Looking Back At LIFE ON MARS - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At LIFE ON MARS

Tony’s in the Ford Cortina.
“Drop your weapons! You are surrounded by armed bastards!”
Gene Hunt, Life On Mars, Series 1, Episode 3

While the Sixties in British TV gave us some of the best ‘special department’ crime shows imaginable (The Avengers, Department S, The Saint, Danger Man, The Champions…), as we moved into the Seventies and economic conditions hardened, there was a shift towards harder-hitting crime drama that either maintained the special group theme but made it gritty and contemporary (The Professionals), or proposed to take us into the hard-nosed, hard-knuckled, rarely fair but fairer than the crooks world of ‘real’ policing – in particular with The Sweeney, starring John Thaw and Dennis Waterman.

Those shows, as much as the Sixties’ more fantastical versions, left an indelible impression on the imaginations of a generation.

But nobody thought of using them as the premise for a time travel nostalgia drama until Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah came up with Life On Mars.
The first premise of the show was simple – what would a modern police officer, with all the regulation and paperwork and forensic science that entails, think of the world of 1970s policework, which was, to say the least, a little more free and easy in its approach.

The second premise was decidedly audience-based. There was a lot of nostalgia about the Seventies cop shows. People would respond to an odd couple drama about someone who believes in the values of the 21st century being flung back into that age. How much would the 21st century officer look like a ‘snowflake’ for insisting on modern standards, and how much would the Seventies cop look like a ‘Neandethal’ to the modern audience?

But it’s the third premise that captured the interest of geeks everywhere, and gave the show its in-universe central question. How do you get a 21st century police officer back to the Seventies? Is it some kind of time travel, or is there something more complicated going on?

Episode 1 of Life On Mars sees Detective Chief Inspector Sam Tyler, played by John Simm, get hit by a car in 2006 after chafing at the paperwork of a modern investigation and the lack of room for unproveable intuition.

He wakes up in 1973, and makes his way back to his police station to find he’s not the big boss anymore. That position is taken by DCI Gene Hunt, (Philip Glenister) a northern version of John Thaw’s Regan from The Sweeney. Demoted to Detective Inspector (Hunt’s direct deputy), Tyler has no idea whether he’s somehow travelled in time, whether he’s dead and this is some kind of busman’s holiday version of the afterlife, or whether he’s in a coma in 2006, and the 1973 he finds himself in is his mind’s way of keeping active and occupied while his injuries heal.
That becomes the central dilemma of the show – what is actually happening to Sam Tyler – while in the meantime, if he can solve 1970s crimes with his more methodical approach alongside Hunt, who relies more on instinct and not a little intimidation, so much to the good, and just possibly it can lead him back to where he wants to be.

On paper, this sounds fairly flimsy, not to say downright demented.

On the screen it was pure geeky dynamite. It worked for a broad audience, section by section. It appealed to people who had a deep and abiding love of those Seventies cop shows, because on many levels it pretty much was one. That brought in a cult TV audience as well as – and it probably helps to be honest about this – people in the 21st century whose attitudes hadn’t advanced since the 1970s. It appealed to people who loved the odd couple chemistry sparked by the ‘then and now’ concept of the show – something that was turned to sheer TV beauty in the hands of Simm and Glenister. And it appealed to time travel geeks, who appreciated the twist on the cheesiest explanation in sci-fi history (“…and it was all a dream…” – thank you, The Wizard of Oz…), to ask whether particular dreamstates could be a way of travelling in time).

“High concept” doesn’t really do Life On Mars justice. It’s practically “LSD concept.”
But on TV, it worked for two series in its initial incarnation, spawned an Eighties sequel, Ashes To Ashes, got a full series made of an American version (which worked reasonably well, but about the ending of which, we do not speak, not now, not ever), and which as of 2020 was said to be planning a third series.

It’s a little ironic that it works as well as it does. The initial concept was a before-the-watershed comedy starring Neil Morrisey as Tyler, more simply and overtly mocking the styles and attitudes of the Seventies – a kind of Sweeney meets Blackadder concoction with a sprinkling of Red Dwarf.

That…

Erm…

Well, that might have worked, however smug and self-congratulatory it sounds in principle.

But then, Channel 4 drama executive John Yorke took a pass at the initial script, realised the potential of the odd couple relationship between Tyler and Hunt, and brought balance to the idea. Turning it into an immediately post-watershed drama production allowed it to more accurately reflect the material on which it was based, especially The Sweeney. And balancing the relationship and the performances allowed it to be less smug – rather than just the present mocking the past, they would each mock the questionable areas of the other, and also, crucially, each learn from each other too, giving the whole thing human consequences beyond whatever was really going on with Sam Tyler.
Each episode followed Hunt and Tyler, along with three other main characters, Detective Constable Ray Carling and Detective Sergeant Chris Skelton (Dean Andrews and Marshall Lancaster respectively) as Hunt’s Greek chorus of supporters on the Criminal Investigation Department, and WPC (Woman Police Constable) and then Detective Constable Annie Cartwright (Liz White), who was frequently the go-between that found a way for the 1973 crew and the 2006 copper to come together, but who ultimately found enough that was interesting about DI Sam Tyler to consider a relationship with him beyond the professional. The crime stories were intriguing and innovative, as the 21st century audience demanded, but they were always flavoured by that 1970s grit and cigarette smoke, by the dilemma of whether Sam was really there or not, and by the incredibly watchable performances by the whole team, but especially by Simm and Hunt.

There are plenty of surreal moments along the way. The girl from the 1970s TV test card makes more than one appearance as evidence of Sam Tyler’s deteriorating state of mind, and in one absolutely stand-out moment, Tyler and Hunt are turned into characters from 1970s children’s classic, Camberwick Green. But these only add to the hook and the drama, rather than at any point taking away from it.

Certainly, it says something about the complications of your premise if each episode has to be prefaced by a voice-over explaining it, as Life On Mars did. But once you got it, you got it forever – modern copper experiencing 1973, not sure how, if he figures out how, he might be able to get back to the modern world that he loves. Go…

What was difficult to predict was quite how the show would end, especially after only two series. There was always scope for Life On Mars to run and run – the Seventies cop show format wasn’t exactly in danger of burning out or running out of ideas. But at the end of the second series, without giving away too much, we find out what’s really happened to Sam Tyler, and he gets the chance to make a strange decision. If he had the choice, where would he prefer to live out his days? Here in the 21st century, or there in the early Seventies? We’re absolutely aching to spoil it for you, but we won’t. Suffice it to say, given where the idea started out, the way the series ends will probably throw you for a loop.
Life On Mars was an absurd concept that only began to be TV gold once the balance was established between the 1970s and the early 21st century. It was actually BBC Wales’ Julie Gardner who persuaded Jane Tranter, Head of Drama at the BBC, to give Life On Mars the green light. At the time, the pair were unstoppable, riding the spectacular success of the rebooted Doctor Who with Christopher Eccleston. Another slightly off-key time travel drama with some interwoven comedy, with another couple of northern leading men? What could possibly go wrong, right?

Not a thing, as it happens. John Simm had a reputation in drama for doing just enough to sell the scene, and his portrayal of Sam Tyler followed that line – he was always present, but with a lot of Tyler’s thought processes churning away underneath, as was right for a man with 21st century knowledge and secrets, stuck in what he almost considered a temporal backwater of homophobia, racism, sexism and misogyny.

Philip Glenister shouldn’t have been as much of a revelation as he turned out to be, but as Gene Hunt he found a career-altering part. And he filled it up with every inch of his stature, letting Gene Hunt give vent to the Sweeney-style spleen of a man of his time and culture, but importantly, also showing the instincts, the intelligence, and the steel-spined dedication to justice (if not always to the strict niceties of legal police work) that had seen him rise to become a DCI in the first place.

Between them, and with entirely believable back-up from the main team, Simm and Glenister lit up TV for two full series, and Glenister became so iconic a character that he was able to anchor the sequel, which pulled the same essential trick but took it into the Eighties.

Life On Mars is pitch-perfect binge-watching. Pick yourself a weekend, get in a stash of your favourite beverages, and go back to the Seventies yourself. It’s a foreign country, right enough, but you’re sure to have a fantastic time.

Watch Life On Mars today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.


Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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