Life On Mars series 1 episode 1 review

Emily begins a look back at the very first adventures of Gene Hunt and Sam Tyler, as she tackles the very first episode of Life On Mars...

It’s surprising to realise that Life On Mars is only four years old. And in that time it has already achieved cult-classic status, which hasn’t (yet) been outdated or outmoded by its successor, Ashes To Ashes.

I was 13 when it took its first airing, and so, it was a little too late on a school night for me! So, it was Ashes to Ashes, some two years later that initially drew me to Life On Mars, not the other way around.

I already had a vague notion of what kind of plot I would be experiencing, however it didn’t stop me from the confusion and speculation that every new viewer felt the minute Life On Mars aired. So, in these retrospective reviews, I’ll look over each episode as it was shown, and with the benefit of hindsight, it should prove an interesting experience!

In only the first ten minutes out of 52 do we explore Sam in the present day. He’s a straight-laced, squeaky-clean and ‘by the book’ DCI , a model copper.

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Although the initial chase scene is choppy camera work and a tense soundtrack (sounding bizarrely close to the one used in Torchwood) through grubby Mancunian terraces, we soon cut to the clean, clinical atmosphere of the police station. It’s a far cry from the gritty and grubby station that Sam steps into in 1973.

The monochrome palette of the present-day section is contrasted by the cramped and claustrophobic atmosphere of 70s Manchester. There are somehow more colours in the 70s set than the present/real world, and I don’t know if Bharat Nalluri, the director, was taking hints from The Matrix in that respect, but it certainly works to add to the confusion the viewer and Sam feel about 1973.

The actual police procedural element of the show is woven incredibly well into the story. It’s not the aside to why Sam has arrived, but part and parcel of the reason he’s there. It has mystery and clues and red herrings, but set against this backdrop of Sam’s frustration – no PCs, no mobiles, and you can have any file colour you like, so long as it’s beige. 

Whilst the episode works primarily to establish the basic ideas of the show, it doesn’t neglect the principles behind it. By the end of the episode, already Sam’s surgically-sterile way of policing is put to the test, and it’s this surrender of ‘official’ ethical practice for what is morally right which sets us up a theme of the series.

In the very centre of Manchester and Salford’s A Division is DCI Gene Hunt, “King of the Jungle” in his own words. I must admit I had forgotten just how intimidating and downright scary Gene is in that first scene. He oozes alpha male (if gone ever-so-slightly to seed!) and just makes Sam’s world just a little more frightening to begin with.

But it’s this, next to the humour, which then crops up for the rest of the episode, which makes Gene such an iconic and (almost) immediately loveable character. Forgive me if this sounds completely unimaginative, but it is because he’s non-PC that we love him. It sounds like something Freud would say, but men seem to want to be him and women seem to want to sleep with him. On top of that, Philip Glenister gets all the best lines of the episode, apart from John Simm’s “I’m in BUPA!”

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The humour is well balanced with the darkness and desperation that frequents the episode, but Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharaoh always knows when to lay on the emotional scenes. My personal favourite (if not of the entire Life On Mars series 1 and 2) is the heartbeat scene. For the first time, the viewer truly empathises with Sam, and we, too, wonder if this world could be real.

But ultimately, it’s the pairing of Simm and Glenister which makes the show. They have such vibrant differences in their characters, physically, mentally and emotionally. You can already see that they’re set for a love/hate relationship, and it’s just uneasy enough so you’re always kept on your toes.

The other character dynamics are good too. Ray and Chris have such an obvious devotion to Gene, and Annie’s rescue at the end of the episode, whilst a little cliché in the hand-holding moment, sets up their relationship. She’s an anchor amidst the chaos of 70s Manchester.

So all in all, Life On Mars definitely opened with a bang, and the pace is kept up magnificently throughout the episode with a brilliant cast, script, direction and soundtrack.

Let’s see (again) what episode two has got to offer next week…