Life on Mars

Monday, January 9, 2006 by

Kudos have already proved their mainstream worth with the success of both Spooks and Hustle and look set to complete a hat-trick with this new series. Yes, it is another cop drama on prime time, but rather than simply make a straight down the line, ordinary police series, the trio of creators behind Life on Mars have presented us with the nifty twist of relocating a 2006 ‘tec to 33 years in his own past.

In the opening few minutes we are presented with your typical cop-by-numbers by director Bharat Nalluri, luring the viewer into a false sense of what the show is likely to be.

The trailers that ran for a few weeks prior to the broadcast of episode one didn’t seem very enticing, but after seeing the opener it is immediately apparent this could prove to be a very good show indeed. The story begins squarely in the here and now with detective Sam Tyler (John Simm) pursuing a crook who is suspected of being a serial killer. All of the equipment and ephemera of modern policing is clearly on show, computers, mobile phones, psychiatrists and the like – things Sam is soon going to miss. Another icon of the noughties shows up in his jeep, where we see Bowie’s Life on Mars playing on his iPod. Soon after this he is knocked over in a shocking, split-second accident. Quite how he could have survived it is difficult to know, and questions about this are raised later in the story.

When Sam comes round, Life on Mars is now playing on an old car radio cassette player, and he quickly finds himself in a new job …

The 1973 he finds himself in – only 10 minutes into the show – is excellently recreated with a great deal of attention paid to even the smallest details. Beer bottles look authentic, wallpaper is suitably garish, clothes are very brown and there are dozens of cars from the era. The 1970s are now well and truly considered period and the team must have gone to great lengths to source all the things they needed to bring it to life.

Inevitably, chart hits from the time are present in the soundtrack, and it is hoped rights issues do not preclude their inclusion in any future DVD release. It isn’t just the landscape that seems alien to Sam, though, the people he encounters are of a very different stock. Instantly accepted into the police force which he has supposedly been transferred to, he encounters his new boss, DCI Gene Hunt. Hunt is a copper cut from the Regan cloth and clashes almost immediately with his new DI – brash, gruff and not averse to using his fists. Quite if this brand a copper was once as widespread as the telly would have us believe is open to question, but Philip Glenister does a good job of bringing the stereotype to life.

One thing the programme highlights very clearly is just how much policing has changed in Britain over the past three decades. Sam encounters very different attitudes and procedures in 1973, with men very clearly in charge. Processes are slap-dash, and the coppers often see things as little more than a joke, even in the most serious of cases. Much of the language people speak is alien (as is Sam’s to them, “PC Terminal” is assumed to be a person by a ’70s colleague) and technical procedures drag on for much longer than our hero is used to (tests take a fortnight to come back from the lab). Despite this, the show indicates the methods used by Hunt and his team, can work. He gets results, despite the dubious way he conducts his investigations. He has little respect for the correct, official way of doing things and is as prepared to beat-up a suspect as he is to take down a statement.

It’s a high-intensity role for Simm, who appears in every scene. Thankfully, he does a fine job as a man out of his time. He does, however, appear to be a little too young to be a DCI in 2006, never mind a DI in 1973. Most of the supporting characters are thinly-sketched so far, but one or two of them look as if they’ll have more important roles to play in the future. There is more to Nelson the barman than he lets on to everybody but Sam, and the character of Neil is something of a mystery as yet – he knows things about the future nobody but Sam could.

There’s plenty of mystery here to keep the viewers tuning in next time. Is Sam in a coma in hospital as Neil suggests, or is he in fact already dead? Why do the people in the television set speak to him? Questions, questions. But there is one thing we can be sure of: what initially looked as though it was going to be a God awful small affair – yet another unimaginative crime drama – is already proving itself to be of far more fascinating stock.


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