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Life on Mars

This has to be the Doctor Who effect: you wait ages for the BBC to produce a science fiction programme and then two come along at once. As well as Hyperdrive, a Red Dwarf-aping sitcom, they are also currently showing Life On Mars, a genre spin on the format that's the bread and butter of networks the world over: the police procedural. It's safe to say, though, that Doctor Who never contained the phrase "I don't give a tart's furry cup."

DI Sam Tyler (John Simm) is investigating a kidnapping in present-day Manchester when he is knocked down by a car. Something very strange happens. When he comes to he's still a copper and his name is the same, but his rank and everything else have changed. As he helpfully puts it in the voiceover at the beginning of each episode:

"I had an accident and I woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?"

No answer is immediately forthcoming, but the question becomes increasingly important as the show progresses. Having weathered the baffling transition back to a time when he was five, Tyler's biggest problem is his new superior officer, DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). Hunt is an unreconstructed Northerner and dinosaur copper who has not yet been usurped by nimbler mammals like Tyler. As you might expect, they are a comically mismatched couple who come to blows almost immediately upon meeting. This sets the tone for a working environment which seems more like a classroom when the teacher has popped out, and can often be very funny. When the lads in the station are having a kickabout with a football outside Hunt's office he becomes irate, not because of their behaviour, but because it almost knocks a beloved poster off the wall: "Gary Cooper almost come down!" He tells them to go and play in the hall.

This schoolyard atmosphere permeates even the most serious investigations and the show revels in it. There is also undoubtedly an element of affectionate television nostalgia for The Sweeney. (Readers who have never seen The Sweeney might be interested to see what Inspector Morse did before he moved to Oxford.) However, pleasurable as it to watch Simm and Glenister sparring, some of the cheap slapstick is desperately at odds with the tone elsewhere. In the popular imagination the mid-Seventies in Britain were the pinnacle of police corruption, exemplified by the behaviour of the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad. Tyler is naturally horrified by the practices he encounters, but the writers engineer plenty of highly contrived scenes to make sure that both the pros and cons of Seventies policing are carefully displayed. This makes the viewer hard-pressed but to have some grudging sympathy for the monstrous attitudes on display. For some viewers the word "grudging" will be entirely absent. In fact, a columnist for The Sun, Britain's bestselling and stupidest newspaper, opined after the second episode that "what Life On Mars shows is that combining old-fashioned policing with today's technological advances is the way forward."

At first Tyler is completely at sea in a world without modern forensic science. Even more basic forensic measures are shunned by Hunt, for whom crimes don't "get solved in the lab." Instead Tyler falls back on evidence-gathering fundamentals and psychological insight. This isn't something that the old school cops have much time for; WPC Annie Cartwright (Liz White)—the obligatory love interest/token female character—has a degree in the subject, but is relegated to cleaning vomit out of the cells owing to the gender roles of the time. Eventually though, Hunt comes to accept that Tyler's methods have some validity and the time-traveler is soon using them to solve the Crime Of The Week.

So back to the rhetorical question Tyler poses himself. To begin with it is strongly suggested that this isn't really science fiction at all, and if it is a genre work it is so in the same way that Iain Banks's The Bridge is: a slipstream coma dream that can be read as either fantastic or naturalistic. For instance, the sounds of a hospital intrude, and Tyler hears the voice of a doctor talking to him. Later, the writers bring out an old classic and he decides to "walk till I can't make any more detail," hoping that he will run up against the limit of his brain's processing power and that his hallucination will disintegrate. Again though, the writers want to have their cake and eat it. Just as with the crime plots that give each episode its background, misdirection is the order of the day here. For every clue the writers give the viewer, they offer a contradictory one. The hoops they have to jump through to maintain this ambiguity often seem forced and neither are they really able to integrate all the disparate elements. Instead they are reduced to flashing hints that there is more to it than meets the eye. Who is the girl in the red coat running through the woods? How is she related to the sinister girl from the television test card who has taken to haunting Tyler?

The show might build something interesting out of these disparate aspects, but at the moment Life on Mars remains diverting but unexceptional entertainment. Let's just hope things are wrapped up by the final episode. British TV shows, with their short runs, are usually quite good at having proper endings. At a time when the producers of Lost openly boast that they have no intention of providing a satisfactory conclusion, that would be something to prize.

Martin Lewis lives in East London. His reviews have appeared in Vector, The SF Site, The Alien Online, and Interzone. In this bio he tried to strike a balance between being too cute and being too boring. He failed.



Martin Petto has also reviewed for Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He blogs at Everything Is Nice, and generally goes about his business.
12 comments on “Life on Mars”

Somewhat against my better judgement, I'm really quite enjoying this show, and it's not just because it looks shiny (although between this, Spooks, and Hustle, Kudos are doing a good job for the BBC in that department).
It's quite a clever trick, when you think about it. There are only so many plots that crime dramas than use, so there's rarely any suspense about how things are going to turn out--so shift the emphasis to how the crimes are solved. In a certain sense it's the same thing any crime show with a gimmick is trying to do, but it works particularly well here, I think. And for all the entertaining banter, they're doing quite well at not flinching from the implications of the attitudes and practices of the police at that time.
That said, last night's episode was a bit rubbish. In the factory-murder episode, I really liked the sense that the world was changing, that the modern world is going to happen and there's nothing Tyler can do about it. Giving him a pedestal to bemoan the evils of football hooliganism wasn't as effective.

Nick Hubble

I think Niall’s point about enjoying it despite one’s better judgement rings true because on the one hand, you have the facts that (1) it is (quite cleverly) directed at a wide range of age groups (for instance, my 70 year-old dad enjoys it); (2) it does rather shamelessly pander to that wish-fulfilment fantasy (subscribed to by the reviewer in the Sun) that if only modern techniques could be allied to ‘old-fashioned community policing’ all would be well in the world again (with the insidious subtextual implication that a lot of new-fangled politically correct attitudes simply help criminals get away with it); (3) it depends on rather contrived happy resolutions (which accords with 2) and all its characters are caricatures – especially DCI Gene Hunt, who is just a bit too lovable underneath to be realistic. On the other hand, it is fun and works precisely because it so obviously eschews realism to operate self-consciously at the level of cultural representation (and which pleasures are guiltier than enjoying a bit of postmodern irony!?). It’s also extremely thought provoking.
While 1973 gets sanitised – we’re talking about the height of the class war as the postwar British political settlement was blown apart and the miners set about bringing down the Tory government by unremitting industrial action (for an uncompromising account of everyday life at the time try reading Pat Barker’s Union Street) – what we get are the aspects that appear to feed into today such as the iconic features of The Sweeney, the show which innovated the faster-edited sensibility that was eventually to dominate tv drama (remember the BBC were still showing Dixon of Dock Green at the time). What we don’t get, is the characteristic downbeat flavour of The Sweeney (encapsulated in the slower pace of the end credits music), which sometimes ended without the crime resolved and even when it was resolved often left a nasty taste in the mouth. In that sense, it was a show about British identity struggling to adapt to the fragmentation of the glue which had held together society since the war. Life on Mars seems to have picked this moment and set of cultural icons, in order to ask similar questions 30 years down the line. In that respect, it is trying to solve the riddle of British identity in a similar (but rather more sophisticated) way to that suggested by the reviewer in the Sun).
There was a nice point in last night’s episode, when Annie asked Tyler if he had finished with the ‘weird stuff’ – implying that it was some sort of device to make him appear more interesting - and he replied along the lines of ‘What? Like “I’m in a coma so shag me.”’ It’s a sudden irruption of contemporary sensibility into 1973 where it cases discord. Annie is momentarily startled, not because she’s never been spoken to like that before (after all, she gets subjected to sexism all the time) but because Tyler’s response seems to break the rules of context. Her basic problem is that she cannot decode whether he is a ‘nice’ guy or simply a different version of all the others: the 21st century combination of being both sexually liberated and politically correct simply doesn’t exist in 1973. And its portrayal is clearly meant to indicate an improvement on the values of the time. Therefore, the show as a whole cannot really be read as a refutation of pc values as the Sun seems to imply. Rather, it perhaps functions to criticise the panglossian naivety which often seems to accompany pc. The perfect world that Tyler envisions (City and United fans walking to the match together) is not recoverable, even if it ever existed, and the show often shows his idealism to be reckless (especially in the episode of the week before where it led to the murder of a woman) unless tempered by the worldliness of Hunt.
So the show works (so far) because it shows the relation of the present to arguably the most nodal year of British postwar history and attempts to recover some things that have been lost. These are not ‘old-fashioned community’ values but a sense of worldliness (such as Terry Pratchett’s Vimes maintains) which counters the dangers of blind idealism. For example, the politicians of 1973 were a compromised group with little to appeal to modern sensibility, but none of them would have behaved with the sheer panglossian idealist recklessness of Tony Blair.

kevin

Wait, what's this about Lost? Where was that said? I must have missed it. 8(

Over the first couple of episodes I found this an interesting show, but wasn't rating it as anything special, more of a guilty pleasure. Which interestingly was how I saw Buffy all the way up until season three.
However, the third and fourth episodes are actually such great pieces of television that I think we actually have something rather special here. It all rests on how the series is wrapped up, and what they do with a second series. For me this is easily the best thing on the BBC since State of Play.

I agree with Alex. For a sense of closure he could come out of his coma at the end of this series. Then they could resist the urge to do a second series and go for cult status.

ian

Just watched Life on Mars. With a few little criticisms, generally excellently well observed. This is not written or directed by a hack. Especially liked the sequence just after he was transported back in time; standing dazed in the rubble, framed by the rotting hulk of a factory, as the camera panned around him with the same tune echoing over both times, very well done and evocative. The characters were well observed and the changes in social mores interesting. He does slightly overstate the seventies aspect, times haven't changed that much, or have they?
In many ways it shows that not only is the past a different country, but the recent past is the fading echos of a world we know and knew, the familiar and unfamiliar juxtaposed, both seen through the shimmering lense of time's drifting frets. As one thinks one recognises a familiar way of speech, a snatched fragrance or familiar fashion, the mist is swept away and we see the recent past for the empty shore of memory it is.
It's plot and premise was complex enough to make a one off two hour drama. Given the rich vein to be mined, it's somehow just right that the seventies are observed from the new century, the difference is just long enough.
A couple of years ago I was labouring in the yard of a building merchants, I was about 40, with a young guy, about 18. He asked me, "what was it like growing up in the seventies then".
I said, "much the same as growing up any other time, except you had to dress like a prat."
The wheel is just.
The above was my reaction to the first episode of Life On Mars. Which I still stand by. All the episodes up to and including the last have been intriguing, witty and thought provoking.
It's ironic that given the chance to end the series at it's zenith, and leave it to be remembered as a good, well thought out drama, the writers have chosen to carry on to a second series, possibly a third, etc etc, and milk this cash cow for all it's worth. It's a decision that is like the seventies itself, the fading echoes of hippy values and long hair and flares hiding the tarnished wreckage of sixties idealism.
I don't blame the writers, the unexpected success means they have the chance to make more money than they may ever earn again, this may be the last series they ever produce that is this popular.
On a technical level the ending, to a otherwise strongly written episode, had the feeling of being tacked on, changed, or pre-written just in case.
So, no Fawlty Towers then, just another series destined to become a sad parody of its former strength. "Mash, Only Fools and Horses, Last of the Summer Wine" et al. Gene Hunt's world weary cynicism would be shocked by the eighties world that the series will become, milking nostalgia for all it's worth. Sam Tyler would understand it only too well.
Guess we're all whores when you get down to it, Gene would have understood that.
The wheel is indeed just.

ian

I have to admit that I agree with the subtext of Nick Hubble's statements. Tony Blair was idealistic and panglossian in thinking he could get a bunch of what are what are basically primitive tribal peasants to adopt the attitudes and values of the far more advanced 21st Century West.
It's a shame that certain people(and I'm sure Nick would agree), seem to think that the majority of Muslim Arabs are evil fanatical terrorists and primitive barbarians who are mysoginist to boot, but this is obviously wrong, as the evidence of our own eyes shows. When given the chance to vote, the Palestineans voted for Hamas, a party dedicated to democracy. In a similar situation the people of Iraq voted for liberal secular parties guaranteed to give them the chance to vote again.
It's absurd to say Tony Blair, or George Bush(may he live for a thousand years), have made a terrible mistake. After all in every Arab, there surely is an American trying to get out?
It's true that the politicians of the seventies would have been shocked by Tony and George's mad optimism, after all they dealt so well with the Iranian hostage crisis. I for one was shocked by the super efficiency of Jimmy Carter in getting the hostages out. It took a far more cynical politcian to actually get results, Ronald the clown anyone? But that was the eighties for you, productive or what, got a return on the arms, that's what I call business.
As for Nick's psychobabble(or is it Bable), "height of the class war", "decode", etc etc, please spare me. He seems to think real life is a university, it isn't.
Back to Iran, isn't that the country we shoud have dealt with in the first place?

Dave

SPOILERS ahead - if you haven't watched the last episode yet.
Just watched the last episode, and I am pleased it didn't wrap everything up neatly, with Sam Tyler convincing his Dad to stay. And it turned out his Dad probably was a bad lad anyway. Excellent!
I think the exagerated Sweeney-style policing just reinforces my view that it is all a coma-induced dream, where everything happens according to how Sam remembers the 70s. In other words, a combination of golden-age nostalgia seen through a childs eyes (ManU and ManCity supporters did NOT walk together to derby games peacefully in the 70s), remembrance of 70s TV shows like the Sweeney and some vague awareness that people were losing their jobs due to new technology.
His dream didn't end when the situation with his father was resolved (albeit unsatisfactorily), because his coma continues and there is no ultimate goal. The producers can continue the show for as long as they like, and as long as the public continue to watch.
As it happens I think Gene Hunt will turn out to be his doctor back in the present day.

Nick Hubble

Glad to see irony isn't dead yet, Ian. I take your point about Carter - but then he was a panglossian idealist and not a typical 70s politician. I was thinking of cynical types like Wilson, who'd sell his own grandmother if it suited but was smart enough to stay out of Vietnam.
What is happening in the Middle East has nothing to do with democracy. The West's troops will come home sooner or later with their tails between their legs with nothing to show for their troubles but death and destruction which has blighted us all. Either the people of the Middle east will sort themselves out eventually or they won't, but as Gene Hunt could tell you - you can't make people 'good' at gunpoint. Neither does holding the gun give anyone the right to judge - if anything the opposite.
I for one am glad there will be another series because it was the best thing for ages. The idea that if it remains a one-off it will endure as a cult classic, but if they make another one it will inevitably get diluted into pap doesn't really hold.
As for psychobabble, the whole show is a kind of psychobabble and that's why it's fun.

Steve

While I agree that they should have wrapped up things at the end of the first series with the big awakening scene I still think there's plenty of scope for good follow-up episodes. The awakening scene, should it ever happen, poses almost endless possibilities: will he be crippled for life and regret ever waking up from a relatively cushy number with Annie in the 70s, will all the characters re-appear as doctors and nurses, will he only get half-way back and end up in 1988 (as, at one point, he'd wished for), will he wake up and forget it all? Will Nelson, in a Twilight Zone ending, appear as the knowing, floor-cleaning janitor? And as he stays in the 70s will his 'flash-forwards' to 2006 increase in frequency, making him appear insane to his 70s colleages and putting him in hospital? So series 2 - yes, Series 3, no thanks.
Things might be improved with a few more snippets of 70s street life: where are the kids on spacehoppers and Choppers, the clips from 70s TV (Tomorrow's World!), the supermarket checkouts with manually operated tills? Come on Kudos, get that research machine going!

cathy glidden

The show is brilliant. I am inspired by its vision and language in addressing the absurdity of the world today and now. Who can't relate to Tyler's sense of confusion in today's world? This gimmick of time travel is a clever way of pointing us to the absurdity of what is going on today and how willing we are as a world to accept the inequities that are being foisted upon us day to day. Let's listen and learn. I, for one, feel finally that I am amongst those that understand. Like "Twelve Monkeys," the show taps into the possibilty of alternate realities to reveal truth. This is the show's strength in addition to its sexiness and sense of vulnerability in a world that offers much confusion. Well done!

WaltDe

Keep up the great work on your blog. Best wishes WaltDe

 

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