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hail HYDRA | by maryann johanson

‘Life on Mars’ blogging: Episode 2

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(all spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode… or unless you don’t care if it’s spoiled for you. this is a love fest only — all complaints and bitching must come from a place of love / previous: Episode 1)
You can’t exactly say that Sam is settling into 1973, because everywhere he turns, everything is different: big things, little things, things it probably never would even have occurred to him would be different at all, if he’d ever bothered to think about how daily life has changed in a third of a century. From the horseradish that’s actually tapioca pudding to the razor that makes Sam do a double take

it seems that there’s nothing Sam can’t do here in 1973 that his own unconsidered expectations can’t flummox.

And this is most true when it comes to his work. His attempts to caution Trent about his rights, and then wondering whether it’s “too early” for this, just confuse Gene, who interrupts him to yell at Trent, “You’re nicked!” It’s almost understandable that the notion that accused people have rights is something that cops might hold in contempt — especially a cop like Gene Hunt, who insists that he has “never fitted anyone up who hasn’t deserved it.” But our sensibilities are totally rocked — as Sam’s are — when the extent to which no one appears to have any right to be treated with respect by the police is made clear here. (The first episode touched on this, but here is where we start to learn how pervasive the attitude is.) Sam’s frustrating conversation with Chris, who wants to “trip up” witnesses, seems so counterproductive to us: Why would the cops want to make witnesses uncomfortable? And Gene’s treatment of poor Leonard, making fun of his deafness, absolutely tormenting a guy who has done nothing wrong and had only the misfortune to witness a criminal getaway, is flabbergasting. This — and, oh yeah, his smirking harassment of the “tits in a jumper” witness — make it an uphill climb to develop even grudging respect for Gene.

This is one of the scenes from the entire series that is seared into my memory, because it’s so unexpected a reminder of how radically different the world was, in many ways, as recently as when I was a small child. June has been shot by the diamond thieves, and Sam — who has obviously had some training as a first-responder, as we would likely expect from a police detective in a major Western city — is telling the paramedics about her plummeting blood pressure and that she needs saline for the blood loss. But he can only watch with increasing horror as they do nothing for her, just scoop her up off the road and wheel her into the ambulance:

Because of course these guys aren’t paramedics: they just drive the ambulance. It’s astonishing to think that Sam’s first-responder training would be like science fiction to the ambulance drivers: an ambulance driver’s job hasn’t changed much, in 1973, from a hundred years earlier: all that has changed is the vehicle he drives! And yet things have changed so rapidly since then that Sam’s quick-and-dirty training, which is just a step above basic first aid — he’s hardly a medical professional — is far more advanced than anything, it seems, it had occurred to anyone in 1973 that a first-responder should be able to do. I’m not sure that the notion of a “first-responder” even existed at this point. Probably the lessons learned in battlefield medicine in Vietnam had not yet begun to trickle down to urban environments.

It’s so appallingly primitive, to our eyes and to Sam’s: these are the things he never would have thought about. Sure, the clothes look funny and there’s no cell phones, only giant cackling radios, but that’s a given. But this

And that’s when Gene — who is also, at the moment, feeling as frustrated as Sam, if for different reasons — explodes. He pushes Sam’s face into June’s blood on the ground:

Clean it up! I want you to clean it up! She works at the station — she’s one of us. And I want to be able to look her dad in the eye and say you cleaned up every drop of her precious blood.

Gene blames Sam, of course, because Sam insisted on treating their suspect, Trent, as we would expect Sam to want to treat him: within the bounds of the law. They had no evidence on him, and Sam refused to let Gene invent some evidence, so they had to let Trent go… and now his gang has shot June during their getaway.

And the dramatic brilliance of this episode, and particularly in this scene, is that there is nothing black-and-white about it. No one is entirely right or entirely wrong: the situation is simply beyond easy answers. Of course you can’t invent evidence, even if you “know” someone is “guilty.” Of course you want to do what you can to keep bad guys off the street. And this isn’t merely an exercise in exploring historical ethics versus modern: the script explicitly references what is going on back in Sam’s real world of 2006 (“This place is like Guantanamo Bay.” –Sam / “Give over, it’s nothing like Spain.” –Gene). It suggests, in fact, that Gene’s ethics are not merely historical, but are very much alive in the 21st century.

Of course, plenty of people in the 21st century aren’t in the least bit horrified by Guantanamo Bay, and would likely heartily approve of Gene’s ethics. And that’s what’s so brilliant about Life on Mars, too: bringing Sam into the story, with his 21st-century perspective on 1973, makes the story very different than what a straight-up historical police drama would have been. The ambulance bit, for one, wouldn’t have been part of a straight-up historical police drama — it would have been superfluous. And Sam’s reaction to Gene in this scene brings in the complex and conflicting reaction that any thinking person surely goes through when faced with a situation like this. Gene’s ethics here are in conflict with law-and-order philosophies that obviously long predate the 1970s, that it’s better to let guilty people go free than it is to punish the innocent. Equally obviously, we’ve had lots of problems with putting those philosophies into practice and are still struggling with them even today. Obviously, too, part of the reason we’re having those problems is because letting guilty people go free sometimes has terrible consequences on a personal level, such as the shooting of June.

So we’re able to identify with Sam’s exasperation when he screams back at Gene:

This entire place is cracked! You can’t blame me, you lunatic bastard. I didn’t do this. They did it.

But clearly, Sam blames himself, too:

Part of Sam’s actions here is a performance for Gene’s benefit, a sort of parody of self-flagellation. But some of it closer to actual self-flagellation, too, because of course Sam is feeling guilty for June’s having to pay a price for something she had nothing to do with.

Another brilliant aspect of the premise — 2006 guy stuck in 1973 — is that it creates multiple possible interpretations of just what the heck is going on. Sam gives us his options: in a coma, gone mad, or genuinely back in time. But in writing about this episode, another possibility just occurred to me… and it suddenly seems like the most likely explanation. (Well, likely when graded on a science fiction scale, anyway.) Could it be that Sam is both in a coma and actually back in time? There’s so much intrusion by medical noises from a presumed hospital bed where a presumed comatose Sam is lying that it seems an inescapable conclusion that Sam is suffering some medical crisis. We run through a gamut of situations in which Sam hears machines that go ping and gets other sensory feedback from a hospital (nurses’ voices, the smell of urine): in some he is asleep in 1973 (which could indicate a dream within a dream, à la Inception!), but in others he is awake. So perhaps we can take it as a given that at one level of reality, Sam’s body is in a hospital in 2006.

But what if — as in Jack Finney’s brilliant novel Time and Again, or as in Quantum Leap — Sam’s body hasn’t moved through time but his mind has? (Maybe Sam’s name is meant to be a reference to Dr. Samuel Beckett?) I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before, but considering all the unexpected differences Sam finds in 1973 made me suddenly wonder if his mind would be able to invent differences that he would have been previously unaware of. (Of course, that’s assuming that all the differences he sees are actually authentic to the real 1973, or that he hadn’t merely forgotten things he knew about the world of 1973; perhaps, for instance, during his first-responder training he learned a history of how police dealt with emergency medical situations, which is lingering in the back of his memory.)

On the other hand, it’s possible that Sam has gone mad and is dreaming, in which case the medical noises he’s hearing are just part of an insane dream.

I’m starting to think, though, that the real/unreal divide is a lot more complicated than it has seemed even upon first, second, and third viewings…

Oh, and one more thing is clear: With two references in this episode to Star Trek and one to The Wizard of Oz, the writers had fun inventing reasons for us to chase our own tails down a rabbit hole of meta while we try to unravel what’s real here and what isn’t.

Random thoughts on Episode 2:

• This is why you shouldn’t sleep with the TV on: weird late-night shit gets in your head:

and won’t go away:

• Philip Glenister is a brave, brave actor:

• I love how Sam just sails by Gene and Chris, who are huffing and puffing and having a hard time of it:

I figure that Sam probably runs for exercise back home in the future. And, of course, he doesn’t smoke.

• Sam cannot let his meticulous preparation go:

The contrast with Gene’s idea of what’s needed in an interrogation creates an amusing contrast:

• Big plate o’ beige food:

Ugh.

• I don’t like thinking about how terrible must be that bottle of house red

that Sam takes away from Nelson’s bar.

• Usually it’s the bad guys who look like a rogues’ gallery, not the good guys:

• Chris is starting to give hints that he might just be teachable:

Or is he just malleable?

Ray, on the other hand:

I hate Ray.

• But God do I love Annie! When she and Sam are facing Trent and his gang, and Annie forces Leonard back with her “Stay behind me, we’ll protect ya”… man, she is a boatload of awesome.

• Sam is such a good guy, but he definitely is a guy. He’s gonna fight with Gene — physically fight him:

and then they’re best friends?

Oh, just fuck already.

• The scene with Trent’s aunt is probably the most disturbing example — at least in this episode — of the callousness of the 1973 police. Yeah, sure, the cops are probably well within the legal and ethical rights to search her apartment in their hunt for Trent, but there’s absolutely no reason for them to be tossing her underwear into the courtyard: that goes beyond harassment and into the realm of, it seems to me, criminal intimidation. And to shove her own panties into her mouth?

Jesus. I don’t care if she is calling them “piece of scum bastard scum” and “rotten bloody filth.” This is nasty.

• I like to think that the set and costume designers must have had a ball scouring secondhand and thrift shops for the ugliest 70s stuff they could find. Cuz no one is making making curtains like this anymore:

• Great quotes:

“I had an accident, and I woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever’s happened, it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet.” –Sam (over the opening credits)

“You have to believe in the people around ya.” –Annie
“That would be nice.” –Sam

“I love this city. Its mess, its noise. Prozzies, drunks, stray dogs, little old men. I’m not squeaky clean, nor is this place. The rest of the country couldn’t give a thrupenny bit about this town. The orphans take whoever they can get to look after ’em. That’s me.” –Gene

(next: Episode 3)


Watch Life on Mars S01 E02 online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
  • Rose

    No, those curtains still exist in NHS hospitals, probably those exact ones.

  • Mimi

    That little girl from the TV is terrifying. My God. Make her stop!!

    MaryAnn — a thought — a little more plot synopsis might help — having watched these all on DVD, they blend together a bit and I can’t pick out this ep in my mind from the overall story arc. Possibly other readers have the same problem.

    But I’m thrilled in any case to read the LoM blogging! Thanks!

  • http://www.newbspeak.com Newbs

    Just wanted to reiterate my suggestion to pause these Life on Mars blogs and go ahead and finish watching all of Ashes to Ashes first. You’ll be glad you did, I think. :)

  • MaryAnn

    You’ll be glad you did, I think. :)

    They’re two different shows. They should be able to stand on their own, no matter whatever connections there may be between them.

  • MaryAnn

    I’m trying not to repeat information that is already available online. There are straightforward recaps of episodes all around the Web, including at Wikipedia.

    I think I’m hitting all the vital plot points as they connect to the points I’m making. At least, I thought I was. Do I really need to recap more than I am? Anyone else have an opinion on this?

  • lethe

    Fantastic blog posts, MaryAnn.

    As someone who has seen both LoM and Ashes to Ashes, I don’t agree with the suggestion that you should watch the whole of A2A first. LoM can stand perfectly well on its own and should be judged on its own merits first. Then, when you have seen the A2A finale, it might be a good idea to do a blog post about how it has changed your perception of LoM (if it has indeed).

    Personally I don’t need more plot synopsis, but I’ve watched the whole series over and over in the past three months, so I may not be the best judge!

    His attempts to caution Trent about his rights, and then wondering whether it’s “too early” for this, just confuse Gene

    I’m not sure what you mean by “too early”. Sam says something like “No, that’s not how it goes.” He reads Trent the wrong rights, because the phrasing has changed from 1973 to 2006. It is a sort of running gag during the series that Sam uses the wrong phrase, until he finally gets it right.

  • Lisa

    Yeah if we want to read recaps, there are many other sources for that.

    I’d like to see your purer reaction to LOM before the A2A finale, actually.

    LOM does stand on its own, as does A2A. A2A’s finale does make you go, ok Ray’s a hateful bastard but then again, he hates himself, doesn’t he? I had a smidgen more sympathy for him at the end of it.

  • Mimi

    I don’t mean full recaps, I meant a sentence or two more so I can remember more than “this was the episode where the girl was in the car near the jeweler and got shot” — which is basically what I remember from the screen shots posted — and thus comment more substantively.

    It was just a suggestion (and lordy, I feel like I get shot down in the comments every time I make one around here…) I know there are full recaps around the web, and maybe everyone else remembers each specific ep more clearly than I do — so carry on.

  • MaryAnn

    (and lordy, I feel like I get shot down in the comments every time I make one around here…)

    Sorry. I didn’t mean to make you feel that way.

  • Mimi

    Hey, thanks, I appreciate that.

    Onward with Life on Mars blogging! :)

  • Sue Linge

    This is wonderful – I’ve just come across it via the Railway Arms LOM/A2A fan website and you are certainly a fan! We are currently re-watching the entire first series with a view to watching all LOM and A2A one episode a week. We are up to Episode 3 next week. Can’t wait to see your blog!

  • MaryAnn

    I’m not sure what you mean by “too early”. Sam says something like “No, that’s not how it goes.” He reads Trent the wrong rights, because the phrasing has changed from 1973 to 2006. It is a sort of running gag during the series that Sam uses the wrong phrase, until he finally gets it right.

    I assume Sam is worried whether the caution had been introduced at all yet. The Miranda warning in the U.S. didn’t come into being until the late 1960s.

  • http://www.newbspeak.com Newbs

    ***very mild (potential) spoilers for Ashes to Ashes below***

    lethe (Mon Aug 02 10, 5:28AM):

    As someone who has seen both LoM and Ashes to Ashes, I don’t agree with the suggestion that you should watch the whole of A2A first. LoM can stand perfectly well on its own and should be judged on its own merits first.

    Oh, I absolutely agree. But this is a re-watch. MaryAnn has already seen (and so have most of us, I’m sure) every episode. And while I also agree that Ashes to Ashes and Life on Mars are two different shows, they’re actually quite tightly connected; same creative team, same characters, same story. Ashes to Ashes is really Life on Mars series 3, 4, and 5.

    And although it’s very difficult to explain why without spoilers, I will say this: not being able to discuss Ashes to Ashes puts you at a severe disadvantage when participating in a re-watch of Life on Mars. Sort of like doing an in-depth analysis of Star Wars without having seen Empire or Jedi. You’re gonna end up saying some pretty silly things about Luke and Leia, for instance — which isn’t such a bad thing, I suppose, but I know it would make me want to start over from the beginning once I found out all the stuff I didn’t know.

    And my point is this: because the creators of Life on Mars always knew what was going on (unlike Lost, for example) it is debilitating for those of us who love the show(s) not to be able to discuss the full plot arc in these commentaries. In short, there is stuff every Life on Mars / Ashes to Ashes fan should know by now. And not knowing it makes these blog posts less relevant (and insightful) than they could be, and far less fun to participate in.

    Hope that makes sense!! :)

  • lethe

    I assume Sam is worried whether the caution had been introduced at all yet. The Miranda warning in the U.S. didn’t come into being until the late 1960s.

    I’m not British, but according to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miranda_warning) the first ‘rights’ were formulated as early as 1912 in England and Wales, so they should have been firmly established by 1973. (Of course for Gene Hunt, never a stickler for procedure, “You’re nicked!” is quite enough.)

    As it happens, I have just rewatched an episode from the first series of A2A in which Alex reads a suspect his rights and Gene says, “That’s not how it goes!”

    It would make sense, because the “it may harm your defence if you do not mention, when questioned, something which you later rely on in court” was not added until 1994.

  • lethe

    It would probably make sense if I changed the “It would make sense” in my previous comment to “It makes sense”… Sorry about that. :)

  • lethe

    ***possible spoilers for Ashes to Ashes and the end of Life on Mars***

    Newbs (Thu Aug 05 10, 4:23PM):

    but I know it would make me want to start over from the beginning once I found out all the stuff I didn’t know.

    Definitely not a bad thing in my opinion! I can’t watch this series enough. :)

    the creators of Life on Mars always knew what was going on

    I don’t believe for a moment they had it all planned out right from the beginning. Matthew Graham especially has been contradicting himself all over the place. After LoM finished he made a very definitive statement about how it should be/should have been interpreted, but now A2A, particularly series 3, has changed all that again.

    there is stuff every Life on Mars / Ashes to Ashes fan should know by now.

    But, as MaryAnn said, most people in North America have not been able to watch (the whole of) A2A yet. (The LoM box set didn’t even come out there until two months ago!) Plus I know plenty of people who loved LoM but hated A2A and will not have anything to do with it.

    Personally, I didn’t watch LoM until halfway through the third series of A2A, and then only because all the allusions went over my head and I was afraid the ending of A2A would be completely lost on me. In those three months I have already seen LoM six times (yes, I love it to bits), and I’m perfectly happy to regard it in its own right. I am currently on my first rewatch of A2A and after that I will decide whether I will integrate both shows in my mind or whether I will continue seeing them as two connected, but separate entities.

    Hope that makes sense!! :)

    I completely understand where you’re coming from, although I still don’t agree with you. :)

    Hope my rambling made some sense too.

  • Lisa

    A2A did not have a better finale than Lost – I’m sick of people saying that when there’s not that much in it.

    I agree – no way they planned it all out like they did Lost.

    Some people are watching LOM for the first time and the end of A2A will ruin that for them. It’s better to watch them in order, then if you like it, re-watch them from a different perspective.

  • http://www.newbspeak.com Newbs

    Lisa (Fri Aug 06 10, 8:06AM):

    A2A did not have a better finale than Lost – I’m sick of people saying that when there’s not that much in it.

    We should probably leave this discussion alone until we can do it with spoilers, but I will clarify: I loved the Lost finale; thought it was brilliant. But I don’t kid myself into thinking that’s where it was headed all along. With LoM and AtA I feel less guilty about thinking it was all planned out, because it’s such a tight narrative.

  • Kelley

    I also like the subtle sight gags – like Chris in “swimmies”

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