Return to the Red Planet: Life on Mars Revisited

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I remember reading in an issue of SFX magazine about a new series from the team behind Hustle about a British policeman who is involved in an accident and wakes up to find himself back in 1973. Now, I liked Hustle, but this new series sounded like a real non-starter; I pictured something a bit like a sitcom, full of bad wigs and OTT outfits, trotting out every tired old cliché about the 1970s. And the title – Life on Mars – what was that all about? I got the Bowie connection, of course; but what did it have to do with the story? My mind went back to Crime Traveller, the BBC’s last attempt to combine time travel and police fiction, which was an almighty flop. Fortunately, I’ll always give something new a chance, no matter what my first impression might be, and that weird new series about the time-travelling copper proved to be one of the most outstanding shows of the new millennium.

Genre TV was on a bit of a high in the mid-noughties, with the return of Doctor Who having proved an unexpectedly massive hit. Every channel was trying to repeat its success, with series as diverse as Primeval and Hex, but nothing quite hit the mark. Only one British genre series in the mid-noughties even came close to matching its cultural impact and that was Life on Mars. But was it even a genre series? Sam Tyler himself queries in the opening credits of each episode whether his is a time traveller and the resolution after two series, loose though it may be, seems to suggest not. If anything, it’s a fantasy in the strictest sense of the word. Legend has it that series co-creator Matthew Graham was originally going to call his lead character Sam Williams, but wasn’t happy with the choice, so he asked his young daughter to suggest a name. She suggested Tyler, which he only realised later she had got from Rose Tyler on Doctor Who.

I started re-watching Life on Mars a couple of weeks ago, before the recent live stream. It’s one of those series that I adore but haven’t watched in a long time (maybe 8 years in this case); a series which has such a jewel-like perfection that it would be spoiled by over-watching, alongside the likes of The Prisoner, Gangsters and Edge of Darkness. Watching it back, there were some stories that stuck in my memory more than others, but there isn’t actually a dud episode in the whole run. This is quite an achievement for any series, but it’s a lot easier to do when you’ve only got 16 episodes in total; the problem with the old school American template of 22-episode seasons was always that it becomes impossible to avoid a great many episode being rather anodyne and a higher than average number being absolute clunkers. Star Trek: The Next Generation for example is a fantastic series viewed from a distance, but there are some individual instalments in its 178-episode run that are just downright awful.

I grew up in the 70s and I remember what it was like; it wasn’t like That 70s Show, where everyone has perfect hair and immaculate J.C. Penney flares, it was dirty and worn, things looked used and a bit tired. World War II was thirty years ago but the tail-end of its effects were still evident; there was waste ground everywhere that had been bombed out and never rebuilt. The make-do-and-mend philosophy that your parents grew up with was still the way things were done; if you had a pair of jeans with a patch on the knee, it wasn’t a fashion choice – it was because the knee was worn out and your parents couldn’t afford to buy you a new pair. I don’t think we had a television set that wasn’t reconditioned until the early 90s and my Dad has never owned a brand new car, not even to this day!

This is the 1970s that the writers of Life on Mars will also have grown up in and this is the era that they nail perfectly in the series. There is exciting new music and fashion, but everything is slightly nicotine-stained. I’ve often thought that if I could travel back to the 70s, the first thing I would notice would be the smell of cigarettes everywhere – in shops, in banks, in hospitals, everywhere. Life on Mars gets it all so right, from Chris’s home-knit tank top to dripping the egg sarnies that constituted fast food. Amongst all of this, you have a cast of genuine contemporary characters who do not hold back on the type of offensive behaviour that would have been considered acceptable at the time. There were Gene Hunts in the force back then and had been for a number of years. In fact, from what I’ve read, there were much worse.

No attempt is made to sanitise the kind of workplace behaviour that was an everyday occurrence in those days. A woman in a predominantly male workplace would have been objectified and subject to behaviour which these days would be considered harassment. The character of Annie is the victim of this kind of ‘banter’ throughout and although the series has her standing up to her harassers on many occasions, it bravely resists the temptation to put a 21st century spin on her and have her changing a long-established culture with a single caustic speech (which, let’s be honest, is exactly what a lot of modern TV would have done). A lot of the time, Annie simply takes her workmates’ comments with a look of resignation, which is uncomfortable from a modern perspective, but entirely authentic. The same occurs when a black officer is briefly transferred into the department; it’s hard to watch, but it’s genuinely the way things were in those days. It’s the truth behind these characters that makes this series so well written.

A cheap journalistic trope that’s often rolled out is to compare Life on Mars to The Sweeney, but if you look at the two series, it’s not a very accurate comparison. Although they’re set roughly in the same time period (Life on Mars is 1973 and the Sweeney pilot film Regan was made in 1974, with the series running to 1978) there’s a definite tonal gulf between them. There was a known problem with police corruption in the 1970s, which eventually resulted in Operation Countryman in 1978, but even at the time of The Sweeney, faltering attempts were being made to reign in the ‘Rogue DIs’ like Gene Hunt. The Sweeney’s Jack Regan is constantly being hauled over the coals by his superior DCI Haskins, but Gene Hunt is accountable to no-one; the one time that we see his superior, he turns out to be every bit as corrupt as Hunt. Also, Regan is portrayed as a journeyman who doesn’t particularly relish being a policeman; he just gets on with it because it’s his job, whereas Gene Hunt seems to bask in his notoriety among the criminal fraternity.

Philip Glennister is excellent casting as Gene Hunt; though not actually a Mancunian, he nails the accent perfectly and has the right bullish physique for the blustering copper. John Simm, on the other hand, is equally perfect as the fish-out-of-water Sam Tyler; he appears noticeably sleight for a 70s policeman (at 5’8” he may well have been too small to be a policeman in 1973, as the height restriction was only lowered in 1990) and has a wiry physique, as opposed to the frankly lardy build of some of his colleagues. In the part of Annie Cartwright, Liz White is also perfect; though she’s a very attractive lady, she’s not an unrealistic glamour-puss and works excellently as the girl next door, especially since they dress her in workaday ladies clothes rather than the height of fashion. Dean Andrews and Marshall Lancaster as Ray and Chris are nicely developed from the first episode, not having to work their way up from second string characters; and let’s not forget Noreen Kershaw as the formidable Phyllis Dobbs, guardian of the front desk!

The stories nicely bring in elements that were relevant at the time, but not big obvious elements. One story circles around the closure of textile mills in the Manchester area, which is a very local concern, but it reaches out to the general changes in the forms of employment that had served the working man for generations. Another story revolves around football violence, which was a growing problem in Britain in the 70s, but ultimately the story is not as simple as it first appears, which is something this series always delivered so perfectly. And when Life on Mars does deal with the big issues, like racism, it doesn’t attempt to give pat answers to the problems on display. To be honest, how could it? We know that racism didn’t go away in 1973, so any ‘can’t we all just get along’ speech would appear patronising in the extreme. All credit must go to John Simm for the physical acting of his internal conflict against things that he knows he cannot change.

When you ask a casual viewer about Life on Mars, what a lot of them remember are the more surreal moments that pepper the series: B&W Open University lecturers talking to Sam from the TV screen, the many appearances of the Test Card girl (try explaining that one to anyone under 25) and, of course, Sam’s appearance as an animated character appearing from a musical box in the style of Camberwick Green. Absolute bliss! These sections were never over-played and they were always loving tributes to the era. Thank God there was never any of that wretched trend of reassessing innocent childhood icons of the past from a cynical adult perspective; that God-awful man-down-the-pub you wouldn’t get away with it these days shit that permeated a rash of dire Z-list pundit based ‘nostalgia’ shows from the 90s. If you made a show like Life on Mars based in the 90s, you’d surely have to have the hero seeing visions of Terry Christian on his TV screen, snidely criticising his fashion choices whilst sporting a curtain fringe. Yeugh!

Life on Mars was not a ‘cult’ series, it had a very strong popular following and it managed to straddle the twin audiences of genre fans and casual viewers with a great deal of success. Like all TV shows that posit an enigma, people started to wonder how it was going to end. There are only so many questions that you can pose before people start demanding answers. Many a first class TV series has fallen at this final hurdle; some, like The Prisoner and Quantum Leap, bluntly refuse to give answers, offering instead only more questions. Others give answers that are largely unsatisfactory. Life on Mars, very impressively, manages to craft a satisfactory conclusion to the series whilst still staying enigmatic. Sam Tyler was in a coma, but is the world that he remembers and eventually returns to any more real than his life in 1973? And if 2006 Sam dies when he chooses to return to his fantasy life, what will become of 1973 Sam?

Ultimately though, it’s a happy ending, because it’s 1973 that we’re all rooting for and not drab, grey 2006. When Sam briefly returns to the present day, everything looks so bland and clinical, and y’know what? I can’t decide whether that’s because of the clever way in which it was filmed or whether our modern world just is bland and clinical in comparison to 1973! And, sad though it is to admit, I think it’s only going to get moreso. If I was given the chance to go back to 1973, what would I choose? Life today, working in endless glass cubicles, recycled music and fashion, nobodies on television and celebrities in Parliament? Or glam rock, patched jeans and basies, endless summers and the prospect of Star Wars in the next few years? Well, I think you know the answer to that one.

 

BONUS: LIFE ON MARS USA

The format for Life on Mars has been picked up in a lot of different countries, from the Russian Dark Side of the Moon to the Czech Republic’s World under the Head, but the most notable is certainly the American remake produced by ABC. In the summer of 2007, a pilot episode was produced called Hit and Run starring Jason O’Mara as Sam Tyler, Rachelle LeFevre as Annie Cartwright and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s Colm Meaney as Gene Hunt. The pilot roughly follows the first episode of the BBC series, but when it was picked up for series, a number of changes were made, most notably in casting: Gretchen Mol was brought in as the now renamed Annie Norris and Harvey Keitel was cast as Gene Hunt. This was the first nail in the show’s coffin, for whereas Meaney played Hunt as a believably bullish Irish-American copper, Harvey Keitel plays him as… well, Harvey Keitel.

A lot of the episodes of the main series are actually quite watchable and the show wisely chooses to eschew straight remakes of the UK episodes in favour of ones based on the American experience of 1973, with the odd hint of the British original, but from the earliest moments there are hints that something has gone badly awry. Jason O’Mara and Gretchen Mol put in commendable performances, but Harvey Keitel is all wrong for Gene Hunt; he’s stunt casting that seems to wilfully ignore how dreadfully miscast he is. For a start he’s much shorter than Jason O’Mara, meaning that he lacks the imposing presence of Philip Glennister, but he also fails to convince as a cop, coming across more like an over-confident mobster. Worse still, Sam’s hallucinations seem to concentrate on the unexpected appearance of a tiny space probe, pointing the way to the series’ awful ending.

ABC pulled Life on Mars mid-season due to poor ratings, but they allowed the producers 4 more episodes to wrap up the story and make it more saleable in syndication, bringing the total up to 17 episodes. The final story Life is a Rock has a tagged-on ending in which it is revealed that Sam is actually an astronaut on the first manned mission to Mars and the entire series has been a dream he had whilst in cryogenic hibernation; the characters he experienced in 1973 are his fellow astronauts on the mission. How does his 2008 life tie into this? God knows! It’s a horrible car-crash of an ending that makes a nonsense of the entire series. To someone like me, used to the BBC show, it’s a total open-mouthed WTF moment that’ll have you waking up the next morning thinking ‘did that really happen?’ My recommendation is stick to the British show… or possibly the Korean one, which is supposed to be quite good.

 

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