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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Life on Mars: Series 1 (U.K. version) (review)

Cop to the Future

(This is a spoiler-free introduction to the original British series, for those who may not be familiar with it. I’ll soon start spoiler-heavy, episode-by-episode discussions of Series 1 for those already deeply into the show.)

It’s rare that I feel comfortable raving this definitively, so I’m not gonna hold back now: Life on Mars — the real Life on Mars, the British one, not the tepid, cowardly, ultimately pointless, and now canceled American remake that aired last fall and this spring on ABC — might be the best TV series ever.
In the U.S., it would barely qualify as a series at all: it’s only 16 episodes in total, less than what is generally considered enough to fill a single season on American broadcast TV… and a show ain’t considered proper at all until it passes the 100-episode mark, because that’s when the dough can really start rolling in, when a series goes into syndication. And that’s where the American Life on Mars fell down, badly: it took what is basically a televised novel with a specific, definite ending and tried to turn it into something open-ended, in the hopes that the premise could be stretched out to at least 100 episodes. But that’s like remaking the original Star Wars trilogy and dragging it out to something 20 times as long. And instead of revealing in Episode 2 that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, the writers would merely be keeping that possibility in mind for the future, perhaps to deploy during sweeps weeks in the middle of the second season. And actually, the writers aren’t even sure if Vader is Luke’s father at all. Maybe Vader is Han’s father…

Now, the proper Life on Mars is coming to DVD in the U.S. — the first batch of eight episodes will be released on July 28 by Acorn Media (it’s been available in Region 2 for ages) — so everyone can see how desperately ABC screwed it up. I have a great fear, however, that anyone who was introduced to Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt on American TV will look at this brilliant series and see it only as a reflection of the other, and miss the sheer perfection of it. Which would be a terrible shame.

The premise: Manchester DCI Sam Tyler — a Detective Chief Inspector is a fairly high-ranking cop — is hunting a serial killer in 2005 (which is when this series dates from) when he’s hit by a car and wakes up in 1973. Sam figures he’s either gone crazy, he’s in a coma and dreaming, or else he really has gone back in time. Until he discovers the truth, he’s stuck being a cop in the unenlightened past, when the rights of the accused — hell, even the rights of the victim! — were an unimagined fantasy, forensics had barely moved on from Sherlock Holmes, and the only thing hanging heavier than testosterone in the air of the squad room was cigarette smoke.

Where the American version turned 1970s New York into a cartoonishly overbright time-travel theme park — hey, look at the funny hippies! — Sam’s 1973 Manchester is gritty, complex, and totally realistic. In fact, as someone who is almost exactly Sam’s age and who did actually live in New York City as a child in 1973, just like American Sam did, Manchester Sam and his predicament and his weird journey through his childhood feels far more genuine to me. The entirety of the British production deserves all accolades that can be rained down upon them, but much of the credit goes to John Simm, the best actor you’ve never heard of (the only thing American audiences may have seen him in is Doctor Who, as the Doctor’s archenemy the Master). Simm’s Sam is a smart, sensitive, frustrated, expressive, explosive man. He’s never merely a character — he feels like someone you know, and his situation becomes increasingly affecting the more time you spend with him.

The British Life on Mars — have I urged you yet not to miss this? — is like a subtly clever blending of The Wizard of Oz and Back to the Future: it’s deeply emotional without ever getting mushy, broodingly funny without every crossing over into self-parody (as the American remake often did), and compulsively addictive. Yes, it’s only 16 episodes — the second batch is coming eventually from Acorn, I presume — but that just makes the experience all the more bittersweet. The producers of the American remake insisted they had dozens of possible explanations for Sam’s fix, but that left that retelling of Sam’s story feeling at odds from the very beginning. There is a resolution in sight for Manchester Sam, and you can sense it barreling toward him — and us — right from the get-go. It lends Life on Mars an urgency that is powerfully appealing, and the rich narrative tapestry of every individual episode rewards multiple re-viewings, in much the same way that a favorite novel bears up to multiple readings, and it’s so well-written that it reveals new secrets on each go-round.

(Bonus features include audio commentaries on every episode, making-of featurettes, and more.)


MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • Series 2 is due for Region 1 release on November 24th: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B002AS45NI/

  • Karen P

    I am soooo conflicted – Life on Mars and Children of the Earth will be released on the same day. I’m desperately hoping that my Netflix 3-at-a-time plan will scoop up both of the Torchwoods and the first Life on Mars disc. Gah!

  • Matthew

    I had a quick scoot around Amazon and there are a couple of other things featuring John Simm that are currently being distributed as Region 1 DVDs. The first is State of Play ,which I know you love, and the second is Human Traffic, which is a pretty good film about the UK dance scene. Oh and he also makes a brief appearance at the beginning of series two of Spaced.

  • Saladinho

    Cool little tidbit: apparently, Sam Tyler is named after Rose from Dr. Who.

  • joe

    The first time I saw John Simm, it was playing Bernard Sumner in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, which predated his time on Doctor Who by quite a bit and got a limited US theatrical release.

    Granted that probably the only people who saw it in this country were Joy Division fans, general Anglophiles like yourself, and people who went back and watched some of Steve Coogan’s pre-Hollywood movies.

  • Helen

    I am sooo glad that viewers in America will finally be able to see the real LoM. I was raving about this series to all my friends for month now.

    I am really looking forward for your episode-by-episode discussions of LoM, MaryAnn. As you said, it might be the best TV series ever.

    And to all, who want to see the best of Simm, watch “Crime and Punishment”, made in 2002. Not only he is great in it as Raskolnikov, but the whole two part series itself is brilliant. I am Russian and it’s one of very few adaptation of Dostoevsky, by others than Russians, which did not make me squirm while watching it.

  • Ide Cyan

    I saw a fair amount of the first season of LoM, but I think I like the spin-off, Ashes to Ashes, better. For the 80s settings, Keeley Hawes, there being more female characters, etc. But I haven’t seen S2 of either series yet. And I have no idea when A2A will get a region 1 DVD release. (But I hope that when it does they’ll keep all the original music in, and not have to replace some of it as sometimes happens when British series cross over to this side of the pond.)

  • Matthew

    Cool little tidbit: apparently, Sam Tyler is named after Rose from Dr. Who.

    The characters original name was Sam Williams and the production team asked for a different surname. Matthew Graham asked his young daughter to suggest a name and she came up with Tyler. It was only later that he realised she had been inspired by Rose Tyler.

    Funnily enough Tyler is a recurring surname in Russell T Davies scripts as is Harkness. Also recurring as a surname is Jones, but that’s a pretty common name anayway.

  • Lisa

    I love John Simm (for a long time)

    you should check out the Lakes he’s also in the first episode of Clocking Off which you should take a look at too (Ecclestone makes an appearance as a slutty pilot in Series too oddly enough he’s in it with the nanny from Series 4 Episode 1 of Doctor Who)

    Ashes to Ashes (the sequel to LOM) sucks a bit but the second series had a great ending and suggests that in Series 3 we will really find out who Gene Hunt is

  • Lisa

    Great in Cracker too but you already know that probably

    The Devil’s Whore was pretty good too

    Life on Mars didn’t have enough sci fi in it for me and didn’t really convince as a cop drama

    Gene Hunt kinda descends into parody at times now he’s just a collection of catchphrases – fire up the quattro, etc

    In the Uk tho they do a special show you can access after the Ashes to Ashes episode has finished and you can watch all the music videos/ performances that have featured in the show with “ironic” commentary by Hunt and that’s the best part of the show for me!

  • Saladinho

    Right you are Matthew, about how Sam Tyler got his name. I didn’t mean to suggest it was done by the writers of the show. I just thought it was cool that it happened at all…

  • blake

    I can’t wait for your review of A2A !
    It’s a bit hit and miss but the ending of the second series makes it all worth it !

  • allochthon

    Anyone know for sure if the Region 1 DVDs of LoM had to switch out some of the music? If so, I’ll have to buy region 2.

    Thank you, MaryAnn, for blogging LoM!

  • Matthew

    Right you are Matthew, about how Sam Tyler got his name. I didn’t mean to suggest it was done by the writers of the show. I just thought it was cool that it happened at all…

    I wasn’t meaning to criticise, I just though that the whole story was so cute that it was worth adding the details.

  • Matthew

    Anyone know for sure if the Region 1 DVDs of LoM had to switch out some of the music? If so, I’ll have to buy region 2.

    You could try asking Acorn Media:

    http://acornonline.com/article.asp?ai=7#general

    But you might find that the Region 2 DVD is cheaper, even with shipping, as it’s been out for a while in the UK now.

  • Saladinho

    Matthew: “… I just thought that the whole story was so cute it was worth adding the details.”

    Heh. I know! I was worried that it was too good to be true, actually, which I was I left them out. I was waiting for someone else to back me up, but then I realized after your initial post, that maybe I’d been a little too vague.

  • Mark

    Your right about John Simm,he is the best actor on TV.

    The best series currently on British TV is ‘The street’.We are just heading for episode three here.The first starred Bob Hoskins and the second Anna Friel-its of the highest quality.

  • Terry Peckham

    Hi Mary Ann,

    Been a fan of FF for awhile now, immediately hooked by the writing style and film literacy of someone who is also in touch with her “inner geek” (recent review and criticism of “Knowing” is a perfect recent example)and “inner Anglophile” …

    Seems like I’ve been immersed in British TV for the past year and a half or so, either through download or DVD. Fell in love with “The Last Detective”, then found other shows in a mad search for anything else of that caliber. “Cracker” blew me away; very sorry to reach the end of that series.

    Actually watched all of “Ashes to Ashes” before I knew about the previous series “Life On Mars” ( and had no idea there had been an American version of same until I read your review). After seeing the first episode of LOM, thought that I was in some sort of time-warp, realizing that LOM had actually been made before ATA. Aside from the fact that ATA has a much campier feel than LOM, the overall production values and “sense of place” present in LOM make it by far the more “realized” work (at least to me).

    On a side note: amusing to see Philip Glenister sporting a perfect Yank accent in “Demons” recently (though I can’t recommend the show after watching the first few episodes).

    My own short-list of other British TV: “The Brief”; “The Thick Of It”; “Little Dorrit” (2008); “Foyle’s War”; “A Touch of Frost”; “Lovejoy”; the brilliant quiz show “QI” with Stephen Fry.

    Cheers,

  • Dylan

    So I just finished watching the first series, and MaryAnn, I can honestly say that I agree with every word you’ve written on this series.

    It’s amazing. Bloody amazing and maddening and joyous and just a fantastic piece of television. Thanks for the recommendation – I’ll be eagerly awaiting Series Two on Region 1 DVD!

  • David Armitage

    When this show’s series 2 finale was shown in the UK, it was accused of (a) being overly moralistic and (b) shocking as the result (if anyone hasn’t seen it please stop reading) was shown as suicide in Ashes To Ashes.

    Any penickety fans (including me) will have recognised that DCI Gene Hunt drives an Audi Quattro in A2A. This Wasn’t in Britain during 1981 or 1982! The writers said this was due to Gene going to Germany and getting one. But later on, the script contradicts that!
    “i’ve never been abroad meself, but my guts have, italy , spain, Turkey, Greece, It shat ’em all!”
    COULD SOMEONE EXPLAIN THIS???

  • MissSunshine

    I’m beginning to watch Life on Mars and I like it quite a bit, but it has a long way to go before it can knock down “The Wire” for the best television series.

    I look forward to reading your episode by episode commentary.

  • Dre in Spain

    @Miss Sunshine, please don’t compare The wire to Life on Mars. The Wire has so many levels of realism, whereas Life on Mars is quite a surreal programme. Please don’t judge every cop show against The Wire, because seriously, you’ll never find anything as impressive as The Wire. Life on Mars has a certain mad, dreamlike quality that immediately excludes it from the “proper” cop shows. Life on Mars can never be compared to The Wire. Both shows are equally as awesome. One will prevent you from appreciating any lesser formulaic cop shows, the other will educate you as to the progress of humanity. The Wire truly is an astounding piece of TV, however it should never be compared to LoM. LoM is a history lesson and a piece of entertainment.

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