After the dramatic finish of the opening Life On Mars episode, it says something for writers and directors when they can keep the same level of pace, interest and downright confusion for the viewer for the following week. But, as we already know, it’s because Life On Mars constantly delivers episode after episode of quality drama that we love it. (That and seeing Gene Hunt in nothing but swimming trunks… “There’s no badge down there…”).
That first little sequence, before we hit the main opening chase scene, is symbolism and motif from start to finish. The Test Card F foreshadows what is to come, and the fact he seems to be dreaming about being in his hospital bed adds a level of confusion. Is he dreaming about being in 2006?
That distinction between the real and unreal – coming together in the cracked mirror shot – is one that forms the basis of the episode.
Sam throws himself whole-heartedly into the 70s for the sake of June, shot and in a coma. It works, because, after all the shouting and screaming about going back to the present day in the first episode, there needs to be some sort of break for the viewer.
This is also the first time the title sequence gets a proper airing (episode one just has the opening credits layered over the top of the spinning car wheels shot). It’s snappy, short, with that slightly off-kilter theme tune, and it gives a good enough overview so that a newcomer has a basic idea of the story (at least in the first series, after that there is too much baggage!) I like it. Even the splitting screens has a retro feel about it. I’m reminded of those telephone conversations where each person has half the screen.
From a story point of view, I’d say it was fairly good. The best word to describe the mood of the episode is… nasty. It’s dirty, and a bit too mean. Hunt’s ‘justice by any means necessary’ is uncomfortable viewing. The ethics which Sam pushed to the limits at the end of episode one has just gone a bit too far for him.
And then it really goes downhill. Poor Sam, it’s not a good day for him. The camera and pace work perfectly as Sam realises that life is just so much harder in this time period. Perhaps it gives him an insight as to why Gene is the way he is. When people die so much easier, you need those who don’t care about life taken off the streets. The nasty side of the episode again.
And it just gets creepier. I just realised, and I’ve watched this episode a lot, that Test Card F girl doesn’t actually walk, she glides towards Sam like something out of a B-rated horror film. The clown, I think, is what makes it extra scary. Does Pharoah or Graham have a fear of clowns? Pierrot in Ashes Io Ashes is probably the scariest thing in all of the series. But Test Card F girl is right up there. The menace of a little girl… I hope I wasn’t that scary when I was her age!
The best scene of the episode? The fight in the hospital, without question. It just lifts the whole tone, which, up till now, has been dark, creepy and nasty! Without it, the whole episode would have felt like one big mean cloud hanging over Sam.
Plus, both Sam and Gene get a pop at each other, which the viewer has been dying to do to both characters for about twenty minutes. Best line? “Get off him, he’s got a verruca!”
However, the most cleverly written scenes are the ones which deal with disability and, to an extent, misogyny. “Getting abreast of the case.” Just one word: Yuck.
Having grown up in the age of equality bills, human rights legislations etc, I can’t imagine a world where the majority of people can get away with the way they treat Leonard. But the thing is, in this case it’s the whole station, not just Gene.
It really helps makes the 70s a ‘different planet’.
But the thing is, you have almost forgotten by this point that the present day exists. You, Sam and everyone else watching are totally engrossed by the action. So, when those lights flash out in the hospital, it’s a stunning return to “‘reality’.
Also, if you listen carefully, when Sam is screaming for help, he screams for Gene. However much they fight, already a bond is forming, because Sam is becoming sure he’s ‘in’.
Not to steal from High School Musical 3 (I have strange friends who like to torture me in my holidays), or, indeed, David Cameron’s election tagline (oh dear, oh dear, oh dear), you really do feel by this point that “We’re all in this together”. We are as much stuck in the 70s as Sam is.
And that is what makes fantastic television. Gooooo, Wildcats!
Read our review of episode 1 here.