Life On Mars: revisiting a terrific UK crime drama

Ten years after it aired, we look back at what made the excellent Life On Mars such arresting, special TV: its characters...

“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.”

I remember very distinctly when Life On Mars first came out. My mum told me about it with an air of ‘can you believe how weird that is? He wakes up in 1973 and has to work out why he’s there!’ It’s the kind of premise that turns heads, one of those great concepts that immediately implies a world of ideas and possibilities all stemming from one simple notion. Would this be a show about changing history, about delving into a long gone world or would the mystery of why the protagonist has found himself in this situation take precedence? Like so many others, I was sold on Life On Mars based on the implications of the premise alone.

What is so surprising about the series, and what I believe is the key to its success, is how deceptively quaint it is. Not in terms of the world portrayed or the attitude of the characters, although that certainly doesn’t hurt, but in terms of what Life On Mars is at its heart. It’s not a puzzle box mystery or a time travel thriller; it’s very much a straightforward police procedural.

Sure, there’s a lot more that brings it to life. There’s the culture clash of past and present that underpins every episode, there are the flashes of surreal weirdness that remind us of Sam’s situation, and there are the many ways that the cases Sam solves in 1973 either influence or are in some way connected to events in the future. All these things help to make Life On Mars feel innovative, when it’s essentially a basic crime show with a twist. Every episode Sam Tyler, Gene Hunt and the rest of their team solve a mystery that is never mentioned again. The characters’ relationships generally reset between every episode, creating the kind of show where you can pretty much tune in at any time and not miss a trick. Structurally, Life On Mars is about as traditional as it gets, and watching it now in 2016 it’s striking just how old-fashioned what once felt so fresh really is.

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Does this sound like I’m damning it with faint praise? Not at all. Life On Mars remains one of my all-time favourite TV shows, but that was never because of the setting, the structure or the premise, although all of those things are great. No, what makes Life On Mars so special, what makes me smile from ear to ear every time I watch it and what makes revisiting it always feel a little bit like coming home, is the characters.

There’s not a tonne of complexity to Life On Mars’ major players. Sam Tyler, even with a brilliant performance from John Simm, isn’t especially interesting. He provides our eyes and ears in 1973 and the constant contrast of a modern perspective on all the casual prejudice, corruption and violence, but as a character there’s not heaps to him. He’s moral, decent, driven and bewildered by his circumstances; that’s about it. Simm commits a hundred percent and makes us like and believe him, but Sam Tyler is far from colourful or original. Meanwhile characters like Ray and Chris, respectively the dodgy roughneck and the bumbling sweetheart, aren’t much more than what they first seem (at least until Ashes To Ashes). But the actors commit and the characters are treated with such affection that it’s hard not to love them.

And then, of course, there’s Gene Hunt. The instantly iconic centrepiece of the show. In the words of Sam Tyler, “an overweight, over-the-hill, nicotine-stained, borderline-alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding.” If Gene Hunt seemed like a dinosaur in 2006, in 2016 he seems like the kind of character you could no longer get away with depicting in a positive light on television. But Gene Hunt remains as compelling, lovable and compulsively watchable as ever; not because any of the above things are untrue but because it was clear from day one and remained clear for the rest of the series that at his heart Gene Hunt is a committed good guy. He’s rough around the edges, sure, but dedicated to taking down the villains, upholding his own version of the law and putting up his feet for a pint at the end of it. His tremendous loyalty to his team and unyielding determination to see justice done make him so much more than the sum of his parts. It makes his relationship with Sam Tyler always believable and never less than entertaining.

On the surface the two men could not be more different, but it’s that shared morality that binds them together, the fact that, while they may have different ways of going about it, at the end of the day they want the same thing. The heart of Life On Mars may be the characters, but the heart of that heart is the relationship between Sam and Gene, a relationship that does not change much in its mechanics from the first episode but is so immediately interesting that I could watch it forever. You just know that in the years the two spent solving crimes after the show wrapped, not much changed. Sam tried to follow the rules, Gene blithely ignored them, they bickered, maybe came to blows once or twice, but in the end always got their man and celebrated at the pub afterwards.

It’s this simplicity that I think is the key to the appeal of Life On Mars. Consider the end of the first season, when Sam learns that his father was in fact a criminal and ends up caught between him and Gene. A tense showdown ensues, guns are pointed and Sam behaves in a way that really should see him booted out of the force at best, locked up at worst. But, when all is said and done and the situation is over, when Sam faces up to Gene, ready for a dressing down, the whole thing is resolved in one simple word from Gene; “Pub.”

In the world of Life On Mars, there isn’t much room for complexity. It’s a world where doing your job and loyalty to your team come first, a world where worries are forgotten over a few drinks and laughs at the Railway Arms before the next day when struggles begin again. And now, when our television shows are increasingly complex, when even superhero movies are full of deep personal demons and tangled continuities, there is something to be said for the simpler times depicted in Life On Mars.

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None of this is to suggest that the series lacks depth. Wrapped up in every episode is commentary on so many different things, from the ways the world is both better and worse than how it used to be to racism, the nature of morality and much more.

And the central plight of Sam Tyler, while never really the driving force of the show, offers so much to think about, especially when considered through the lens of the series’ final episode. I love that Life On Mars doesn’t give a solid answer to exactly what Sam’s situation is. The solution, confirmed by Ashes To Ashes, is there for those who want to find it, but it was never the main focus of the show. Life On Mars is the story of a man realising that the last place he wanted to be is exactly where he is meant to be.

In the final episode, during one of Sam and Annie’s many sweet exchanges, Sam begs her to stay with him, just for one night. She reacts with anger, understandably tired of Sam’s strange behaviour. Sam replies that he “can’t stay here forever”, and Annie simply tells him that she “can’t stay for one night.” Sam Tyler does not get to have his cake and eat it too. He can’t be happy in 1973 as long as he still has one foot in 2006. And what is so brilliant in such an understated way is how true this is to real life. Take away the time travel element, and look at it as the story of a man thrown headfirst into new, unfamiliar and terrifying circumstances. At all turns he wants to go back to the life he knew even as he slowly acclimates to this new world, and when the chance finally comes he realises that he has accepted his new life and is happier there.

Ironically for a show about a man in a backwards time, it’s actually the story of a man who has to come to terms with the fact that his life has moved on without him. Whether it’s a new house, a new job, a new relationship or a car accident that traps you in 1973, life always moves on whether we want it to or not, and at a certain point you can’t cling to the past anymore. Isn’t it kind of brilliant that the past Sam needs to let go of just happens to be the future?

Of course, taking the idea a bit further it’s really all about denial and acceptance, and on some level Sam has to accept that he has died. His return to 2006 in the finale is an anomaly, and the moment that inspires him to jump is the moment that he realises he is not alive because he can’t feel anything. Sure, at the time his return to 1973 represents a sort of return to living, but personally I think on some level, in his final moments on the rooftop as the Bowie song that starts and ends the series plays and a slight smile crosses Sam’s face, he knows he is dead.

Maybe it’s subconscious, maybe it isn’t, and in the canon of the series we know that real acceptance doesn’t come until he walks through the doors of the Railway Arms one last time some seven years in the future, but embracing his new circumstances is Sam’s first step towards accepting what has really happened to him, even with the consolation prize of a new and better life with those he loves in 1973.

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By the time we got to the ending of Ashes To Ashes in 2010, all the crazy weirdness that lingered around the fringes of both shows retreated in favour of a simple, elegant solution that felt right with everything that had gone before. Simplicity was the heart of Life On Mars. It’s a touching and often very funny show about friendship, love, finding your place in the world and accepting change. It’s a show that struck a chord because it’s about themes that are so universal, themes that never pretend to be more than what they are. Life On Mars may have sold itself as something new, but, appropriately for the plot of the series, it was always old-fashioned in theme and execution. And that, I think, is what made it so special.