he puts it, “Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?” Without giving away the ending, Sam eventually realizes that the cool logic of the 21st century, and discouragement of ‘feelings’, has left him unable to feel at all, whereas the more vital 1970s are dynamic, exciting, and promise nothing but love and bringing bad guys to justice.
I really enjoy every precious episode of Life on Mars. I associate it with my last year of university, in which my Flash Gordon friend Gina and I went through many, many DVD box sets, and it was a real favourite (although I think my friend’s ultimate allegiance has been transferred to the sequel series Ashes to Ashes). Firstly, I think it looks brilliant – I appreciate the obvious visual contrast between the cool, blue and silver noughties and the brown and orange seventies (of course it’s brown – everything’s nicotine-stained). Secondly, the 1970s are perfectly evoked for someone born in the mid-1980s (!) who never actually saw them through visuals, plot points and through dialogue. Thirdly, I think it’s as cleverly and funnily written as anything on TV. The police procedural aspect is always intriguing, if not exactly the most compelling part of the show, and the dream/hallucination/madness interludes brilliantly suggest what might be happening to Sam’s comatose body in a modern hospital. Fourthly, the characters are endearing. Top of the list is Philip Glenister as Gene Hunt, the Manc Lion, a character who should be completely repellent, but due to his devotion to “putting bad people away” is without doubt a fine anti-hero. Damn you, show, for making a middle-aged, unhealthy, corrupt, male supremicist sexy, just by giving him a good heart, no-nonsense accent, genuine ability and a quiverful of one-liners. You’ve made me lose 100 Feminism Points right there! However, we are also introduced to Annie, the kind female police officer who befriends Sam; badass desk sergeant Phyllis (she’s the one who decides which cell you go in); the adorable young detective Chris Skelton; Ray, who idolizes Gene Hunt but just isn’t quite as good; Frank Morgan, a mysterious man who may hold the key to Sam’s release from the 1970s; the mystic barman Nelson, a homegrown boy who pretends to be from Jamaica; Sam’s long-lost father Vic, charming but feckless; and a much younger version of Sam’s mother Ruth. The characters are played by a very strong ensemble cast, and a wider cast recognizable from British television.
A typical episode plays out as follows: there is some crime, for which Gene immediately proposes a violent solution which will have the bad guys banged up by the time the pub opens; Sam proposes a more measured, scientific way. As the detection unfolds, there is a see-saw of power and the moral high ground between them, and then it turns out they were both half-right and they have to work together to finally lay down some justice. Additionally, Sam will come across some link to his own 1970s childhood or his life in 2006, and marvel at it. The effect will be heightened by his hearing voices, or seeing flickering lights.
Highlights of the whole series include Sam meeting Mark Bolan (singer from T-Rex), Sam’s encounters with younger versions of his parents (admit it – it would be very weird to meet your parents as young people, and them not know who you are), and moments when Gene Hunt interacts with civilians.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I adore Life on Mars and I would recommend it to anyone, absolutely anyone. I do want to put a disclaimer on the top, though – Gene is a man before political correctness, and therefore there is racism, sexism and homophobia in his brilliant insults. Likewise his colleagues’ attitudes are unenlightened compared to today’s. As someone who is not a minority, I take all this in good fun. I believe that we are meant to be appalled, as Sam is, as well as entertained. However, I appreciate others might not feel the same way, and think that the writing rather glorifies distasteful sentiments by putting them in the mouth of a cool character.
Oh, and if you like this, check out Ashes to Ashes. Gene Hunt meets his match… a woman!
Gene: Don’t walk into my kingdom acting like king of the jungle.
Sam: Don’t leave me! I’m in BUPA! [British private healthcare programme]
Suspect: I want a lawyer.
Gene: I want to h*** Britt Ekland. What are we going to do?
Gene: Anything happens to this motor I come over to your place, stamp on all your toys. Got that? Good kids.
Gene: There’s £200 worth of drugs here. Let’s plant them on him and watch them grow into a flower of justice.
Gene: ‘Cause he’s as guilty as sin and a commie b*****d.
Sam: Nothing beats the satisfaction of a thorough investigation.
Sam: Gay boy science has its place.
Gene: Is my name Coco? Why are you trying to make me look like a clown?
Gene: Drop your weapons. You are surrounded by armed b******ds.
Gene: My friend is going to ask you some questions. Personally I hope you don’t answer them because I want you to die in here and end up as a pork pie.
Sam: I think I’ve got something.
Gene: The number for the special clinic’s on the noticeboard.
Gene: He’s dead. That’s quite serious.
Gene: Try the butler. Maybe he did it.
Gene: Ray, go and arrest the landlord.
Ray: What for?
Gene: Think up something on the way.
Gene: In other news, the landlord… was arrested today on suspicion of cattle rustling.
Sam: I’m not sure that’s ethical.
Gene: It’s not, it’s vodka.
Sam: I’m the negotiator.
Gene: I’ll make you a hat.
Gene [in response to a suspect pouring out his hipflask]: That is a single malt! What sort of monster are you?
Chris: He’s bleeding whisky.
Annie: Everyone’s running around like David Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.