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precarious since 1997 | by maryann johanson

‘Life on Mars’ blogging: Episode 1

(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)

Getting a later start on this than I anticipated, but here we go…
So Life on Mars begins, and it looks so very, very modern, so very of-the-moment:

The cops look like they could as well be lawyers or accountants

or any other specialist, they’re dressed just-so. And their office is just as crisp, just as clean and shiny:

The Brits have made a stand in recent years in televised stories about the modern police that, while the plots may be gritty and the characters may be deeply flawed, are, in style, slick, smart, and sophisticated. Prime Suspect. Trial and Retribution. MI-5. And Life on Mars looks, at first, to be another show like that. Police work is not just a job, it’s a profession: a skilled vocation demanding education and dedication. (Whether that’s true or not isn’t at issue: it’s how the work has been presented of late.) The police are meticulous

interrogations are calm and orderly

with the suspect accompanied by his lawyer, his shrink, and his social worker. There are many i’s to be dotted and t’s to be crossed, and not a one of them is missed.

It doesn’t seem odd or strange until we wake up, with DCI Sam Tyler, in 1973. The culture shock of the time traveler isn’t just that suddenly a Jeep is a military vehicle instead of an upscale SUV, or that an iPod has been replaced by 8-track. It’s the aura of decay and neglect that Sam finds himself staring at (apart from, of course, the fact that he’s staring at anything at all, other than, perhaps, paramedics and an ambulance). It’s the profound ugliness of everything surrounding him. We are stunned along with Sam

to see how dreary 1973 looks

though that’s surely not precisely how it would have looked to 1973 eyes, we can assume: the 1973ians certainly don’t see their world as dreary. It’s just that it’s so radically different, to our eyes. And the ugliness is not so much in the appearance of the world but in its attitudes. The absolute bloody brilliance of Life on Mars is that we see it all through Sam’s perspective, Sam who shares our 21st-century mindset. LoM would not have worked on anywhere near the same scale of depth or intensity as merely a cop show set in the early 1970s. It’s in how the show is a sort of reverse science fiction that it becomes so astonishing, so surprising, so mindblowing. When we look back at old SF that has looked ahead to the future, it’s often amazing how little it got right, which technologies and cultural changes it missed that have altered the world beyond the recognition of someone from 1930, 1940, 1950.

And when Sam looks at 1973 (and we along with him), he sees the things that the 1973ians would almost certainly not have any idea would be about to change, and so radically, in so short a time: The decline of cigarette smoking. The rise in power and authority of women. And, specific to the work of police, the importance of forensics, of the ideas that criminals and victims have rights, or even that there are methodical, scientific ways that the work of solving a crime can be done.

The more I think about LoM, the more impressed I am with the basic concept of it, at the daring of it: It is simply downright audacious a notion, to send a 2006 cop back in time to show us how fundamentally the world has changed in so short a time. Back to the Future did this, but it made the temporal culture shock funny; Quantum Leap played with temporal culture shock once in a while, but then would almost instantly leap away from it. There hasn’t been anything even remotely like Life on Mars before.

And yet… there’s nothing cartoonish about any of this. There’s nothing simple about it. It’s not “1973 neanderthal and unenlightened, 2006 good and noble and mature.” Part of why LoM is so appealing is that there’s an energy to life in 1973 as depicted here, for all its many drawbacks (certainly for me as a woman!). The music sure as hell is way better than the music today. And though Sam accuses his 1973 boss, DCI Gene Hunt, of being “some thug [who] crawled out of some dark little pit in the back of [his] mind,” that’s not true. Gene is a man of his time, given easily to violence and alpha-male intimidation

but he’s not an unthinking brute. When Sam asks for Annie’s help to psychologically profile the killer the 1973 cops are after — she’s got a BA in psychology, after all — the guys in the squad room hoot and leer and only reluctantly pay attention… and when Annie is done with her quite insightful analysis, Ray (a real neanderthal) has only this to say: “Forget the mind reading act, let’s get down to the striptease.” But Gene has been paying close attention, and is not derisive. He may know that he cannot fully embrace the idea of a “plonk” contributing significantly to an investigation, lest it bring down derision on him from the men he’s supposed to be leading, but he’s open to the idea.

The converse is true, too. Sam is not a caricature of some sort of 21st-century overly sensitive metrosexual wimp. Sure, he cries actual tears when he’s worried about his girlfriend/fellow officer Maya, who appears to have been kidnapped by the serial killer they were hunting in 2006:

But we also see him beat up on a suspect when he has to (or thinks he does — his 21st-century cop isn’t so progressive that he won’t resort of violence):

And we see that in 1973, confusion and frustration also make him lash out aggressively. Sam is very much a man in all the ways that the world still considers a male human being to be appropriately manly.

LoM may be a bit of Back to the Future and Quantum Leap, but it’s mostly The Wizard of Oz. When we meet Sam in 2006, he’s in a bit of crisis over his work and his private life: he and Maya are obviously having trouble in their relationship, and he’s stymied in finding the killer they’re after. Maya chides him about how he “used to believe in gut feeling” and wonder “what happened”? To which Sam complains: “What use are feelings in this room?” And then he “meets” Gene Hunt, who is all gut feeling and instant action. Life on Mars to me makes the most sense as Sam’s dream about getting back to his roots, figuratively as well as literally (he’ll meet his own mother in a later episode), personally as well as professionally. This is, in this one episode, Sam’s subconscious putting together pieces of a puzzle connected between 1973 and 2006, pieces that he already has in 2006. But this is all — across all the 16 episodes of the show — about Sam reconciling what it means to be a cop, and to be the man that he is. Just as The Wizard of Oz is about Dorothy finding herself, LoM is about Sam finding himself.

It starts to come together here in the wonderful, wonderful scene in which Sam and Gene are questioning a woman who my have some vital information to their case, the scene in which Sam and Gene finally find some common ground and connect with each other.

Sam simply can’t find the right tack with her, and ends up intimidating her. But Gene knows just the right thing to say to loosen her memory. It’s not only yet another demonstration of Gene as more shrewd than he might appear at first, but it shows Sam that as well: that perhaps there’s something he can learn from Gene. This scene is a gem of an example of what television can do: it’s a brilliant piece of writing, of acting, of drama.

The depth and the breadth of the writing here makes LoM work on multiple levels, and endlessly rewards re-viewing — there’s always something new to discover, some new interpretation of Sam’s dilemma that pops up. I get a huge kick out of how Life on Mars works on the meta level of commentary on how we create and consume media. TV isn’t just a window into another reality, as it explicitly is for Sam here

through which he appears to hear the voices of, in this episode, doctors working on him and the medical machinery his injured 2006 body would seem to be hooked up to. It’s a reflection of our own reality outside the context of its own fantasy. I cannot help but see a metaphor for the illusion of the past the show itself creates in the scene in which Sam wonders at how his mind seems to be inventing this illusion. He says to Annie, “I mean, this is just…” and indicates the street scene before them with wordless amazement.

And the camera does a 360 pan around the scene, taking in all the people in 1970s costumes, the old-fashioned prams and cars and buses.

It looks like an amazing replica to Sam in precisely the same way it looks like an amazing replica to us on the other side of the screen.

It’s “just madness,” Sam concludes. (And then he’s about to “follow the yellow brick road” until his mind can’t invent any more… which would spoil the dream. And so his subconscious stops him from doing so by drawing him in to the record store, where he finds the breakthrough clue that will solve the case.)

Nelson the pub owner is another wonderful example of the show as a metaphor for itself. He is an example of the “magic Negro” stereotype

but if we take him as a construct of Sam’s subconscious, then we should probably accept that someone like Nelson would be inevitable in Sam’s dreamworld. For whatever Sam’s own biases or lack thereof are, Sam is a product of our world and a consumer of our media, so the fact that Sam would unconsciously replicate such a stereotype is itself an indictment of the stereotype. And yet, even Sam’s subconscious is hip to the bullshit of the stereotype because Nelson “reveals” to Sam — but not to the other people in the pub — that his Jamaican accent is a put-on; he actually has what sounds like a pretty basic Manchester accent; there is, in fact, nothing exotic about him. “Folks just seem happier with the other Nelson,” he “confides” to Sam… which we could read as the 1973 people in Sam’s head being unable to see through the stereotype that Nelson is, but Sam, with his 21st-century sophistication and tolerance, can.

Random thoughts on Episode 1:

• Every damn time I watch this episode, I yell at Sam to be careful, to watch out, to not step back into the road:

But he never hears me.

• I find it intriguing that Sam’s car in 1973

bears a marked resemblance to the one that hits Sam in 2006:

• I believe there is a reasonable argument to be made, if you buy the “it’s all a dream” theory (and I do), that all the terrific music we hear throughout the entirety of the series is actually all on Sam’s iPod:

• Right from the moment of his accident, while he’s still lying on the pavement, Sam is already dreaming of/having visions of the woods, the old-fashioned shoe

and the girl in the red dress:

They don’t mean much now, but they will later…

• I think this must be the most depressing room I have ever seen:

• God, the pub is dire, too:

• Can someone familiar with the city let me know if this is, in fact, the ugliest building in Manchester, either in 2006

or in 1973?

(The contrast between these two images highlights, too, how just adding a filter to a camera or tweaking the color postproduction — or even just shooting at different times of day with different levels of sunlight — can significantly impact how you react emotionally to what is, basically, the same subject. The first image is sunny, shiny, elegant — the sky is blue, the air is clear. The second image is drab, oppressive — the air feels thick and smoggy, and the blue of the sky is dimmer and duller.)

• When Sam asks, in the pub, for a Diet Coke, I always think of Marty McFly asking for a Tab, and then for a Pepsi Free, in the malt shop. And maybe Sam is thinking of that too, because then he says, “I’m just joking.”

• I love this moment

when Sam places his hand over Annie’s heart to try to determine if she’s real or not. Because it’s not really about him trying to figure out if she’s real — Annie’s points out that Sam is “clever enough to know that what you’re saying [about time travel or comas] can’t be true,” but actually, Sam is clever enough to know that his brain is gonna do whatever it has to do to convince him this is real, including giving Annie a heartbeat. It’s about him trying to make a connection with another person.

Part of what makes Sam Tyler instantly one of the most memorable characters in TV history is that his loneliness is so abject. When he hugs the television — through which it appears he is receiving some sort of communication from his 2006 reality — and begs, sobbing, not to be left alone in this nightmare, is one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever seen on TV. I think that’s when I fell in love with Sam for the first time (though I pretty much fell in love anew with each new episode, and I miss him desperately now that he’s gone).

• Oh my goodness, but WPC Annie Cartwright is so adorable

that I want to simply eat her up.

• No wonder Colin Raimes grew up to be a serial killer. This kid

is seriously creepy on a Village of the Damned level.

• Great quotes:

“I’m not mad. I’m not. I had an accident, and I woke up 33 years in the past. Now, that either makes me a time traveler, or a lunatic, or I’m lying in a hospital bed in 2006 and none of this is real.” –Sam

“Which part of my subconscious do you hail from?” –Sam, to Nelson

“You’re not lost, pal. You’re where you are.” –Nelson

“End! Finish!” –Sam, to the 1973 world at large (as if he were playing a video game, or were stuck on a holodeck)

“I was four in 1973.” –Sam

(next: Episode 2)


Watch Life on Mars S01 E01 online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.


viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb

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