Life on Mars

Tuesday, April 10, 2007 by

With Life on Mars falling off our screens for good, I suppose we’ll never find out why a comatose Sam bothered imagining a grain of sand on Annie’s hand. In fact for many viewers the series’ conclusion probably leads dozens of questions unanswered (and none more important for some than whether or not the occasional historical inaccuracy was intentional or not). What cannot be in any doubt though, was that the finale was definitely the right one – at least on an emotional level.

Lead writer and co-creator Matthew Graham has admitted that he didn’t expect there to be any debate over whether or not Sam was in a coma, presuming that the early episodes made the situation clear enough. This then explains why the eventual conclusion offered little in the way of deviation from the most commonly accepted theory. The episode’s midpoint did try and throw viewers off track, but this just underlined the fact that the truth was exactly what we’d come to suspect (you knew there had to be some kind of curveball just before the end didn’t you?).

With various theories floating around since the conclusion of series one, you have to admire the programme makers’ tenacity in sticking with their original idea, even after a number of ingenious alternative notions (it’s all going on in Gene’s head, not Sam’s) were offered to them on a plate. Clearly there was no way that our lead couldn’t have come from 2006, given his knowledge of Thatcher, Red Rum, iPods and all those other post-1973 things and the notion of time travel just wouldn’t have sat well with a series that was so resolutely down to Earth. So a coma it had to be then.

If you do still wish to grumble at what we got, or pick the bones over the series’ internal logic then that’s because you’ve failed to understand what Life on Mars was actually about. Clearly there were some questions that could be asked as to why Sam’s betrayed colleagues were so quick to welcome him back into the fold, but in the end the details (like the historical accuracy) didn’t really matter. What was important was that Life on Mars remained true to its emotional core (besides the lack of animosity directed towards Sam on his return to 1973 can be explained away as a representation of his decision to embrace, rather than try and escape from his self-constructed inner world).

So, despite Sam’s disillusionment with the real world being conveyed in an unconvincing and almost arbitrary manner, this was the right ending. Shot through with tragedy and humour and providing a kind of transcendence that the similarly emotionally charged first series never managed to attain. Looking at the two runs as a whole though, one is struck by the juxtaposition of the wonderfully crafted ongoing coma storyline, versus what were very often pretty run-of-the-mill police dramas. In the second series in particular, the investigations were mundane, with many of the baddies revealed as just the bloke who appeared earlier in the episode in a scene seemingly unrelated to the investigation itself. Similarly the relationships of the five principle characters stalled, with the beginning of each episode resetting Annie, Gene and the rest back to their default mode, regardless of the lessons learned the previous week.

Life on Mars excelled because the ’70s setting and drip-feed of Sam’s back-story were enough to punctuate the routine stuff going on in the foreground. Given Ashes to Ashes will be stripped of the wonderful sense of mystery that underpinned this series, it’s difficult to see exactly how it’s going to work. There is talk that Gene has further secrets to reveal, but a move towards a more metaphysical, rather than psychological central premise sounds fraught with difficulty.

But these are concerns for another time (1981 to be precise). The finale of Life on Mars left this reviewer agitated and a little despondent for a good while after the credits rolled. Not because it wasn’t the perfect ending, but rather because in the showing of the final distillation of Sam’s internal emotional struggle, the show revealed itself to be a far greater series than perhaps individual episodes suggested. More troubling, though, was the realisation that Sam Tyler had grown into a wonderful television character and his passing is to be mourned those of us stuck here in the future.


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