Each week on this blog since the lockdown I’ve been taking a look at one of my favourite TV shows and trying to explain to people why I think it’s just so great. If you’re going to spend time stuck at home indoors, you may as well use it to catch up on some of the best long form stories out there. TV, as a medium, has always been best when it utilises its unique ability to develop, evolve and explore characters and plot-lines in a way a film simply can’t.
But not all great TV shows (at least the ones that I personally consider great) do this. Some tell stories contained solely to the 40-minute or 20-minute run time of an episode. Some scale down and develop a plot over just six short episodes. And some, especially the one I’m going to be discussing today, use the medium as a way to explore lots of different ideas in individual episodes, before concluding swiftly and precisely with an arching plot, without even coming close to potentially outstaying its welcome.
I first heard of Life on Mars on Christmas Day, 2005.
I remember it vividly. We were at my nan’s house celebrating the holiday, and my brother and I, along with my Nan, my mum, and my Uncle, were all sat in front of the TV having just watched the Doctor Who special. The credits rolled and we all sat back, waiting to see what would appear on the screen next.
What appeared was an advert for Life on Mars. The advert, if I remember correctly, more or less gave us what would become the opening narration for the show. It told us about DCI Sam Tyler, played by John Simm, who was hit by a car and awoke in 1973. As he tries to figure out whether he’s in a coma, lost his mind, or has really been sent back in time, Sam finds himself at odds with his new superior, the brash, sexist, racist DCI Gene Hunt.
As a show, Life on Mars at first appears to be a clever, albeit relatively one-note, spin on the iconic police procedural of the 1970s. It has car chases, fist fights, shoot-outs, explosions, lots of witty, un-PC dialogue, and a killer soundtrack to boot. But throughout its short run (there are only two series and each one only features eight episodes) the show revealed itself to be so much more.
Most episodes revolve, in some way, around the central conflict between the progressive, forward thinking politics of time-traveller Sam Tyler, and the old-fashioned, often bigoted, often vicious ways of Gene Hunt. But what makes Life on Mars so interesting is that things aren’t always quite so clear cut.
Despite Sam’s position as the protagonist, and as the more evolved of the pair, he is not always proven right. Often, we learn that Gene Hunt’s more aggressive approach can and does work too. Most times it is through a combination of Sam’s by the book, empathetic approach, and Gene’s fierce, borderline outlaw style. As the show goes on and a respect begins to grow between the two, so too does and understanding and a partnership.
The set-up allows for the show to use both of these characters and there strongly opposing views to explores interesting, topical subject matter.
Whether that be football hooliganism, terrorism, racism, corruption, or countless more, the forever at odds central pair are almost always certain to fall on opposite sides of the argument, which means the writers and show-runners have lots of fun simply allowing the characters the space to express their views and argue their points
And none of this would work if it wasn’t for the brilliant performances that drive the show forward. John Simm’s Sam Tyler is a fish out of water. A man trapped in a world he doesn’t understand. He is constantly on the outside looking in, and often the outcast of the group. Simm brings a kind of vulnerability to Tyler that makes his relatable despite the bizarre absurdness of his situation. He’s believable and engaging, so we root for him throughout.
But it’s Philip Glenister who steals the show. His loud mouthed, whisky swigging, cigarette smoke, rule breaking Gene Hunt is a character deserving of the status of icon. He growls every line with such menace and intensity that sometimes it becomes genuinely unsettling. And this refusal to play Gene solely as the hero or the villain, balancing the line somewhere between anti-hero and dislikable bastard, is key to Glenister’s performance. He makes us like Hunt even when he is at his most cruel, nasty, or outdated. Furthermore, he sometimes even manages to make us agree with him.
Each episode is presented as your standard police procedural. There is a crime that needs to be solved, the characters investigate, the plot thickens, and soon we’re involved in some exciting action set-piece that will ultimately wrap everything up. But the show manages to interweave its subtext, the politics, the character work and the concepts throughout each episode with such ease that all these disparate elements never feel uncomplimentary.
And still the show manages to find space to develop a complex, intriguing central mystery as well. One that slowly unfolds throughout all 16 episodes and encompasses both science-fiction time-travel tropes and psychological horror.
There are many great moments in which Sam, and by extension the audience, begin to question the reality of what is happening. Dreamlike and unsettling imagery abounds, and the show is never one to shy away from leaning into surrealism to make its point.
The rather terrifying moments involving the infamous Test Card Girl are some of the more well-known bits, but there are plenty of other examples of the show pushing its boundaries as far as they can go. Strange figures in the distance, disembodied voices from the future, impossible phone calls and mysterious higher-ups all play their part.
One of my favorite episodes involves a rather brilliant reference to British children’s television show Camberwick Green, in which Sam Tyler begins to suspect his body, which he believes is in a hospital bed in the future, is overdosing of medicine. The entire episode starts to rapidly spiral out of control, as Sam finds himself caught in a more and more unreal situation.
You might well be wondering now, after all of this, how a show with such a complex central mystery, such a high-concept set-up and so many moving parts manages to satisfyingly conclude in only 16 episodes. Well, to give the game away would be to spoil the fun, but for my money let me just say that as far as ending goes, there a few that hit as high and successfully as the finale of Life on Mars.
For me it remains one of, if not the most perfect ending to a story ever. It provides me with everything I wanted, without any sense of crushing disappointment. The show understands what is important, and that is the characters, and therefore uses them to wrap itself up without short-changing the audience.
An American remake starring Harvey Keitel would attempt to “better” the ending and fail miserably, while the British sequel/spin-off series, Ashes to Ashes, attempts to over explain it, and ultimately winds up spoiling the idea. But it is here, with Life on Mars, that we get 16 perfect episodes with excellent performances and strong through line that ends when and how it needs to.
A possible third series has recently been announced, nearly 13 years after the show ended. What this will bring to the table remains a mystery, although I will say I am more than happy to spend more time in the company of these characters. I just hope these new episodes don’t detract anything from the brilliance of what is already there.
A gritty 70s set crime show based in Manchester, a poignant and thoughtful drama that tackles weighty, controversial and timely topics, and a high-concept time-travel sci-fi are not genres that one would necessarily think to place together. But Life on Mars makes each and everyone of the fit as part of a satisfying, enjoyable, and excellent whole.
The entire 16 episodes are available on BBC iPlayer, so you really do have no excuse not to watch it. And I promise you it is well worth your time.