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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

‘Life on Mars’ blogging: Episode 2

(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:


• 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.

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