Show of the Day: Life on Mars (UK Series)

30 Sep

I watched Person of Interest’s first episode on CBS, and it looked like it was trying to be the rare fusion between science fiction and a police procedural.  This is unusual to say the least, and it didn’t quite work in the first episode, or at least seemed just like a procedural with an irrelevant-to-the-show sci-fi premise.  One rare example of a show that melded these two genres in a way that not only appealed to both audiences but put an interesting spin on each of the genres was the British Life on Mars.

The premise is ridiculous but simple at heart.  At the beginning of the show, Sam Tyler, a police officer (Detective Chief Insprector, to be technical, in British terms) in Manchester gets hit by a car and wakes up as a slightly lower ranked police officer (Detective Inspector) in 1973.  How he got there is a mystery to us and to him; it could be a coma, time travel, madness, or post-death.

The show in practice operates as follows.  Each episode contains a new case, in which Sam and his 1970s boss, Gene Hunt, as old-school as old-school gets, even for the ‘70s, have to solve a case (along with the members of the squad, occasional love interest Annie Cartwright, incompetent Ray Carling, and youngster Chris Skelton) clashing constantly between Hunt’s traditional and often racist and sexist methods and Tyler’s newer and more scientific and rational theories.  It sounds as cliché as cliché can get but the constant frustration of Tyler to be able to explain things he knows from our present, plus the quite frankly excellent execution of what sounds like an extremely simplistic procedural makes it more than interesting to very good.

While this is all going on, we are reminded several times an episode that something is wrong here and that we’re watching a science fiction show. Tyler hears voices constantly from televisions, telephones and radios telling him things, or sounding like voices from the future talking about him in the third person.  He also sees a young girl who tells him things.  He brings up his situation, aware how insane it sounds, only to Annie, who things he’s crazy and does her best to persuade him that there’s nothing going on except he’s in 1973.  Sometimes the paranormal phenomena deals with the case in hand, and in one episode the criminal is one Tyler locked away as a much older man in the future.  Future knowledge is used for humorous purposes as well with the insensitive Hunt making jokes about things Sam and we know come to pass in the future, and with Sam referring to technology that doesn’t exist and having the rest of his squad be confused.

The two aspects of the show, which could easily clash, instead blend beautifully.  As with most British shows, its run was relatively short, with a total of sixteen one hour episodes, and the series may have benefited from the relatively short format, especially the science fiction aspects.

I can’t honestly speak to the American version.  I never got around to watching it, and I’ve heard mixed things (I know the ending is different, but the ending isn’t really that important, though I’m glad they at least got to end it).  In addition, the series had a sequel of sorts in Ashes to Ashes about another police officer who is shot and ends up with the same characters, aside from Sam and Annie, in 1981, in London instead ofManchester.  I have not seen this either, though it received more mixed reviews than its predecessor.

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Spring 2012 Review: Awake « Television, the Drug of the Nation - April 25, 2012

    […] procedural genre is a limited one to be sure.  Once, in this space, I hailed the original UK Life on Mars as a paragon of the genre.  Awake is a television’s latest play for a standout […]

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