Life on Mars

Tonight the BBC kicked off probably one of the most eagerly awaited TV series so far this year, Life on Mars. The programme is another production of BBC Wales, the part of the BBC that returned Doctor Who to screens last year, and it is fair to say that Life on Mars might not have come to the screens with such publicity had it not been for the success in getting the new Doctor Who of the ground. Indeed the team behind the show first pitched it to the BBC seven years ago, before Channel 4 picked it up and then got cold feet. Two years ago it ended up back at the BBC and was given the green light.

The show is a strange mix of traditional police show, but with a good deal of weirdness thrown in. It starts with Sam Tyler, a policeman in 2006 involved in investigating a serial killer. He does things very much by the book, and when his girlfriend, also a policewoman decides to go off on her own to follow her hunch after he tries to take her off the case, and then gets taken by the killer, he is frustrated and upset, and narrowly avoids hitting a car driving back to the police station. He gets out of his SUV in shock, and with Life on Mars by David Bowie playing on his iPod, is hit by a car going the other way.

Here is where it starts getting weird, as when he wakes up, he is in exactly the same spot, but over thirty years in the past, in 1973. He’s still a policeman, but things are very different – or are they? As the episode goes on whilst the methods may be radically different, it transpires that the crime that the police in 1973 are investigating is very similar to his case in 2006, indeed it could be that the murderer is one and the same man, released from prison in his own time, and picking up where he left off.

But the big question is whether he really is in 1973, or whether he is actually stuck in a coma. At one point watching the Open University on TV he realises that the presenter has stopped talking about geometry, and is talking to him, trying to wake him up. However against that is the accuracy and detail of the apparent fantasy world he has created, and the fact that he is in an era where he was a child. Like many of the best fantasy dramas there are hints being dropped, and also a fair few red herrings I bet, but I guess we won’t find what is really going on until a lot later in the series.

Of course the great strength of the series seems to be that if you’re not keen on the sci-fi aspects, there is a good old police drama to get into too, plus being 1973, a good dose of nostalgia for those viewers who are old enough to remember the early seventies.

Certainly it was a strong first episode, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

One thought on “Life on Mars”

  1. With a few little criticisms, generally excellently well observed. This is not written or directed by a hack. Especially liked the sequence just after he was transported back in time; standing dazed in the rubble, framed by the rotting hulk of a factory, as the camera panned around him with the same tune echoing over both times, very well done and evocative. The characters were well observed and the changes in social mores interesting. He does slightly overstate the seventies aspect, times haven’t changed that much, or have they?

    In many ways it shows that not only is the past a different country, but the recent past is the fading echos of a world we know and knew, the familiar and unfamiliar juxtaposed, both seen through the shimmering lense of time’s drifting frets. As one thinks one recognises a familiar way of speech, a snatched fragrance or familiar fashion, the mist is swept away and we see the recent past for the empty shore of memory it is.

    It’s plot and premise was complex enough to make a one off two hour drama. Given the rich vein to be mined, it’s somehow just right that the seventies are observed from the new century, the difference is just long enough.

    A couple of years ago I was labouring in the yard of a building merchants, I was about 40, with a young guy, about 18. He asked me, “what was it like growing up in the seventies then”.

    I said, “much the same as growing up any other time, except you had to dress like a prat.”

    The wheel is just.

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