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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

‘Life on Mars’ blogging: Episode 3

(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 2)
And here, Sam finally gives in to the dream, or the nightmare, or whatever it is he’s experiencing. He gives himself over to it as, ironically, a way to leave it. The only way out of Oz is through it, he seems to decide over the course of this episode, and so he commits himself to the path of the Yellow Brick Road.

Because here we open on Sam hearing voices on the police radio in Gene’s car, voices apparently from the hospital on the other plane on which his injured body exists. “We know you’re still in there, Sam,” he hears, “but your levels of responsiveness have decreased recently.” This is a scary thought — Sam doesn’t want to die. “Keep fighting, Sam,” he’s told.

So he ramps up his fight with Gene: the fight to assert himself, to bring to bear what he knows about how to do police work, no matter how much it antagonizes Gene and the others. Sam could just relax and go with the flow of this strange 1970s world. But he doesn’t. “Why do you deliberately get his goat?” Chris asks Sam at one point, about how Sam is dealing with Gene. “I need to fight, Chris,” Sam replies.

And yet, the fight turns out to be the only authentic thing, because Sam’s insistence on diligence and procedure and forensics is just as almost-wrong, sorta-right as Gene’s reliance on his gut. This isn’t a battle between Sam’s modern philosophy of policing and something that Gene would laugh at if you called it a philosophy: it’s just about Sam fighting to remain himself. He could be simply along for a ride in this 1973 fantasy world he’s dreaming, but that way lies, it seems, death.

Therein lies, too, another of the many layers of Life on Mars that makes it so enjoyable, so endlessly rewatchable: Sam’s predictament is a metaphor for life. Do you sit back and go with the flow? Or do you make your presence known and try to bend the world to your will, instead of you getting knocked over by the world?

There has been a murder in a textile mill, a horrific slashing/stabbing. Except it isn’t a murder, as Sam and Gene discover after a lot of pushing and pulling over whether it’s best to let blood-splatter patterns and core body temp tell the tale, or if the first bloke wot speaks up at the crime scene is guilty as sin. The victim, Saunders, was not well liked, to say the least, because he’d broken ranks with his fellow union members over whether working triple shifts is an appropriate thing to expect from a working man. The boss liked Saunders, because he was alone among the English lads in seeing how the world was bending people: Saunders, as with the “little brown army” of immigrants, didn’t fight it, gave in to the idea of triple shifts… which was “necessary” because soon, the mill would be cutting its workforce by two-thirds, thanks to new machines that would allow one man to do the work it currently was taking three men to do. (Ironically, Saunders wasn’t killed by a union member for his defiance of the union — as Gene and Sam both suspected — but by a machine the likes of which would be putting humans out of work.)

Saunders let the world bend him, and now he’s dead. If we consider that this is all in Sam’s head, that it’s entirely his imagination that is producing this scenario, it’s extra pointed that this “murder” occurs in the location that will, 30 years in the future, be Sam’s own home. “This is all gonna be flats in 30 years,” he says with stunned amazement as Gene glares at him, utterly mystified at what Sam is babbling about now.

But this death literally hits home for Sam.

He’s under my kitchen table. He’s in my flat.

The “blood” Sam flashes on in his home is nothing like the real blood pooled around Saunders’ body, which is dark, congealed, sticky-looking.

Sam may have the creepy little girl from the TV telling him to give up, lie down, close his eyes, and sleep and sleep forever, but clearly there’s another part of his mind that is warning him to fight, to not give in. But even Sam’s subconscious seems to know fighting is no guarantee of winning… because this dream scenario also features the likes of Ted Bannister, who works at the factory and initially confesses to Saunders’ murder because he believes it’s the best way to get the mill to open again and get all his fellow workers back to work and earning a living (if only temporarily, until the new machines come in). Bannister thinks the mill could go on for another 20, 30, 40 years, if only the union members stick together. Sam knows that won’t happen, not if he’s gonna be living in that mill, in what is clearly upscale luxury.

Is that a kind of bending, too — a factory being converted into flats — or is that a kind of fighting? Annie scoffs at Sam’s notion of factory flats: “Factories should be factories; houses should be houses. I mean, things are meant for a purpose. It’s ridiculous…” Or is that just another way of forging on along the Yellow Brick Road, another kind of push-and-pull, the city itself fighting for survival? Bannister says the mill is “a living thing” — and so maybe the building survived by bending a little, but not too much?

Maybe that’s the important thing: to bend if you must, but not so much that you break…?

More layers…

Sam is fighting, but he bends a little too. The fact that that big can of lager requires two to open is a nice metaphor for how Sam and Gene are learning to work together.

But perhaps it’s also a metaphor for how Sam’s subsconscious is figuring out how to win this battle and wake up: it needs a little push and a little pull…

Random thoughts on Episode 3:

• Just when you start to think you might be able to really like Gene Hunt, he goes and does something truly awful, like humiliating Derek

forcing him to say, “Sorry my dad’s scum” to Gene’s face. What does Gene imagine this could possibly accomplish? Gene seems to be smart enough to realize that the public seeing cops as bullies can’t be a good thing. And Gene seems above such petty bullshit.

Not cool, Gene. Not cool at all.

• Ah, Sam just cannot get it through the heads of his fellow police officers, why the procedure and the meticulousness is so important. First he has Bannister wondering “Is that legal?” about recording Sam and Chris’s interview with him, which is a real head-scratcher. Can’t Bannister see that, whatever purposes the police could put this recording to, it also serves as a protection to him, as someone accused of a crime, that the cops can’t later claim he said something he didn’t say when what he did say is right there on tape? Or is that only obvious to us, in retrospect? Surely Bannister knows someone, or at least knows of someone, who got unfairly in trouble because the police claimed he said something in an interrogation that he didn’t say. The cops have such a lousy reputation here — and clearly no compunction about fitting people up by planting evidence or not investigating if their guts tell them not to — that must have happened.

And then this facepalm moment with Chris:

“The time, Chris?” –Sam

“Four-ish.” –Chris

“Precise time.” –Sam

“Just after four. Er, five, ten past.” –Chris

“Four-oh-seven.” –Sam (looking his watch finally)

“Closer to ten past.” –Chris

“Thank you , DC Skelton.” –Sam

And then the tape player goes wonky, as if even it doesn’t understand the point of this little performance.

Poor Sam. He really is on another planet.

• Great quotes:

Blood Pattern Analysis, by D.H. Crombie?” –Sam
“I’ll wait for the film, thanks.” –Gene
“Oh, you’d like the book. It’s got pictures.” –Sam

“Gayboy science has its place.” –Sam

“I’m gonna say two words to you, and they will change your life and put you on a fast track to inspector: Multi. Tasking.” –Sam, to Chris

“What is your problem, Sam?” –Gene
“My problem would rock your world.” –Sam

“Can you hit anything?” –Ray, to Sam, about shooting a gun
“You should see my Playstation scores…” –Sam

“Drop your weapons, you are surrounded by armed bastards!” –Gene

(next: Episode 4)

Watch Life on Mars S01 E03 online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
  • CoriAnn

    Gene Hunt was always such a perplexing character. I wanted to like him, was often amused by him, but just as often was so completely horrified. And the horrific part wasn’t that here’s this character saying and doing these atrocious things, it’s the thought that he is likely a fairly accurate historical representation, sigh.

    I am enjoying your review of this series, can’t wait for the next one!

  • Matthew

    There is some historical context to the differences in policing. The recording of interviews was one of the changes brought about in 1984 by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. Before that, the system was wide open to abuse, with notable cases including The Birmingham Six. There was a series of supporting documentaries on BBC4 to accompany the launch of the second series and one of them, The Real Life on Mars, talked about the changes in policing. It’s pretty interesting, if you can track it down. The big police series of the time, and something of an inspiration was The Sweeney.

    The other thing that changed was the police caution, which actually became less liberal. The pre-1994 caution was:

    “You have the right to remain silent, but anything you do say will be taken down and may be used in evidence.”

    The one that Sam would be used to using is the current one:

    “You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention, when questioned, something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.”

    It’s a pretty subtle erosion of the right to silence. But it’s mainly the awkwardness of the wording that is used as a running joke in many UK procedurals.

  • gensing

    One of the reasons I loved Life On Mars from the very first episode was how well it reflected my personal experiences moving from Los Angeles to Midlands England in 1973 – there was no time travel involved, but it did feel like I was sent to some different era and the culture shock was incredible. The series documents very well what the place looked like – my first apartment was decorated very much like Sam’s (garish wall paper, carpets and drapes) and the test pattern girl was nightmare inducing, to be sure!

    Naively expecting a more civilized culture, I was really surprised by what I heard about the police at the time – very much reflected in ‘The Sweeny’.

    I found LoM so much more compelling than ‘Ashes to Ashes’, probably because it resonates with my personal experience. The world they created feels so real and true, and Sam’s reaction to finding himself there is so honest that I welcome any excuse to rewatch this series. So thanks, MAJ, for these posts!

  • Terry Stewart

    Sam is fighting, but he bends a little too. The fact that that big can of lager requires two to open is a nice metaphor for how Sam and Gene are learning to work together.

    That’s not lager, that is a tin of the (in)famous Watneys Party Seven, a type of keg ale. These were very common in the seventies at parties, and held seven pints of one of the most truly dreadful beers yet invented by mankind. Opening them with a screwdriver was the recommended method, after which you usually got a fountain of the stuff.
    Another nice touch for the period on LOM, (which I had completely forgotten about), but thankfully now long gone.

  • Matthew

    Yes, the part seven had no ring-pull, so you’d have to open it with a can opener or a screwdriver. A couple of links:



    And the kind of weirdness you could expect on BBC1 at 3pm on a Sunday afternoon in the seventies:


  • Can I just say thank you for pulling out all the most adorable frames of John Simm from each episode? yum, yum.

  • Terry Stewart

    The image of Sam with his hand held against the chimney stack of the factory is quite interesting. As you said Bannister describes the mill as a living thing, and there is Sam feeling how warm and alive and real it is. It does kind of remind me of him and Annie back in the first episode, with him placing his hand over Annie’s heart and feeling how warm and alive and real she seems.

    It also contrasts with how he seemed when he was back in 2006, where he seemed rather clinical and detached from things around him. Even those shots were filmed in rather cold blue tones in contrast to the, admittedly beige, but warmer tones in the 70’s. I think at this point he is starting to really wonder where he is, and if the world around him is real somehow. In the first episode I got the impression he was fairly sure it was all a delusion and he was in a coma lying in a hospital. At this point I don’t think he’s quite so sure and is being more drawn into 1973. He certainly doesn’t act towards the people around him as if the were just mental constructs of his own brain.

  • Mark

    “You’re surrounded by armed bastards” is pretty much my fave quote ever.

    To be fair to Watneys beer, it served its purpose: it was so truly awful that it prompted the Campaign for Real Ale fightback.

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