Life On Mars, Intro & S1 Ep1

Gene Hunt, Sam Tyler, and Annie

I’m not going to give you a compare and contrast between the American Life On Mars and the original British one.  (Largely because I was unable to give the American version more than an episode without wanting my hour back.)  The American remake seemed to me to miss the essence of Life On Mars — the  ultimate buddy cop relationship between Sam and Gene.  Hell, if you want an American show that comes close to getting it, watch The Good Guys.  Because while Life On Mars is about a modern cop who gets stuck in the seventies, The Good Guys is about a modern cop who is “stuck in the seventies.”  The people who made The Good Guys understand what the people who made Life On Mars did — that while political correctness and proper police procedure make for a civilized society, they don’t necessarily make for good viewing.  Sometimes we just want to see a good muscle car chase and the cop beating the crap out of the bad guy.  It’s satisfying in a way that exceptional laboratory work will never be.

Of course, that’s all The Good Guys is — the action and the fun, without any of the drama, the depth, and the great sci-fi twistiness of Life On Mars.  Neither The Good Guys nor the American remake is even half the show the British Life On Mars was — so I’ll not speak of either of them again.  Now, grab your beverage of choice and turn on your subtitles (at least until you get good at understanding Gene’s accent), and let’s see how great thoroughly original genre-crossing television can actually be.

The introduction to Sam’s world is remarkably quick.  After all, we all know the premise — he’s somehow going to wake up in 1973 — so the show gets on with it.  But not without first establishing everything we need to know about Sam and modern policing.  Look at the colors of this sequence, particularly the police station.  It’s all blues and silvers and whites.  Shiny.  Pristine.  And the policing is similarly clean.  Sam knocks on a door and serves a warrant (politely and without raising his voice); he efficiently chases down a suspect; he even knocks the suspect into submission with one smooth whack of a retractable stick.  (I don’t know the technical term for it, but it instantly brings to mind Tonya Harding.  And the suspect drops like Nancy Kerrigan, without Sam even breaking a sweat.)  Don’t overlook the two kids overlooking this scene.  They expect a good fight between cop and suspect, and are disappointed when Sam ends it with cool efficiency.  (In a way, they’re standing in for us.)  And you just know, without even seeing it, that when Sam gets back to the station, he’s going to write it all up in a “Use of Force” report, that gets filed in triplicate.

There’s a bit of heavy-handed writing in this episode — such as when Sam tells his subordinate and girlfriend, Maya, that there is no room for feelings in this place.  (We get it; you don’t have to say it out loud for the slow viewers.)  But when Maya gets kidnapped, going off on her own because Sam wouldn’t back her up, we see that Sam does have feelings.  He breaks down, probably out of a combination of fear for Maya and guilt for letting her get into trouble.

And that’s important, too — not just to show that Sam is not, in fact, heartless, but to show that this apparently-together individual is actually ripping apart at the seams.  So when he gets hit by a car and wakes up in 1973, it isn’t like he’s otherwise completely in control of his faculties.  He’s in an extremely fragile state when they throw a 33-year time warp at the guy.

Again, look at the world.  Now it’s browns and yellows.  Earthy.  Gritty.  It isn’t clean and tidy, but it seems more real.  Again, there’s a bit of heavy-handed writing, as we go through the usual Back to the Future business where our time-traveller asks for modern things and he’s misunderstood.  (Jeep and mobile aren’t particular funny, but I give points to his request for a “PC” being understood as police constable.)  It’s de rigueur for a character thrown back in time to doubt it and fight it, but since we all know that Sam is going to stick around 1973 (at least for a while), I sometimes get bored with Sam’s denial and want them to get down to business.

Which they do.  This is because Sam is still a cop in 1973.  (Good thing, too, as I imagine he’d quickly go insane in this strange universe, if he didn’t have that bit of identity to fall back on.)  But being a detective is in his bones, and when you put a crime in front of him, wherever he is, he’s going to start solving it.  And he’s even willing to put aside his doubts about his temporal location, when the crime they put in front of him looks to be related to the crime he was trying to solve in the present, the crime that got Maya kidnapped.  If solving the case in 1973 will help him save Maya in the future, he’s all over it.  He can’t not be.

But the pivotal scene in this episode, the one that actually elevates Life On Mars over most of the rest of the junk you get on TV, is the scene where Sam realizes that Gene is a cop, too.  More than that, Gene is good at it.  Because Sam initially views 1973 with the same modern prejudices that we do:  investigatory technology is in its infancy; filing practices are virtually non-existent; preservation of evidence is a matter of luck; and don’t get me started on Gene’s witness intimidation and gender bias.  And then there’s the scene with the little old lady.  Sam realizes that a (stereotypical) little old lady may have a clue that he needs, locked in her memory.  And he questions her the way he’d question anyone — treating her like any witness, and pressing her to remember the vital piece of evidence.  And he gets nowhere.  But Gene succeeds, because he treats the little old lady the way little old ladies expected to be treated in 1973 — with a gentle touch, a cup of tea, and assurances that she needn’t be stressed over the questioning.  And this is such an important scene because it shows us that Gene is sometimes right, and Life On Mars isn’t going to be about the modern cop always knowing better than the backwards, crude, a-little-too-violent 1973 cop.  Instead, they’ve each got something to bring to the party.

And then, of course, just when you think you’ve got it figured out … just when you think you’re sitting down to a great buddy-cop-show-where-they-start-off-hating-each-other-but-end-up-with-mutual-respect (plus car chases!), Life On Mars throws you a curve and reminds you that it isn’t going to be complacent about Sam waking up in 1973.  This isn’t a show where the set-up exists only in the first episode and is soon forgotten; this is a show about a guy who got hit by a car and woke up in 1973, is constantly questioning how the hell that happened, and is occasionally getting creepy reminders of what may be his true reality (or his true insanity) bleeding through.

Things to Watch For:

1.  Sam Tyler.  Well, you can’t miss him, really, seeing as he’s in every scene.   That’s the point.  Sam is in every scene.  He has to be, in order to keep alive the possibility that 1973 is all happening in Sam’s head.  Watch how the show plays with this — you’ll think you’re seeing a scene that Sam isn’t in, but then they’ll change shots on you, and you’ll realize he’s been there all along.

2.  Sam’s dream sequence — someone (with a shoe with buckle on it) chasing someone (wearing red) through the trees.  One of the things that’s really nice about British television is that you can have a season that’s 8 episodes long and have a nice, solid story arc that lasts all 8 episodes.  This is the start of that arc.  Pay attention.

3.  Sam gets hit.  A lot.  I suppose that, as a practical matter, anyone in the general vicinity of Gene is going to get hit, sooner or later — either by Gene directly or by someone he has pissed off.  But John Simm is one of those actors who makes you really feel it when he gets hit; and Sam Tyler is one of those characters who gets back up every time — which make an irresistible combination.

3.  Annie Cartwright.  Compare how different she is when with Sam alone and when with Gene and the rest of the guys.  She actually tries to make herself invisible in the squad room.  I like to think of Annie as Sam’s Not-So-Secret Secret Weapon — he relies on her a lot to get results, but anyone else could get them too if they just saw her for what she really was.  (Man, discrimination sucks.)

4.  Wizard of Oz references.  Because clearly, Sam is not in Kansas anymore.

5.  Anachronisms.  We’ll get into these later as the show progresses, but keep your eyes out for anything in 1973 that maybe shouldn’t be in 1973.  (And what that might mean.)

Welcome to Britain:

It is beyond the scope of these recaps to provide American translations for everything British you’ll come across.  (And a complete Gene-to-American dictionary would take pages.)  You can figure a lot of it out from context, and google the rest.  Here’s a bit to get you started.

1.  These are the Detective ranks you’ll want to know:  Detective Chief Inspector; Detective Inspector; Detective Sergeant; Detective Constable.  They’re all in plainclothes (or, perhaps, “street clothes,” as nothing is plain about those outfits).  On the non-detective side of things, the lowest rank is plain old police constable.   (And the women constables will have a “W” in front.)  Gene calls them “plods” (and the women “plonks”).

2.  “Hoops” are Spaghetti-O’s.

3.  BUPA is a private health care insurance provider– saying “I’m in BUPA” is like saying “I have Blue Cross.”

Happy viewing!  See you next episode!