So Life on Mars has come to a close, and in perhaps not the most surprising of endings it left it open, with the ambiguity over what has actually happened to Sam still intact.
As the episode opens, Sam is listening to the radio, where he again hears voices from outside his apparent coma, saying that it has been discovered that he has a brain tumour, and that they are going to operate to remove it. In 1973, Frank Morgan is pushing Sam to collect further evidence in order to remove Gene Hunt for misconduct.
Sam obtains evidence during an investigation into a planned train robbery. Gene is proposing to go undercover, without proper back-up to catch the criminals in the act, and it seems that he will stop at nothing to get it. Sam secretly tapes interviews and documents the plans, thinking he can stop the operation. Having collected the evidence, Sam meets Frank Morgan by a church yard, and is told that to finish the job off he has to allow Gene to go through with the plan, jeopardising his friends along with Gene. He will also have to testify against Gene in court. At this point Sam tells Frank that he thinks that this is all in his imagination, and that Frank Morgan is really his surgeon, trying to remove the tumour. Frank then says that the team in Hyde had had concerns about Sam’s mental state but thought he was okay, but that it seemed that he has amnesia, and was living his assumed identity. Sam is really part of a programme to uncover corruption, and Frank takes him into the graveyard and shows him his parents grave – Sam is really Sam Williams, and is part of the Metropolitan Accountability and Reconciliation Strategy – MARS… Sam doesn’t believe Frank, but then Frank tells how they had come up with Sam’s assumed identity in this graveyard, and takes him to a group of Tyler graves, including one for a Sam Tyler, who died in the 19th century.
Sam rushes back to the police station and retrieves his file, finding that it was Frank Morgan who had transferred him from Hyde to DCI Hunt’s team. Frank then assures him that this is all he has to do, and hands him a radio over which to call for backup during the train robbery when he needs it. He then goes to the pub, where his colleagues are putting together the final plans for the undercover job. He asks the barman what he should do, and is told that he should go wherever he feels truly alive. Sam leaves the pub and spends the night thinking things over, and trying to find a message on the radio. When nothing comes, Sam then tells Annie, Ray and Chris that he is really working undercover – they of course are shocked and feel betrayed, but as there is nobody else, they can’t exclude him from the train job.
The train job goes ahead, and needless to say goes wrong – Sam’s radio crackles and is revealed in front of the train robbers, and a gun fight ensues. Sam tries to call for backup but there is no reply from Frank. Thinking there is a problem, he goes for help, promising Annie that he will come back for her. He meets Frank in a tunnel ahead of the train, and Frank tells him that there is no backup, that he thinks it will be better if DCI Hunt goes down after getting fellow officers injured. Annie, Ray, Chris and Gene have followed Sam out, and one by one are shot. Annie screams out for Sam to help, but behind him in the tunnel there is a bright white light, and Sam can hear Frank’s voice calling him to make one more step. He takes the step, and wakes up in hospital – in Hyde Ward, room 2612 – the phone number in Hyde he had called to talk with Frank Morgan – and with his mother looking on.
But the story doesn’t end there. Sam recovers and leaves the hospital, going back to his police work. He tells his mother something of what has happened, and she says to Sam that he always keeps his promises. Then during a meeting he cuts himself but doesn’t feel it. He goes up onto the roof of the building and looks around – and then throws himself off, waking up at the point he left, in the tunnel with his colleagues under fire. He shoots the lead train robber, saving them all.
With his friends in the pub, they celebrate having escaped, and Phyllis, the desk sergeant tells Sam to go find Annie. Meeting her outside, Sam asks Annie what he should do, she tells him he should stay. Gene drives up, and they all get into the car. Voices of doctors saying they are loosing him crackle over the radio, but Sam turns it off, and they drive off – then the credits roll.
Was Sam mad, in a coma, or back in time? After the final episode it really isn’t any clearer, and I suspect that is the intention.
On the one hand you could argue that he was in the coma, and was brought out, and couldn’t face his life back in 2006, and chooses to end it all. Equally, there is a very noticeable greyness and other worldliness about 2006 as compared to the vibrant colours of his 1973 life – maybe Frank was right, and Sam’s mind had constructed an elaborate future life to explain his amnesia. But then when he comes back, Frank Morgan is gone, and he opts to stay with Gene Hunt and the rest of his friends, with apparently no comeback, and of course the radio crackles into life with voices of doctors again, could it be that he is really in a coma and didn’t wake up, or that these are doctors trying to save him after him having leapt off the roof? Who knows, but I’m sure like one or two other enigmatic final episodes, people will be debating this one for years, especially as Gene Hunt – who is possibly a figment of Sam’s imagination is due to appear in his own series next year!
Interestingly, alongside the Wizard of Oz association with Frank Morgan that I’ve mentioned previously, the episode took cues from the film in other ways, for example the almost black and white elements of Sam’s apparent ‘real life’ as compared to the colour of 1973. We even get a version of Over the Rainbow playing as Sam decides what to do. But then in the Wizard of Oz Dorothy decides that there really is no place like home, whilst in Sam’s 2006 he has been left pretty well alone. Maya, his girlfriend in 2006 stopped visiting, and there is certainly no great welcome back, just the greyness, and as the barman advises he returns to what seems most real – Annie and the others in 1973.
Enigmatic to the end. I’m certainly going to have to watch the whole series through again to try and fathom out what was really going on! However, can the proposed plot for the spin off show, with another 21st Century detective back in time give us any clues?
Series 1 is available on DVD already, with Series 2 out on Monday. If you haven’t got the first series, there is also a box set of both to buy that will be out in time for Christmas. If you’ve got a bit of nostalgia for the music on the soundtrack, check out the soundtrack CD, that also includes the title music of the show.