Why I love: Life on Mars (BBC) – review

“My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident and 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. Now, maybe if I can work out the reason, I can get home.

Sam Tyler, Life on Mars, opening credits

When people ask me for a recommendation for a TV program – my answer is always “Have you seen Life on Mars – the original BBC version?”

Aired in 2006-2007 and starring John Simm (Sam Tyler) and Philip Glenister (Gene Hunt), this is a police procedural with a difference. The opening credits pretty much sum up the premise of the show. Sam has no clue how he has woken up 33 years in the past, and neither do we.

With two seasons of 8 episodes each, it is a relatively short, self-contained story where you find yourself flipping and flopping between all three possibilities as to how Sam finds himself in this predicament. And wondering how the hell he is going to get back … if it is even possible!

Why I love it so much

So why is this my favourite TV series? Several reasons actually!

The acting and the two main characters

John Simm as Sam Tyler

This was the show that introduced me to John Simm. He absolutely blew me away in his role as Sam Tyler and he quickly became one of my all-time favourite actors. And no, it’s not just because I find him incredibly attractive! I’ve now seen pretty much everything he’s ever been in and will be writing more on this in future blogs.

As Sam, he perfectly captures the initial confusion of not having a clue what is going on or how he’s ended up there, the turmoil of trying to figure out what is real and what is not, and the frustration we would all feel if we suddenly found ourselves in the early 1970s trying to do our jobs with the technology and attitudes that existed back then. He is our audience surrogate and we completely relate to his reactions to the situations he finds himself in. He also has great comic timing on the occasions it’s called for in the series, though he displays this much more as Rhys in the series The Catch (2016-2017).

Then there is Philip Glenister’s portrayal of DCI Gene Hunt – Sam Tyler’s boss back in 1973. He’s a sexist, racist, disablist, homophobic bully with a questionable approach to catching the baddies, but he does it with such charisma that you totally forgive him for it. Kudos to Philip Glenister for pulling that off and creating one of the most iconic and beloved characters of all time!

Gene: Now. Yesterday’s shooting. The dealers are all so scared we’re more likely to get Helen Keller to talk. The Paki in a coma’s about as lively as Liberace’s dick when he’s looking at a naked woman, all in all this investigation’s going at the speed of a spastic in a magnet factory.

Sam Tyler: [Sam Tyler, aghast, drops the radio he is holding]

Gene: What?

Sam Tyler: Think you might have missed out the Jews.

Season 2, Episode 6
Philip Glenister as Gene Hunt

Gene always has the perfect (non-PC) comeback but, despite his gruff exterior, its easy to see he is a good man underneath. Sam acknowledges this (eventually) and it becomes yet another element in his turmoil as he tries to figure out what’s real and how to back to his life in 2006.

The relationship between Sam and Gene

This is the heart of Life on Mars and is what makes the show truly great.

Sam arrives in 1973 with 21st century sensibilities and approaches to things and immediately clashes with Gene – a product of the 1970s. Deep down, they actually share the same morals and values and ultimately, they want the same thing. However, the way they go about achieving their aims could not be more different. This ongoing butting of heads is one of the standout aspects of the show.

Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt in the pub together
The final scene of S2E2 where Sam and Gene are having a quiet drink together is one of my favourites in the whole show

Although it would be impossible for Sam and Gene to agree on the best approach to a situation, I love that you see how much each character influences the other over the course of their relationship. Things become less black and white for both of them as they get to know each other, experience the pros and cons of the different approaches taken, and grow to respect one another.

The story

Life on Mars is a fantastic piece of storytelling that mixes basic crime solving stories with those that are more related to Sam’s dilemma. The time-travel elements are interwoven believably (though don’t think too hard about it), and the fact that the writers keep us (and Sam) changing our minds as to what is really going on all the way to the end is pretty darn impressive! Yes, even throughout most of the last episode, you aren’t 100% certain.

And even then, though you do get a satisfying closure in the final episode, the full explanation doesn’t come until the end of Series 3 of Ashes to Ashes – the follow-on series to Life on Mars. I didn’t watch this until 10 years later and never felt cheated by the ending to the original series.

The 1970s setting

I was born in 1973 so only have vague memories of life in the 70s. But my understanding is that the look of the show and the attitudes depicted are fairly true to the time period. The flared pants and floral shirts, the chain-smoking, the shocking interior decoration … makes me very glad I was only a kid during this time (though I admit the 80s wasn’t much better)!

I absolutely love the contrast between warm colour-tone used for the 1970s and the blue colour-tone used for scenes set in 2006. Beyond the popularity of brown colours in general in the 1970s, there is a much deeper meaning behind this choice. You’ll have to watch to find out what it is 😀

Contrast the tone of scenes in 2006 with the image above (a scene from 1973)

The music

Although 80s music is my music, I love all of the 70s songs used in Life on Mars.

The series takes its name from David Bowie’s 1971 song “Life on Mars”, which plays a few times during the 16 episodes. However, this song is just the start of one of the most awesome TV soundtracks ever. Every episode contains several segments from famous 70s songs, and the official soundtrack features 20 song tracks (though this is far from all that was featured during the series).

The incidental music is also awesome and perfectly fits the action and emotion on the screen. One of my favourite scenes in the entire series is the one in Sam’s flat in S2E8 with Annie. The version with the instrumental music is simply perfect. Unfortunately, there is another version that has a song playing during this scene but I think this distracts from the emotion of the moment. Fingers crossed you watch the instrumental version!

Rating: A++++++++++++

I love this show. I must have seen it at least 12 times all the way through and I’m not bored with it yet. In fact, I actively seek out new people I can introduce it to so I have an excuse to watch it through again (I always insist we watch it together 🙂 ).

If you need more evidence of its greatness, it has a rating of 8.3/10 on IMDB, and 100% / 88% on Rotten Tomatoes. I also really love the angle taken to explain its greatness in this review by Den of Geek (though with some spoilers).

Word of warning: whatever you do, DO NOT watch the US version of it! It is terrible!

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