“My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident and I woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever happened, it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet. Now, maybe, if I can work out the reason, I can get back home.”
I kind of did things a little backwards. I saw the single-season American version of Life On Mars quite some time before I managed to get my hands on the two seasons of the original British version of the show. The idea of a British television series being adapted for American screens is really nothing new. Lately a lot has been written about the phenomenon as if it’s some recent trendy invasion of English telly. We’ve been watching British hits since at least the 1970’s. In those days it was the sit-com that got the most attention from across the pond. Till Death Do Us Part and Steptoe And Son became All In The Family and Sanford And Son, respectively. Both shows became even bigger hits here in the states and are remembered by more folks on both continents than the originals today. The latest hit from England was The Office. Unfortunately, Life On Mars was never destined to join those Anglo/American success stories.
Detective Sam Tyler (Simm) is hot in pursuit of a serial killer who has abducted his partner and lover. When he steps out of his car he is struck by an oncoming car. On his Ipod David Bowie is singing his obscure track, Life On Mars. When Tyler wakes up he can still hear the song in the background. But this time it’s coming from an 8-track deck in a mint vintage 1970’s car. Turns out there’s a reason the car is so cherry. Tyler is no longer in 2006. It’s 1973. Strangely, he still has his identity here. A police officer identifies the car as his. At his precinct, he’s recognized as a transfer. His disorientation earns him a few introductory sucker punches to the gut by his new boss Lt. Hunt (Glenister) who doesn’t like people coming into his station house barking out orders. It turns out he’s joined a special-forces kind of team that also includes Detective Ray Carling (Andrews) who feels passed over by Tyler. He was in line to be the new second in command. Detective Chris Skelton (Lancaster) is a green detective who warms us fastest to Tyler. Also working more or less for the team is policewoman Annie Cartwright (White). It seems whatever powers that have planted Tyler here have thought of everything. He has an apartment. Eventually Tyler decides to temporarily accept his situation, hoping to figure out why he’s here and how he can get back home.
To start with, the show never really plays it straight. While we’re intended to buy the stories, and more important the cases, as if Tyler is really there, there is ample evidence other explanations might apply. He has obvious hallucinations, calling his sanity or state of mind into question. He sees a television character begin to talk about him. These characters call him on the phone and even appear to him in person. The second series features a boss from “Hyde” Frank Morgan (Brown) who tries to convince Sam that he has amnesia and is really working the CID as a spy from their version of internal affairs.
The series does play to the 70’s cop show nostalgia. Everything from the cars to the hairstyles screams the 1970’s. All of the 70’s cop shows clichés are just as intact. The music includes some powerhouse wacka-wacka typical of shows from that era like Starsky and Hutch. Even more important to the feel of the show is the excellent selection of 70’s pop tunes from such artists as David Bowie, ELO, and of course, Elton John. It all plays to those sensibilities, and in that it is very successful. I’m not so sure I can say the same of the show’s ultimate mythology. I was a bit let down by the ultimate answer that I won’t share with you here so that you can enjoy the series for yourself. It looks like there was a chance of a third series, but at the last minute the show decided to finish up. Surprisingly the final episode is the worst of the entire run. Even the case seems contrived and doesn’t flow like many of the other episodes do.
Some of the fish-out-of-water stuff is pushing it a bit. The show makes it look like surveillance was a term unknown to 1970’s police officers. I don’t know about England, but cops have been conducting surveillances for centuries. The same goes with slang and phrases. It does tend to make it look like the writers are trying too hard at times. The police cases are great, however.
Each episode of Life On Mars is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. I imagine it’s all comparable to its HD broadcasts. It’s not really fair to dig into colors, because there was an effort to bring out that 70’s television look at times. That means a lot of earth tones and rather muted colors overall. Too many episodes on one of the discs gives us uneven black levels and compression artifact there. There is an occasional shimmer that can get pretty distracting. I’m not sure I understand the problem. They were smart enough to put only two episodes on each disc.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track works very to carry off the 70’s vintage radio material. The stuff comes out quite well and will have you singing along or lost in some 30-year-old memory (if you’re old enough, of course). Otherwise the audio serves mostly the dialog and isn’t all that aggressive in the surrounds. The 5.1 track is not the default. It’s really a bit of a pain to have to select it for each episode.
You get all 16 episodes on 8 discs, plus the following extras:
Take A Look At The Lawman (in 2 parts): (32:44/31:10) This is mostly chats with the cast and crew. They talk about everything from the show concept and mythology to the characters and stories.
Interview With Director Bharat Nalluri: (2:51) The director talks about the subtle CG work in the first episode.
The Music Of Life On Mars: (14:04) Composer Edmund Butt shows us how he constructed the theme. I don’t like this piece. He does basic “re-creations” of the creative process.
Get Sykes: (8:00) Brian Sykes was the production designer. He talks about re-creating the 1970’s. The piece includes production sketches.
Out-Takes Reel: (5:56)
The Return Of Life On Mars: (45:20) Cast and crew talk about going to second series. There’s still plenty of series one retrospect going on here.
Behind The Scenes Of The CID Set: (3:33) Take a look at the police station set.
The End Of Life On Mars: (27:52) The cast and crew talk about the decisions about ending the show. There’s ideas that were thought of and discarded. I liked most of those better.
Behind The Scenes Of Episodes 3, 5, and 7
I absolutely loved the concept. The execution here is a little better than the later American version, but I think I liked those performances a bit more. The stories have mostly been carried over to the American version, as well. It would have been nice had it continued. I have to believe the end would have shaped up much better had there been more of a build-up, and perhaps more thought. I guess the lesson here is to “enjoy it while you can, because this is fantasy time”.