DVD - Life on Mars (BBC1, 2006 - 2007)
Let me get one thing out of the way very early. This is going to be a very good review. Life on Mars is wonderfully gripping, glorious television, certainly one of the best series it has been my pleasure to watch and one which may well cause me to run out of superlatives before the review is done.
Life on Mars is a cop show. But it’s a cop show with humour. And apparent time travel. Created by Mathew Graham and Ashley Pharaoh, the programme spans sixteen episodes set over two series that follow the adventures of Detective Chief Inspector Sam Tyler (John Simm), who, having been knocked unconscious in a road accident in 2006, awakens in 1973. He finds himself to be a Detective Inspector working in his old Police Station in Manchester (but now for the Manchester and Salford Police) having apparently been transferred from Hyde Division. He meets his new colleagues, including the bull-like and extraordinarily politically incorrect Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt, played by Phillip Glenister, with whom he shares an explosive love-hate relationship for the duration of the two series. Glenister’s performance is magnificent and he and Simm are supported well by Dean Andrews (who plays DS Ray Carling), Marshall Lancaster (DC Chris Skelton) and Liz White (WPC Annie Cartwright). Each episode is an hour long and works as a stand-alone story, though the constant theme running through all episodes is that of Sam's ongoing confusion, frustration and bewilderment as he tries to work out what is going on. As he asks in the opening credits: “Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time..?”
The show works particularly well because it operates on a number of levels. There is the question of how Sam has come to be there, which teases the viewer throughout until the ultimate reveal in the final episode of series two. It is also genuinely funny, with some memorable laugh out loud moments. Each episode is a well-crafted old-fashioned police story, reminiscent of popular shows of the time such as The Sweeney and The Professionals. It acts as an intelligent and quite enlightening insight into the monumental changes that have occurred within policing during the passing years, contrasting Gene’s 'lock them in the stationery cupboard and give them a good slapping' method for solving crime with Sam’s more methodical, correct and humane approach, borne out of modern day police training. At the same time a number of some of the more pertinent issues of the time are tackled, such as racism, sexism and football hooliganism. Finally, the whole thing unfolds accompanied by a delicious and truly memorable soundtrack, featuring chart hits by a who's who of artists of the time including: David Bowie (of course!), Thin Lizzy, Free, Deep Purple, Cream, Blue Oyster Cult, Slade, The Sweet, The Who, Pink Floyd and many more.
In later episodes Sam tracks down his family home and meets his 1973 mother, played by Joanne Froggatt. An interesting and thought-provoking twist, stirring strange and conflicting feelings in the viewer in considering how it might feel to walk back into your home as it was over thirty years ago.
The sets and costumes have been recreated with impressive precision. Everything from the décor and furniture in the houses, to the fashions and the cars on the streets, even the BBC television test card has been reproduced in great detail so that you genuinely feel that you have been transported back in time. One episode features a flashback to the opening credits of Camberwick Green, which was as amusing as it was accurate. So many little touches are included, small idiosyncrasies of the age that you may have forgotten that add further authenticity. If you grew up during that time, the show has an uncanny ability to make you feel strangely warm and nostalgic.
This is tremendously satisfying, enthralling television, working tremendously well on many levels. The quality is consistently high with no obvious weaker episodes. The tour-de-force of the show though is undoubtedly Phillip Glenister’s storming, powerful and utterly convincing portrayal of Gene Hunt and the relationship between Hunt and Tyler which is as excellent as it is volatile.
If you have already seen Life on Mars, maybe this review will inspire you to revisit it. It is still just as enjoyable the second (or third) time around. If you haven’t, then you have missed out on one of the greatest television series of recent times and I would thoroughly recommend investing in the two DVD box sets, or tracking it down on catch-up television.
Note - the BBC revisited the idea later with Ashes to Ashes, another programme based on the same premise (three series 2008-2010) with predominantly the same cast except John Simm. Detective Inspector Alex Drake, played by Keeley Hawes, is the victim of a random shooting and wakes up in London in 1981 to find herself teamed up with Gene and the others, who are now working for the Metropolitan Police. The idea still works but the chemistry between Hunt and Drake, while flirtatious and unpredictable, does not match that which Hunt and Tyler enjoyed in the original Life on Mars. It is certainly watchable and the feel of the period is again captured exceptionally well, but ultimately this time around it is hard to escape the feeling that it has all been done before. Entertaining enough, but unfortunately it lacks the magic x-factor that made Life on Mars unmissable.