"Am I mad, in a coma or back in time?"
Warning: this post inevitably contains spoilers.
I knew the moment I saw the trailer that I would love Life on Mars. The premise was a bloke getting run over and waking up in the seventies, what's not to love? I guess if you don't like long posts or you prefer it when they get straight to the point, you can still sum up my core feelings towards the show in those two sentences.
Here was something that appealed to the curious side of me that wondered what life was like 'back in the day'. Here was something that looked mysterious and intriguing. Little did I know what a massive piece of my heart it would steal.
I was 11-years-old in January 2006. Me and my mum watched the show together each week, and I soon became hooked. It wasn't until the follow-up series — Ashes to Ashes — that I became a fully-fledged member of the 'fandom' as it were to the point of dressing up like characters and collecting memorabilia. Although perhaps a controversial opinion, I actually prefer the latter series, but Life on Mars is the story that started it all and the TV show that I would proudly present to anyone wanting to get into British dramas safe in the knowledge that they would love it.
Ten years on from the first episode, the series remains as iconic and impactful as the day it first aired, but the passing time has also allowed it to take on a new dimension. Life on Mars has almost become a period drama within a period drama.
In the first episode, we meet Sam Tyler (played by the wonderful John Simm) — a modern-day detective trying his best to solve cases in a noticeably clinical world. He scrolls through computer programmes on CRT monitors and lines his pens up neatly in the interview room.
"You used to believe in gut feeling, what happened?" Asks his girlfriend, Maya (also a police officer), as Sam changes his mind on the identity of a murderer based on the suspect's psych evaluation. It is this quote that very much reflects the overarching theme of Life on Mars. Though we have come a long way and for the most part improved things for the better, there are things we have forgotten or discarded from the past that are worth carrying forward.
Unfortunately, Maya's decision to follow her own gut feeling leaves her in danger. Going after her to find an item of her blood-stained clothing with no idea whether she is alive or dead, Sam pulls over by the side of the road. The scene that follows remains one of my favourites in the history of television. Feeling he has let her down, Sam begins to cry at the wheel of his jeep. He gets out of the car for some air, leaning through the window as David Bowie's Life on Mars plays on his monochrome display iPod. Before he has time to gather his thoughts, a passing car knocks him down into the road.
When he wakes up, the car is no longer a jeep and the iPod has been replaced by an 8-track tape player. The camera work and editing at this point are exquisite. We see Sam gazing at his new surroundings as though he is an alien that has just landed on earth. And we feel it, too. What was just moments ago filled with grey high-rise buildings and motorways is now a sepia-tinged industrial wasteland. It looks like a different planet rather than a different decade.
We feel every ounce of Sam's emotions as he tries to figure out what has just happened to him. Initially, he presumes that he's just confused and in shock from the accident. It soon becomes clear, however, that he's in a far more serious situation than he first realised. He's woken up in 1973, and he's expected at work.
The inclusion of Sam in every scene throughout all 16 episodes heightens the connection that we feel both to his character and his story. It was a tremendous acting challenge for John Simm, and one of the many reasons why the series concluded in 2007 despite its popularity and critical reception.
On paper, the notion that any kind of emotional investment or element of realism is present within the plot sounds ridiculous. It is a true testament to the whole team involved in Life on Mars that the audience finds themselves both wondering and fearing what it would be like if it happened to them. After all, it's not unusual to hear an individual's account of a dream-like experience whilst in a coma.
At first, the story is about finding yourself lost in a place you don't feel you belong. Many of us can relate to the feeling of Sam entering CID for the first time through the thick smoke as people he had never met went about their daily working lives.
Sam initially fights his new-found reality, squaring up to the ogre-like figure of perhaps the show's most famous character — Gene Hunt. As far as he's concerned, there are no consequences in this dreamworld. His sole focus is finding a way to get back home. He even makes a point of saying so in the opening credits.
Gene seems at first like a device created by the writers to get away with as many no-longer-acceptable slurs within the space on one hour, as do most of the other 1970s characters.
Underneath the outer layer however, we learn that Gene is a complex man who lives for his job and devotes his life to it because he doesn't have much else. He is driven by the desire to make his beloved city of Manchester as safe as possible, and although his methods seem a little err... *coughs slightly* unconventional, he gets the job done most of the time. At its most shocking, Life on Mars has you watching through your fingers as Gene and his fellow officers threaten and violently intimidate innocent suspects. Feeling your heart sink as WPC Annie Cartwright shares her valid ideas on a case only to be laughed out of the room. The presence of a character from a different era, shaking his head in disgust in the corner, highlights the difference between modern day society and that of 1973.
The writers worked closely with a former DCI on the series who acted as an advisor. In a BBC 4 documentary called The Real Life on Mars, he said that the character of Gene wasn't an over-the-top caricature, but almost too tame. Life on Mars took the generic 'cop show' format and turned it on its head, adding an extra layer of historical significance and supernatural mystery. In a TV landscape awash with linear crime dramas, it was revolutionary.
There are some who enjoy the nostalgia, some who enjoy the one-liners and some who likes the music and the cars. For me, the mystery is what gives Life on Mars a special place on my DVD shelf. How and why did Sam Tyler wake up in 1973? At first, it seems pretty simple. He's in a coma, and he's trying to wake up. As the series goes on, it becomes multi-layered and incredibly intriguing. Sam receives clues to his fate through the objects around him. Characters talking to him through the TV and radio, phone calls from doctors and even a life-sized test card girl that haunts him in his flat. For a drama with a minuscule budget compared to some, you truly feel a range of emotions during these scenes from terrified to heartbroken to amused As the episodes pass by, there's nothing you want more than for this guy to get back home.
Forced to make the best of what he has, both Sam and the audience become more and more accustomed to life in 1973. Methods of policing and social attitudes are frequently alarming, but there are aspects of the time period that give you a warm feeling inside, even if you weren't born until many years later. The music, the fashion, the atmosphere at the local pub The Railway Arms. The way more people seem to care about each other. And despite his constant disagreements and occasional disgust with Gene and the rest of the team, Sam begins to quite enjoy his new life. Though he carries his family and his girlfriend back home incredibly close to his heart, he makes friends in 1973. He develops a genuine respect and friendship with Gene Hunt, and falls in love with his colleague Annie Cartwright.
In fact, Sam becomes so accustomed to 1973 that when he finally returns to 2006, he jumps off a building in order to get back there. It seems inconceivable that it could feel right to see a character you have backed for two years to see his loved ones again leave them forever, but it almost does. I wouldn't say that I feel happy when it happens, but I understand. I also admire the decision of the writers Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharaoh to end the series on such a brave note. There are a million ways to analyse the finale and Sam's story as a whole. Depending on which way you look at it, Sam is either a very unhappy man, a very unfortunate man, or indeed both. I personally don't believe, considering the ultimate reveal at the end of Ashes to Ashes (the sequel) that Sam ever truly returned to 2006. The so-called 'reality' he returned to was merely another figment of his imagination.
It is easy to get caught up in the nostalgia and the "Gene Hunt factor" of the series. The media certainly did at times. To the casual viewer, Life on Mars is most commonly remembered as TV show created to provide freedom from political correctness and health and safety regulations. A one-off chance to revive classic cop dramas from the past like The Sweeney and The Professionals and travel back to the good old days. To me, it's much more than that. Gene Hunt is far more than an aggressive, pompous oaf that churns out one-liners and beats up criminals. The team in CID aren't idiots who make bigoted comments and assist with the throwing of punches where necessary.
I mentioned earlier that Life on Mars showcases the good and bad from both time periods. Sure, the music was great and the pubs were thriving, but there were many things that we as humans were yet to understand and discover. 2006 may have had the benefit of technological advances and a greater understanding of the diverse nature of the human race, but it lacked some of the spirit and intuition of 1973.
A decade on, and even more significant changes have taken place in the world. It almost seems as though a future re-vamp would work just as well if it centred around a character waking up in 2006. Life on Mars, however, remains just as compelling and retains its re-watch value more than ever. It's one of the most recent cop dramas to make an impact on popular culture and frequently makes an appearance in top 10 lists.
The quotes. The soundtrack. The sets. The performances. The mystery. The excitement. The hilarity. Life on Mars has given me so much and it will always hold a special place in my heart. And if you haven't watched it yet, you should totally try it out.
If you do want to try it out, you can find a copy of the series 1 boxset on amazon here. (That's an affiliate link)
Did you know...
Life on Mars has been remade in three different countries so far. Most notably the US version (also called Life on Mars), the Spanish version La Chica De Ayer and the Russian version The Dark Side of the Moon.
My favourite episodes:
- Series 2, episode 1
- Series 1, episode 4
- Series 1, episode 5
- Series 2, episode 7
- Series 1, episode 8
Listen to the soundtrack: