When Life on Mars hit our screens a few years ago, the novelty of crime drama mixed with elements of sci-fi and time travel was such a unique idea that nobody really knew what genre to put it in.
Was it The Bill of the past, or the next Quantum Leap? The series defied description, creating its own little niche filled with out of time modern policeman, bent coppers and cars that collectors would die for.
It was all fantastic stuff, which in no small part was due to the great cast and stars John Simm and Phillip Glesner creating a partnership to rival Regan and Carter.
Now things have moved on and the status quo has shifted, John Simms character Sam Tyler in the ‘real world’ has committed suicide and in the ‘Life-On-Mars-Verse’ was mysteriously killed off in a car accident (but no body was found). Meanwhile, Gene Hunt and the rest of Manchester’s finest have moved to London and into the 1980s.
With this new set-up and anticipation, we all know what is going to happen, with a new character being out of time. However, this time the character is divorcee criminal psychologist DCI Alex Drake, played by the gorgeous Keeley Hawes. Shot and on the brink of death in the modern day, she is jumped back in time to the hedonistic 80s, ending up in a middle of an impending epidemic of cocaine in London.
The detail shown in recreating early 1980s London is superb, with obvious shots of the ‘new’ Adam Ant album postered on walls, Midge Ure playing Vienna on the stereos, Wine Bars and Joe Dolce’s What’s The Matter, You, the comedy song of the moment, being hummed by one and all. There are more subtle things like Gene’s black striped tie, the awful sofas and shots of the London skyline being digitally altered to take out any of the more modern architecture such as the infamous gherkin building.
The episode not only introduces Alex Drake, who co-incidentally was studying Sam’s notes, case and suicide, but also brings back not only Gene but also Chris, Ray and a new character Shazza, who replaces Annie Cartwright. The gang’s all here, and instead of the Sweeney-like camel jackets, Cortinas and subtle beatings in store rooms, the crew are decked out in Crocket and Tubbs-style sunglasses, black shirts and leather gloves. Plus they’re having to deal with a new form of villain who sports machine guns and peddle drugs.
The pairing of Gene and Alex is superb and even though the sheen and uniqueness of the original may be a little lost, and the fact that Alex now knows what is going on and who everyone is (which is a little bit of a Deux Ex Machina style plot point) the show is still fantastic. It’s a Dempsey and Makepeace style team in the making.
So what else is superb? Well Gene is once again the star of the show, being a Sheriff-like rock to the whole affair. Whether it’s steaming around London in a bright red Audi Quattro or commandeering a speed boat and a machine gun, Phillip Gelsner is having the time of his life living it large as Gene. He’s taking down city banker drug pushers and a very dodgy supplier who has a significant role in the future life of Alex, and is one of the reasons she is on the brink of death and stuck in 1981.
With all the characters in place, the atmosphere perfect and Alex fitting into her role perfectly what is there to dislike? Well nothing, really. It’s great. The show is bigger, brasher and more over the top than Life on Mars but then it is supposed to be: it’s the 1980s!
All the elements are here, even the hallucinogenic parts. This time, there’s a mix of Test Card girl, George and Zippy from Rainbow (who I saw in the credits were voiced by Roy Skelton) and a very scary new romantic harlequin clown based on the one seen in David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes video.
Even if Alex has some idea of what is happening to her it doesn’t matter. And with the ability to pull off a white leather coat, perm and very, very tight jeans, Keeley Hawes is going to get a lot of male attention, and will become an 80s icon to rival the likes of Jenny Agutter and Farrah Fawcett.
Overall this was a great debut to the series, mixing in all the best elements of the original series, but also adding its own new unique twists and turns. Not missing a beat in the dialogue, the show really is one of the best drama series the BBC has produced in a long time. The only problem? It clashes with Buzzcocks. That goodness for Sky .
Next week’s show focuses on the celebrations surrounding the marriage of Princess Di and Prince Charles. It should be fun to see what with hindsight Alex has to say about the proceedings, and also what superb one liners Gene will provide about the good Princess.
I can hardly wait